Plussing and Other Fundamental Elements of Good Writing

November 22, 2010

Want to learn the craft of writing?  Want your writing to go beyond good and step into extraordinary?  You don’t need to enroll yourself in a writer’s conference.  Try visiting the Pixar Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. 

This special event highlights all aspects of animated film-making, from character development, to world-building to plussing.  Never heard of plussing?  I hadn’t either.  Apparently, the term was coined by Walt Disney who would challenge even the best ideas put before him.  He’d tell his team of talented individuals to “plus it.”  Make it better.  Make it different.  Take it to the next level.  Every writer should take plussing to heart.

John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios says it takes three things to make an animated film:  world, character and story.  The same, of course, can be said of writing a good novel.  In the Pixar exhibit, each of these three elements is described within the essential foundations of creativity and believability.   One idea that hit on the mark was the idea that creativity is enhanced when parameters and restrictions are in place.  In line with that idea is the need for believability.  In order to have believability, there must be consistent application of the rules of the world.  The example that was given was the rule that toys must always become inanimate when humans are present in the Toy Story films.     

I found myself marveling at one picture in particular from the film, Ratatouille.  The night-time scene shows a restaurant sign in the foreground with a rat in a chef’s hat and a lit-up Eiffel tower in the distance.  Even if you were not familiar with the storyline, this one image would tell you world (Paris restaurant), character (rat) and story (chef’s hat).  The dark background could represent either the promise of conflict or be a sign of underlying realism since rats are active at night.  The Eiffel tower aglow in lights could represent the bright or comedic moments in the film or even the promise of a happy ending.

I ended my tour in Pixar’s Artscape where the audience quite literally enters a projection of digitally-processed images.  This animated delight is dialogue free and provides the viewer with an experience of exploring the exquisite details of the original artworks.  The experience holds all the elements of visual detail often enhanced with background noise.  If you’ve ever pondered what constitutes a scene, this presentation nails it.  Sometimes a given scene ends with a seamless entry into the next artwork, other times the scene provides a clear beginning, middle and end. 

The Oakland Museum of California is open 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. Fridays) Thursday through Sundays.  Admission is $12 for adults.  The Pixar exhibit closes January 9, 2011.  This is one exhibit that should not be missed!

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Avatar and Rome: The Art of World-Building

January 23, 2010

I love to enter worlds unknown.  Last week, I went to see James Cameron’s movie, Avatar.  This movie is a feast for the eyes.  This week, I indulged in the first season of the HBO series, Rome.  This drama is a feast for the mind. 

I got to thinking that what made both of these experience pleasurable is that the settings are both unfamiliar but yet they adhere to our essential understanding of both human nature and how we perceive our environment.  Said more simply, there is a quintessential truth to these artificial worlds.

One of the things I appreciated about the forest and animals portrayed in Avatar included how their exterior features consisted of real world elements.  Of course, there are no blue people on earth and it’s hard to imagine a planet where this creature could exist, but having a degree in the biological sciences, there were fundamental concepts adhered to in this movie.  For instance, I loved that the “horses” in this movie had stripes on their legs.  This feature is seen in the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a mammal found in the Ituri rainforest in Africa.  In addition, the striping on both the Avatar’s skin as well as on some of the animals makes biological sense given that light filtering through the dense canopy would mimic this pattern and help to camouflage animals with this trait.  I could actually picture natural selection at work.  These minor details created a world that made it easy for me to “suspend my disbelief.”

The magic world-building of Rome, on the other hand, engages in bringing a foreign world of ancient time.  While the setting and costumes are a visual delight, this mastery of the art of world-building in this show is accomplished more through dialogue and custom.  I love the pagan rituals, the superstitions, and the political intrigue.  I love that the characters are based on real historical figures.  I love that the authentic phrasing that is used.  I believe that I have been transported in time.  I believe I have entered their world.