I get a lot of links in my network to Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling compiled by a Pixarian named Emma Coats. It’s certainly useful advice for storytellers, as far as it goes. Numbering things to institutionalize them is, however, a tricky thing, because numbers are boundless. Numbers don’t define boundaries. People do. (A more relevant title for the list, imho, would be Emma Coats’ 22 Suggestions for Aspiring Storytellers. Just a thought.) When there are institutional boundaries on creativity, things get dogmatic, or as my father used to say, “go to the dogs,” in a hurry. Is something (or someone)Â on the list? Or not on the list? Are you doing it right? Or doing it wrong? Suddenly there are only 22 ways to do it right, and infinite ways to do it wrong. Who needs those odds?
Where there are arbitrary boundaries, boundary disputes are sure to arise. This post is, itself, a form of boundary dispute. My friend, James Ladd (@jamesladd) in Australia recently sent me the link to the 22 Pixar Rules. It was about the 50th time I’d seen this link. So now, and the risk of sounding all Grinchy about Ms. Coats perfectly-fine observations.Â I am going to speak up. The internetz are memeifying it, and that just ain’t right. I’m not mad as hell, but I’m still not going to take it any more.
I was friends with Joe Ranft who was the head of the story dept at Pixar before he died in a car accident in 2005. I believe Joe, as much as anyone, is responsible for the caring heart of Pixar’s storytelling. In addition to being a one-of-a-kind talent, he was a wonderful human being. Generous. Kind. Playful. Happy. When it comes to “rules” for storyelling at Pixar, I first think of Joe. Here’s what comes to me…
First of all, there was no such thing as 22 Rules when Joe, John Lasseter, Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and their crew were defining Pixar as a brand. The 22 Rules are a description of proper action, but they are not the action. In fact, in its emergent and most entrepreneurial state, Pixar’s mission was to break rules and test the limits of what was possible. The status quo was their enemy. They built the brand by defying a lot of conventional wisdom. So there’s that.
Second, most of the 22 Rules are not really rules in “break it and you bought it” sense. They are essentially games to help one through a process of iterative development.Â And they don’t really belong to Pixar, any more than the concept of a montage, or squash-and-stretch animation, or how to cut a chase scene do. They are drawn from a more-than-22-rules-deep well of wisdom accumulated by the Pixar storytellers while they moved through places like Disney and Cal Arts and Pixar’s own hallways, and from storytelling masters they’ve encountered along the way, folks like the Nine Old Men, Richard Williams, Bill Peet, Ken O’Connor, andÂ T. Hee. Have you seen Frank and Ollie’s books? Those two guys can get 22 rules out of a two dogs and a plate of spaghetti. And none of the rules matter compared to the notion that the two dogs are falling in love over that plate of spaghetti.
When it comes to Joe Ranft, he had more than 22 games or rules, or whatever you call them. It went way, way deeper than that. He was a magician, s card-carrying member at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, so he had sleight of hand games and gestural games. A gifted mimic, he had voice and impersonation games. He had a Tell it like James Brown Would Sing It game, a Conga Line game, a Sling Blade game, a Fake Teeth game, a Boxcar Children game, he had games for losing weight, games for raising his children, games for what to do with the money he made at Pixar. He had a game for deciding which side of the street he’d walk on. He had a game for appreciating how precious water is. He even had a game whereby he’d take a sabbatical from Pixar every few years to work with his pal, Tim Burton. No one else at Pixar could’ve gotten away with that one. See, he was a rule-breaker, and he had as much game as anyone I’ve ever known. He didn’t call them games, that I know of, although he was a Groundlings alum, and surely would’ve recognized his moves as being games in the improvisation sense.Â Whatever you call them, they were gifts that made things better in a thousand different ways, it didn’t matter if it was storyboarding on a Pixar film or waiting in a supermarket checkout line. Joe’s participation in it guaranteed it’d be better than it would’ve been if he had not been involved.
When I reflect on Joe’s approach to things, and Emma’s 22 Rules, I imagine him (and others, there were always others, everybody got caught up in his infectious energy) coming up with a game called Rule #23.Â The Game would need only one Guideline: There is always another Rule. The Objective of the game would be to come up with a new Rule #23. This is where Joe would shine. All a person had to do is suggest something like this to Joe and he’d run with it. Sometimes for days. Here are some Rule #23s I imagine when I think about Joe–
- Rule #23: Begin an original story with the conclusion of another story.
- Rule #23: There are no Rules except Rule #23.
Remember that rules (we call them guidelines) are part of game structure, and game is infinite. Game is bigger than any rule. And while it is definitely necessary to re-play productive games, as Pixar does now that they’re in the sequel-making business and a new level of scalability and repeatability is required…what gets you off the ground and carries you through your biggest challenges is having game like Joe Ranft.
If you really want to get a feeling for what a beautiful and heroic human being Joe was, check out this tribute videoÂ by our pal John (“Johnny O.”) Musker.