Pixar Storytelling in a Box (cont)

Continuing on from my previous post about my experience with the Khan Academy course, Pixar in a Box: The Art of Storytelling, the next lessons are ‘What if?’ and ‘World and Character’.

Lesson 3: What If?

Video 3 and Activity 3 are all about What if? Coming up with a story scenario, by asking “What if?”, the Pixar story tellers do a great job of putting popular movies into What if statements. For instance, what if our toys were sentient and could come alive? This is Toy Story.

Part A. What would the What if statements be for my favorite films?

  • What if unicorns still existed and could only be seen by a few people?
  • What if a couple accidentally adopted a girl, instead of a boy?
  • What if the King of England lost his mind?
  • What if the new Emperor of China was just a little boy?

The exercise is a little hard with true stories, but I guess they still work.

Part B: Come up with 3-5 What if stories

I have to admit something embarrassing. I created a list of about 30 what ifs about a week before I wrote this – but somehow, I lost them all! So I had to come up with new ones. I needed some inspiration.

Inspiration: Sanjay’s Super Team

For inspiration, I watched a short video called “Sanjay’s Super Team”. One of the Pixar storytellers mentions the movie. “Sanjay’s Super Team’s” What if question is: What if an Indian father could show his son, who loves action figures, what he sees when he’s praying? It is a pretty impressive video and it’s only about 7 minutes long, so no excuses!

My What ifs?

Sanjay’s Super Team did inspire me. I didn’t come up with as many ideas this time around, but here are a few:

  • What if my cats could be real people?
  • What if pets could give their owners advice about life?
  • What if there was a world where your imagination rule everything?
  • What if my lost What if stories came true?
  • What if there was a land of lost and found, where every lost item lived?
  • What if my search to find my lost stories took me on a quest to an imaginary land, where my cats came along as my companions but were turned into humans?

Turns out, I’ve got cats and lost stories on my mind!

Lesson 4: World and Character

Part A: Identify the main characters and worlds in your three movies.

The Last Unicorn

World: Medieval world of magic. Most action is on the road or the woods, and then in a castle.
Main Characters: Unicorn, Magician, Cook, Evil King
Connection: I definitely connected more with the unicorn, but sometimes with the magician.

Anne of Green Gables

World: Small yet idyllic town in the 1800s.
Main Characters: Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Gilbert, Donna
Connection: Definitely connected with Anne!

Madness of King George

World: England, English palaces, late 1700s.
Main Characters: King George, Dr Willis, Equerry
Secondary: Queen, Lady Pembroke, Prime Minister, Lord Chamberlain
Connection: I connected with the equerry, who’s just trying to do the right thing.

Part B: Mix characters and worlds from a different stories

Combining worlds and characters gives pretty interesting results. The first time I did this exercise, I used The Last Emperor instead of the Madness of King George. So I got Unicorn + Forbidden City combinations. The combinations that make the most sense would be Anne of Green Gables + The Last Unicorn. Helping a unicorn find other unicorns would be Anne Shirley’s life’s dream. I could also see the Evil King thriving in the Forbidden City, or the mad King George doing pretty well in the medieval world of magic.
[pic]

Part C: Pick your favorite What if statement. Imagine a possible world and character.

Going back to my favorite What if statement, I guess the last one is the most obvious. A main character would be someone socially anxious who spends a lot of time living in his head. My cats as people would be about 11 years old. One cat would be an energy-filled girl. Not that different from Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, or Pippi Longstocking. The other cat would be a girl that’s a little bit overweight. She would have a pleasant demeanor, but also be easily frightened. Both of them, would at times be absentminded and always ready to take naps. But they would be very loyal and supportive.

Final: Storytelling Advice

The final video in this lesson features Pixar storytellers giving advice to new storytellers. The thing that I connected with in this video, is that getting good takes practice. Even if you think you’re not getting better, what you will see over time is a stack of drawings and papers that show your progress. Sometimes what you think are mistakes are not mistakes. They are signs of the search for the right story.

It’s going to take some time for me to think about Part D of Activity 4: What would my world look like? Until then, I’m going to keep thinking about storytelling inspirations, and remember to keep chipping away at it.


I don’t know when the next section in the Khan Academy course will come out. But, in the meantime, I will post more articles about storytelling.

More artwork from Sanjay Patel, the creator of Sanjay’s Superteam, can be found at Ghee Happy. It’s just cool.

Pixar In A Box: The Art of Storytelling

It seems like every few weeks I see a tweet, essay, or article mention about storytelling. Many of these articles seem to be written with the idea of using the concept of a story to convincing others to trust your business idea.

Storytelling is a very old art form that serves that has also served as a cultural communication tool. I find it somewhat disappointing that “storytelling” has been co-opted for the purpose of selling a business plan. As a kid who got lost in stories but gave verbal book reports that started off strong, but finished off weak, I could actually use some tips at telling a good story. One thing I don’t see from these posts is info about how to tell good stories, or what the components of a good story are. I am cynical that these storytelling articles are really about storytelling.

How to tell a good story

To learn how to able to tell a good story, I should learn from the best, right? Enter Pixar in a Box, The Art of Storytelling, a lesson series by Khan AcademyCan you believe it? One of the best contemporary storytelling companies on the planet is giving free lessons on how to tell a good story.

Available right now is Lesson 1: We are all storytellers. This lesson is broken down into 6 videos and 4 activities. The first few videos explain what story telling is, and then a few people from Pixar talk about their own inspirations and how they got started.

Here’s a breakdown of the videos and activities/exercises:

  • Intro to Storytelling
  • Your Unique Perspective
  • Exercise 1: Expressing memories
  • Your Favorite Stories
  • Exercise 2: Your three favorite films
  • What if?
  • Exercise 3: What if?
  • World and Character
  • Exercise 4: Characters & worlds
  • Storytelling advice

Yes, but will studying how to tell a story actually make me better at storytelling for business?

That is a good question. I don’t know about putting video clips from Finding Nemo into presentations, but I am going to participate in this course. I mean…who doesn’t want to learn from Pixar? This is going to be fun!

Still from Finding Nemo
When you embark on a new educational journey: “Hold on, here we go! Next stop, knowledge!” (From, A Finding Nemo Quote for Every Occasion). You had to know that’s where I was going, right?)

Hold on, here we go! Next stop, knowledge!

Activity 1: Expressing memories

The first activity is about using written words, drawings, or telling a story to someone to describe a vivid memory. This activity follows a video in which Pixar artists talk about their own experiences as storytellers. They’ve obviously been doing this for a long time.

I chose to draw an emotion.The instructions say to use only lines and shapes to draw the memory. Here is a link to examples of shapes that describe emotions. As you can see, it’s OK to be abstract.

The overall emotion to the memory I chose is sadness. It’s a strong emotion. I chose a very simple sketch. Hopefully the isolation of sadness comes across.

"Sadness"

You may think that the Pixar folks, being animators, stuck with sketches and expanded on this initial start into memory and emotion….

But no! They went on to explore inspiration!


Activity 2: Desert Island stories

Part A: Identify the three films that you would take to a deserted island…. 

Part B: Why do you think you connected with these stories? Come up with at least one reason for each.
Part C: What, if anything, do these three films have in common? How are they different?

 

Gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh!

This was the question after a video with Pixar storytellers talking about stories that made an impression on them as children. What would I pick? Why did I connect with them? Here are some movies that came to my mind and why I think I connected with them:

The Last Unicorn DVD cover
Yes, this is my personal DVD cover for The Last Unicorn.
The Last Unicorn, 1982 (IMDB)

I used to watch this over and over. Given the unique drawing style, I came to realize later that this was the start of my appreciation for anime. It also has great songs by the band America.

Why I connected: I loved the animation and the fantasy setting – and the songs! I like that it’s a story about innocence…or, rather, the loss of innocence. It is a movie about about growing up. The price of knowledge is the loss of joyful ignorance. I like that it rewarded the goodness in the characters, and the creatures, even scary monsters, get justice. In this movie, almost everyone gets what they deserve.

Anne of Green Gables, 1985 (IMDB)

I’m not sure any girl of the 1980s survived without crossing paths with Anne of Green Gables. This was a great story about imagination and youthful spirit. Sometimes when I watched this, I would get so lost in this story that I didn’t notice when my friends actually showed up…and left.

Why I connected: It’s a movie about growing up, about using your imagination and being creative. A big part of the story focuses on Anne trying to fit in, even though she’s different. And, I especially liked that friendship and goodness were so important in this story. (Who can forget Matthew?)

The Madness of King George, 1994 (IMDB)

As an adult, I watch this often. I think it’s a funny story about how the king loses his mind, yet instead of treating him like a true patient, the pressures of court life still require everyone to behave like nothing’s wrong.

Why I connected: This is a movie I return to again and again, when work gets overly hectic. I use it to find the humor in what can be the absurdity of everyday life. It helps me laugh when trying to do what’s expected doesn’t seem to be working, because what’s expected is wrong or absurd. As a fan of history, I appreciate the historical context of this movie, and as an Anglophile, all the great English actors.

The Last Emperor, 1987 (IMDB)

Also based on a true story, I really enjoyed the historical context in the movie. The change of the emperor over time in embracing new ideas and people is both entertaining and tragic.

Why I connected: I again love the historical context, and this movie introduced me to Asia. It came out in 1987. My father took me to a “Son of Heaven” museum exhibit at COSI in Columbus, Ohio, that was all about imperial China. We looked at real artifacts, such as the yellow robes the emperor wore, as well as bells, and other artifacts from China. I even got to buy music – a cassette tape! I also appreciated that so much of the story was about growing up and losing innocence.

Apple with a hole
…Wait! There’s something missing!

I got so caught up in thinking about my childhood that I forgot to write what I thought was the connection between these films. So:

  • 2 of these films were books before they were movies
  • 2 of these films are based on historical events
  • 3 are about growing up
  • All four have a thread about losing innocence
  • They all focus on the importance of friendship and companionship – something that’s so easy to forget.

Having written all that, and having reminisced about my childhood, this gives me something to think about for a while. So this is a good place to pause until jumping back on the story wagon.


The next part of Lesson One on Storytelling is called: “What if?

 

Ancient Information Theory, Symbol Space, and Alphabets

It’s hard to believe that alphabet we use today is essentially a set of symbols that developed over thousands of years. And why are so many alphabets so similar, even though the languages are so different? There’s an answer!

In one of Khan Academy’s Computer Science track of videos, called Journey into Information Theory, there are two videos that are extremely informative in explaining how the written alphabet developed. I’ve included links to the videos on YouTube.

The initial breakthrough is simple: disassociating the meaning of the word from the symbols used to create it. This is also known as the Rebus Principle. (Also seen in picture puzzles and the game show, Catchphrase!) From that, symbols can be rearranged to create different sounds and convey meaning. This principle evolved over thousands of years, getting more and more abstract and, along with writing technology such as papyrus, gives us the alphabets we use today.

There are links below the videos, if you’re interested in learning more. I also recommend watching the whole series of videos on Information Theory.


The first video is the Origin of the Written Language. The video goes into cave drawings, or Pictograms, and the development of symbols called Ideograms, as well as proto-writing.

The second video is called the History of the Alphabet and the development of Hieratic writing, a type of cursive invented for papyrus, and Demotic writing, a further development of hieratic.

Remember that the point of these videos is to explain information theory, so there’s a focus on what is known as symbol space. Symbol space decreased as the use of the alphabet increased, as more information could be shared with fewer symbols.


After watching these, you might be interested in learning more. Here are a few references: