A Career In Storytelling [Interview with Matthew Luhn] | FreshGigs.ca

Carving Out a Career In Storytelling with Matthew Luhn

Matthew Luhn is a writer, story and branding consultant, creative writing instructor and keynote speaker with over 25 years of experience creating stories and characters at Pixar Animation Studios, The Simpsons, and beyond. Alongside his work at Pixar, Matthew also trains CEOs, marketing teams, directors and other professionals how to craft and tell stories for Fortune 500 companies, Academy Award winning movies and corporate brands. Emma Bullen spoke to him at CIMC2017 in Squamish.

How have you carved out a career as a storyteller?

I come from a family that is all about toys; they own toy stores. But my dad wanted to be an animator. He didn’t get to do that, so he put his love of animation on me. By the time I graduated high school, I was dedicated to go and be an animator—and specifically for the Walt Disney Company.

I went to Cal Arts, and everyone who had a love for animation wanted to get into this school. The Pixar culture comes from Cal Arts and the animation department A113. While I was going to Cal Arts, I made a student film, and a small animation company called the Simpsons saw it. They offered me a job on the third season of the Simpsons. I did what was totally logical, I quit school.

At this point, I’d reached my dad’s goal; I was an animator. Then I stumbled into the story room. As a team, they were writing a different episode every week. I fell in love with this. It was the story that really interested me. I thought there was no way they’d let me in, so I kept animating.

At that time, another studio [Pixar] saw a film I made, and they thought it was funny. They had a dream of making the first computer generated film. So I took the job as an animator on this movie that was sure to bomb. Once again, the part that really interested me was the story. As an animator, you’re given the script and the storyboards. I was drooling over that part. I would animate during the day, then I’d go into the story room after I was done animating and at the weekend and I’d help the team with whatever they needed.

Eventually, they got it—I wanted to be a story guy. At Toy Story 2 I got moved into that role. From then, I worked on ten movies at Pixar for over twenty years doing the story stuff. I realized that the reason why our films were great was not because of the animation necessarily, or the music, or the voices. The reason people kept coming back to Pixar films was the story.

I realized that the reason why our films were great was not because of the animation necessarily, or the music, or the voices. The reason people kept coming back to Pixar films was the story.

I also realized that the same techniques we were using to create great films about toys were the same techniques that my family had been using for years to sell toys. It was beyond selling toys; it was about selling an experience.

So really, it was my dad that fuelled my career. He has the largest collection of Pixar rare things—and he loves running his toy stores. We’re opening a toy store up together this September in San Francisco by Union Square. 

Where would you recommend studying animation today?

Cal Arts was wonderful. I know it’s hard to get into, but there are lots of great art schools in Canada and the US. I would say that the top schools are Sheridan College in Toronto, Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, and the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD. Those are really the top schools for animation right now.

What’s life like after Pixar? Tell us what you’re doing now.

Coming from a family that has owned businesses for generations, the idea of going off and working for a company has never been something I’ve been thrilled about. I’ve worked at Pixar for over twenty years. It’s been awesome, but I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit in me.

Even when I was working at Pixar, I was publishing my own books, speaking and teaching and that became such a demand that I had to make a decision. Do I consult for the BBC, Adidas, and Proctor and Gamble, or do I keep doing what I’m doing? It felt like it was a good time to try something new.

I see myself now as a story prophet or something. I’m roaming the land, telling anybody that wants to hear about techniques of great story telling. If they want to throw stones at me, that’s fine. But most of the time, people are happy to learn about how they can be better storytellers. Whether for non-profit companies, big brands, or directors that want me to help them.

I do half and half. I work as a consultant writer for film companies and for directors. That’s half my job now. The other half is helping companies with telling their story, improving their brand, and helping people be able to do a better job reaching their audience through creating relationships through great storytelling.

What’s the hardest thing about being a professional storyteller?

This is different for everybody, but for me, there’s never enough time. There’s never enough time for me to create and write and do all of it, all of the fun things. I wish I could, I try, but there are only so many hours in the day. I know that some people’s answers would be, “to be able to keep creative. I get creatively empty.” I’ve never had that problem. The problem is there’s only one of me; there’s never enough time to do it all.

Even when I was on stage and I was talking, I was also creating a story in the other half of my brain.I was having a conversation with myself in my head while I was doing that.

I will end up doing a keynote at a conference, then fly to New York City and on the flight, I’ll continue writing the script for the director that is going to make a pitch to get an idea green-lit.

So for example, one idea got green-lit last week with a director, and it got announced in the entertainment magazines. I’ve been writing that on airplanes, and it just got green-lit. Cool!

How can I frame storytelling skills as valuable to a future employer?

I would say that companies are not selling these days. It’s beyond “selling stuff.” Now it’s about telling a story—that does the selling. It’s beyond just a shoe, a computer, a car. It’s selling a feeling. It’s selling a story around your company. The great brands and leaders of this world know that whoever tells the best story wins, no matter how good your product is.

What do you do when you find resistance to storytelling within a workplace?

If you’re finding resistance, try to change the culture. Helping people be better storytellers and helping a company be better at telling their story is going to be better for the whole company.

How would you go helping a company with storytelling?

It has to start from up top. You have to be able to give a compelling pitch to leaders about the importance of story in the brand and the product. If you can convince them, then you’ve got it.

I’ve done many pitches, and I can sense when they’re moved, and they get it, but you have to be brave to incorporate it.

Do you think that being a good storyteller relates to EQ?

People can have a super high IQ and speak tons of languages, but if you cannot speak the language of storytelling, you’re not going to be able to communicate with people.

There are so many aspects to telling a great story, but it’s about making people feel something, it’s about making people feel empathetic to your character. It’s about evoking that emotion.

There are so many aspects to telling a great story, but it’s about making people feel something, it’s about making people feel empathetic to your character. It’s about evoking that emotion.

Take the Mercedes-Benz commercial, Snow Date. It makes you feel something—and it’s a whole lot more interesting than having a German guy talking about the precision of the Mercedes in bad weather.

What are your favourite podcasts for storytellers?

Coming from someone who’s still reading books, I’m still additive to Radiolab, this American Life, very good pacing, storytelling, painting a picture in your head. Those are pretty much the only ones I listen to.

I’m pretty addicted to any book on storytelling, marketing, connecting people, but at the same time, I love being able to read a book that takes place in our world, usually in the past but with a fictionalized story. I love the stories that take you back to a different time.