A Conversation with Barry Cook

I had the opportunity back in November to sit down with Barry Cook (director of Mulan and co-director of Arthur Christmas) and the students at Regent University for a chat on story and growing as an artist and writer. It was an enlightening and affirming conversation, so I wanted to share the highlights with everyone. Even if you’re not an animator, writer, director, whatever, some of these truths will apply to you. Because they apply to life. (All of Barry’s quotes are paraphrased from my own notes during the session. Thanks again, Barry, for chatting about the industry and how we can pursue what we love.)
 

Pitching

In the industry, “pitching” is a way to say, “tell a very short version of a story”. To get things made, writers have to pitch their stories to producers and other artists. Some great advice I was given on pitching: When you’re waiting in lines at the coffee shop or movie theater, ask people for two minutes of their time and tell them your story. It’s a way to get objective feedback.
But telling someone your story is an art form. A few things Barry had to say about it from his experience with Disney and other companies…

You’ve got to be compelling. Disney was like the gong show. There was a time where anyone in animation could pitch stories. But you only had one minute. People are compelled by a visual prop and talking about a compelling character. When you’re telling a story, absolutely concentrate and put yourself in the story because that makes it more believable.

 

Pitfalls

The students at Regent University wanted to know what every student wants to know… What kind of mistakes are commonly made so I can avoid them? I love Barry’s answer…

Make the mistakes!! You have to go through it! Experience is invaluable. Perhaps the number one rookie mistake is imitation. Making your version of something else or spoofs can be good. But usually, trying to do something JUST LIKE someone else can be a pitfall. Find your own voice.

 

Storyboards

As a writer living with an animator, I’ve learned a little about the difference between the live action and animation processes. In live action, you write the script and send it off like a kid to school. Essentially, you hope for the best. But in animation, there’s an extra step of collaboration that I wanted to ask Barry about: story artists. They storyboard sequences and create concept art to tell the story.

In live action, storyboards help with basic continuity. They give you good ideas for camera angles. But a lot of the creation happens on set when director’s walk the space. Things can change. In animation, storyboarding is a much larger part of the process and building of the foundation of a story. Story artists direct a scene one way and usually have to completely re-work it. So much so, someone started calling it the story re-boarding department. Story artists help play the story out on paper, see what works and what doesn’t and work with the writers to craft the story. Eventually, they take it to animatic form.

 

Audience

A lot of writers have talked about their process and what kind of role the potential audience plays in their writing. Some don’t even consider the audience, but instead, write the story for themselves and hope other people will like it. Barry’s two cents…

ALWAYS think of the audience while writing. You’re essentially telling a ghost story around a campfire. You’ve got to think to work the crowd.

I hope it can help you too in all your creative endeavors!

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