Humans tell stories. Many of us live interesting lives; developing a way to deliver the narrative is to our advantage. Others lead less than adventurous existences, and so stories become transcendent vehicles for our imagination. Epic mythologies and religions are nothing but collections of stories that inspire and transform us.

The ways we tell stories is always changing. Oral cultures evolved into literary cultures. Theater is an ancient art. Movies offered a visual way to tell stories that painting and photography never could, even if those pictures were worth thousands of words.

One of the greatest and most popular storytelling machines of today, Pixar, is celebrating, as well as helping evolve, the story with its new initiative, The Art of Storytelling. This free online program is for children and adults who want to wrap their head around what it takes to produce stories ready for the screen.

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Peter Docter kicks off the series discussing the art of telling a good story. As director of Monsters, Inc., Inside Out, and Up, he’s directly responsible for some of Pixar’s biggest hits. At first glance his advice seems rather benign: write about what you know.

Our imaginations are wild. Docter says if you envision car chases, monsters, and explosions, use them, but in a context that’s connectable with others. He uses Monsters Inc. as an example. The first drafts were failures—and each film can take thirty or more drafts. The problem was that the movie was about a monster that scares kids.

The film needed an emotional hook. As Docter was learning how to become a father at that time, the movie became about a monster raising a child. The storyline was universal; the audience was able to connect more. And what’s the point of telling a story other than to relate to others?

Not all stories are so simple. Movies can be propaganda and exploitative as well. The Pixar team in this program focuses on relatability in six parts:

  • We Are All Storytellers
  • Character
  • Structure
  • Visual Language
  • Filmmaking grammar
  • Storyboarding

Valeria LaPointe, a Pixar story artist, reminds watchers that the process—editing, debating, collaborating, refining—is what makes a movie watchable. A series of activities offers students of this program an opportunity to flex their imaginations in such a way. These include the ability to express a memory in a way that excites the listener, identifying your three ‘desert island’ movies and finding the connective tissue binding them together, and understanding what draws you to your favorite film characters.

In partnership with the Khan Academy, Pixar will be releasing similar free programs throughout the year. Next up is an installment on character creation. There’s a reason Pixar has been so successful. Revealing its secrets in order to inspire others to create—and perhaps one day become the type of artist the company recruits—is one of the best uses of free online education this year. 

Here's Lawrence Levy, former CFO of Pixar, on productivity and mindfulness:

 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.