What Story Development Really Looks Like

Creative work at the indie & studio levels, through the lens of a Pixar & Telltale Games veteran.

 

“Be creatively promiscuous.”

Lights Film School sat down with writer/filmmaker Stephan Bugaj to discuss his multimedia experiences.

Most recently, Stephan worked with Telltale Games as Creative Development Director, where he helped develop narrative and visual storytelling for Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and others.

Before that, he spent twelve years as a Technical Director and Story Developer at Pixar Animation Studios, where he helped evolve the animated feature production pipeline and co-created a couple of unannounced projects.

Since then, Stephan has produced a variety of independent projects, from films to spec scripts to graphic novels.

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Hello, Stephan! Thanks for taking the time to discuss your work. I’m amazed by the variety and depth of your experience.

It’s hard to know where to start, so I suppose we’ll start at the beginning – when and how did you begin at Pixar Animation Studios? What drew you to them, and them to you? What was your first job there, and where did it lead within the company?

Thanks! I began at Pixar in 2002. I was drawn to them because I always wanted to make movies, and was hoping that I would be able to leverage both my technical and creative talents to do so at Pixar.

They were interested in me initially because I knew about Internet and Intranet technologies that not a lot of people there knew at the time. That was my “in”, and once in, I learned the Pixar animation system and made some workflow improvements. Proving I could work the system led to a gig as a simulation TD, in which role I showed that I had “an eye” by hand-tweaking a lot of my sim results to look better.

Then I moved into shader writing and surfacing, then I became a generalist TD who was capable of working in almost all of the pipeline. I did everything from (background and procedural) animation to writing software.

All along the way I was taking every writing and directing class I could, befriended Mark Andrews (and Brian Larsen, Ted Mathot, Scott Morse, Derek Thompson and Bill Presing) as a story and directing mentor, and wrote a lot.

After placing well in the big contests and impressing both Mark and Pixar’s development executive Mary Coleman, I ultimately worked my way into screenwriting at Pixar for a year – becoming the only person ever to go from being a TD to a writer at Pixar.

Very cool! While you were a Pixar TD, what were your responsibilities? What films did you work on, and what did you do for them? Which project was your favorite, most challenging, and/or most fulfilling, and why?

I started writing workflow software, and I also finished writing workflow software, and in between I did cloth and hair simulation, shader writing and surfacing, rendering and compositing, and a bit of crowds and sets/props animation, motion graphics, VFX and rigging.

So I became a true generalist; I know how an animated movie is made, in intimate detail, from the storyboarding process through filmout as I’ve worked in or closely with every discipline in the pipeline. I can direct animation very well because I actually know what all the artists do and how to see it.

My favorite and most fulfilling projects were the (since canceled) projects I codeveloped with Mark and Brian when I was a screenwriter at Pixar. It was great to help create the story, write the treatments and scripts, and be an essential part of the core creative team. On the TD side, “The Incredibles” was my first and therefore most challenging, and also my favorite Pixar film. But “Brave” was the film where I made the greatest difference – both Pixar’s new animation system and that film’s production pipeline were shaped in no small part due to my work.

Shifting gears, we’d love to hear about your experience as a Story Developer at Pixar. The studio’s impressive track record is no secret – how does the team keep the narrative magic alive? How are stories developed and ultimately written at Pixar? I imagine it’s a fairly collaborative process?

Story development at Pixar is immensely collaborative.

For starters, the core team is at least three people: a director, a writer, and a head of story (lead storyboard artist). And a producer is involved from day zero, as well. So before you even involve development executives, then the Brain Trust, then the whole crew, you’re already collaborating with three or more (if there’s a writing team or co-director involved) people.

The writing process looks pretty standard: pitch, outline, treatment, script. But inside a studio, every one of those things is collaborated on and reviewed by a lot of people.

The pitch – which was created by at least three people – is first tested on peers, then the producer, then the development execs, then finally the Brain Trust. 

If it then goes to outline, treatment, and script, that process of multiple check-ins and notes sessions repeats at every step. And since storyboarding starts with beat boards during the treatment phase, notes about staging, pacing, tone, and style come early and often as well.

So you’ve got notes flowing in about the text, and more about the visual direction, and the team (with the development execs’ help). A story will go through at least a dozen major iterations during the process, and many more smaller iterations.

The narrative magic is kept alive by lots of people working hard to come up with compelling ideas and develop them into great stories, through a grueling process that involves numerous story notes sessions (dozens, maybe hundreds, by the time a film is released) not just with the Brain Trust but also with peers, and multiple animatics screenings (showing the film as cut-together storyboards with dialogue and temp music) in front of the Brain Trust, then the staff, and ultimately test audiences. So the “magic” is actually a lot of hard work, and frequent testing.

And being willing to delay projects, and put more money into them, when they’re not quite working. That has happened on far more Pixar films than most people realize.

There is no “magic bullet”, and the people at Pixar are not infallible; they’re just willing to work hard and admit when things are going wrong and do what it takes to fix the situation rather than put out a bad product.

There’s also the fact that mature studios develop a format, and a house style, which is policed by the executives and Brain Trust. It’s a sword that cuts both ways in terms of freshness and innovation, but internalizing those rules really does a lot to enable a thousand plus people to all work towards the same goal of creating “A Pixar Film”, because they all know exactly what they’re making.

I didn’t realize how collaborative the process was. I’m curious to know what “a typical day” in the life of a Pixar employee looks like, considering how many people are involved!

Arrive at work. Drink coffee and chat with your peers. Go to far more meetings than seems sensible. Grouse about the things in those meetings you disagree with. Celebrate your artistic or technical victories. And then sit at your desk and push yourself to do great work at whatever it is you’re doing.

It’s digital filmmaking, so it’s not like anyone was blowing up cars in the parking lot or filling huge tanks of water with epic ship battles (sometimes you might set a toy car on fire in the parking lot for reference, but that’s not the same). It’s just a thousand plus people sitting at computers, and in meeting rooms, driving themselves to refine the artistry of every element in the film.

When I first started, people worked a lot more overtime, which both was awful and fostered a more extreme sense of camaraderie amongst teammates. It was awful for producers, too, because it made scheduling and budgeting an ongoing nightmare – so they (more or less) fixed it.

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So how did you find your way from Pixar to Telltale Games, Stephan? More generally, what inspired you to make the leap from film to interactive media?

Telltale actually found me. Their recruiter reached out to me to apply for the Creative Development Director position (heading up all writing and directing), and they liked me in the interview.

I left Pixar because I was taken off my project at Pixar – happens to writers all the time, but it’s always painful – and I wanted to keep working on story, writing and directing; not go back to tech. And there were only four companies in the Bay Area that developed great stories in-house: Pixar, Lucasfilm, Dreamworks/PDI, and Telltale Games.

The film industry having many well-publicized problems, and me being a lifelong gamer, I figured I would go back to the interactive industry (where I started in the 90s) because Telltale (and a few others) seemed to be telling better stories than 90% of films and TV shows.

Interesting perspective! What were your responsibilities as Creative Development Director at Telltale? What games did you work on, and in what capacity?

The CDD role headed up all writing and directing, so I hired writers, put writers and directors on projects, gave notes and ran review sessions, put together and ran writers’ rooms, and when necessary, wrote and directed things myself.

I worked on season two of Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderlands, a still unannounced project, and a tiny bit of Minecraft. On Walking Dead and Wolf, I mainly gave lots of notes in lots of reviews, which resulted in helping to shape the endings of both seasons (more so in the case of “Walking Dead”, which changed pretty radically before release).

On Thrones and Borderlands, I was involved in running the writers’ rooms that established the stories for both seasons, helping to shape the overall season arcs, character cores, themes, tone, and style. On Borderlands, I took the lead 100%. On Thrones, I supported the existing leads, but contributed substantially. I also ended up co-writing the first episode of Borderlands and doing some directing on both the Thrones and Borderlands first episodes.

Since I’ve left, I’m sure a bunch of story elements have changed in both seasons I helped set-up. That’s why it’s called development!

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What does a story break session look like? How many people are involved, and who does what? How do you direct everyone’s different ideas into one creative vision?

It looks like this: a bunch of people and coffee (or Diet Coke, or iced tea, in the case of Mark and I) sitting around in a room trying to make a story work.

Often, whiteboards are involved. Our Pixar story room was painted with whiteboard paint, and we often covered all the walls. People throw out ideas, and write them down (unless the CD or Director says “great idea but not for this project” right off the bat). The team debates the ideas’ relative merits, and tries to put them together into a sensible structure.

Things like the theme, tone, character arcs, and major plot points usually get debated first, since the first order of business is answering the question, “What are you trying to say in this story”? Then all the stylistic elements and details start to get filled in.

Structuring the session requires the person running it to have goals for what the team should be focused on for that session. For example, if the goal is “finding” the main character (her wants and needs and flaws and goals and all that sort of thing), then you try to keep everyone focused on things that impact that.

Who does what is team dependent. Usually a writer writes, a head of story handles the visual elements, a designer handles player concerns (in interactive), and a CD or director ties it all together.

But that’s after the session.

During the session, everyone throws out ideas and debates them. If you have an assistant to take notes, great. If not, everyone does and then you put them all together. If there’s a dedicated room runner to write on the walls and keep the idea tossing and debates from devolving into chaos, great. If not, someone takes on the role (usually the CD or Director, but sometimes they’re just not in the mood and cede that to someone else).

Directing all the ideas into one creative vision requires having the creative vision in the first place, and the ability to see when someone else’s ideas are changing it for the better rather than being too precious.

Pragmatically, on a day-to-day basis, it means culling the things that simply do not fit the vision in the room, then giving notes on the rest of the team’s work (writing, boarding, etc.) that happens after the session.

Awesome! Let’s talk mixing mediums, Stephan. Telltale excels at extending the narratives of established television franchises, and they recently teamed with Lionsgate to create an original “supershow”, ie., an experience that will be half-television, half-game.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between the two mediums. What are their similarities and differences, from both a consumer and creator standpoint? How, if at all, can one inform the other?

I am quite excited about the supershow concept. Mark and I and others had been trying to get Pixar/Disney more interested in more integrated franchise stories for a while, so that concept was one of the reasons I joined Telltale.

I think television and serialized games, or film and stand-alone games, can support each other instead of one just being a rehash of the other. That fails because the story for one medium isn’t the ideal story for the other, so trying to directly translate it often feels insufficient. The best adapters, like the folks at Telltale, realize that different media have different strengths and weaknesses and don’t try to be too faithful to the source.

Similarities and differences are key. There are of course many small differences, but the big one is that in interactive, giving the player an enjoyable response to their input is of paramount importance.

Players want to do things that matter in the story world, they don’t just want a passive story experience in which their input merely adds window dressing onto inevitable throughlines. This doesn’t have to mean changing major outcomes: Telltale succeeds by making the player manage character relationships, and outcome management is often secondary (or missing entirely).

Linear media is a more passive experience, so the viewer needs to be constantly engaged in the character drama and plot. You can’t have a scene with terrible pacing or no real character development just because it’s an interesting environment to explore. 

The similarities are that every story must have compelling characters and an engaging plot.

For more details on story in general, you can read my eBook on Pixar’s 22 Rules, or thousands of other blogs and books on the topic.

I think the opportunity in something like a supershow is to tell different stories in the two media that are part of the same world, that broaden the franchise story in interesting and interrelated ways, but play to each medium’s strengths.

Without making a big to-do about it, Lucasfilm has been doing this pretty well (in partnership with EA) for years. I think it can be done even better if the story development is even more integrated than it is at Lucasfilm. 

The supershow concept involves more direct tie-ins between the two media, which I think can work if done correctly (it’s actually been tried, and has failed, before).

There are lots of cheesy and unsatisfying ways to do that, but focusing on where the interconnections are in terms of plot and character – and more importantly, knowing that there will be many places where they aren’t – is crucial.

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I’d love to hear more about how the development and writing process for a film is different from the development and writing process for a video game. What are your thoughts? Also, what are the differences in the directing process?

For non-narrative games, it can be completely different: someone designs a game, and then a story is fitted onto the existing structure. 

For narrative games, the beginnings are quite similar: you find your themes, characters, tone and plot at a high level, and then start refining and adding detail.

In the narrative game process, you need to be constantly worried about player interaction, which means caring about how players feel about the outcomes of their inputs. That is the radical difference, the player-driven outcomes. That results in the pragmatic difference: having to write N (usually 4) variants of each moment in a scene and tying all those together into a coherent narrative.

I tell linear writers to think of it this way: when we write a script, we ask ourselves things like: “How might this scene play out if the character got angry at this moment? What if, instead, she got excited by the challenge? Or if she was dismissive of the whole thing? Or she just got depressed and sullen?” In a linear, we’d pick one. In interactive narratives, we’d likely write all four, provided those four gave the player the most satisfying “choice space”.

Otherwise, it’s the same. Character is character, plot is plot, and dialog is always an ongoing struggle between what you want to say and the character’s true voice.

As for directing, it’s the same: other than keeping vigilant about interactivity and player satisfaction, it’s basically exactly the same as directing an animated film (and, if the director is only handling voice acting and animation, it’s even more similar).

Good points! Do you have any predictions concerning how games and television/films might influence and interact with each other in the future?

Unified franchise stories are coming, it’s just a matter of time and we’ll see who gets there first (I have an idea who it will be, and am currently in the process of trying to work with them, because I think true transmedia franchise development is the future of commercial storytelling).

Whether it will be exactly the Telltale supershow format or something else that gets traction first, I think a convergence is inevitable. The commercial pressure is there, too. Steam wants a reason for linear content to come onto their platform, Amazon wants a differentiator beyond “you can watch the whole season in one day”, and broadcast and cable will eventually realize they need to drive engagement (which a time sensitive game tie-in would do).

Someone is going to be the first to do a good job of having the linear and interactive stories cross-over in satisfying ways; then we’ll all copy them until someone has a better idea.

 Those who do this kind of thing right, from the story perspective, will tell different stories in film, TV, mobile, AAA games, narrative games, comics, books, VR and AR. Stories that play to the strength of each medium.

You could say Marvel is already there, but they’ve got a lot of historical material that prevents truly developing the franchise from day one with all media in mind. How they’re handling cross media franchise development is a good guideline for doing certain things right, though they’re doing much less well with games, like everyone in Hollywood, because too many linear execs consider gaming a second class citizen despite the financial reality that the game industry is bigger.

Speaking of the game industry, I’m also curious to know what “a typical day” in the life of a studio game designer looks like!

At Telltale it looked very much like a writer’s day, except the designer focused on choice spaces and outcome satisfaction (and puzzles and combat flow), and the writer focused on setting, character, and dialog.

Puzzle, investigation, and combat design is something a designer does that writers are pretty uninvolved with. The choice space/narrative branching work is shared.

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Since Pixar and Telltale Games, you’ve worked on a medley of independent projects; for example, Ringer. Since you’ve been on both sides – ie., studio and independent – we’d love to hear your thoughts on how working in one capacity differs from working in the other.

How does the writing and development process change? What about the production pipeline? More generally, what are the pros and cons of a studio context versus an independent context?

When you’re truly independent, you basically have no money (what Hollywood calls “the independents” are mostly production companies with some kind of budget, but there are also tons of people out there making “no budget” productions however they can).

Even at the better funded independent level, you don’t have dedicated story rooms, assistants, projects with five writers, ten animatics screenings, a thousand people to give you notes, and so on. It also means you have even less chance of your project ever getting made, even if it is good (though some great projects have been shut down at Pixar, too).

When you’re an independent filmmaker, you also don’t draw a salary, so you have to find other ways to pay rent. All the same pressure to perform is there, but the resources are not. 

So the writing and development process narrows down to just one or two people. (I also hire paid readers to give me notes because I thrive off notes.) And everything else in the production process also scales down in size, curtailing scope and visual ambition. Independents make smaller movies (and games) because they have to.

There are absolutely no pros to being independent other than more control over your material. And the (very remote) chance of breaking big enough with something you own a large enough stake in to become a mini-major off that success. (Even then, it takes outside investment to get to that level.) 

The production process is the same, but scaled to however much money you can raise.

The fundraising process is outrageously difficult and frustrating, compared to the studio system, where getting a green light isn’t exactly trivial, either. It involves piecing together small sums from small investors, something thankfully made a little easier (but by no means easy) by platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

That creative control is a big deal, though. Most independents are making projects they can’t get bigger players interested in, so that material simply wouldn’t exist without us!

Hard but wise words, Stephan. We actually published an independent film financing series some months ago that tackles many of the practical questions you raise here. Let’s talk about your indie project, Ringer. What is it and how are you working on it?

Ringer is a sci-fi noir set in a world in where alien shape shifters called “Ringers” have been banned from earth except in special free trade zones. 
The Ringers are banned because they are able to take on any human form they come in contact with, and the resultant widespread fear about them doing every unsavory thing, from tricking lovers into trysts to usurping presidents.

Many illegals, known as “jumpers”, leap into the bay as ships approach trade docks located in all the big shipping cities. These jumpers, if not caught, slip away into human society in search of a better life. They shapeshift into human form and adopt human identities, trying to blend in as best they can. Some lead secret, normal lives, while others join dangerous criminal gangs. 

The criminal gangs peddle a drug which gives humans the temporary ability to shapeshift, further threatening the nativists and driving a greater wedge between the two species.

A series of alien murders committed by a human nativist organization called the “Eagle Guards”, and a series of human murders committed by the alien drug ring “Voroi”, forces an alien Cop to break the rules and become a “jumper” – and take on the persona of a corrupt nativist cop – in order to infiltrate this web of intrigue and bring down both syndicates before human-alien tensions escalate past the point of no return.

Along the way he will uncover an incredible secret – one that will change the fate of both species.

That’s the pitch! The project right now is just me (co-creator, writer) and Greg Jonkajtys (co-creator, director), with whom I’m also working on another untiled project codenamed VHS and one called Snow King. Greg and I come up with the basic story elements together, just like Mark, Brian, and I did at Pixar. Then I focus on writing the pitches, treatments, scripts, and so on, and Greg focuses on the visuals (both creating them and finding and directing people to create more).

Since we don’t have a prodco or studio involved, yet, we’re also essentially both producers on the project. We are trying to find funding for a teaser short (we might go to Kickstarter for that if the current leads do not pan out), which we will then use to bring the project to financiers.

Ringer requires a nontrivial budget, so our goal is to use our “no budget” resources to build enough interest and material to get direct financing or a well-funded prodco engaged so we can make it.

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Sounds like a treat for the sci-fi enthusiasts! On a different note, I understand you’re involved with two companies, Visioneer and WakingUp Media. What are they all about?

Visioneer exists to bring the Pixar production process to live action filmmaking, but at a more modest scale ($5-20M budgets). WakingUp exists to create positive lifestyle entertainment that is actually entertaining, rather than preachy. Both have slates of material already secured, and are seeking funding.

I’m also involved with a few VR startups as a creative advisor, writer, and/or director, but nothing that can be discussed yet.

And I’m the writer on a project in development at Marza Animation Planet, which is the animation company owned by SegaSammy. It’s a great concept, I hope it goes forward.

And I’m writing the next Amar graphic novel. And I’m codeveloping some projects with a director who was most recently at Dreamworks. And developing three game, TV, and film franchises for China with a producer I know. And a project I wrote for a producer in Poland seems to be getting some traction. And… And…

Yet, I am still out pitching new ideas to anyone who will listen pretty much every day, because all of those things I’ve mentioned could fall apart at any moment for one reason or another. And when you’re not drawing a salary, you always have to piece-together small paying gigs until (hopefully) something you’re making or pitching hits the “get paid real money” phase.

That’s the nature of being an independent: you have pitch and pitch and pitch, and involve yourself in everything you have the capacity for, because so many projects will fail to gain traction either creatively or because of lack of funding.

As a UCLA professor of mine once put it: “be creatively promiscuous”, because most projects, even many that would be fantastic if they got made, fall apart.

More hard but wise words!

Anything else you’d like to share with aspiring filmmakers, Stephan? What about for aspiring screenwriters? How does one “break in” to the industry?

Filmmakers, make films. Even tiny, crappy ones. Writers, write. To break in, you need to work hard and get lucky. And you need to be willing to fail, repeatedly, and keep on going.

It also helps to be nice to people, even when you’re feeling frustrated. Being rejected dozens to hundreds of times before achieving even a small first success is hard.

It’s okay to get upset, you’re only human. It’s even okay to say “I’m frustrated by all this rejection” or “I am a failure and I am going to drink myself to death”… but this is a relationship business, so you can’t direct those feelings at anyone in particular. (Go rant on Facebook like everyone else in the business, but never ever name names, or be specific in any way – it’s not those individuals, anyway; it’s the nature of the beast.)

One thing that people say all the time that I’ve found not to be true is this: you only get one chance so if someone rejects you forget it.

Actually, many people in the industry – if they see that you’re hard working and are a decent person that they enjoy having in the room – will absolutely let someone whose material they rejected previously come back and try again.

There are executives that I’ve pitched three, six, a dozen times and they keep bothering to take the time to listen. You just have to be someone they’d want to see again. And their time is quite valuable, so if they give any of it to you, make the most of it.

Great! Any words of advice for aspiring game-makers? What about for aspiring game writers? How does one “break in” to the industry?

Same as for aspiring filmmakers: make games. Work hard. Be someone people want to work with. It’s actually easier to make games now thanks to things like Unity and Unreal, and the success of games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable that show you don’t necessarily have to have a big team to reach people.

And in both cases, ask yourself why you want to be in the industry, why you want to write or direct.

If you love the medium and are compelled to create, it’s the right move. If you want to get rich and famous, you’re better off becoming the CEO of a high-tech startup.

Wow. This is some incredible insight into the film, television, and gaming industries, Stephan. Thanks for sharing your time and expertise! I raise a toast to “creative promiscuity”… Best to you and to our readers, as all of us develop our projects!

For more from Stephan, visit his website.

 Michael Koehler, with


If you want guidance, community, and resources throughout your story development and screenwriting process, then check out our in-depth online filmmaking course here at Lights Film School, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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