Pixar veteran Matthew Luhn discusses how storytelling can change people's minds

Matthew Luhn is a story consultant and speaker – appearing in London next Wednesday as a keynote speaker at the One Question conference. Here he discusses his approach to storytelling and gives us his thoughts on current trends from VR to the popular crude-on-purpose aesthetic.

Matthew started his career as an animator: working on The Simpsons before being recruited by a then-nascent Pixar, working on films including the Toy Story series (above). He still works for Pixar as a story consultant – but also works with companies on their 'brand storytelling' and as a speaker.

The theme of the conference is 'Can we really trust technology?' – so I started by asking Matthew how – or if – technology has intrinsically changed the craft of storytelling through animation?

"We have advanced pretty far in what we do with animation technology compared to earlier stages, even just ten years ago," he says. "Although the basics of storytelling are still the same, developments have allowed us to present them in more stylised ways which makes our animations appear more realistic. As in the world of art, we went from realism to high renaissance and then, all of a sudden, everything focused on impressionism."

Technology has made what underpins animation more realistic – whether how characters or liquids move or how lighting reflects and refracts – and this has given animators and studios more freedom in their choice of aesthetic. As the movement and composition of environments intrinsically feel more real, creators can move away from realism in their aesthetics to something more expressionistic while still retaining an emotional attachment between the audience and the world they're viewing.

Contrast Pixar's last pre-film short, the photorealistic Piper (shown before Finding Dory) with the more cartoony Feast from Disney (shown before Big Hero 6). The former is an admirable technical achievement and is a fun short film, but the latter is much more emotionally effecting – in part due to the soft, warm way its fashioned.

Storytelling in VR

Technological progress has also brought us virtual reality. I wanted to hear Matthew's thoughts on storytelling in VR, as in that environment you lose control over, arguably, an animation director's greatest creative tool – what the viewer is looking at any given time. However, interactivity instead allows participants to trigger events when they wish and can give them some control over the outcome too.

"VR seems to be the next big thing in technology and storytelling, but I think things will soon develop beyond our current ideas of VR," says Matthew. "Right now, we just get to witness a scene like a fly on the wall, but I think we will develop VR to a stage where we will be able to interact with the characters [and] it will transform how we engage with this creative medium and the characters we are introduced to.

"For example, at a very basic level if you have VR interactive goggles on and there’s a character you’re looking at in a VR world that asks you: 'Should we go walk down this canyon or climb up this mountain?', you will be able to use your body to respond and communicate with the character by nodding your head for ‘yes’, or turning your head left-to-right for ‘no’. By doing this you’ll be able to interact with the characters in the game, getting a more enriched and potentially mind-blowing experience as technology allows us to do more."

This simple level of interactivity may seem very basic to anyone whose played narrative-led games like Firewatch, but it shows how people from an animation background have to take a mental leap when conceiving VR projects – just as people in the game industry have had to learn the importance of storytelling to make the most of the immersive nature of VR.  

Stories can change your mind

Matthew speaks often of the 'power of storytelling' so I asked him about using stories to change someone's mind – to think about something differently, to make a change in their life, or just buy a different product.

"I’ve worked with a lot of different brands to create stories that tell a brand story, he says. "In doing this, you are telling stories to convince people to buy your car, wear your shoes or drink your soda. By getting people excited about a brand through storytelling it can change opinions as you’re trying to convince them to choose one brand over another, but in order to change opinions, you must first have (or create) a story that is authentic.

"Ideally you would want to be able to do that by sharing stories that are first from your own life, that are personal to you, or from other people that are personal. This will mean people buy in to you and have empathy for you as the storyteller and for the overall story that you’re telling, and to be able to have them engender and experience the change that your characters are going through.

"You can even create characters that are going through changes that are authentic. In turn, if you do this enough, it will have the potential to change people’s viewpoints or opinions about things in life."

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