My life in story, backwards: Andrew Stanton at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Andrew Stanton is the writer behind the three hugely successful Pixar Toy Story movies as well as the writer and director of WALL-E, the opening sequence of which will go down in, well, my personal history as being one of the most beautiful animation pieces of all time. His new live action movie, John Carter, comes out in March. He takes to the TED2012 stage and starts with a bang: telling a long-winded, accent-strewn, expletive-filled joke that promptly sets the crowd on fire. Storytelling, you see, is joke-telling. And now he continues to challenge himself to see if he can accord his own greatest storytelling commandment–“make me care”–by telling us his own life story … backwards.

“And that’s what ultimately led me to talking about story here at TED.” Two big laughs in a row; Stanton really is a comedian, as well as everything else!

So the story, naturally, starts with John Carter, based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, of which Burroughs is the narrator. “The book is fundamentally making a promise; this story will lead somewhere worth time,” he says. “A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot that propels you through the story to the end.”


After showing us a clip from Wall-E, Stanton says he used everything he had, wanting to experiment with the idea that storytelling without dialogue was the purest form of cinematic storytelling. That led to another realization: “We all want to work for our meal when we watch a movie; we just don’t want to know that we’re doing it.”


When Stanton worked with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo, their unifying theory was 2+2. The twist; to make the audience put things together. “Don’t give them 4. Give them 2+2.” No, it’s not an exact science. Stories, he says, are not a widget. “Stories are inevitable if they’re good but they’re not predictable.”


Stanton took an acting seminar with Judith Weston and learned that all well-drawn characters have a spine. “They have a dominant unconcsious goal that they’re striving for, an itch they can never scratch.” This was a huge moment for Stanton,who took this on as a dominant theme for his own storytelling.


Hooked on storytelling, he read everything he could, and found the phrase by William Archer: “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” This incredibly insightful definition helped him to understand how to fuse short-term and long-term tensions in narrative.


The early days at Pixar were freeform. “We were a group of guys going on gut,” he says. “It’s interesting to see how that led us places that were actually pretty good.” Particularly given that successful animation at the time looked like nothing they were doing. But despite early hiccups, they stuck to their course. “Thank goodness we were too young, rebellious and contrarian,” to do otherwise, Stanton says.


When he was five, Stanton’s mother took him to see Bambi. Cue “aws” from the audience as we watch a beautiful clip of the classic animation. “I walked out of there wide-eyed with wonder,” remembers Stanton. “That’s what I think the secret sauce is. Wonder is honest, innocent, it can’t be artificially invoked.”


Yet there’s more. When he was four, Stanton recalls asking his father about two scars on his ankle. He told him he’d been born prematurely. “The doctor took a look at this yellow kid with black teeth and told my mother I wouldn’t live. I lived in the hospital for months. And I did live, and that made me special.” As to whether he believes that, he doesn’t know, but he does know he wanted to strive at being worthy of the second chance he was given. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what ultimately led him to speak here at TED2012 today.