Simple Parameters Drive Creativity

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

During the golden age of movies, which took place between 1933-1963 (some would argue it started in 1915, but the box office dollars disagree), The Hayes Motion Picture Code was in place to make sure films were wholesome and moral. I’ve read numerous accounts of directors saying that it was more rewarding to make movies prior to 1963 because the parameters placed on filmmakers by the code forced directors to be more creative—causing the films to be of a higher quality.

In talking with a Broadway producer last year, I learned that the preproduction period never exceeds 12-weeks. The reason is that the 8-12-week parameters are just the right amount of time to ensure excellence on opening day. The period is long enough for the cast to learn their songs, steps, and costume changes, and short enough to not cause anyone to get bored with the show.

Placing these types of soft parameters on projects is enough to drive the creative flow without choking out or overstressing the artists. The heightened creativity increases the entertainment value, which turns into box office dollars during the show’s run.

Unfortunately, if stress stays in play too long, not only does our creativity fail us, but we see negative side effects. According to ULifeline, an online resource for college mental health, “Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and even heart disease. In particular, too much epinephrine can be harmful to your heart. It can change the arteries and how their cells are able to regenerate.”

Unwarranted or unrealistic pressures placed on employees from a boss who doesn’t understand how to encourage innovation leads to catastrophe in the areas of creativity and innovation. However, soft parameters can drive a sense of focus on a project that propels it into an active state that draws the support of the entire team.

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, understands that an overly stressed environment destroys the team and honing a quality environment filled with good people drives innovation. In his book, Creativity, Inc. he says, “Find, develop, and support good people, and they, in turn, will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

There is an investment in good people that must be embraced for innovation to excel. Prior to the 1980s, companies never used the lay-offs to balance the budget. Today, employees never know when some form of downsizing will put them out on the streets, making it difficult for a person to innovate. Creativity must be nurtured within companies, which requires companies to allow for failure.

If people are let go because of a mistake, the simple act of watching someone being fired hinders the entire team’s creativity. But if people are treasured and the mistake develops a clear understanding of what doesn’t work, then the team benefits from the practice and empowers others to innovate.

Catmul speaks frankly about employees when he says, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

The light pressure of an audience’s need or request drives quality workers to step up their creative game and produce an unexpected thrill. Empowered creatives always come up with a great solution or a better form of the requested innovation.

To have this type of success on your team, implement the following steps:

  • Lay out the simple parameters of the project (allowing complexity to come from the design, not the idea)
  • Embrace failure as a lesson learned for the next steps (never allowing fear into the creative process)
  • Empower the creatives to explore multiple possibilities (never settling for the first idea)
  • Maintain deadlines (without creating added pressure)
  • Wait expectantly for the emerging solution to solidify (the polishing process makes all the difference)
  • AND, remember that products are not finished until its release date (or a few weeks later, but rarely earlier)

A team that understands failure adds to their learning and innovation comes from play, is positioned to create something far better than originally conceived. Their empowerment comes from focused parameters and the freedom to explore. Anything opposing these key elements hinders the team’s ability to innovate.

© 2019 CJ Powers

 

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The Library of Focus

LibraryThe Art Institute of Chicago is a wonderful place to explore painting styles that have brought pleasure throughout the centuries. Some of the great classics are on display including works from Winslow Homer, Grant Wood, and Edward Hopper. Each piece of great art can capture your attention and maintain your focus for several minutes, unless you’ve experienced what I call “artistry overload.”

The last time I visited the museum, I felt the effects of artistry overload after attempting to pause at each of the 1,000 plus paintings and appreciate what the artist was attempting to communicate. My time dwindled quickly and I never got to the works of art that I appreciate most.

I did, however, learn to appreciate several new artists that most people raced past on their way to more familiar corridors. My observation that day helped me to realize that knowing when to pass or pause was essential to understanding and appreciating great art.

I first became aware of artistry overload when I visited the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Prior to attending, I had watched two documentaries on the making of the park and read a couple of behind the scenes books regarding the details missed by most vacationers. I was ready to experience the park through the eyes of the artists who created the venue.

The turnstiles spun as a large crowd moved into the park. I tried to avoid bumping into too many people as we funneled toward the entrance. I was ready to see the park with new eyes. Everything I had learned popped into my mind as I saw the very things I read about.

Glancing around, I realized that I was one of the few appreciating the full artistry of the show (“Show” being one of Disney’s four keys to a great guest experience). Most hurried past on the way to their favorite rides.

The layout of the Magic Kingdom was designed to be a show, similar to watching a movie. The first things you see are the trailers or coming attractions. When you enter through the tunnel that resides under the train tracks, you see posters on the walls featuring the coming attractions from inside the park.

Once you enter Main Street Square, it’s like watching the opening credits. The signs and windows are covered with the names of people who made the Magic Kingdom possible. For instance, above the Main Street Athletic Club are the words, “Big Top Theatrical – Claude Coats, Marc Davis, John DeCuir, Bill Justice.”

The sign honors the four men listed, three of which are Disney Legends, although they had nothing to do with any make-believe Big Top Theatrical company. Claude Coats painted all the sets for Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he also worked with Imagineering to design numerous rides including Pirates of the Caribbean. Marc Davis was one of the Nine Old Men, core animators during Disney’s life.

John DeCuir was a production designer and art director who not only won three Oscars for his work on The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963), and Hello, Dolly! (1969), but also illustrated in watercolors numerous theme park ideas that Disney dreamt up for the Magic Kingdom. Bill Justice, who painted many of Disney’s ideas, also animated characters in Disney’s classics, but is most known for animating Thumper from Bambi (1942).

There are dozens of credits throughout Main Street that pay tribute to the park’s artists, but are only appreciated by the discerning eye. I had fun scanning Main Street’s heritage, but soon tired from all the visuals bombarding me. I was experiencing artistry overload. The more I knew and could appreciate, the slower my trek down the boulevard.

I shared what little I had accumulated concerning artistry overload to a friend, who happily suggested that I shift my focus to what I use in a library. He said, “Picture shelves upon shelves of books expanding across aisles and aisles of floor space. All of which are due appreciation at some point, but not today.”

My mind jumped to my last library visit. I headed straight for my two favorite stacks of books. One held the books on entertainment and the other on movies and filmmaking. The carpet was well worn from my many visits and the nearby table was comfortably familiar. It was a place that never overwhelmed me, as I had already perused every book on the shelves.

That was my answer. I had to return to the Art Institute of Chicago multiple times. Once to see the traveling Monet exhibit, another time to study the miniatures, which I’m so very fond of, and another time to explore one new artist. Maybe during another month I’d visit my favorite artists and then plan future explorations to improve my discerning tastes and expand my horizons.

Heading back to the Magic Kingdom with a plan created great relief. I spent three entire days exploring things that most people miss. In fact, after a discussion with a cast member, I soon found myself behind the scenes and appreciating the artistry of show far more than I could ever have imagined.

The key was seeing things from a library of focus. No longer would I see the entire library as I entered, but instead I’d focus on only the things I was ready to explore. Just as a great movie can be watched numerous times to pick up on all the director’s hidden Easter eggs, how I enter new locations with a sense of appreciation changed to only take in what I could manage on any given day.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

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The Toy Story 2 Argument: People vs. Ideas

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Ed Catmull offers business lessons from Pixar and Disney in his book, “Creativity, Inc.” I agreed with his perspective on the value of people over ideas, which runs counterintuitive with the majority of production companies.

Most of his philosophy came about during his work on Toy Story 2, a production that originated as a direct to video release, but took a sharp turn and became one of the most successful theatrical sequels of all time. Unfortunately the success and its lessons came at a great cost that formed Catmull’s philosophy.

The argument comes from the business value that either the people or the ideas are more important. The determination of what a company values most determines the processes that exploits that value. If ideas are more important, then the company churns their employees in search of great ideas, but if the people are more important they see to their needs knowing that they will create great ideas.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up,” says Catmull. “If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Putting a team of the right people with the right chemistry together is the necessary precursor to getting the right ideas. But not everyone agrees with this philosophy. When asked among industry peers the responses to people vs. ideas generate a 50/50 response. This statistically suggests that no one is responding to fact or experience, but rather are all guessing, picking a random answer, as if flipping a coin.

“To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people,” says Catmull. “Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”

The key is determining what makes the people the right people for a project. Some would suggest character alone is sufficient, while others state the importance of mastering one’s craft or holding years of experience. I find that what makes for an ideal person to join a team is one who subscribes to a continuous pursuit of knowledge, the endless exploration of their craft, and a willingness to learn from peers.

“In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, ‘A movie about talking toys— what a clever idea!’ But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people,” says Catmull. “The underlying goals remain the same: Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

It’s no wonder that master craftsmen are drawn to others who have mastered their craft. Nor is it strange that excellent creatives gravitate to projects that attract like-minded creatives.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Maleficent Speaks to Anti-Hero Culture

maleficentThe latest trend in Hollywood is toward anti-heroes, which can make a fun change up in the usual story structure for adults, but can leave kids confused. Our culture is familiar with a hero who battles numerous obstacles, learns a lesson and overcomes his weakness. Today, Maleficent, the latest anti-hero, is trying to capture the attention of kids who are in the beginning stages of learning how to discern between right and wrong.

Anti-heroes are bad people or outcasts who can be good at times. They are typically out for themselves both in decision-making and outlook on life. For a society to accept an anti-hero, it must first choose to stop distinguishing between right and wrong. The society must get to the place where it’s tolerant of all behavior, regardless of how improper or dysfunctional it might be.

The storyline in Maleficent puts the audience in a place where they must allow wrong doings through a form of emotional justification. More simply put, they must choose to be tolerant of wrongdoing. Once done, the audience can easily relate to the anti-hero and even embrace her worldview on life.

Children who have not yet reached the age of reason are not capable of understanding the lessons that can be prompted by an anti-hero story. Instead, they accept it as facts and many times find a way to emulate the anti-hero. While this outcome is not a given, many kids can use what they’ve learned from the actions of an anti-hero to justify their dark side.

Just as a hero can lead a person into hope and to some form of action, the anti-hero can also lead the indiscriminating viewer into a worldview that is highly self centered and sometimes mentally dangerous. This issue becomes even more complex in the eyes of a child who hasn’t reached the developmental stage that allows for reason.

The key question for parents to consider is whether or not they want their kids following or emulating an anti-hero.

Years ago I watched a film that showed Judas as an anti-hero. He had a great following in the Pharisees who wanted to see Jesus taken out. While the Jewish people of the day may have held a similar perspective, modern culture suggests that Judas was an antagonist or a bad guy, not an anti-hero.

That’s not to say all anti-heroes are bad. Most are just people who don’t have an heroic aptitude, but was in the right place at the right time and happened to save others from some form of distress.

I recently watched a segment on 60 Minutes that featured a coach who was anything but a hero. However, his actions, not heroic tendencies, still made him a hero to many. There were several great lessons learned by watching the anti-hero coach, which is why the story structure can be a great change up for the discerning viewer. But, anti-heroes are very confusing to kids who haven’t hit the age of reason.

My recommendation for those parents interested in watching Maleficent is that they do so without young children. And, for those with older kids, I recommend conversation after the film that dives into perceptions and whether or not right and wrong still exist today.