Business Analysis, design thinking and movie making (Pixar)

During a trip to Spain I have visited Pixar exhibition at CaixaForum in Barcelona. The expo described 25 years of Pixar’s animation history, their projects and approach to movie making. I was surprised to find out how meticulous and detailed their approach was. Also, I was surprised that their design process appeared like a very firm, thought-through combination of waterfall and iterative approaches. It was also interesting to learn that Pixar started as an actual technological startup that provided hardware and software products for animation for example for Disney.

I was not allowed to take pictures in the exhibition hall but I’ve tried to memorize some of the items that really stroke me. So, Pixar’s approach in a nutshell:

  1. Story
  2. Script in text
  3. Storyboard and digitalized storyboard
  4. Video reel using storyboard
  5. Storyboard in color
  6. Modeling and prototyping i.e. to create actual physical objects
  7. Rendering and filming
  8. Voice over

Here is an article about pixar animation approach with more details

I may be missing a few steps in between but what I recall is that the part before rendering the movie took roughly 3/4 of the entire process. Before starting to actually film, there is a story and a script written, designers then draw and prepare storyboards without considering actual implementation and any technical constraints. This is done so that designers free their minds to the maximum and stay as creative as possible. The engineers will then try to figure what and how can be implemented but in the beginning, this is a no limit stage.

This part (no limit creativity at the time of design) reminded me of a couple of stages in design thinking process – what if and what wows. According to a number of sources, there are 4 main questions that drive design thinking process: what is, what if, what wows and what works. The story  part of the process seems to match to the “what if” phase where the character is invented and is put into an unusual environment/story  in which the character will need to act in an usual manner to fully uncover the potential. The storyboarding and its digitalization reminds of “what wows” as at the storyboard and modelling stages the concept of what is going to be in the finished movie is prepared and tested. All of the images designed here will be then rendered using computer graphics but it is the quality of the thought and creativity put here that will define how successful the movie will be.

When I started thinking about this more, I’ve realized that their process also reminds of a part of software developement process and can be mapped to it quite nicely together with some of the deliverables produced at different stages of the process.

  1. Story corresponds to a product vision and helps to understand what the product is going to be all about and why it is distinct
  2. Script corresponds to use cases as it provides the interaction view on everything happening in the product (business and system level)
  3. Storyboard can be mapped to both the storyboard/navigation flow as well as the wireframes
  4. Modeling and prototyping is the actual prototype of the app, either in prototyping app, paper or in code
  5. Rendering and filming with the voice over is the actual implementation/development of the product at the end of which there is a finished product (in most cases :))

What is interesting however is the difference between time and effort spent on script, storyboarding and prototyping  vs actual development. Unlike in agile projects, development moves forward only when the “thinking through” part is over and everything has been completely defined. Characters/personas have been defined to their fullest, all interactions have been written in great details and there is clarity on the sequence of events from start to end. I could see how much research and analysis goes into character design after  seeing in the part of the expo dedicated to “bug’s life” the drawings of different types of bugs in their actual sizes and comments on proportions of parts of bodies. There were even drawings of different types of bug eyes to make sure actual biology is taken into account so that the designed character looks realistic.

Of course,there are differences between movie making and software development but in general I get a feeling that it is worth to learn more about design approach in movie making and see what parts of it can be reused in business analysis and product design parts of a software development project. One idea that comes to mind is to write requirements documentation more like movie scripts (maybe that would at least make people want to read them :)) and rely on storyboarding a lot more heavily. It would also be interesting to learn about script and storyboard review processes in movie making to understand how exactly that happens and how many people get involved in such activities.

Pixar has produced a handful of movies but each one of them is a masterpiece and I feel like there is a lot to learn from them and movie making projects in general about how to make commercially successful products that meet different constraints.