Matt Luhn, a story and branding consultant for Pixar, delivered the BYU forum address on Tuesday. He discussed how to craft and tell stories, whether those stories are for a movie or for any other outlet.
Luhn opened by saying that when he introduces himself, he says, “I’m the guy who makes people cry.”
“It is also my job to make sure you laugh, that you experience something. Storytelling can educate, it can entertain. The most important thing storytelling can do is to inspire us, to move us, to change us, to have us think differently.”
Luhn shared that his own story began in one of the toy stores his parents owned. Owning toy stores was the family business, but as a child Luhn was also exposed to his father’s love of animation and movies. Luhn’s father dreamed of becoming an animator; that passion rubbed off on Luhn, who eventually went to animation school at the California Institute of the Arts.
His freshman film caught the attention of a TV director, who hired Luhn to work on The Simpsons. Luhn worked on the series as an animator for a time before he understood the writer’s room and their process. He said that he realized those writers understood the principles of good storytelling, which he wanted to understand too.
That focus on story led him to Pixar, where he worked as an animator on Toy Story. For Toy Story 2 and later Pixar movies, he moved to the story department. Toy Story was the highest-grossing movie of 1995 – the highest grossing moving of any genre, not just animation. Soon, the media began noticing that no movie studio put out more hits in a row than Pixar.
How were they doing that? According to Luhn, it all came back to the storytelling principles he first learned from his dad’s love of movies and the writers at The Simpsons.
“When you use a story, you make things more memorable, you make things more impactful and you make things more personal,” said Luhn.
If there is no story, Luhn said information goes in one ear and out the other. Only 5% of an audience, for example, remember statistics after they are shared. Stories make those facts more memorable. According to Luhn, story is 22 times more memorable than facts alone.
Story isn’t only contained in narrative, however. Luhn shared that story is contained in visual inputs like colors and fonts. Even those simple elements can evoke emotion and cause audiences to remember more.
Luhn used the opening sequence of Up to illustrated how a story can be impactful. With only visuals to tell the story, that sequence created intense emotional reactions in audience members. (“I’m sorry we did this,” he apologized jokingly.)
That impact came from creating highs and lows in the story. The story built up happy situations, which can release dopamine to increase memory and focus. The story then jumped to sad situations, which can release oxytocin to create empathy and make audiences feel more generous.
“No matter how hungry you are at this point, no matter how bad you need to go to the bathroom, you are not going to stop watching,” said Luhn. “Isn’t that what a good story is supposed to do? A great story is supposed to hook you in and not let go.”
For the team at Pixar, data is one way to make stories more personal and more authentic. Luhn said that for each movie, they do extensive research. Some of that research involves travel – to Paris for Ratatouille, to the Great Barrier Reef for Finding Nemo, to the garbage dump for Toy Story 3 – and some of that research involves bringing in experts in fields like psychology.
“The most important thing is the story and making an authentic connection with people. Beyond making something look real, like hair, we wanted to make the stories real,” said Luhn.
According to Luhn, part of why people have such an authentic connection with Pixar characters is because of research. With research about eye movement, animators were able to put Woody’s eyes in the right place. With research about facial expressions, animators were able to create the emotions in Inside Out.
“Along with the story, having the right data will make your story detail even more powerful and more authentic.”
Luhn concluded with a quote by Walt Disney, saying, “We cannot do the fantastic things based on the real unless we first know the real.”
Next Devotional: Ulisses Soares, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Elder Ulisses Soares, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will deliver the next BYU Devotional on Tuesday, February 5, at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center.
His remarks will also be broadcast live on BYUtv, BYUtv.org, KBYU-TV 11, Classical 89 FM and BYU Radio.