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Creating a feeling

Matthew Luhn

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As an animator and part of the story team at Pixar, Luhn has been a part of movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Monsters Inc.,” making audiences laugh and cry. He explains his career trajectory and how you can learn to use tension and release in your communication to create a feeling in your clients rather than just sharing a mission statement.

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For more than 25 years, my job title has been Guy Who Makes People Cry. Yes, I’m in the business of making kids and grown adults cry in theaters, living rooms, airplanes, and anywhere else they can view a movie. Because, if you’ve ever seen a Pixar film like the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, or Up, I’m one of those story people responsible for making you cry. But along with making people cry, I’m also in the business of making people laugh, cheer, think, and, most importantly, experience something that transforms their life. I’m a storyteller.

How did this become my job? Well, it all started in a toy store, because when I was born, my mom and dad owned and operated more independent toy stores in the San Francisco Bay Area than anyone in the toy business.

Our family-run operation was called Jeffrey’s Toys. Not a bad way to grow up, right? Imagine waking up on your birthday and your parents saying, “Pick out a toy, any toy.” The only downside was figuring out who my real friends were, as opposed to the ones coming over just to play with my complete collection of Star Wars toys.

But my mom and dad didn’t start the family toy stores. My grandparents owned and operated the toy stores before them, and my great-grandparents owned and operated the toy stores before my grandparents, and my great-great-grandfather Charlie had nothing to do with the toy stores. He actually hated toys and kids and ran illegal gambling out of his cigar shop in San Francisco.

Other than Charlie, everyone else in my family has had something to do with the toy stores in one way or another. Why? Because my family has always believed in creating a place where children and adults feel inspired to play, imagine, and have fun, one toy at a time. This is what my family has been doing for as long as I can remember—they love creating an experience for people when they enter a Jeffrey’s Toys store.

The funny thing is, my dad never really wanted to own or operate the family-run toy store. Although he loved toys, he had a different dream, one he had had since he was a kid. He wanted to become an animator and work for Walt Disney. All through elementary, junior high, and high school, my dad spent more time drawing cartoon characters in the corners of his schoolbooks than he did reading them. He even carried his dream of becoming an animator with him through the Vietnam War, filling dozens of sketchbooks while serving overseas in the army. When he returned home, he announced to his dad—my grandfather, a World War II Marine veteran—that he didn’t want to work in the toy stores. He wanted to be a Disney animator instead.

“Son, there ain’t no way you’re going to become an animator,” my grandfather replied. “You can’t make a living as an artist. Plus, I need you to help me run the toy stores.” So, the Marine logic won the battle of wills, and my dad’s dream of becoming a Disney animator was set aside. He later got married, had a son (me), and, sure enough, worked day in and day out at the toy stores.

Then one day, when I was about four years old, my dad stayed home from the toy store with a terrible stomachache. Wanting to cheer him up, I did the only thing I could do as a four-year-old—I drew him a picture. The picture was a sketch of my dad with a stomachache. I thought it was a pretty good likeness, right down to his stomach filled with all kinds of swirls and squiggly lines to represent the kind of pain I imagined he felt. When my dad saw the drawing, he pointed at me and said, “You. You are the chosen one. You will live my dream. You will be that Disney animator.” These may not have been his exact words, but that was the takeaway from my childhood.

From that point on, I became my dad’s young apprentice. He sat and drew with me all the time, along with taking me to see lots of movies. Once a week, after being dropped off by my mom in the morning at elementary school, I would then be picked up about 30 minutes later by my dad. He would tell the school secretary that I had a doctor or dentist appointment that day, but the real reason he was pulling me out of school was because we were going to the movies. This is no joke. He figured that we could avoid the long lines that accompany a new release by seeing that movie in the middle of the day while most kids were still at school. I had the best dad any kid could wish for.

At first, all of the movies we went to see were animated, like The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, and The Secret of NIMH. Then, after we saw all the animated films, he started taking me to live-action movies like Star Wars, Young Frankenstein, and Kingdom of the Spiders. He had a particular fascination for sci-fi and horror. Of course, when your kid is the wide-eyed age of nine, taking him to see Poltergeist is not a great idea. I had nightmares for months! Even so, my father’s passion for art, animation, and movies rubbed off on me, and by the time I was in high school, I began making films and animating with an old Super 8 camera. It seemed natural to learn the animation process and strive to make, in a very primitive way, the magic my dad had shared with me.

While in high school, I also discovered a college that specialized in animation. I desperately wanted to attend. The college was called CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), designed and founded by the legendary Walt Disney himself. This was the place to learn about animation.

By no small miracle, I was granted entrance, and off I went. I loved every minute of my training. Almost all of the directors, storyboard artists, writers, character designers, and animators from Pixar attended CalArts. Alums also include the creators of animated TV shows like The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, and We Bare Bears and many famous directors and actors.

During my first year at CalArts, I made an animated film that caught the attention of a director working on the brand-new, prime-time, animated hit The Simpsons. To my surprise, I was offered a job as an animator on The Simpsons, but I declined, letting them know I had to finish my degree first . . . actually, no . . . I immediately left school and began animating on the third season of The Simpsons, as the youngest animator at 19 years old. At this point, I had, in a way, accomplished my dad’s goal—ahem—my goal of becoming an animator. But something was about to change.

One day, I stumbled into the story room at The Simpsons. Now, I had always imagined writers on a TV show to be moody individuals, sitting alone in a dark office behind a keyboard churning out script pages, but, instead, I witnessed an eclectic group made up of comic book artists, Harvard grads, and comedians, who all had one thing in common—they were great storytellers. Even Conan O’Brien spent time as a writer on The Simpsons. As I witnessed their brainstorming process for turning out scripts, I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to do more than animate stories other people had written; I wanted to create those stories. While my dad’s passion was animation, I realized that the part of the animation process I loved the most was the big picture, the story itself, the invention of characters and the adventures they would go on.

But I had no idea how I could make the transition from animator to storyteller. I also didn’t want to let down my dad and not meet the expectations he, and my whole family, had for me. But deep down inside, I really wanted to be part of that magical story process.

After finishing up on the third season of The Simpsons, I decided two things. First, as a San Francisco Bay Area native, I didn’t want to live in Los Angeles for the rest of my life. Second, I would do anything to become a storyteller.

Then one day, out of the blue, I was offered a job to work at a small startup animation studio in the Bay Area. Although it was risky taking an animation job at a place that had no experience making animated films—only animated commercials and advertising shorts for computer products—and moving far from Los Angeles, where all the “real” animation jobs were, I took a chance.

The studio at the time was made up of only 80 people, with the dream of making the very first computer-generated (CG) animation film. They called themselves Pixar.

This was no traditional animation studio. Director John Lasseter and the other writers wanted to make an animated film that did not take place in a fairy-tale village and had no prince or princess singing the standard “I Want” song. Not to mention, the film was going to be entirely animated in a computer. Not a single cel of hand-drawn animation would be used. It promised to be something totally different. The studio was also owned by a newbie to the film industry, Steve Jobs.

When I started at Pixar in 1992, I was hired as one of the first 12 computer animators to work on their first animated film, Toy Story. Almost everyone in the animation industry believed that this film was going to flop.

My very first assignment on Toy Story was to animate the little toy green army men coming to life—without losing the plastic bases they were attached to. To get the animation correct, I actually screwed my shoes to a wooden rectangular board and filmed myself walking, running, crawling, and even leaping off of office desks all over the Pixar studio. I was determined to make that animation as accurate as possible.

But once again, the part of the production that was most interesting to me was the story. This is what I really wanted to be doing. I wanted to help create the characters, draw the storyboards, and stitch the stories together. So every day after I finished my animation, I would wander into the story room and ask if anyone on the story team needed any help cleaning up storyboards, filling in color, or anything else. Pretty soon I spent all of my evenings and weekends helping out the story team after my animation was done. The possibility of moving into the story department was in sight.

After the success of Toy Story, I was brought on as a part of the story team on Toy Story 2. I had no idea then, but this was the beginning of a 20-year story career at Pixar, working on 10 films, five animated shorts, and two TV specials. And through it all, we were having fun, just like when I was in high school creating films with my friends.

Then one day, while perusing Wired magazine, I came upon an article stating that Pixar had created more globally loved and financially successful movies in a row than any other film studio in the history of film. Yes, we had created more movie hits in a row than Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, Paramount, and MGM. How did this happen? It was more than just great computer animation or character designs or color or music. It was because of great storytelling. Story is king at Pixar. Throughout the years—while working as a story guy on Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Up, Cars, Ratatouille, and Monsters University and as a writer and story consultant at other companies—I’ve come to realize that great stories not only make for great novels, plays, movies, and television, but also make for successful businesses and brands. Whether your audience is sitting in theater seats or walking down toy store aisles or buying something online, engaging them or making a sale comes down to telling a story that really stirs people to feel something.

While I still lead a life of writing scripts and coming up with story ideas, I also love to share the principles of great storytelling with people working in the worlds of sales, marketing, and speaking, helping them strengthen their brand, make authentic connections, and drive their audience to action through an inspiring story.

Why are stories so meaningful, resonating so effectively with everyone, regardless of age, gender, and culture? It’s because great stories, when told well, are memorable, impactful, and personal.

When you share statistics, data, or information with people without a story, they only retain about 5 percent of the information if you ask them about it 10 minutes later. That’s pretty depressing, right? Especially if your job is running numbers all day long or collecting and distributing data for a living. Yes, big data is changing everything, but without a great story to create an emotional pull, the information will be forgotten by your customers, clients, or fellow employees at your next board meeting. Here’s the thing: When you deliver that same information to people with a story or event woven around it, people remember it. People retain 22 times more information when a story is attached.

Consider how the jewelry retailer Tiffany & Company combines narrative, colors, typeface, and visuals to tell a memorable story. Its trademark robin’s-egg Tiffany blue creates the feeling of tranquility and escape, its typeface and logo feel elegant and sophisticated, and the photographs and images used in its stores, websites, and ads communicate love and romance. All together, they tell a memorable brand story that you know well—even if you have never shopped there. What people will retain instantly jumps from 5 percent to 65 percent when the content is embedded in a story. Not only do they retain it, but they feel more connected to it.

Along with being memorable, stories are impactful. Stories take us on a roller-coaster ride, a journey through high moments (happiness, anticipation, surprise) and low moments (sadness, fear, anger) that actually affect our bodies on a chemical level. When we see or hear people—or even animated toys, robots, or rats—laughing, smiling, or sharing stories of suspense, dopamine and endorphins are released in our bodies; when we see or hear anything sad or somber, oxytocin is released. When we place these sad and happy moments next to each other in a story, we build an amusement park ride for people’s hearts and minds. Ups and downs, tension and release—you’ve created a story that keeps an audience sitting on the edge of its seat.

The opening of the movie Up has become famous for making people laugh, cry, and feel something. In that first sequence, we see a young man and woman fall in love, get married, build a house, work together, and dream about having children. These kinds of happy and funny moments, filled with anticipation and suspense, release a heavy dose of dopamine and endorphins throughout our bodies. Then we see the couple at the hospital discovering that the woman cannot have a child. Suddenly, our happy chemicals come crashing down like a ton of bricks, as oxytocin courses through our bodies. We can’t help but become teary-eyed and choked up, feeling empathetic for the characters. Then we see the man cheer up his wife by giving her an adventure journal, and together they plan to travel one day to South America to visit Paradise Falls. Our happy chemicals surge again, making us smile. But then we see that the couple can never save up enough money to go on their adventure, and our happy chemicals crash again. The years go by, and they both grow older. Then one day, the old man remembers the promise to his wife and sells his pocket watch to get enough money to buy those two plane tickets to Paradise Falls. We are feeling good again. Actually, we’re feeling great! They’re finally going to go on that trip together! But before the old man can give his wife the tickets, she collapses, is taken to the hospital, and passes away. What?! Yes, and at this point, no matter how badly people need to use the restroom or want to get something to eat, they’re not going to leave their seat because they want to know what’s going to happen to that old man. Wouldn’t you love to deliver a sales pitch to a client or share your company’s vision internally and have that same can’t-leave-your-seat effect on your audience?

Great leaders and speakers use this technique of tension and release all the time. They know how to take an audience on a ride from the ordinary world, up to what things could be, back to the ordinary world, leading to an epic ending that seals the deal.

When Jobs debuted the iPhone in 2007 at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, he used this up-and-down kind of storytelling. He began his presentation by saying, “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years.” His excitement spread throughout the crowd. “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone with a new device called the iPhone.” The audience was transfixed, and happy chemicals were running high, but then he paused and took everyone down by saying that every smartphone that has ever been created wasn’t smart but stupid. While the audience’s sad chemicals were still being released, Jobs quickly changed the direction and announced, “But my smartphone is as smart as a computer,” and everyone jumped out of their seats. Then he took everyone down again. “Haven’t you noticed that every smartphone is clunky to use with a stylus pen?” And then he took everyone back up. “But my phone is completely touchscreen. With a swipe of your finger you can navigate all the functions on the iPhone.” At this point, the audience nearly exploded from the excitement. If you want to tell a story that is memorable—and moves people to act—you must take your audience on a roller-coaster ride of emotions.

All the decisions we make in life—from what shoes we wear to whom we date to what shows we watch—are made based on who or what has made us feel something. Big or small, our decisions are made on the right side of our brain, which is triggered by our emotions. We do this to ourselves all the time, consciously or unconsciously, while watching movies, reading books, or looking through moments of our lives through photos. For example, here is a photo of my car. [visual] It’s a Jeep. It’s also the number one rollover vehicle in the US, and I have three kids! Not the most sensible car for a dad of three to own. But I didn’t buy this car because it was sensible; I bought this car because its look, color, and story triggered my desire for adventure and fun. Yes, later on we’ll rationalize these decisions with the left side of our brain, deciding if we made a good choice or not, so it’s important that the product, solution, or idea has substance as well. And when a story is memorable and impactful, whoever is telling the story, whether the author of a novel, the actor on a screen, or the CEO of a company, a personal connection is made with that storyteller. Whether it is Tom Hanks in Forest Gump sharing stories that changed the lives of strangers sitting next to him at a bus stop or Steve Jobs sharing stories about Apple to inspire his employees, storytelling has the power to create a personal connection with a single person or an entire company. Incorporating story into your personal or professional life is the best way to inspire people to make decisions.

Create a feeling, not just a mission statement. Choose one to three words along with visuals that represent what you want people to feel when they encounter your products or services. Tiffany & Company does an excellent job communicating its mission statement through the colors, typeface, and images used in its ads, on its website, on its packaging, and in its stores. These elements are chosen carefully to create the feeling of “elegance, escape, love.” That’s what it wants you to feel. It wants you to experience the joy of discovery through narrative and visual storytelling. This is what great companies do. Tesla wants us to feel optimistic about the future of cool-looking, fossil-free vehicles. The Walt Disney Company wants us to experience a sense of delight and entertainment at any of its parks, movies, or stores. It’s more than a mission statement. It’s a feeling, and without a clear feeling, we send out mixed messages to our audience or customers. Or we simply blend in. We see this happen all the time in the entertainment industry and in the business world. What do you want your audience to feel?

Whether in entertainment or business, use storytelling to make people feel something. Because in the end, people won’t remember what you said during that board meeting or pitch or what you said on your website or mission statement, but they will remember how you made them feel.


Matthew Luhn is an accomplished storyteller, instructor, keynote speaker and story consultant, with more than 20 years’ experience creating stories and characters at Pixar Animation Studios. Luhn’s story credits for Pixar include the "Toy Story" series, "Monsters Inc." and "Finding Nemo." Alongside his work in Hollywood, Luhn works with Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs and other professionals on crafting stories that bridge the gap between business and heart to build stronger brands and business communication.


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