Story secrets of improvisers at Disney

When you grow up with Disney films, you are encouraged to dream. Still, I never dreamed I would be invited to California to teach Disney animation staff how to tell better stories.

Paul Z Jackson
Dec 3, 2018 · 3 min read

Yet there I was in Burbank, for the first of two workshops, doing just that.

I’m pretty sure I know nothing about storytelling that has eluded Disney. They have spent decades as world champions at creating stories of universal appeal. Their mastery of character creation, narrative arcs and emotional appeal is legendary. What could I possibly teach them?

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Photo by Skylar Sahakian on Unsplash

Improvisation for storytellers

What I do know is the value of improvisation skills to storytellers, whether they are top professional animators, lighting technicians or marketeers, all of whom are represented during these sessions at the animation studios.

Why is improvisation valuable to storytellers? Well, when people improvise together they are inhabiting the moment to moment crucible of creativity. They may spark great ideas and they will certainly get a feel for their inspirational roots and processes. They’ll make the new and surprising connections that are the essence of any worthwhile story.

And, sure enough, my Disney participants respond enthusiastically to simple activities which show how we can make connections step by step to get from a mundane starting idea to an interesting innovation.

When people improvise together they are inhabiting the moment to moment crucible of creativity.

We discover how collaboratively developing a theme can generate new insights. These may be useful in circumstances that we don’t usually associate with stories — for example, in listening more carefully to a potential customer — as much as in reaching an audience with emotion during a film scene.

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Paul Z Jackson at Disney Studios in Burbank, California.

For the Disney marketing team, there’s the enticing prospect of inviting the public to see their lives and stories reflected in those of the Disney characters. This is them applying the more improvisational notion of a yet-to-be-completed story to add depth to an organisation’s relationship to its customers.

They appreciate the concepts of being more open and more responsive, encouraging them to see more possibilities and connections in the ideas that are emerging as we develop new stories together.

Opening day disaster

I was co-facilitating at Disney with my friend and colleague Mike Bonifer, at the invitation of his company BigStory. Mike used to work at Disney, where he immersed himself in the stories of their own history and culture. He tells me that Walt Disney himself was attracted to theme parks, because they could be changed each day, unlike a movie, which is fixed once finished.

As it happens, the opening day at Disneyland was something of a disaster, with the attractions not yet ready to cope with the crowds, but the potential was clear, and it was possible each night to make improvements.

Pay attention to what’s around you and use these resources with a spirit of flexibility.

That is much more of an improvisational opportunity than a finished film. At a theme park, you can assess what’s working well and build on that. You can quickly stop doing what doesn’t work. Each new adjustment will generate more information for you that you can act on the next day. Concepts such as making use of what’s there, spotting successes and responding quickly are core improvisational principles.

To benefit from improvisation it doesn’t matter whether you are an artist or a craftsman, a genius or Dopey; you need simply to pay attention to what’s around you and use these resources with a spirit of flexibility.

Paul explains how improvisation processes closely match the creativity process in organisations.
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