Monday, March 02, 2020

Onward's story head Kelsey Mann really loves his job at Pixar

by Mike Rhode with Alexandra Bowman

Kelsey Mann loves his job. He emphatically made that point several times when speaking to an audience at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The head of story for Pixar’s new animated movie Onward was in Washington last week to promote the movie and talk to students (and a few local cartoonists) about it. After his presentation, I got to speak with him for several additional minutes and ask some questions which follow at the end of this story.

His voice rasping from previous interviews and class presentations, Mann spoke to students for an hour about his career and his work in shepherding the development of Onward’s story. Two young elves, Ian and his older brother Barley Lightfoot, lost their father before they formed any memories of him, but a magic spell promised to bring him back to them for twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, the immature magic of Ian only brings back part of their father – from the waist down. The movie becomes a quest to reunite him with his whole body and his family before the day runs out. 

As the head of story, Mann was involved from the beginning of the project, one of the few people who were with the movie from beginning to end. However, his journey to working at Pixar took quite a few detours. He grew up in Minnesota, majored in illustration in college and started working in animation. He began in Minneapolis in a small studio and got to wear many hats. He applied to Pixar and moved to Los Angeles around 2000, but they turned him down. “I knew that was where I wanted to be, so I worked in small studios doing Flash animation for the internet. While I was doing that during the day, I would take night classes in illustration. I finally got my big break and became a story artist.” After working in various places, he was with Cartoon Network for five years, but moved to the San Francisco area to work at Lucasfilm including on Clone Wars in the Star Wars universe. Nine years after first applying, he finally got a job with Pixar.
Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Monsters University was my first film that I worked on.  I had worked on Newt for six months, but they ended up shelving it. I became the story supervisor on Monsters University, very quickly moving up the story ranks, which blew my mind because it had been so hard to even be a story artist at the studio. I never thought that I would ever have this job.” After directing a short, Party Central, also in the Monsters world, he worked on the story for The Good Dinosaur. Wrapping up his career overview, Mann said, “I’m the story supervisor on Onward, and I’m here to answer ‘What does the story department do?’ I’m going to answer it very specifically because each director works differently.”

Dan Scanlon, director of Monsters University and Onward
“One of the unique things [about this film]? I was there from day one,” He showed a picture of director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and himself, the three of them recreating the jobs they had on Monsters University. They began working on Onward on September 17, 2013. Mann left to work on The Good Dinosaur, but stayed in touch with Scanlon once a week while the project was in development. When asked if the director put together his team of people including the story boarders and the animators, Mann says of Pixar, “The director and the producer pick the associate producer, but there’s an interview process to make sure that it’s a fair process. It’s an open call.” The director works with the head of each department to build the movie’s team.

For the three people at the beginning, Mann, Rae and Scanlon, the movie began “in a blank empty story room with intimidating white walls and blank boards.” The story team uses index cards with ideas written on them, “trying to fill the walls with something to react to…Working out possible beats of the story from the beginning to the end of the movie. “ Scanlon was both a writer and the director on the film, and other people were added to the team to work on the script. “A lot of people think we just get the script as story artists, and we just go and draw it, but there’s a lot of working in the story room with the writer and director, helping to shape the story that we have to do.”

The story artists gather in a room Mann called the Fish Bowl (because it looked out onto the atrium of the building). Mann pointed out a unique physical feature of creating Onward, something he had started on The Good Dinosaur. “I had noticed how the smaller the studio was, the more interaction we had because we all sat in one room. The bigger the studio got, the more people went into their offices and didn’t talk to each other. Something about that felt wrong to me, especially with the story team where the collaboration is so key to the films we make at Pixar.” He noted that the team worked in the collaborative room, received their handouts, and made their pitches for the storyboard animation they created. A smaller group would work in the story room more directly on the script. “Once we had the beats of what we needed to happen, then Dan and Jason [Headley, the other writer] would go off and make a pass at the script.” The small group would then mark it up, “literally page by page.”

“Whenever Dan felt the scene was ready to go, we would hand it out for story art,” Mann said. The story team working under him were the first people to read the words, “trying to absorb the scene that they’re eventually going to storyboard.” Meanwhile Mann and the story manager spend a lot of time organizing the work.  “I’m a creative filmmaker, but a lot of my job is organization. I need to know what everyone is doing.” At this point, Mann showed a complex weekly chart of how scenes are assigned and when the animator will create a first pass and ‘pitch’ their suggested art for the scene.

Mann has everyone do that pitch in one room and at one time, noting “It’s great that I can show Dan a chunk of the movie, not just a slice.” He continued, “Once the artist has read the script, and figured out a plan and gotten it done, then we all gather in that fish bowl. Everyone is welcome at any time and we do all of our handouts in the fish bowl. On some shows, artists get handed a scene and they are the only ones present. We wanted to make sure everyone was present for all the handouts so they knew what their colleagues were doing.” Scanlon would read the scene out loud, as the reading is recorded, so the artists can refer back to his comments and voice. At times, the director would act out the motions he saw the characters doing. The scene that Scanlon described was the two characters looking across a gaping bottomless chasm, with a drawbridge on the far side. Mann would return to this example again and again to show how the scene evolved.  

photo by Bruce Guthrie
As he showed a drawing of a story artist with ideas popping in around his head, Mann asked, “What goes on inside the head of a story artist? We think of a lot of different things. We thing of cinematography, writing, acting, character, staging, editing, humor, design, composition and hovering above everything, is the deadline. And the other thing all artists think about every single day is what to have for lunch.” Artists may work differently and Mann doesn’t impose a format for the preliminary story. Some work on paper, some on Post-it notes, some do digital sketches on an iPad and some people work immediately on the Cintiq. In addition to Photoshop, the software used at Pixar is an internal program called Pitch Doctor which lets storyboards be altered in real time.

“Collaboration is so key to the stories we make at Pixar,” he feels, and the fish bowl is the closest animators can get to being on a set of a film. The story team ended up doing 97, 759 storyboards for Onward. When an artist has a scene ready to pitch, the story team gathers in the fish bowl and the animator performs the script and sound effects as the storyboard animation projects so everyone can see it. Mann demonstrated the boards for the bottomless chasm, and people clapped for his performance, which did put me into the movie. He noted that, “It is tradition to have applause at the end of a pitch. There’s a bit of performance here. Hopefully, you’ve forgotten about me and you’re not looking at me. You’re looking at the movie and that’s our whole job - to road test the movie and see if it’s working or not. And that’s before Dan starts.”

The process becomes iterative at this point with the scene possibly being redrawn, artists being ‘scratch’ voice actors, and then the entire scene with temporary sound, scratch voices, temporary sound effects and basic art screened several times until the story works. Eventually the animated storyboards for the whole movie are strung together into a basic preliminary version of the movie. Parallel with the story development is some visual development, but throughout this time, the characters and backgrounds aren’t finalized and the animators aren’t working on it. “It’s not until about screening four until animators start building the characters in 3-D.” Onward had eight internal screenings, once every three months, throughout its development. “We’ll watch in the theater. Screening is a big day and we fill the audience with people who are on the crew and people who are working on other movies, because we want a fresh perspective.” When the movie is getting closer to a final vision, it’s seen by the Brain Trust, the creative leaders of the company, and studio head Pete Docter, who get together and make suggestions about the version they’ve just seen. “It’s all just advice. What’s great about the Brain Trust is that we don’t have to blindly do what they tell us to do. If they presented a solution, isn’t doesn’t mean we have to do that solution. They’re trying to solve a problem so we want to identify the problem they’re talking about. We’re only there for two hours and we can’t solve everything in that meeting.” For weeks after the meeting, emailed comments come in to one of the writers, who reads and aggregates the suggestions, and then the story team starts all over again. Responding to a question about  storyboard artists working with the final animators, Mann noted “The movie is really made in the in the last year or year and a half of the process, and we’re on this thing for six or seven years. Most of the story artists, when the movie begins to get made, aren’t on the show anymore.  We’re trying to get more overlap with the story team and different departments. Layout is the next department after us. They’re the first ones who take our storyboarded scene and start to put it in a 3-D environment and start to block it out.” Mann tried to get the story people work with the layout people to solve potential problems as they arose.

The audience gathers for a group shot (photo by Bruce Guthrie)
“Pixar isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn great. I’m so thrilled for this movie to come out. It’s been since 2013 and I’m dying for you guys to see it. We’re really proud of it and we tried to make a really funny movie that was really entertaining, but had something to say.” Ending his talk, Mann gave the audience a basic lesson in how to draw the older brother Barley, and then broke for questions from the audience.  His presentation was thoroughly enjoyable, and probably convinced several of the students that they wouldn’t want to work anywhere but Pixar.

ComicsDC’s Mike Rhode and The Hilltop Show’s Alexandra Bowman were given an opportunity to speak directly with Mann after his public talk.  

AB: What does it mean to be head of story at Pixar?

KM: It’s a big job. I’m on the movie for a very long time, so it’s a commitment. With this one, I was involved from the very beginning and went all the way to being at the final mix review at Skywalker Sound. At any point, we can improve the story, or break it. I worked together with [director] Dan [Scanlon] on Monsters University and was the story supervisor on that, so we have a long history. My primary job is to oversee the story artists through the storyboarding process, which is us taking the written strip and visualizing it. We’re the first ones to draw the movie and we draw the blueprint of the film and road test, for lack of a better word. Until we’re happy with it and it gets approved and goes into production.

MR: Is this a traditional role, or is it evolving as more animation is being done?

KM: It’s been around for a very long time. Maybe the duties are evolving over the year. It changes from director to director.  I worked with Peter Sohn on The Good Dinosaur, and there’s some similarities but there’s some differences. It depends on the director and what they need from their head of story.

MR: How did you personally get the job? You’ve alluded to your organization skills.

KM: I’m my known for charting. People will say, “Kelsey with his beautiful minding of things…” I’m a visual person so I’m always drawing things out on the whiteboard. I do it because it’s how I think, but also do that so everyone’s on the same page. If I draw something in front of everybody, it’s really clear. The first time I did the job was on Monsters University. We had a different director at the time, and Dan was the head of story. I was a story artist at the time and we got along really well. He didn’t even know me, he just brought me on, and we got along instantly. I think he likes working with me because I keep an optimistic attitude. I want to be accountable, loyal and if I say I’m going to do something, I follow through with it.

AB: What do you think separates Pixar from other animation studios?

KM: There’s so much good stuff being created these days. It’s not only movies, but it’s television, streaming … so much great stuff is being created now. I think what probably sets us apart is how the directors are asked to tell something personal. Something that’s really meaningful to them. This film is pretty darn personal because it’s about Dan and not knowing his father. Dan’s dad passed away when he was six months old so he has no memory of his father. He has an older brother, three years older, and Bill doesn’t remember their father either. Dan thought about how that’s shaped him, and what he’s learned about who he is, and thought ‘What if there’s a character that had a similar experience? And what if that character had an opportunity to spend one day with the person they had lost? I would want that.’ And that’s where this came from.

MR: It seems like Disney mostly adopts existing stories where Pixar tells stories from scratch and that seems to be one of the differences between the studios. Would you say that people gravitate to one studio or the other because of the types of source material?

KM: Pixar never will buy a property and make a movie from it. It’s a director-driven studio so it always comes from the director and what they want to say.

photo by Bruce Guthrie
AB: What are Pixar’s primary goals going forward? Or your goals? What do you think is the impact of your work on audiences in today’s world?

KM: We always want to make our movies. What we want to do in the future is to entertain the audience. We want to make a fun entertaining movie. We want it to have a heart and a reason why we’re making it, and about being alive. That usually comes from a really hard question that maybe the director can’t even answer themselves. Another thing we really want to do is surprise the audience. There’s a lot of [films] out there, and we don’t want to repeat ourselves. Pete Docter calls it ‘something unexpected.’

MR: The movie seems to have a curious parallel to Coco where a young boy is searching for his father. Did that ever come up?

KM: No. We hadn’t thought about that too much. We go to each other’s screenings to make sure we’re not repeating each other, but that was never a concern. I don’t remember the Brain Trust saying anything. I do remember early scenes of Toy Story 4 opening with a unicorn flying, and I was like, “Wait a minute. That’s what we’re doing.” They went away from that though.

AB: Do you have words of career advice for students who attend liberal arts schools like Georgetown or schools that don’t’ focus on art?
photo by Bruce Guthrie

KM: I always tell people it takes three things to get a job at Pixar. The first is passion. You have to love the heck out of this. Love movies and have a really deep, deep passion. Don’t tell any of my bosses, but I would do this job for free because I love it that much. That kind of passion. That leads me to the second thing – hard work. It takes a lot of hard work. I worked really hard. It took me nearly ten years after my first rejection letter from Pixar. But that hard work was a little easier because I was so passionate. A lot of times the hard work cuts people out because they really don’t have the passion for it. The last thing is luck. It takes a bit of luck and timing. You have to be prepared for when lightning strikes. You have to have your portfolio ready.

MR: Following up on the hard work thing for this particular movie, as head of story, how many hours per day are you working at the height of the storyboarding process?

KM: It’s a lot. My days are really full. They start at nine and they end at six. That’s a standard day. We always work through lunch. Dan would rather work at lunch than stay late, and I agree with that. I want to drive home and kiss my kids goodnight. If I have to put in extra hours, I do it in the morning because no one is around. I’ll go in early, but I try to stick to those hours. We’ll do the occasional Saturday every once in a while, right before a screening. Every three months, we’ll do a Saturday, but it’s only 10am to 1pm.  Not that terrible. At the past studios I worked at, you’re pulling pretty late nights but Pixar cares about your health and the longevity of your career so they don’t want to injure you. Other places… they didn’t care so much.

AB: How did John Lasseter’s departure affect you and the company?

KM: Wow. That was an interesting time not only in the world, but at Pixar. It was definitely a change because John did a lot for the studio. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for what he and everybody else did at the studio. I’m really proud of Pete Docter… we’re both Minnesota boys. I grew up in a town near him and he stepped up to be our chief creative officer. He’s really great, because he’s sharing. The amount of weight he has to carry leading this studio creatively is too much for one person. Pete says, “I don’t want to handle all of this. Take a little of this weight,” and I’ve seen Dan step up and be a leader not just on this movie, but in the studio. It’s an exciting time.

AB: There hasn’t been a Pixar Bronze age. You haven’t had your Black Cauldron moment.

KM: Yeah, I don’t want to have that moment.

MR: We were wondering what happens when a project gets shelved.

KM: Newt was weird, because that’s when I started at the studio and I didn’t know the difference between something going great and something not. All of a sudden, they shelved it, and I was like, “That’s a thing? We’re done? That’s it?” It’s typically after a screening that they’ll make a call on it and they called us all in a room and said they decided to shelve the project. It’s a hard thing. Part of working in story is being a problem solver, and I think of it as a Rubik’s cube that you’re trying to solve.  Then you’re told to put that cube down. And then it’s on the shelf and you have to walk away and be okay with it.

AB: Did the shelving of the project have anything to do with Rio and the similar premise?

KM: No, not from my knowledge. Again I was early in my career there so I wasn’t privy to conversations behind closed doors, but the story wasn’t working. It wasn’t because of any other projects. It’s always hard. In any creative endeavor, when you try to invent something, something always pop up. Maybe it’s a new Netflix show with the same idea as yours. It’s amazing how that happens. You just have to say, “I’m going to keep going forward and I’m going to do the best that I can.”

MR: When something is shelved, do you ever resurrect any part of it for a later movie? Did anything you had done for a previous movie that didn’t make it end up in Onward?

KM: I can’t think of anything that came from another property. On Monsters University, sometimes we’d resurrect old gags from Monsters, Inc. There are so many great ideas that get cut, not because they’re not great ideas, but because they’re not right for the story. Part of my job as head of story is to oversee all the ancillary material and so I just have this card catalog in my head of all these cut ideas. I’m busting them out constantly when they are doing a novel that’s a side story or an activity book.

AB: In a themed movie like Monsters University with its college theme or Onward with its medieval theme, how do you draw the line with a reference, or obvious gag, or a trope, or an homage?

KM: What was interesting about this film is that there’s a lot of fantasy out there. We wanted to make sure that the movie is appealing not only to the people who really know fantasy but also to the people who could care less about it. That’s what we want the film to hit. I think about that in casting the crew. I make sure I have people that could care less about fantasy, and then I put in people who love the stuff. Austin Madison and Louise Smythe were our two fantasy experts on the story team. I helped organize a group of us that we affectionately called The Fellowship. It was a collection of people, not just in story but in all departments, that really knew their fantasy. Across different aspects – some people knew novels, some people knew movies, some people knew role-playing games. We always had this group so when Dan had a question about fantasy and needed an idea, or a name, or something, he would say, “Take that to the Fellowship. See what they think.”

MR: I saw one press piece on Yahoo where an article was about a character referring to her lesbian daughter. Was that part of a story conference from when you were working on it, or did someone come in and say we’d like an LGBTQ+ reference?

KM: Lena Waithe plays (Officer Spector) the character that you’re referring to. Those two characters are police officers and were originally male when we boarded them. We want to make sure it’s a diverse cast, not only in male to female ratio, as balanced as we can make it, but also in diversity. Diversity is really huge. Noah Klocek is the production designer and his team did so much work to make sure all the species were as diverse as they could be and the casting was that way too. We knew that this movie, a fantasy film told in a modern setting, and we wanted to make sure it reflected the modern world. That’s a diverse world. That was an idea that came up later and we didn’t want to make a big deal about it. We wanted to have one tiny little line and just reflect the way our world really is.

I'd like to thank GWU's Naomi Rothwell and Kirk Kristlibas and my friend photographer Bruce Guthrie for making it possible for Alexandra and me to attend this talk and meet Mr. Mann afterwards. I'd also like to thank Mr. Mann who was extraordinarily gracious and forthcoming at the end of a long day.

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