Whether we laugh or cry, we know a great movie when we feel one. From fan favorite blockbusters to understated indie gems, there’s a film to satisfy almost every taste and connect with every viewer. Just what is the secret to creating compelling movies?

A good person to ask would be animator and filmmaker Craig Good. With a storied career that goes back to the early days at Pixar Animation Studios, he’s picked up a few lessons on what makes masterful visual storytelling. While he’s worked on high-profile projects like notable films such as Toy Story (1995), Monster’s Inc. (2001), and Finding Nemo (2003), he’s an expert on storytelling for multiple mediums. We chatted with Good about his experience working as a filmmaker in a variety of departments, as well as the unique insight and anecdotes he’s collected as an industry insider.

Your career spans several decades. Can you tell us about your journey and how you got to where you are today?

If you want to start back when the Earth cooled, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the movie that got 13-year-old me interested in how movies were made. Of course there were other movies before that which I loved, but that one made me aware of someone called a director. The interest mostly lay dormant for a long time while I did other things.

In 1982, I joined Lucasfilm doing janitorial and security work. Ralph Guggenheim, who later produced Toy Story, taught a programming class for employees that I was allowed to take. That led to an entry-level job with the Computer Division, the only part of Lucasfilm with a boring name. But it had this little Graphics Group run by Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.

I eventually started hanging out with them and learning a lot from people I didn’t even realize were PhDs, let alone the pioneers of computer graphics. The attitude there was that the more you could do the more they let you do, so I was a happy sponge. As Penn Jillette put it, we had the same experience of going from being the brightest guy in our class to the dumbest guy in our peer group.

What first inspired you to pursue a career in film and animation?

Being surrounded by the people who eventually made up Pixar. It spun off from LFL in 1986. The main business of the company was selling some high-end hardware, and the small handful of us making short films sometimes literally worked in the hallway. Eventually the hardware business was sold off and we became known as Pixar Animation Studios. That was an emotional day.

As a filmmaker, can you describe a typical day in the studio?

A typical day really depends on what department and what stage of production you’re in. Usually production departments will have “Dailies”, which is a departmental review with the director where everybody shows their work in progress. It’s a key feature of how Pixar works, and it’s the core of how I teach my classes at CCA. There’s nothing like getting lots of eyeballs on the screen, and being surrounded by people who want to help you succeed. The bulk of the rest of the day is just working on the shots (or models, or whatever asset is your bag). But, at Pixar at least, people are encouraged to also wander around and visit other team members, and even take classes in various things. A well-rounded filmmaker is a better filmmaker.

Craig Good
Filmmaker Craig Good has years of experience working in the film industry.

What are some qualities of excellent writing and visual storytelling in film?

The main job of any movie is to convey emotions. The technical term for a film that doesn’t engage the audience emotionally is boring. At Pixar there’s a mantra: Story is king. That’s not marketing hype. When we made Toy Story we knew that it was going to look exotic, new, and high-tech. And we knew that would hold an audience’s attention for about ten minutes. That’s why so much work went into story development. We had to make sure that it delivered an emotional payload — especially since we knew that in a few years it would look out of date.

Good visual storytelling uses the grammar of cinema to support the story. Over the last century or so a lot of rules and techniques have evolved, and audiences have gotten more sophisticated. Something that writer/director Taylor Sheridan said about writing holds just as true for visual storytelling: The audience should wonder what’s happening next, not what’s happening now. A lot of film grammar is just about clarity.

A well-shot and edited movie guides the viewer’s eye around the frame, making sure that the right information is seen. Movies are a temporal medium, like music, so the artist is in complete control of how long the viewer has to take in the image. So a lot of cinema comes down to timing. This is a very big deal. If it’s done right the audience is never aware of the craft or the techniques. When it’s done badly then the viewer gets confused, or worse, frustrated and lost.

Can you describe common mistakes you often see from students making their first movie?

Sometimes their enthusiasm outstrips their skill level and they try to make something far too ambitious — and long. A lot of my assignments are limited to 60 seconds for exactly this reason. It forces them to confront what exactly is important and vital in their story. A tight 60 seconds is a lot more watchable than a flabby 5 minutes.

Often they’ll short change the story, hoping to make “something really cool that will get me a job”. But people who review creative reels are not easily dazzled. If you can get an emotional rise from them, though, you’ll be remembered. And it really takes story to do that.

Then there are just the craft and technical mistakes, such as breaking the line (or 180 degree rule) and not spending enough time polishing the edit. Editing, I like to say, is really where movies are made. Everything else is just providing the raw materials.

Image source: Storyboard still from the film The Shining (1980) by Scott Groller, for CCA Cinematic Storytelling

What are some of the obstacles or less glamorous parts of your work that are lesser known to those outside of the industry?

Let me tell you a story. Late one Saturday night I walked into the machine room (which is what we called the projection booth because of all the dubbers in it) while they were mixing Return of the Jedi. Tom Christopher, who later went on to be a film editor, was sitting behind the desk, awaiting the order to change reels. Rows of noisy dubbing machines ground back and forth, back and forth, as the mixers in the theater made fine tweaks. The stepper motors in those things made them really loud and obnoxious. Tom was tired and dazed. He looked at me and said, “Movie making sure is glamorous”.

To a high degree of precision there are no glamorous parts. That’s why I tell my students that they need to enjoy the process. Creating movies, telling stories, giving a gift to the world — all of that is quite satisfying, but it’s a lot of work. A lot. After a few years of production you may get a wrap party, a premier screening, and maybe a trip to the local multiplex to see how it plays with an audience. That’s about all the glamor, and it adds up to a few hours.

With the introduction of ever-changing technology, the film industry is always subject to new approaches and methods of filmmaking. What kind of changes (positive or negative) do you see happening in the near future?

Predictions are hard, especially when they’re about the future. That’s attributed to Yogi Berra, who was evidently quite the philosopher. The last major hurdle cinema crossed was, as Dennis Muren observed, “now we can do anything”. If you can imagine it, you can get it convincingly on the screen. So while image quality, sound, and projection will continue to make incremental progress, movies have matured in that way.

Which is not to say that there won’t be new approaches and methods. The revolution on the horizon is virtual reality. It’s really not clear how (or if) it’s possible to tell linear stories in that format, but whole new kinds of stories might be created for it that we can’t even picture right now.

The barriers to filmmaking are lower than they’ve ever been. For a shockingly low amount of money you can get your hands on all the hardware needed to make theatrical-grade productions. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this means that a lot of really poorly-conceived and executed material is going to be out there. If you remember when Apple first released the Mac, you remember letters and documents that were a mish-mash of fonts and styles. It’s the same thing all over again but with movies. However, I’m excited that cinematic voices who would have been shut out by money in the past have a chance to rise to the top. Well-made movies don’t have to be expensive, and they can be wildly profitable.

Casablanca film
Image from the film Casablanca (1942) / CC0 1.0

Animation will always be slow and labor-intensive, but the barriers to entry there are also historically low. There are so many animation techniques which can be enabled by digital technology that the sky really is the limit.

Speaking of methods, photorealistic animation and hand-drawn 3D are some styles that seems to be dominating in studios. This blend appeals to audiences who want to see new technologies employed while retaining the look and feel of traditional 2D animation. What do you see as the future of animation?

Animation has already blended itself into cinema to a far greater extent than most people realize. That’s part of why I hate the award ghetto the Academy created with “Best Animated Feature”. Would you have a category for “Best Wide Screen Feature” or “Best SteadiCam Feature”? Look at it this way: How is The Avengers not an animated film? Or, more risibly, how is the latest Jungle Book from Disney even close to being “live action”? Animation is a tool, it’s not a genre.

What has me really jazzed right now is the kind of work Laika is doing. They’ve blended CGI, 2D, and stop-motion in thrilling ways (It’s almost as if they’re searching for the hardest way to make a movie.)

There are, of course, stories that can really be told only using animation. There’s no other way that Finding Nemo could possibly have been made. So, while all the decisions made by a live-action director and production are also made in animation, the latter opens possibilities available no other way.

Screenshot from title animation of the course Cinematic Storytelling.

What are some details about projects that you’re currently working on or preparing for?

I’m actually doing a lot of sound work on the side these days, sometimes for short films but often for audio drama podcasts. I’ve done the sound design for a lot of Earbud Theater episodes, and there’s a new series that I can’t talk about yet that I’d do the sound for. Making pictures appear in people’s minds using sound is also fun, and we’ve tried to incorporate some cinematic ideas into some of the dramas.

What should aspiring filmmakers and animators know about getting a foot in the door in film production?

They should know that they are competing with a lot of people. And I do mean a lot. That means that they’ll need to deliver quality work to get noticed. Lots of people try movies because they think movies are easy. The people who succeed will be those who know better, and put in the work.

There’s no better way to learn than to do. Those who go to a film or animation school should put enough into their projects that on graduation they feel self-taught. That’s some great advice from Colin Levy, who worked with us at Pixar a few years ago and who is now establishing himself as a director in Hollywood. And don’t forget that the network of people you build at school will be the ones you help, and who help you, through your career.

If school isn’t in the cards for you, use the internet but also try to crew on as many movies as you can. Even if it’s for free or nearly nothing, there’s really no substitute for experience. Make stuff.

But part of that experience should be critically consuming a lot of media. When you watch a movie or a show the second, third, or fourth time you should use a stopwatch, take notes, and try to analyze what does and doesn’t work. You can learn a lot, even from bad movies, about how movies are made.

Any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

Make the movies that you want to see. If you say you can make a movie for a particular audience then you’re claiming that you can read minds. The best movies are made for the filmmakers themselves. If it moves you, it can move us. If it doesn’t move you, it can’t move us.

Want to explore more tips and techniques in visual storytelling? For more of Good’s writings on film and storytelling, check out his film reviews and blog. Develop your skills in telling stories onscreen by enrolling in the course Cinematic Storytelling below:

Cinematic Storytelling

Cinematic Storytelling

California College of the Arts