Whoever tells the best story wins and other lessons from former lead storyteller and animator for Pixar Studios, Matthew Luhn
Matthew Luhn is an animated man; he talks with such fervor and exuberance that he can actually pass as the voice of a Disney character. Behind award-winning films like Monsters Inc., Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Up, the award-winning filmmaker, director and former lead storyteller and animator for Pixar Studios has made a lasting impact on people from across generations. He’s also the author of The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. In a nutshell, he “makes people cry for a living.”
At the recently concluded DigiCon 2023, where digital entertainment received the spotlight, the keynote speaker let us in on his secret to great entertainment: powerful storytelling. “A storyteller is supposed to make you laugh, cry and, most importantly, inspire you—inspire you to look at the world differently, inspire you to look at life differently,” Matthew reveals.
His story begins at a not-so-normal place: the oldest toy store in San Francisco, Jeffrey’s Toys, family-owned and operated since 1953. His great-grandparents owned it, and his parents eventually took over the business. Matthew’s dad’s dream was to be a Disney animator—he was always drawing. Though his grandfather believed this path would lead him to become a “starving artist,” his father gave him all the opportunities possible to instill this love for illustration in Matthew—he gave him comic books and took him to the movies a lot. “You are the chosen one. You will live my dream and work for the Disney company one day,” his father manifested.
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Matthew eventually studied illustration at the California Institute of the Arts founded by Walt Disney himself, which nurtured generations of creative talent, with alumni like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. In his freshman year, a director of The Simpsons came to his school and watched a short film he made during his freshman year and offered him a job to be an animator on the show. At 19 years old, he left college and moved to Hollywood and worked on the third season of The Simpsons.
Over time, he developed a love for writing and coming up with stories. He transferred to a startup, what we now know as Pixar Studios and founded by Steve Jobs, when they suggested creating an animated film “that would have no prince or princess.”
“I was one of the first 12 animators on Toy Story [who] had to figure out how in the world you animate characters on a computer,” he shares. The first characters he made were “those little army men.” It became the highest-grossing film of 1995. The glue that held it all together? It had a great story. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The animator-turned-storyteller would end up working on award-winning films for the next 20 years. Matthew says, “We put our hearts into these movies to make sure that they weren’t just gonna entertain you for a couple of hours but for years.”
In his decades-long career, Matthew Luhn has learned how essential good storytelling is. “It all comes down to whoever tells the best story wins. Stories are so meaningful and so magical because they make information memorable, impactful and personal. This isn’t just for entertainment, but it’s for everything we do.”
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It’s a visual storytelling world we live in and for something to be remembered, people want to be told a story.
Art James Francisco