Feb 17, 2006

On story: Pitching


Grab yourself a pointer and step right up...

The story artist presents his work standing alone in front of a room filled with people, armed with only a pointer. This is it, the big moment: finally you get to present your version of a sequence to your peers, directors and everyone else there that's concerned with the production. You've been working more or less alone up to this point, and no one but you is responsible for how you're going to pitch this scene and get it over to your audience.
It can be nerve-wracking, but often as not it's exhilarating--the big payoff for hours of work done in solitude. A chance to flex your showmanship as you try and forget any self-consciousness about the drawings you've done and whether this thing works or not. Of course, you hope it does--you believe it does, and you're going to prove it as you pitch it.

The pitch is crucially important to the process of animated filmmaking. This process of working out the kinks and finding the gems in a story was pioneered by--who else?--Walt Disney, to make his shorts better, and eventually to tell long-form, feature length stories, beginning with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Walt himself must have been one of the best pitch artists that ever was, according to eyewitnesses the night he held a core group spellbound with his one-man presentation of the Snow White story--sans drawings. But the artists he worked with weren't there to take notes only--they were expected and encouraged to give Walt back big returns on his initial inspiration. The drawings they did, sequence by sequence, were pinned up and held to the most severe scrutiny--of Walt, but also of everyone else who might have a better idea, or a thought on why something wasn't working. Other studios, one by one (often as the result of artists leaving Disney's to go elsewhere, like Shamus Culhane) picked up on the Disney system of working out the story on boards. But that's all decades ago. Are pitches still necessary? Don't we have everything worked out so smoothly by this age that we can skip or skimp on that step completely?
No.

Even armed with all the bells and whistles of current animation technology, those tools can't do anything on their own. They sit, inanimate, waiting not only for skilled artists to operate them, but more importantly for good ideas worth doing. The story crew's function isn't just illustrating, it's conceiving, and each and every scene must be forced in turn to run the gauntlet, sink or swim, live or die on the reactions of people whose job is to know what's needed. The essential process of story remains the same today as it was over 70 years ago, yes. That's for no other reason than that it works so well. It isn't nostalgia--it's just a great system. And at its best, it's also the perfect meritocracy. A great idea is a great idea, and the stronger the crew, the more welcome those ideas are, from everyone in the room. It's amazing how well a group can work together when things gel and everyone's more or less in sync; I've been in situations where my own work was slowly being rethought in front of me(meaning I'd soon be ditching a few hundred panels I'd just sweated over), while I stood in front of it, still clutching my pointer as Lady MacBeth does her washcloth--but rather than fainting, I'd find myself getting truly excited about the possibilities for an even better scene that was possible.
That's how it's all supposed to work, mind you. Naturally all artists have healthy egos, take pride in their work and ideas, and want them to succeed rather than otherwise. I and every story artist I know have also had plenty of those times where a quick trip out the window without benefit of parachute seemed a happy alternative to remaining in the room one second longer--that's only normal, too.
But the weird, virtually magical thing often happens where suddenly the individual drawings don't matter quite so much, because the new idea or gag or business is so good, and you feel that--that's right! It has to be more like that! If you're still thinking mournfully of what a waste the now obsolete drawings are, you're missing the point--or the boat. It often seems our jobs as story artists is to produce reams of recyclables, and wear down a thousand prismacolors, all in the pursuit of something not fully tangible to any one of us alone, but very possible for the group: an entire film, start to finish, with a good story and characters that we care about, that make some sense, that just plain entertains.
The pitch is a vaudeville show, a shooting gallery, a juggling act, a ghost story around a campfire--with drawings. It's the ultimate low-tech, interactive experience, with roots that go back to most of us sitting in bed listening to out parents read us Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. If we can conjure a movie for a few minutes with our 2D drawings and our voices--the fluorescent lights of a conference room notwithstanding--and get whatever we've come up with past all our colleagues and meet with their approval--all gimlet-eyed pros, well, then we might have accomplished something. But whether by critical comments from the rest of the crew, or by their tacit approval in the form of laughs or smiles, it's never accomplished alone. The listener has as much sway as the speaker. The audience in the person of the crew talks back to the screen, and questions, complains, approves, or challenges--and the screen in the person of the story artist has to reply. Everyone has the same goal: to make the story a movie, and to make it better.
That's why it's such a great system, and why it still works.

32 comments:

Emma said...

You've captured exactly the reason I want to be a story artist. It's amazing when you bring out what you've done and instead of letting the crits pound you down you jump on them and let them take you places you'd never in a million years have thought of.

Awesome post, you've been teh bookmarked.

warren said...

"but rather than fainting, I'd find myself getting truly excited about the possibilities for an even better scene that was possible."

"If you're still thinking mournfully of what a waste the now obsolete drawings are, you're missing the point--or the boat."

Hear hear! Very eloquent. It's great how universal these points are.

~ w.

Doron Meir said...

"You've been working more or less alone up to this point"…

This line really poked me in the ribs, so to speak, since I have some problems working alone. For one thing, I tend to quickly run out of ideas when I’m alone. However, when I talk about the stuff with other story guys, all of a sudden I’m shooting ideas like anything!
Another thing I noticed, is that when I work alone for too long, I can sometimes get so “connected” with what I’ve been doing, that every change become very painful.

Do you think a story artist must be able to work alone – in other words, is the above a problem you think I should try and solve?

Also, what kind is the raw material do you get from the director (or lead story artist, or whoever is assigning you to a sequence)? Is it just the general story points, or does it already include lots of gags and specific business ideas?

Thanks for the very (very!) interesting blog…

Doron.

Jenny said...

Doron--no, not at all! You make great points and I know what you mean, esp. about getting attatched to your stuff when you've worked alone for a while. Everyone actually works differently--there's often a lot of talk that takes place either before you start a sequence or during, between people, informally; sometimes you'll solicit ideas or feedback--sometimes you'll get it(or give it) whether you akses or not--depends on how close your buddies are, heh. But the "solitude" thing--while it helps to be alone to concentrate, that's the great thing about the first pitch especially--you get to hash it out with others. For me it always results in interesting things to get feedback. So anyway, long & rambling--what I mean is, no, don't try & fit yourself into any mode at all--do what feels comfortable and works best for you.
As for your second question--the answer is--all of the above. : )
Everyone here where I've worked has been given assignments that range from a script they're going to try out word for word with very specific direction(from the directors, naturally!), to a totally "blue sky" assignment where you're asked to do it all--given your head as it were. And then there's every variation in between. There's no rule--it's different with every project and every different crew/director(s). Terrific questions! : ) Thanks for coming by!

Alessandro_PPG said...

Coloquei o seu blog em meu link de favoritos! Abra├žos!

the doodlers said...

Okay, this is a terrific post. The metaphor of ‘crew as audience’ points to something. Pitching works when the crew reflects back the emotions that you are trying to capture in the sequence. It does not work when the crew hold back or are nervous about expressing their reactions. First impression reactions are crucial to getting the workable feedback I need when I’m pitching. Also key: keeping focus on the big picture of the film as whole. What role the pitched sequence plays in the story and what is revealed in the sequence that might enhance other sequences yet to be done, or previously pitched sequences that will change as a result of the moments being revealed here.

Love the way you’ve described the experience!

Lori Witzel said...

Not knowing a thing about working in your field...but knowing that stories are twined deep in our DNA as creative, conscious beings...WOW.

So interesting to an "outsider" and so much like things I do in business to get buy-in for projects etc., and sheds light on why some art has (to me) "heart" and some seems all "head."

Dave said...

Pitching is as important as breathing to a story artist. No matter if we're experianced or just beginning. it truly opens up the room for greater story telling and ideas that can come from anyone on the crew.

this blog is excellent!

Paul said...

Both astute and eloquent as usual. Thanks for the insight!

Floyd Norman said...

Loved your comments. However, my favorite assignment is when a director tells me what he or she wants and then allows me to go for it.

I've been doing this job for some thirty or so years, and I'm still learning how to do it. I've failed as much as I've succeeded, and I often don't know why. Still, I love the storyboarding process, and I've done it from Walt Disney to John Lasseter. What a ride!

J said...

It's moving, frightening and more over inspiring. Another humdinger of a post.
Great job
j

Jenny said...

Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment and offer your feedback on my posts. If my thoughts have any value for you it really makes doing this blog worthwhile.

-"Doodlers": so true what you write about the ripple effect of the pitch process. That's an important point I completely left out--thanks! Thoughtful and perceptive on your part. : )

-Thanks Dave, as always, for your encouragement!

-Floyd--thanks so much for coming by and offering your perspective--it's an honor, sir. : )

-Lori--I think it's pretty cool that you find the common threads between my job and yours; you sound like a creative thinker--very likely an artist in your own right, yes? There's many more kinds than the sort with a pencil.

All of you guys--Emma, Paul, Warren, Allessandro, J., et al--thanks. It's a real pleasure for me to be able to connect with other artists such as yourselves this way. We're all so spread out--people only a few miles away might as well be on Pluto--and if any community needs to be able to cross-pollinate, it's artists.

walleye said...

Fantastic Blog Jenny. I'm new to this whole blogging world and am really enjoying the confluence of ideas and conversation that is so easily attainable using this medium. I think you nailed a lot of very interesting points on the art of the pitch. Its weird, but I always find that the pitch exists as a moment of permanent time...a true thing that cannot be taken back or changed. While the sequence will evolve and pass after pass the drawings will pile up on the floor, each and every pitch is a different performance. A complete thought. A release of energy. Between the pitching and brainstorming, rejection never tasted so sweet. Thanks for all the insight.
KP.

Justin Hilden said...

This is a wonderful post and helped me understand the notion of pitching just a little bit more. Thanks!

How Bowers said...

Fantastic post. Between this blog and Pixar DVD extras, I'm feeling like it's time to try to make a mid-life occupation shift.

Would you be open to blogging about how you got started in the industry? I'm sure every artist in your group has taken a different path to get to where they are, but since story artists are such a niche in a niche industry, it would be interesting to hear your story.

ChristianZ said...

Doron said: "Do you think a story artist must be able to work alone – in other words, is the above a problem you think I should try and solve?"

I would say it's a mixture of sometimes working alone and sometimes working in a team and you have to find a combination and an approach that works best for you.

Anonymous said...

You've described the system in ideal working terms. But the white elephant also frequently in the room on a major pitch - the executive who swears to other people and the media that your idea came to him in a dream last night - really muddies up all that vanilla ice cream.

Luca Tieri said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about pitching.
Really clear and helpfully.

Anonymous said...

I thank you for an eloquent post; you're clearly not just a good artist, you're a terrific writer. I agree that the system has excellent bones; there's a good reason it's been around so long. But there's another side to the story I feel is equally important. Your scenario describes the best case, which in my experience isn't always the actual case. And when the system goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Let's not forget that the artist standing at the cork isn't the only one with an ego to keep in check -- or try to. Each artist watching has her own ego. And story artists, as a breed, believe in themselves. That's how they got that far! And so you'll often hear artists trash a presentation because they want to shine in the room, perhaps even get a laugh at your expense. If there's an executive present, as there often is, the artist may well want to impress that person in order to ascend the rung from story artist to head of story, or even director. In short, you've left out the politics, and there's plenty of those on an animated movie. Next, a story pitch suffers from the same weaknesses our Congress would if there were only a House, but no Senate. In the room, majority tends to rule. Naturally, the director and other executives do hold veto power, but there's an almost unstoppable flow when a bunch of artists agree on what's wrong with the panels. Are they right simply because they're numerous? Often, but not always. A momentum can seize a room and take it in exactly the wrong direction. I've seen it happen. The loudest or most entertaining voice may have swayed the multitude in the moment. The price is the loss of singular vision, perhaps an artist who's ahead of everyone else, who has a breakthrough that others would recognize if only they weren't massed in a giant cubicle blanched by florescents, eager to fix things that may not be broken. At these times, the system itself is the problem. Then of course, there's the terrible sin of changing for the sake of changing. Decades of Walt's system has resulted in an assumption that it can't be a good movie unless it's thrown out sixty times, goes through three changes of crew, and costs upwards of two hundred million dollars. Re-drafts, firings and cost overages were the by-products of good filmmaking, but sometimes, nowadays, they're seen as the mark of good filmmaking. I've watched excellent material -- not my own -- get put in the shredder for no other reason than that's the way it's done. If it's the first pass, or the sixth, or the tenth, it simply can't be good -- it's too early! That's the tacit assumption, and it creates a system in which fewer films get made because costs have gotten so out of control, even with the now-standard use of render farms, which were supposed to make things cheaper. Again, I applaud your beautiful and emotive post, but I caution that there's a dark side to the Disney system -- just as there was a dark side to Walt.

Skribbl said...

Jenny you rock!

Very well written and very well said. I for one LOVE pitching. The timing, the voices and the sound effects. It's that little voice in your head that you hear while you spend countless hours physically drawing each expression, shot and pose. Then it can't wait to burst upon the stage when called. Alot of artist hide behind their pencils and to be a good storyboard you need to those silly voices and sound effects and timing in addition to drawing skills. Very well drawn boards will crash and burn if not pitched with courage and enthusiasm. I've tried to model my pitching style after Roger Allers. After I saw him pitch a beat board I was glued to every panel and couldn't wait to see what happened next.

Jenny, I would have to add that after they start ripping your boards apart, you should SAVE the old stuff because they always come back to it. Do you agree??

Great stuff. You should write a book on story.

Seriously.

Jenny said...

Well, shoot!--thanks, Skribbl! You make me blush!
About the board drawings: oh, definitely--I always save my boards--the castoffs(I have several drawers and boxes full at work), because as you say, you never know.
I try and copy the best ones before they disappear forever to editorial/file heaven. For years I never made copies of anything--big mistake! No more.

I couldn't agree more with what you write about pitching. I started writing this post several times; originally I was talking more about the technical art of doing a pitch, which as you point out is a whole deal in itself, worthy of writing about. I've had great education from Joe Ranft, Will Finn, Kelly Asbury, and others in how to do a great pitch, and all of them talked of the same principles you obviously know so well. But then I found myself veering off into why we should pitch at all, and here you have this thing. At least a second article about it would be shorter! ; )
Thanks again for the kind words. A book? From your typing fingers to an editor's ear! *lol* I have a strong feeling any market would be perceived as too small, though.

amelia said...

Wow--!! What an inspiring post!! I'd love to be a storyboard artist. I'm doing my big Senior Project on storyboarding too and just today showed a few of my drawings to some peers of mine, kinda scary but rewarding none the less. Anyway, this is a great post. Thanks so much. I might quote you in my big paper that's due next week... :)

(by the way, have you read "Paper Dreams"? I just ordered it and can't wait...it's all about storyboarding!)

a

the doodlers said...

The comments section on this post just becomes more and more intersting! To me, Anonymous's second post above makes very good points for what happens when the creative team turns in on itself. UGLY.
............
Walleye and Scribble speak of the joys of performing the storyboard. To add to that, regarding timing: The Pitch plays out well when 'the pitcher' uses timing to her/his advantage. We can't dwell on one drawing in a pitch, though we might hold on it for emphasis. We spent however long on that sketch, but each drawing is part of a string of moments that we HOPE will play like little jewels in the whole necklace of the sequence.
...........
So far people are discussing pitching to a group. The Series Television board artist often doesn't have that pleasure (or is saved the pain, depending on your personal perspective). I've enjoyed the process of pitching boards one-on-one to a receptive director, and though it's not the same big thrill as pitching to a whole room of your peers, it's a great feeling when the director laughs spontaneaously. Plus of we can easilly get down to fixing something; brainstormimg a fast solution when the board needs a rejig.
.............
Another question about feature pitching: I wonder what Hayao Miyasaki does? Does he use the pitch process? How does Sylvain Chomet do it?

Jenny said...

Doodlers, your comments are terrific--and say a lot of what's left out. I have a hard time responding as cogently as you have to all the great thoughts here. : )
As for Miyazaki, I am certain that as the both director/sole storyboard artist, the only person he might "pitch" to is the producer, his partner at Ghibli. I saw them both a year or so ago here in L.A. talking about "Spirited Away", and from their discussion it was clear that there was debate about what to cut from the story[board] for time and budget reasons...but other than explaining to his animators via the boards what he wants, I doubt Miyazai has to "pitch" in the sense that we here do at all. I'd imagine the same would be true for Chomet...as the boss, there are perks! But I'd love to ehar from someone who really knows for certain.

Re: Anonymous #2: I felt it spoke for itself; I would add--to him/her, that I wouldn't change a word of what I wrote. Neither would I change a word of what you wrote. 'Nuff said. ; )

Amelia: thanks for coming by, and good luck on your senior project! You've get a great book in Canemaker's "Paper Dreams"(yes, I've read it and love it)-in fact, you should absolutely get his other book "Before the Animation Begins", too. It's meant to focus on what's called visual development, but it's all applicable to story and that process as well--not to mention he has some incredible biographical stuff in there on some of the most important Disney artists. Reading that book is like an education in studio politics, and all sorts of other real-world concerns of the artist. Highly recommended!

Smook said...

This was a fantastic article, Jenny. Well written and conceived. I agree with Skribbl, you should consider putting out a book (maybe self publish it, print off however many you need) on story, I'd buy one!

This may be a silly question, but what kind of feelings did you have before your first pitch session as a story artist? If you were nervous, did it affect your pitch at all? How does it compare to now......if you don't mind my asking of course.....

Looking forward to more of these articles. A treasure trove of information for us non-feature story artists.

Jenny said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenny said...

Thanks, Smook! I love your blog and your work, and nice words from you are a real compliment. : )

That's far from a silly question you ask--heck, it's THE question, when you're about ready to step in front of the room, lol!
I'll tell you: I'm very lucky, in that I don't get nervous while pitching; I love performing and did theater in high school and college, and that helped a lot with performance anxiety(which is perfectly normal). But, where my nerves kick in is the "waiting to pitch" part--that can drive me (silently) nuts. My first pitch had me all prepared and ready, no worries--then the Big Boss(and buddy, I mean BIG)was late, so everyone was in their chairs and getting antsy while I...stood there. As the seconds crawled by(and he was only a few minutes after the appointed time), I began to get real stage fright; my palms sweated, my gosh, it was horrible. When I finally launched into my pitch, though, I was fine--thank goodness. Everyone's different, and it's expected to have some nerves--they can even help your performance, in a way, keeping you focused and on your toes. It's suprising how self-consciousness disappears when you're into your pitch and it sort of carries you along.
So for me little has changed nerves-wise, but I do hope I've improved overall in my presentation, with the advice and help of some very good people.
Perhaps I should write a bit more and just focus on the technicalities of pitching--do you think?

Smook said...

Write about anything you feel like writing about, I'll be all ears (well, eyes I guess since I'll be reading this). I will gladly accept whatever you feel like sharing with us; it's all worthwhile to me personally speaking; and I doubt I am the only one who feels this way about your writing and artwork.

Sean B said...

As a board artist,....the one phrase that I always found a little disconcerting, albeit, appropriate was the line,..."Don't be afraid to murder your babies".

Watching your sequence live and/or die, panel by panel as it's picked apart by anyone from God to the cafeteria guy can be nervewracking at best but those few magic moments you are encased in that creative bubble, where the pitch is going just as you planned,...where they are laughing in all the right places, are tantamount to creative Nirvana.

It's also, most likely, the only time you'll ever get to present your sequence as you'd intend an audience to see it.

I'll tell ya what though,.....those first few seconds, where the room goes silent, just before you open your mouuth to swing into the song and dance, can be the most exhilarating and terrifying seconds in an artists day.

For better or worse,.....it's definately a rush.

Great Blog, Jenny.

Nice vibe.

Well, I'm back to drawing Roddy and Rita. :(.......MEH!

Sean

Jenny said...

Hey Sean--thanks for coming by and the nice words--you're damned eloquent there, mister--wish I'd said it as well!
Ain't it the truth. And btw, your pitches are up there with the most entertaining ones I've ever seen(but I've probably told you that, lol). : )

Toren Q Atkinson said...

I hesitate to say that I know Shamus Culhane from the very last credit in the Rocket Robin Hood cartoons.

Jenny said...

Hi Toren--why 'hesitate'? Culhane had a very varied life in animation, that's for sure. His book "Talking Animals and Other People"(not so hot title imho)is a classic, believe me...he sounds like he was a difficult guy at the best of times, but he had an amazing series of careers: Fleischer's, Disney's, WB, and finally owning his own studio, making commercials in NYC for early TV. He also married Chico Marx's daughter Maxine(among other women). I'm not familiar at all with the cartoons you mention--are they terrible?