Andrew Stanton did a keynote talk at some point. Belzeque has transcribed it (looks like the blog is worth a spin through).
Stanton talks about how he has to have a touchstone moment in a film, that's the emotional core of the story, as a kind of compass to keep the rest of the film on course: "I tell you, without that emotional key image it was always a tremendous chore to figure out our course and to stay on it. You were always attacking things from your head and not your heart. You were always finding yourself confused and asking, "Why is this moment here? Why is my character doing this?" You had nothing to reset yourself and put you back in the centre and look at it from an emotional point of view."
For Toy Story it was the simple imagery of an old favourite toy on the bed, being knocked off and replaced by a brand new favourite toy, all the jealousy and insecurities that would naturally be stirred up by that [garbled] evoked.
Toy Story 2 was Woody at the crossroads of his toy existence, looking down that ventilation shaft that elicited the fear and anxiety of facing death.
For Monsters Incorporated it was the simple image of a giant furry paw holding the tiny hand of a little girl. It was an actual sketch. I couldn't find it so I used this clip. It conjured up the childhood issues of overcoming your fears and the trials of an adult adjusting to parenthood.
For Finding Nemo it was the discovery of a sole surviving fish egg in the sand. It represented the moment your child is born and you hold it and you're barraged with a sea of overwhelming conflicting emotions: love, sadness, joy, but most of all, fear.
on Toy Story 2
Now, how were we able to rewrite 75% of the picture in three months? Well, we were able to do that -- and I only kinda saw this in hindsight, because we were working too fast to think about it at the time -- was... the characters were already known. This is one of the biggest insights for me: that's where most of your time is spent. For as much as you need to be rewriting plot again and again, it's all in the means to try to figure out who your characters are, how they see the world, how they make decisions, how they react to things.
And you can't do that separately from the plot. Sometimes you have to rewrite the plot again and again until you find these character insights. most of those three months were actually spent on the three characters that were new, that we didn't know, which were the Roundup Gang.
If you construct your story correctly it compels the audience to conclude the answer is four. This works for every aspect of filmmaking down to a molecular level. Most obviously it works with editing -- of course you know the Eisenstein where they show the face, then they show the food, then they show the same face, and they show the woman, and you interpret that either as lust or as hunger.
But it also works in doling out plot lines, just like we saw in the Ryan's Daughter clip. It works with dialogue, where you don't say what you actually mean. It works with relationships: how to get something, because your adding what somebody says with somebody else.
And whenever Bob and I are trying to introduce characters, we always wanted to do it as smart and economical as that skit. We'd always say, "It need to have that 'It's your mother, remember me' get-ability. You just right away got it like doing two plus two.
"I think that for a movie or a play to say anything really truthful about life, it has to do so very obliquely, so as to avoid all pat conclusions and neatly tied-up ideas. The point of view it is conveying has to be completely entwined with a sense of life as it is, and has to be got across through a subtle injection into the audience's consciousness. Ideas which are valid and truthful are so multi-faceted that they don't yield themselves to frontal assault. The ideas have to be discovered by the audience, and their thrill in making the discovery makes those ideas all the more powerful. You use the audience's thrill of surprise and discovery to reinforce your ideas, rather than reinforce them artificially through plot points or phony drama or phony stage dynamics put in to power them across." -- Stanley Kubrick, 1960.