She is affectionately known as the story guru in intimate Hollywood circles; her portfolio includes the animated blockbusters Frozen, Finding Nemo and Toy Story.
When Bobette Buster began her Sydney Writer’s Festival talk, Telling Stories with Pixar, she did not mince words. Standing barefoot on the stage, she addressed the young, hip crowd at Walsh Bay with a vigour that openly defied any lingering jet lag.
“We are hard-wired to respond to stories that are well told,” she said as the afternoon sun filtered into the room. “Stories are the essence of what it is to be a human being. This is how we advance civilization, by telling great stories.”
California-based Ms Buster is an academic and story consultant and advisor for major studios including Disney Animation, Pixar, Sony Animation and 20th Century Fox. Her book, Do Story, How To Tell Your Story So The World Listens, was published recently.
“Cinema is the art form of transformation. You must experience someone changing and what storytelling does best, is to create audacity. You turn something upside-down. You create a whole new idea with it,” she said.
“The most important thing you can tell, is a great theme that connects to people’s lives.”
It was the desire to explore stories through themes that led her to animation. Judging by the success of the films she has contributed to, Ms Buster appears to have found the magic ingredients. She realised that a nice story will not suffice. We, the audience, wish to be enchanted.
Using a series of film clips, she showed how some classic films managed to enchant their audience. Star Wars 4, Finding Nemo, The Godfather and ET all flickered on the sun-drenched screen. For a few moments, while each clip played, the audience was spellbound.
The power of these films is no accident: Within each film clip there was adventure, vulnerability and, ultimately, a transformation in the character.
“Homer was right, the story is all about characters finding themselves within the journey,” she said. “The essence of great storytelling is watching someone become vulnerable.”
So how does this formula specifically relate to animated films? They have another key ingredient, she said. “Finding Nemo ends with the kids disappearing into the deep blue and the parents having to let go. So who’s the target audience for Finding Nemo?” Ms Buster asked. “It’s really the parents.”
Animations are no longer just a form of kid’s entertainment. Today’s animations are meticulously constructed to be an entertaining story for children, while simultaneously providing a thought-provoking journey for parents.
On the surface, the Toy Storyfranchise is a light-hearted fantasy where toys come to life. But on a deeper level Toy Story 2 is concerned with something much more profound, Ms Buster said.
“Someday, somebody you love and trust is going to throw you away and you will not be missed.”
The real essence of the story comes from the film’s exploration of what is it to love anyway, knowing that people will break your heart. “That is the use of enchantment, put into a world of wonder,” she said.
When parents pay for a cinema ticket, they are buying more than a few hour’s entertainment for their children. They are also paying for their children to learn about the greatest challenges in life and how to overcome them.
This is no new phenomenon. Tracing stories back to the early fairytales collected by the brothers Grimm, Ms Buster said the purpose of these tales was to prepare children for the hardships of the world.
Contemporary filmmakers are also tapping into the power of stories that survived hundreds of years of oral tradition. Filmmakers have realised that the process of characters overcoming emotionally charged situations enchants us, the audience.
“How do you psychologically prepare people for life’s inevitable difficulties? It is through the telling of stories,” she said emphatically. “We want to see a character conquer pain, fear and vulnerability because when we see them achieve greatness, it helps us to imagine our own success.”
Just like the fairytale children who remembered to hope, even as they were stumbling lost in the dark forest, we are attracted to films that psychologically prepare us for life’s most challenging moments, she said.
Ms Buster finished her talk with a touching anecdote about the power of enchantment. During a trip to Amsterdam she discovered that Anne Frank had a photograph of film star Sonja Henie above the desk where she wrote her famous diary. Ms Buster believes this photograph and the world it represented allowed Anne Frank to escape from her reality and, if only for a moment each day, to hope.