The Importance of Story

In 1984, when computer graphics began to merge with film and most people remained unconvinced of its viability, a group of software engineers led by Ed Catmull (Lucasfilm) got together with John Lasseter, a story-teller from Disney. They wanted to show people complex animation from their machine (The Pixar) at an annual graphics conference where the fledging industry met in Minnesota. It was important to impress because the graphics division needed funds to stay in business. If they failed, their vision for a computer-generated animated feature film would die.

As the date for the conference approached, the team realized that they were unable to finish their showcase short. The animation of a jungle with thick foliage and multi-hued greens took much longer to render than they anticipated. They would have to go to the conference with some of the key technological elements of their two-minute film unfinished. This spoiled everything. After all, the entire reason they were going was to show their technical advancements.

At this conference, all film was shown on one evening. As the group from California watched slick and well-made examples of animation from the other vendors, it seemed more and more likely they would be embarrassed. The state-of-the-art of the day consisted of fifteen seconds of flashy spinning logos, fly-bys, and moving text. Their film was about an android startled awake in the middle of a jungle by a bumblebee flying near its head. The technical breakthrough was to show this small bee chasing the android through the trees, over and under fallen logs and across streams.

After the screening, the feedback they received from other attendees about their film was just short of miraculous. Despite their worries, people connected with the characters and didn’t even notice that half-way through the film, the elements of the graphics dropped away and became black and white with wire frame images and simple mock-ups. The magic turned out not to be the movement but the thinking, emoting, and consciousness of the characters. They received this feedback from computer graphic specialists who were there to focus on the technical aspects of animation.

The lesson seen over and over again throughout different industries is people will forgive and excuse technical problems if the story works. If you are trying to get somewhere interesting, and you have a good reason to get there, people will want to be part of the journey, but if you are simply trying to look good without a story, people will focus only on the technique and not the possibilities in spite of the current problems.

Source by Douglas Rugh, PhD