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The Truth About the Ever-Evolving Pixar Brain Trust

Since Toy Story came out in 1995, Pixar has been releasing hit after hit over the past twenty years. While there are clearly a number of factors that help the creative organization churn out hits, a big chunk falls down to the “brain trust.”

Ed Catmull describes the “brain trust” as an accident. The group, which consisted of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft, continues to grow at Pixar. The reason a brain trust is necessary is that creative projects as massive as a Pixar film involve getting lost in the process. The director almost needs to lose the forest for the trees, as the negative expression goes.

Creation means internalizing or becoming the project. But, having perspective may also mean losing perspective at some point. This is where the Brain Trust steps in. Since every situation is undoubtedly different, the team uses principles and debate to figure out an issue, but the director still gets the final word.

Sometimes there is just a discrepancy from a vision to the final image. Sometimes it’s much more complicated. The original Toy Story 2 was meant to be a straight-to-video release, but the Brain Trust saved the project from merely being a sequel.

At Pixar, the environment is such that people want to hear their peers’ notes and opinions, especially if they bring a challenge to the film. The filmmakers need to be responsible, but also have a freedom to risk. Generally speaking, the director for the project is dying to make the film. It’s almost the opposite of every other blockbuster in the cinema.

Ironically, Catmull also said they tried to have other Brain Trusts, but it didn’t work. There’s more to simply putting smart people in a room. For the Pixar Brain Trust, they have concluded that the members have a deep understanding of storytelling. This means they’ve been through the process. Any good advice is welcomed, but it’s more powerful from another storyteller.

Then, after a meeting, the director still has the choice as to whether or not listen or follow the rules. In addition, problems are simple enough to point to, but it’s much harder to diagnose and fix the real issue. The first time Pixar presented Toy Story, Woody actually came off as too jealous, rather than playful.

In Catmull’s book, he wrote, “A mystifying plot twist or a less-than-credible change of heart in our main character is often caused by subtle, underlying issues elsewhere in the story.”

The Brain Trust will point to an issue and then allow the director to figure out the problem on his or her own. Most importantly, of course, is that the film is under review, and not the filmmaker.

As Catmull has confirmed, “You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.” This is also true in the writer’s room. The best joke should make the comedy and nothing else really matters.

The Brain Trust has grown a great deal over the years. It went from three people to nearly twenty people for the 2015 hit, Inside Out. The story was also more complicated, as the writers tried to characterize emotions in the mind.

In the debate at this table, director Pete Docter opened up the conversation and displayed a 10-minute preview to the group. Some members thought the scene about memories fading was too complicated for the movie. They wanted to keep it simpler. But, Brad Bird—director of The Incredibles and Warner Brother’s The Iron Giant, had a different idea.

“I understand that you want to keep this simple and relatable,” Bird told Pete, “but I think we need something that your audience can get a little more invested in.” Since every Pixar has it’s own rules for people to expect—Toys voices can’t be heard by humans, Ratatouille rats walk on paws except for Remy, and memories being stored in glowing globes—but the complex idea became the center of the film.

Ironically, it was almost cast away. Andrew Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, suggested they clarify a new rule for the film. Memories and emotions should change over time as the brain gets older. This idea reshaped the entire film. The movie was actually about the inevitability of change. The conundrum is trying to be mature and reliable, but also childlike and present.

Once the idea is brilliant, the director can then take the reins for another period of time. As Brad Bird said in the initial meeting, it’s a challenge to present the idea on the screen. But, that’s what the Brain Trust is for. They’re additive, not competitive. Most of the audience’s favorite moments either came from initial sparks or brain trust add-ons.

Think of EVE saving Wall-E despite her programming. Think of Big Baby defeating Lotso in Toy Story 3. These were ideas developed in meetings. To start your own Brain Trust, Catmull recommends choosing people that make you think smarter, putting lots of solutions on the table and finding people who will level with you.