The Toy Story 2 Argument: People vs. Ideas

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Ed Catmull offers business lessons from Pixar and Disney in his book, “Creativity, Inc.” I agreed with his perspective on the value of people over ideas, which runs counterintuitive with the majority of production companies.

Most of his philosophy came about during his work on Toy Story 2, a production that originated as a direct to video release, but took a sharp turn and became one of the most successful theatrical sequels of all time. Unfortunately the success and its lessons came at a great cost that formed Catmull’s philosophy.

The argument comes from the business value that either the people or the ideas are more important. The determination of what a company values most determines the processes that exploits that value. If ideas are more important, then the company churns their employees in search of great ideas, but if the people are more important they see to their needs knowing that they will create great ideas.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up,” says Catmull. “If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Putting a team of the right people with the right chemistry together is the necessary precursor to getting the right ideas. But not everyone agrees with this philosophy. When asked among industry peers the responses to people vs. ideas generate a 50/50 response. This statistically suggests that no one is responding to fact or experience, but rather are all guessing, picking a random answer, as if flipping a coin.

“To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people,” says Catmull. “Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”

The key is determining what makes the people the right people for a project. Some would suggest character alone is sufficient, while others state the importance of mastering one’s craft or holding years of experience. I find that what makes for an ideal person to join a team is one who subscribes to a continuous pursuit of knowledge, the endless exploration of their craft, and a willingness to learn from peers.

“In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, ‘A movie about talking toys— what a clever idea!’ But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people,” says Catmull. “The underlying goals remain the same: Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

It’s no wonder that master craftsmen are drawn to others who have mastered their craft. Nor is it strange that excellent creatives gravitate to projects that attract like-minded creatives.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

In Development

In Development“Hurry up and wait,” is an adage from the motion picture industry. It reflects the tone on set during a production and the short flurry of activity followed by a long duration of waiting that accompanies it. People visiting the set either get very excited about the process or hate the sheer boredom that they may face.

“Feast or famine,” is another common phrase that reveals the process starving artists go through on the path of their careers. However, few talk about it and some even pretend to always be on top of the world financially. The funny thing is that everyone knows the entertainment industry employs more freelancers who also work in part time sales positions and the restaurant service industry.

While actors work hard to be ready for the moment when a big break comes their way, others are steeped in development preparing the next story to be made into a motion picture or television show.

The development phase of the project can last anywhere from six months to six years on average. Star Wars spent seven years in development, while James Cameron’s Avatar required more development time in order to create the technology used to make the movie.

Recently I was asked by one of my blog followers where I was in the filmmaking process. He had been following the show “Working Title” and was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to read more over the last few weeks. So I gave him an update on where I am in the filmmaking process, which I’ll now share with you.


“Working Title” is now titled “Tried & True.” The film is still in development and we are fine-tuning the screenplay. In parallel, we are seeking investors to fund the film with a budget of $12 million. The story is aimed at the general audience and gives a Playboy law student’s viewpoint on exploring whether or not a son can take down his evil father, an attorney for the mob, through divisive anger or by showing mercy.

“Steele Blue” is also in development. While there are a few tweaks that need to happen in the screenplay, I’ve spent a significant amount of time rewriting the novel that I completed last year. The story is about a maverick detective who needs to take down a drug kingpin before he releases cherry meth into the Chicago schools, where her son attends. Working with a PTSD blocked memory, the detective starts to fall in love with the very man she must take down.

I’m also in development of a television sitcom designed to go head-to-head against Duck Dynasty. The series is built around Southern comedians who deal with the basics of life in a moral, yet red-necked way. Every development meeting that we’ve had with the talent has made me laugh hysterically at their everyday antics. I can’t wait to tickle your funny bone with more news about this series.

“The Tree Jumper” is a motion picture vehicle designed to introduce new talent to the silver screen. This coming of age high school adventure film is loaded with action, heartfelt moments and eye-opening drama. While aimed at the Millennials, it will touch the hearts of everyone and bring a new understanding of the differences between conditional love and sacrificial love. One of my favorite sequences is when Jeremy tree jumps to save a couple from a crashed Cessna dangling over a ravine.

It’s hard to blog about shows and development because of all the secrecy and copyright restrictions. However, I hope this update gives you an appreciation for all the work that happens behind closed doors in developing great story.

Promo Piece Actor Brings Laughs

There was an awkward moment at yesterday’s luncheon that rose from a serious woman’s comment about homosexuality. She innocently mentioned a man who might be able to help those in the audience better understand the circumstances faced with friends or relatives coming out of the closet, but her delivery was unknowingly unique.

She introduced him without any forethought as a man who “loves the brain, sex and Jesus.” Everyone cracked up and his wife turned 30 shades of pink.

The odd introduction coupled with a subject matter that is awkward for many, set the stage for numerous jokes throughout the afternoon. While some poor jokes surfaced out of nervousness, most jokes opened the door for people to  explore the subject for the first time. I was impressed by the willingness of people to learn about things outside of their comfort zone.

This was made possible in the moment of introduction, because Bill took things in stride and added some additional humor – Causing many to feel more comfortable about the subject matter. His comicality brought a sense of joy into the room and disarmed internalized tensions of many. His words were filled with grace and self-deprecation.

What made the moment funny for me was remembering back to the promo piece I shot last week. Bill was one of the actors who made everyone on set laugh with little effort.

The comedian’s skills far exceeded what you might expect from a conservative university professor that teaches classes on the brain. And amazingly, he returned from a three month sabbatical that utilized his theological degree and other credentials in writing a book on how sexuality of female Evangelicals affects their brain.

So, when the woman casually asked him what he did over the summer, it’s easy to understand how she summarized his passions the way she had.

I lost track of how many degrees Bill has, but I’ll never forget how funny his impromptu shtick was on set. He was in rare form last week and he had the entire cast and crew in stiches. Several people thought we should rewrite the promo to include more of Bill doing his hilarious adlib, but the script had already been approved.

After seeing Bill in his horse riding costume, I immediately thought of “My Professor’s Study,” a live action/animated children’s series I designed for ages 8-12. Once financed, I’ll have to consider Bill for the role of the goofy professor. I would also plan to shoot the script with enough time left over for Bill to spin his humor through impromptu play.

What is it about people with numerous degrees, like Bill Cosby, that creates some of the funniest impromptu bits?

Work the Plan and Plan Creative Exploration

The actors did a great job and we were ahead of schedule. It was time to move inside our location when the DP asked if his team could shoot a dolly running shot. The coverage wasn’t needed, but I always liked exploring other shots after we fulfill the preplanned list, so I gave him the approval and moved the rest of the cast and crew inside.

Since there wasn’t a lot of time to set up the dolly move, the assistant cameraman stepped inside the building and grabbed one of the wheel chairs that are available for visiting guests. The camera operator sat in the chair, held the camera at street level and then was pushed by a grip jogging behind him.

The shot of the actor’s feet running across the pavement was impressive and thanks to the stabilizing lens the shot was smooth. It also cut very well into the comedy and increased the visual pace to set up the next scene’s punchline. The idea worked so well that we decided to use a similar set up for the interior mall running scene.

I would never have thought of the selected shot or realized how well it set up the punchline if it weren’t for padding our shoot with time for creative thinking. Here are the steps I take when planning a shot list.

  1. Setting up a shot list based on key elements needed to move the story forward.
  2. Enhance the list with shots that stimulate an emotional response from the audience.
  3. Consider artistic shots that can set up or lead out a scene.
  4. Create a supporting list of unique shots that I’m interested in exploring.
  5. Estimate a number of shots for the DP to play with.

By budgeting time according to all five groupings of shots, I’m able to prepare the shoot for the greatest amount of flexibility. If the scene doesn’t go as planned or the actors struggle with their lines, we won’t get to all five lists, but I’ll know the story is covered.

This type of built in flexibility tends to find great shots that capture the audience’s attention, draws them deeper into the story and generates chatter during award season. In fact, I remember one creative opening shot that was brainstormed on set because we had paid for a crane and wanted to make sure we got the best possible use of it.

That forced perspective stimulated a long running crane shot that locked down into a visual effects shot, which brought in three awards. Prior to that shot, it had been impossible to use a crane shot as a visual effect lock down shot for a background plate, but our creative team brainstormed a solution that worked surprisingly well – And changed the way the industry shot background plates.

Exploration is always fun and exciting when the director is already confident his key shots have been covered. So planning time for those opportunities makes for a great film shoot.

Copyright © 2014 by CJ Powers

Intimacy at the Core of a Story

“Intimacy is the posture of one heart toward another. Intimacy chooses the path of self-disclosure above self-protection, vulnerability above guardedness, unhindered and expressed emotion rather than silenced feeling.”

This quote is from the book A Well-Worn Path: Thirty-One Daily Reflections for the Worshipping Heart by Dan Wilt. His words sparked my imagination and gives reason to why I make pictures – An intimate art form for those who are willing to bare their soul.

I’ve talked to a countless number of directors in my life and found that those who are truly into their craft speak from the depth of their hearts. They have something that ignites within their soul and surfaces when asked about what went into their film.

Last Sunday night I got together with other filmmakers at a friend’s house. Not only was the food great, but our conversation made the time fly by all too fast. Each person spoke from the depth of their heart and shared a vulnerability that gave us a desire to work on a project together. While project timing will determine if that desire is fulfilled, we plan to reconnect in the near future.

When each person shared about their most recent picture, we were bathed in an atmosphere of intimacy and respect. Our levels of experience didn’t matter, as the personal moments shared were endearing and educational. Everyone learned something of value from someone else.

There was no pretense in the room and each person added to the conversation. The only disappointment was how fast the five hours past.

And yes, we watched some footage. What filmmaker can get together with others and not share a few clips? I think it might be impossible, but I’m not sure.

The coolest part of the evening was listening to how each filmmaker poured their heart into their project in a way that it impacted the audience through story. To that end, the filmmaker had to make himself vulnerable, rather than guard his heart. He had to reveal his inner most beliefs instead of protecting his heart. And he had to reveal the emotional thread that runs through his veins in order to bring the story to life.

These same attributes are present in all stories shared around the water cooler at work and at an intimate dinner. Choosing to expose our hearts to others through story is one of the most powerful exchanges a person can make, as it reveals who we are and how we think. Intimacy is at the core of every story.

Copyright © 2014 by CJ Powers

Interview with Princess Cut Writer/Producer/Director

I’ve known Paul Munger for a few years and I’m excited about his latest film project. Paul is an award-winning filmmaker and I originally met him electronically through social media exchanges about filmmaking. He lives a quiet (not counting the noise generated by all his kids), high moral lifestyle and loves the medium of film.

Princess Cut is a love story that suggests true love is worth waiting for and based on how Paul and his wife live daily, the values depicted in the film will be worth watching.

Mimi SagadinLet me take pause for a moment and give a shout out to my friend Mimi Sagadin who is one of the leads in the film. Mimi and I meet at a film conference where she taught actor workshops and I taught screenwriting workshops. We had a great time chatting about the art of film and improving our craft. Not only was she a generous, loving and humble person, but I also learned that Mimi is very careful about the films she stars in, which speaks highly of Paul’s writing efforts.

So without any further ado, here is my latest conversation with Paul…

CJ: Where did your inspiration come from for your latest film Princess Cut?

PAUL: One of the foundational desires of the human heart is the yearning to love and be loved. My wife and I drew from our own experiences in trying to navigate the maze of romance and these became the core elements of the story. Additionally, some events that happen in the movie are loosely based on insights  penned by bestselling relationships book authors such as Eric & Leslie Ludy, Joshua Harris and Voddie Bauchum.  The books themselves make their way onscreen through organic and interesting scenes. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out how!

CJ: You’re promoting the film as a faith and family friendly film. What key elements of the film reflect that genre?

PAUL: I’m absolutely convinced that there’s a wide group of people across the country who can identify with me and my dilemma. As to identity, first and foremost, I’m a Christian.  And secondly, I’m a family man, with 8 children ranging in age from 13 to 1. Now here’s my dilemma: When we have family movie night, I’ll head to the video store with high hopes, but almost invariably I’ll have a really tough time finding something suitable for all of us to watch together.  We’re simply looking for quality stories that affirm our faith and don’t include offensive elements such as profanity, nudity, and graphic violence. Those are some of the guiding principles that embody Princess Cut, and we expand the value by adding in positive portrayals of family life and the Christian faith.

CJ: You found new talent in Ashley Bratcher, while bringing on board veteran of faith-based films, Jenn Gotzon. What was it like working with these two?

Ashley BratcherPAUL: These two actresses are splendid jewels.  Rising Carolina talent and lead Ashley Bratcher is really one to watch. As a versatile method actor, she dove into the role of Grace with extraordinary fervor.  I was impressed and grateful that she always came super prepared.  Not only did she take direction extremely well but her timely input on scenes or wording of dialogue beautifully enhanced the final product.

Jenn GotzonJenn Gotzon was the first talent I brought on board.  I always knew I wanted her as part of the team, having had the privilege of working with her on Alone Yet Not Alone and The Screenwriters. Equally as talented, she brought her experience to bear in the role of Brooke. Jenn’s dedication to go at the performance until we nailed it was an invaluable asset during some long shooting days crowded with cast and a host of extras!  Factor in an always positive attitude and winning personality, and you’ll see on-screen why I wouldn’t have wanted any other person for the role.

CJ: In what way did the film challenge your directing skills?

PAUL: Honestly, I never thought I’d be the one directing Princess Cut. But it turned out to be one of the most delightful experiences of my life. When you have a talented team like I was blessed with, it makes your job so much easier.  We had one of the most harmonious sets of which you could ever dream. But of course there’s always hurdles to overcome. For instance, when one of our key actors became sick we had to make some critical decisions that required massive reshuffling of the schedule.  In God’s providence, this turned out to our benefit.   And throughout production, I was constantly challenged to find new and better ways to clearly communicate my desires to the cast and crew. But in the final analysis, I learned and grew so much, and wouldn’t change a thing.

CJ: You have a Kickstarter campaign to raise the final funds to post the film. How are you getting the word out and how would you like people to help?

PAUL: After months of research and careful preparation, we launched our campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter because of it’s name recognition and powerful tools. As the name suggests, crowd funding happens best when there’s a crowd! To me, that’s the exciting thing happening here, is that together we’re building a community, a family of engaged viewers who interact and share in this journey of love.  Our desire is to encourage the pursuit of selfless relationships and to build up and benefit families everywhere. If you share that goal, we’d be most grateful if you would share your thoughts and feelings about Princess Cut with your family & friends through Facebook, Twitter and your blog.

CJ: What is the most important take away you want the audience to have after watching the film?

PAUL: It’s the same core we’re trying to impart to our own children that we’ve woven into what we hope will be an entertaining love story, and it happens on both a horizontal and vertical plane: Give love time to blossom into maturity! That only happens when you’re patiently waiting on God’s timing (vertical), purely seeking the best for the one you profess to love (horizontal) instead of greedily grasping after what they can give or do for you.

CJ: Since I have readers from 144 countries and your crowdfunding allows for international participation, I hope several people will help you reach your goal.  Thank you for taking time to answer my questions.

PAUL: Thank you for the questions and asking about Princess Cut, it’s really an honor!  Be blessed!

Tried & True #14 — Avoiding the Not-So-Dream Cast

Every story creates an artistic expression from which an emotion rises to invoke change within its audience. That emotional pulse brings a rhythm to the screen based on the look, feel and actions of the characters. Rarely does the director have the opportunity to hand pick his cast based on his analysis of the screenplay, but when it happens…Everyone is positively impacted by it.

auditionsMost films are not made with a dream team cast, however, directors do have the opportunity to mix and match the actors to find a new formula that can also bring about an emotional change factor, albeit a variation from the original intent. The alternative can some times generate a greater impact, while at other times it will fall short.

In the independent world of Tried & True, our developers picked a dream team that would perfectly contour the film to meet our original commitment. But, with the changes made in the screenplay’s focus and the shifting of the love story to the B-plotline, what was an earlier rejected not-so-dream cast has once again been placed back on the table for consideration.

Actors Rejected Then Re-Selected

I feel for the actors that get rejected by a director during the audition process. Each has earned their right to win a role, but none of them can know how the perceived character traits might instantly be adjusted when a lead unexpectedly changes – Forcing the recasting of supporting characters.

PacinoIn Tried & True, Antonio Marcellus is an Italian mobster who hires our hero’s father to bring about his 24th exoneration. He is impeccably dressed with the latest fashion, loaded down with expensive jewelry and sports a jet-black ponytail. Al Pacino was our first choice based on whom we selected as our hero. Since our lead never got to contract, we shifted to a new lead, which forced a new mobster. We then looked at Mark Strong, but our lead changed again and we considered yet another actor.

In the meantime, we were simultaneously considering Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner and Mark Strong for the role of Alten Stafford, our hero’s father. These men are all excellent actors with managers that can protect them from this yoyo approach, which continues to change until all leads are signed. In our case, we have three leads that must first be perfectly balanced in screen strength for the story to work.

The shifting of schedules, changes in budget and higher offers that remove talent from the negotiation table create the yoyo effect – All because the director wants the best possible combination. Thankfully the rejected actors know that a change in fit caused the rejection, not their skill. Still, I feel for actors who fit and then don’t because the lead was changed, especially if they become a fit again once yet another lead signs.

Supporting Cast Supports, Not Outshines

The other element that can lead to a not-so-dream cast comes about when a supporting actor is hired that outshines the lead. While this sometimes sneaks up on a director due to an oversight in auditions, it becomes obvious to everyone once the film hits the silver screen.

A friend of mine was hired to play a lead in a drama. Her greatest performance was captured in a scene that would have been ideal for her next reel, but a supporting character overshadowed her. Had she included it in her reel, she would have lost all credibility as an actor. Unfortunately, the director focused so much on the supporting characters that the leads were undermined, the story wavered and the film flopped.

Its incidences like those that cause the rejected actors to be thankful they weren’t cast. Everyone loses when a supporting character outshines a lead and only the director has the control to make sure it doesn’t happen. This can also be the time when it becomes painfully obvious when a director has hired a friend or a relative to play a role they aren’t suited for.

I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how much you want to work with a certain actor, the story should drive the talent selection process. And, those actors who are patient and great at what they do, will eventually find ideal roles from directors fulfilling their story requirements over their desires.

As for Tried & True, the latest script changes have forced us to relook at the leads, and therefore the entire cast. Some characters will probably survive the change like Detective Yeager who I’d like to fill with a specific theater character actor. Other roles will continue to change until the last lead actor is signed.

Copyright © 2014 by CJ Powers