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How A Pixar Movie goes from SUCK to Blockbuster Mega-hit

Hint: It’s gonna cost ya.

In 2001 Pixar released a film featuring a 30 year old accountant who was suddenly being frequented by monsters. After he finds a coloring book of monsters he had drawn as a child they begin appearing in his life. They showed up at work, at home, even while he was on a date. No one else could see them, and the man begins to think he’s going crazy. It turns out that the monsters are all the fears he had never dealt with as a kid.

If this movie doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because it changed so dramatically from the above iteration to what eventually became Monsters Inc. The actual movie, released in 2001, features a baby named Boo who accidentally follows the monster sent to scare her into his homeland. The monster, Sully, discovers the child, and must take her back home

What had occurred from the original conception to the $562 million dollar blockbuster film is an iterative process that separates Pixar from all other companies.

Throughout this iterative process, Pete Docter, the director, had two unchanging ideas to guide him: First, “monsters are real and they scare people for a living,” and second, the entire emotional purpose of the film is to show the bittersweet goodbye we all feel once we’ve solved a problem. In the end, this occurs when Sully returns Boo to her home.

The changes, however, were massive. The human protagonist went through several, often time consuming and expensive alterations. After the accountant the production team developed the character of a six-year-old girl named Mary; then they tried a boy, and then back to a young girl. Finally, they settled on a toddler named Boo.

The pressure was on for Pete. He was the first director hired at Pixar since John Lasseter — the man responsible for Toy Story and every pixar success prior to Monsters Inc. It was vital that Pete be allowed to fail, even though he was under a microscope.

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, knew that an idea is not conceived in perfection, but accomplished only after it has been enacted. Pete’s initial idea had to be acted on before the production team could get to the final result. In other words, the only way to arrive at the final destination of the 2001 blockbuster movie was for the production team to actually act on their initial, flawed ideas. First they tried the story about an accountant, but something was off, then they altered the monsters, then the main character, then the plot points. All the while, they were using production time and money to figure out the story. But Catmull didn’t worry, he knew the process would achieve stellar results

This process is similar to entering a new neighborhood without a map. At first everything is unknown. It would not be sufficient to simply sit around and imagine the best route to the local bank. First, you must walk down one street. Then start taking turns until you begin to get a sense for the neighborhood. In the end, most of the walking will be in the wrong direction, but it was the only way to gather all the data to find what was in fact the best route.

Lesson: Iterate toward Perfection