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The power of storytelling: Matt Luhn shares the secrets of Pixar’s success with BYU students

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PROVO — "I'm the guy who makes people cry," said Matt Luhn, a storyteller and animator for Pixar Animation Studios, when he stood up to address students at the Brigham Young University forum Tuesday, Jan. 29, in the Marriott Center.

Known for his work on movies such as "Up," "Toy Story," "Cars" and "The Incredibles," Luhn joked as he began his address that the introduction recapping his accomplishments was not quite what he would have said to introduce himself.

"But it's true, I am one of those people responsible for making you cry like a baby in front of your children or on a movie date or on an airplane," he said. "But along with making you cry when you watch a Pixar film, it's also my job to make sure you laugh, that you experience something."

He proved to be rather good at his job too. He had the audience laughing in the first few minutes of his address.

"Storytelling can educate, can entertain, but, in the end, the most important thing storytelling can do is to inspire us, to move us, to change us, to have us think differently," he said.

As the son, grandson and great-grandson of prominent toy store owners in the San Francisco area, Luhn grew up surrounded by plenty of inspiration for animation ideas. That, coupled with the encouragement of his father to become an animator for Disney, Luhn conceded, it's not exactly surprising where he ended up. As a storyteller and animator, his success was built on many factors, but he noted that the success of the films he's worked on at Pixar came from something bigger: great storytelling.

The power of storytelling

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to communicate with people, Luhn told students. And it is a tool that is useful in many aspects of life and business.

Using examples like Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, Luhn explained how facts and statistics, when presented in a straightforward way, are only remembered by about five percent of people.

Stories, on the other hand, are accurately recalled by nearly 65 percent of people. Using a story to communicate with people make all the content of the story more memorable, impactful and personal, Luhn said.

Offering the example of the opening scene from "Up," a film on which he worked at Pixar, Luhn explained how in just a few minutes, without any dialogue, the film's creators were able to connect with the audience and evoke a series of emotions that allowed the audience to become invested in the characters almost immediately. Happy images of a young couple momentarily elate the viewers before frustrating or sad images of the struggles they experience drop viewers' emotions back down. The story then repeats. Up and down, up and down, until at the last image of the sequence, audiences see an old man, sitting at his wife's funeral.

"You are not going to stop watching then, no matter how bad you have to go to the bathroom," Luhn said. And that is what good storytelling is supposed to do, Luhn continued, it should pull the viewer in.

In addition to following the "story spine," or the basic principles of building a good story, he explained that both his success and the success of Pixar Studios is due, in many ways, to the extra efforts they have made to connect with their audiences.

For movies such as "Toy Story" and "Inside Out," Luhn said the studios pulled in psychologists and other experts to work with the story team and animators to ensure that even details as small as which direction a character's eyes will look when they are remembering something versus creating an idea. Such details make their stories more authentic, and that is what really helps people connect because the story then becomes a shared experience, Luhn explained.

Ending with a quote from Walt Disney, Luhn said, "We cannot do these fantastic things based on the real, unless we first know the real."

In a question-and-answer session that followed the event, Luhn offered advice for students working to pursue careers or degrees in animation and other similar fields.

The way to appeal to a broad audience, he said, is to write or make stories that are for everybody. That's where Pixar differs from a lot of other movie studios, Luhn said.

"It is a whole lot easier to make people laugh with something crude in it," Luhn told one student asking about comedy. "But it takes a whole lot more work to be clever than crude," and being clever can appeal to a much wider audience.

"The way we think about it at Pixar is, this isn't just an animated film, this is a film for everybody," Luhn said. "It's a lot more difficult, but a lot more powerful when you can make a story that connects with everybody."