Theory: Three Steps to Greater Creativity


Recently on Facebook, I was asked why I thought originality in animation was such a rare thing today. I pointed out that originality and creativity are closely connected, and they aren’t just magical gifts that you are either born with or you aren’t. They come from a body of knowledge and a set of skills that can be learned. Originality and creativity are both fed by the same things… observation of life, the ability to think like an artist, and a wide range of creative influences.

The primary source of inspiration for all artists is the observation of real life.

Too many animated films employ character “archetypes”… generic mom and dad characters, typical wimpy kid, his goofy dog and clever cat, bratty little sister… I don’t know about you but those sorts of characters bore me stiff. The best actors will tell you that they don’t create characters by looking at what other actors do or employing stereotypes. They look at real people and try to capture the gestures, walk and attitudes that express that person’s unique personality. It works exactly the same in animation.

When you’re riding the bus, drinking your coffee at Starbucks or standing in line at the DMV, pay attention to the people around you. Look for unique personalities and try to capture them in your sketchbook. Exaggerate and caricature them to see how you might put those personalities across in an animated character. You’ll find that the characters you see on the street are a lot more interesting than the characters you see in most animated films.

In an earlier post on Facebook, I pointed out one of the primary creative skills, *ideation*. Another skill that is invaluable is *analysis*. Analysis is at the core of what it means to think like an artist.

When the average person sits down to watch an animated film, they are carried away into the fantasy and let the film direct their imagination and entertain them. A film maker thinks differently. Once your mind is trained to understand the process of film making, you will never sit in the theater as just another member of the audience again. You definitely lose that innocence. But it is replaced by something even more important.

When a film maker watches a film, he is looking at the application of technique. How does the film establish its characters and environment? How does it set up the conflict? What rhythms and pacing are being used to carry the film forward… contrasts in moods… staging… color… music… sound effects… acting… dialogue… All these things and more are revealed through analysis. Turn on your brain and your creativity will follow.

Lastly, it’s important to expose yourself to a broad spectrum of artistic creativity… not just the few things you already know about and like.

When I produced the “I Miss You” rock video for Bjork, the director John K was describing for the CGI animator how he wanted the rubber nipples on Bjork’s chest to move. He told him to reference a Harman-Ising cartoon called “The Milky Way”. John described the action of the nipples squirting milk in that cartoon very carefully, and even was able to chart out the timing of the movement to the frame.

Now, anyone who knows John K knows that Harman-Ising cartoons are about as far away from his personal taste as a cartoon can get. Yet he had studied “The Milky Way” carefully and had found a technique in it that he could use. He filed it away in his head and was able to retrieve it when a time came that he could use it. Classic cartoons are a gold mine of information on technique.

When you as a filmmaker are watching movies, TV shows and animation, you shouldn’t just limit yourself to what you personally *like*. Focus instead on what you can learn from. The principle of garbage in- garbage out applies here. If you watch nothing but lousy animation and stupid movies, what sorts of animation do you expect to produce yourself?

In fact, animation should be just a small portion of what you study and expose yourself to. In order to be a creative artist in animation, you need to understand and appreciate ALL of the arts. This means studying the history of all forms of music- from classical music and opera to country music and jazz. It’s the same with the history of painting, and sculpture, and dance, and most of all- film making.

If you want to train yourself to think analytically about film, choose really good examples from the past to study. Classic films are packed with cinematic techniques that animation hasn’t even touched on yet, and they will open your mind to new genres to explore. In the entire history of animation, there have been thousands of cats chasing mice and dogs chasing cats, but how many gothic horror movies have their been? How many noir thrillers? Westerns? War pictures? People love to say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” but in animation, that isn’t true. There are a LOT more stories to be told.

Another advantage to using older films as reference is that you are more likely to pull out pure technique and less likely to simply imitate. If you are looking at a WWII movie, you can’t just copy situations and dialogue because it is from a different time and place. Instead, you are forced to focus on the acting, the staging or the cutting technique. Stealing technique isn’t stealing. It requires adaptation to your own context. Copying specific gags, situations or dialogue from modern movies similar to the one you are making is definitely stealing.

The keys to creativity in animated film making are to… 1) Open your eyes to the world around you, 2) Think about what you see- analyze how it works, and 3) Expose yourself to a wider range of creative influences.

When your frame of reference is limited to anime, video games and superhero movies, it shouldn’t be surprising that everything you create is derivative. That kind of background may seem to be a good foundation to build a career in animation on first glance, but look at the animators of the past… Milt Kahl had classical art training from Chouinard, Carlo Vinci won a scholarship to the prestigious National Academy of Design, and Grim Natwick studied painting in Vienna under Gustav Klimt. Animators back then were artists first and animators second. If you want to imitate someone’s approach to creativity, imitate the best! Become an artist.

7 Responses to “Theory: Three Steps to Greater Creativity”

  1. T. Pyrope says:

    In the way of movies, do you have any specific titles that you personally would recommend? Any I can find on Netflix? Also you should make a playlist or a pandora station with music seeds of the best stuff.

    It’d be nice to see what moves you. I believe sharing is caring when it comes to sharing what personally moves each of us regardless of eras. There is some level appeal in everything. You just have to open your eyes it all. Personal appeal transcends any era. The most important thing is to take everything you like or what speaks to you on a deep level and pour it out into your art. You have to like a lot of things in order to do that.

    This also shows the importance of sharing with friends. I find things easier to understand and like if i have friends who also like it. It’s one thing to find something cool on the internet and think “oh yeah that’s pretty cool”. The feeling is different when a close friend is like “hey check this out” and the enjoyment is contagious. It’s an eye opener in itself. So find creative folk who enjoy good stuff and discuss things. I know this from personal experience. I was struggling with my comics for so long. Then I met a creative minded friend. I finally had someone to discuss ideas with and to share things with. It has benefited us both.

  2. DISTRAKT says:

    Powerful post thank you

  3. Edgar J says:

    I find your advice spot on but I don’t think there is only a matter of creativity. Now it’s easier than ever to get access and study a miryad of classic films, throught things like facebook and pinterest or with sites such as this, people get exposed to awesome art and advice for free on the regular basis I think what is happening is something that I’ve heard the very same John K mention a couple of times in fact I read an interview to Gorge Lucas today and even he was whining about this and is that everything is now corporate an the people who make the final decisions to see if something is greenlit know nothing about the arts or they don’t trust it to the ones that do, they are a board of people representing shareholders and they only take safe decisions thus limiting the creative expression is the same on the education system and everywhere in all levels so to see something really cool or inovative I guess the best bet is to look into independent comics, animation and short films and stuff use vimeo look your comic book stores film festivals etc.. there is still very creative and quality stuff being produced is just hard to come by on the mainstream

    • Unfortunately, when you reach a certain level of accomplishment, you want to work with a good budget and hire talented artists to help you achieve your vision.

      We have an infinite library of artwork from the past to refer to, but a lot of young artists still watch the same cartoons they grew up with, listen to only current music, and watch only current movies. Books on animation history are written by studio publicists. The world is suffering from a case of cultural amnesia. A young artist can’t depend on the media to serve the good stuff up. They have to go digging for it.

  4. mitchell says:

    Yeah, well. Creativity tends to be rarer in regressive times like ours. Anything intellectual has been disparaged for decades now. (The fine art area has been pretty flaccid for decades too.) Too, as a medium ages, the percentage of rote work grows and grows and grows….

  5. DISTRAKT says:

    Animation influenced powered flight! The Wright Brothers know about Étienne-Jules Marey need I say more.

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