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. Yet here I am in Burbank, for the first of two workshops, doing just that.

I’m pretty sure I know nothing about storytelling that has eluded Disney.

I am aware of 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.

And they 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. We discover how collaboratively developing a theme can generate new insights. These may be useful for listening more carefully to a potential customer, reaching an audience with emotion during a film scene, or inviting the public to see their lives and stories reflected in those of the Disney characters.

They appreciate the concepts of being more open and more responsive, seeing possibilities in what emerges moment by moment as we develop new stories and connections.

I’m co-facilitating with my friend and colleague Mike Bonifer, at the invitation of his company BigStory, and 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.

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

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. And suddenly you may find yourself heading for infinity – and beyond.

Paul Z

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