The Most Powerful Person In The World
In the summer of 1994, Steve Jobs was toasting a bagel in the break room at his company NeXT. A few of his employees were in the middle of a break room debate about who was the most powerful person in the world. One employee was arguing that Nelson Mandela was the most powerful person in the world. “NO!,” Jobs interrupted. “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller…The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” And then Jobs’ bagel was done toasting, and he left the break room. So that’s the theme this week: storytelling.
Intention And Obstacle
In every Aaron Sorkin interview I’ve watched or listened to, he says some version of, “I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle.” That is “the drive shaft of drama,” Sorkin says. “That point of friction—somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it—drives all great stories. They want the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia, they want to open a bottle of ketchup. And then it doesn’t matter—as long as there is a formidable obstacle in their way—it’s the tactics used to overcome that obstacle that defines your character.
The Law of the Land at Pixar
In the 1980s, The Graphics Group—a team of four software developers who ran the computer division of Lucasfilm—developed a graphics and editing computer called the Pixar Imaging Computer. In 1986, due to financial troubles, Lucasfilm sold The Graphics Group to Steve Jobs, who incorporated it as Pixar. After creating a few computer-animated short films and commercials, in 1991, Pixar struck a deal with Disney to make the first computer-animated feature film. At which point they realized, one Pixar employee said, “we didn’t know squat about [how] to make a movie let alone write one.” So the team attended The STORY Seminar—a 3-day storytelling seminar taught by screenwriter and story consultant Robert Mckee. The Pixar team left the seminar “as true believers [in] McKee’s doctrine that…character emerges most realistically and compellingly from the choices that the protagonist makes in reaction to his problems . . . [This] became the law of the land at Pixar.” Essentially, McKee teaches, this is the tension that drives all great stories: somebody wants something but something is standing in their way of getting it. Guided by this principle, the Pixar team began writing a story about a toy named Woody who prided himself on being a boy named Andy’s favorite toy. Woody’s “world is rocked when a shiny new rival, a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear, arrives on the scene and becomes the apple of Andy’s eye.” That tension would drive “Toy Story,” which released in 1995 and was a critical and commercial sensation. Following the success of Toy Story, Pixar returned repeatedly to that principle, that tension that drives all great stories. One of Pixar’s character designers said, “We really really followed McKee almost to the letter of the law.” As the former Head of Pixar’s Creative Development team said, “Our movies are very conventional, in terms of story conventions like character arcs. If you look at all of our movies, there’s a protagonist who…goes on a journey and comes out the other end a better person . . . or rat . . . or fish.”
The Vogler Memo
1970 to 1988 is often referred to as Disney’s “Dark Age.” During the “Dark Age,” Disney’s animated films were mostly critical and commercial failures. Then, in the late 1980s, a story consultant named Chris Vogler wrote a 7-page memo that helped spur “The Disney Renaissance.” In 1978, Chris Vogler was a film student at USC. For one of his classes, Vogler was reading “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. That year, the first Star Wars movie was released. Vogler saw it in the theaters, and he was almost certain Star Wars was putting Campbell’s ideas to work. Vogler distilled Campbell’s complex ideas into a term paper that identified how George Lucas was using mythic elements throughout Star Wars. A few years later, Vogler was hired as a story consultant at Disney where “memos were a big part of the corporate identity…following the example of [CEO, Jeffrey] Katzenberg, an absolute master [of “the memo art form”]. So Vogler adapted that term paper into a 7-page memo, in which he outlined “the twelve stages of the hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey, Vogler summarizes, goes like this:
The hero is introduced in his ORDINARY WORLD where…
The hero receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
The hero, reluctant at first, REFUSES THE CALL.
The hero MEETS A MENTOR and is encouraged to CROSS THE THRESHOLD where…
The hero encounters TESTS, ALLIES, and ENEMIES.
The hero reaches the INNERMOST CAVE where he endures the SUPREME ORDEAL.
The hero SEIZES THE SWORD or the treasure and…
The hero starts to take THE ROAD BACK.
Along the way… The hero is RESURRECTED and transformed by their experience, and then…
The hero RETURNS to his ordinary world with a TREASURE, BOON or ELIXIR to benefit their world.
Vogler’s memo was read by CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg made it required reading for everyone in the company, and then, he sent Vogler to work with the Animation team working on “King of the Jungle”—what would become “The Lion King.” On a corkboard, the team pinned the storyboard for “The Lion King,” “with the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey clearly marked as signposts.” Using this 12-step program as a roadmap, “The Lion King” was released in 1994 and became the most successful animated film ever, and for a while, the most profitable film in history.
The Two or Three Human Stories
Vogler was right. George Lucas did indeed read Joseph Campbell before bending the story of Luke Skywalker to follow the twelve steps of the hero’s journey. In fact, Lucas calls Campbell his Yoda. Not just him. Not just Star Wars. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Aladdin, Harry Potter, Mulan, Moana… Once you know the 12 steps, you see the hero with a thousand faces everywhere. As the writer Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” For instance:
Pixar’s guru Robert McKee writes in Story, “What’s true of life is true of fiction.” And what’s true of fiction is true of life: “TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”