Film And Story – with Kris Pearn
Many worlds live inside the mind of Kris Pearn, his talent to embody the story making process and facilitate a protective web of positive energy around the characters he knows so well, is impressive. Kris has worked across the entertainment industry from television to feature film as an animator, designer, story artist, writer and director, including such films as Surf’s Up, Open Season, Arthur Christmas, and Pirates! Band of Misfits. Recent roles include director and head of story for feature film Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 and the Ted Talk – ‘The optimistic opportunities of failure’.
I first met Kris when he moved to Bristol from Los Angeles as part of his contract with Sony, he worked at the artist led studios, Aardman. Kris is without doubt an artist, that is how he expresses himself and his identity through from child to adult, has been very solidly an artist. I asked if I could interview Kris, as to me not only is he a magician with a pen but also a story weaver and a genius of the imagination.
How did you start out in animation?
I was really lucky to be able to go to train at Sheridan College in Canada, I trained in classical animation. I went on to work as an apprentice, like you would in any trade, start from the bottom and work your way up. When cable arrived there was a larger demand for animators, so more jobs, people liked my work and I got known that way.
Do you have an overall structure that you have to create a film to?
We start with idea pooling, pull that into a structure, then head into a riff session, pull back into a three act structure. A bit like music, you know, some pieces of music wait for years before the right lyrics come along. I like to work with cards so I can see the structure clearly, knowing the direction you are heading in stops you from being self indulgent. Structure allows the creators to play with the audiences emotions, so you know when to create twists and turns to bring the audience with you. The point of making a film isn’t just to play and entertain yourself, you have to be clear who your audience are and what they want, structure really helps that process.
Do you have a set time time frame that you have to create a film to?
Yes, 85 minutes.
Is the three act structure really tight in timing? Do you have a time you have to stick to for each act?
Generally we say ‘you have to see the dinosaur within twenty minutes’ so whatever that is in your story, or your film, make sure that the audience sees the purpose, the main driving force within twenty minutes. So if it’s about an ape bring it on in twenty minutes, or a shark, or whatever.
I have worked on a couple of movies where that strategy didn’t hold but I felt they were more meandering, not as watch-able. I really think we as audiences only have an attention span for about twenty minutes before something has to happen, shake it up or surprise us.
I guess that’s where sub plots come into the story?
Yes, everything should serve the central plot. When working on ‘Cloudy’, it’s a comedy, a really regimented comedy, I think. A couple of the guys who were directing had a background in sit-com, we had to have something happen every couple of minutes, like a joke, or something, so the film then has a flavour. There is always something happening but they are not always top-shelf jokes, it’s not always up-front jokes too, so your secondary characters can drive that second and third laugh, so it’s like a layer-cake of comedy.
Do you pitch ideas on your own or do you pitch as a collaborative team?
I find pitching terrifying, I don’t think I have ever done that cold. I have been employed on a contract and part of the expectation of that contract is that I come up with ideas and pitch them as we go along.
We have a writers room where we come up with ideas when we are working on a story. Everyone in that room has to come up with ideas, you don’t shoot ideas down, you just accept and add to the process. It’s important to have a good mix of personalities and energy that compliment each other, when building on ideas.
In terms of story do you think simple is best, with the story through-line is it best to ficus on one characters needs?
Yes, although you can apply that to multiple characters. For me the most successful movies have very simple characters that have very relatable goals. ‘Jaws‘ is the perfect example, very simple characters, with very simple goals, you know who the characters are and what they want very quickly. Or look at ‘Once Upon A Time In The West‘ where you spend the whole movie working out what everyone wants and then in comes together really clearly at the end, and it’s like ‘wow’, I won’t give it away, you’ll have to watch it. The point being the simpler the central story is, it allows you to do more complicated things, there’ s room for playing with your audience.
On a personal level, I understand simplicity of story when working in devising theatre but I resist simplicity in writing as I want to get lost in an imaginative world. What advice can you give me?
The best books on writing in my opinion is ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, he is very honest and says the first draft you write is for yourself, after that you have to get cold to that. You are writing for an audience, not just for yourself, humans are natural story-tellers, it’s in our culture. You do have to work hard to pull it in and find your audience, to make that connection, make it easy for them. Get feedback, get cold to the ideas so you can work with them and allow the process the time it needs to take, to be re-moulded and re-shaped.
What does the role ‘Head of Story’ mean, what do you do?
It’s a fancy word for project manager, I have to sit in on lots of different groups and discussions and I make sure that there is consistency within that. When working on ‘Cloudy’, at one point we had 120 animators working on various aspects of the film and I made sure that every part of that was on point. That means the way a character looks, moves and interacts across the film has to be consistent, all their mannerisms need to ring true for an audience, throughout the story.
Kris also answers the question about his role as a director and the different hats he wears when working on a feature film, in this interview.
Thank you Kris for being so generous with your time, it’s much appreciated.