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The Perseverance of Creativity — How to survive when inspiration turns into work

The following is an article sponsored by the folks at Toon Boom Animation, Inc. Sponsored posts start from a shared idea between Sugar Gamers and our sponsors, and are developed in our test kitchens using only the finest of free-range interviews. All interviewees are unaffiliated with the sponsor except when clearly noted.

Creators have gotten very good at brevity.

Developers, show runners, fiction writers and even musicians have gotten terribly, horribly good at not just creativity but an economy, pacing, and the other minutiae that keeps work frictionless and “bingeworthy.” As a culture, we have created an entire language of conventions in film, television, games, and written word whereby creators strip away huge swaths of their characters’ lives in order to perpetuate the spell.

If you’re worried that I’m going to stand here as a cynic and tell you this sort of concern for brevity and pacing is wrong, please don’t be. I know better. My day job is as a designer and writer, and to work in any creative field is to believe in what’s not real. But it’s important to know what you’re seeing isn’t real, does not exist outside the screen.

We all know this on some level, of course, but we only know it on reflection which does us no good in the moment. So when the TV scientist struggles with a huge problem, and the language of film truncates and transforms days, months, or maybe years of heartache and dread into a simple gesture – the character rubbing her temples and pinching the bridge of her nose – we say of this single scene “she must be working so hard.” And when she comes up with the solution, it’s vastly more exciting and miraculous than in normal life. That camera that missed so many formative hours of struggle now follows our scientist as she gets up to make coffee. And when the product-placed creamer hits the mug, the camera zooms in to catch the spiral arm of French vanilla uncoiling against dark roast. The music swells, the reaction shot is shown. The audience is elated.

This is the eureka moment.

This is how creative thought is sold to us. It is momentary worry of the problem followed by the flash of brilliance, the impossible leap of reason or talent that saves the day in an instant. All the work which comes between those two moments, and all the work after, are marginalized or cut away entirely so as not to burden the audience. We see the creamer in the coffee and the eureka moment, and we say “isn’t this scientist brilliant! And aren’t we a little brilliant for seeing it with her?”

The point is: the work doesn’t get the close-up. The point is: the work gets cut for time.

This dogmatic adherence to abbreviation isn’t just confined to fiction. This format has far-ranging seduction because it’s so effective in getting a point. So, you’ll see the same format used to describe non-fiction events. Documentaries use the same format these days, many even taking the three-act structure. ESPN’s 30-for-30, most published memoires, and a staggering number of Silicon Valley brand stories (with their adherence to the format of “from literal garage to Fortune 500 list” story beats) work on fiction’s structure.

This cliché scene about the scientist and the common misrepresentation it embodies are important because they’re going to color everything that follows. Both in this article and in your life.

Path to Creation

I’m not here to tell you this is wrong. I’m here to say creative work is about dedicating your life chasing eureka moments… and everything petty, and trivial, and frustrating gets managed to make room for the miraculous. The work, the research, the client briefs, all of it is of such critical importance it will define you in ways you cannot begin to describe, even to yourself.

But the goal is always to cut the work for time. Because even in your day-to-day existence, you’re struggling to be the TV hero.

I caught up with some friends and colleagues to ask how they work through that section where creating stops being new and exciting and turns into work.

Sean Connolly (Reel Captivation)

Yes. When something is boarded out and playing for you as an animatic with sound fx and transitions and camera moves and music it almost feels complete. Animatics can be done fairly quickly, cheaply and, to me, are the most rewarding part of a project outside of finishing it. The problem is that word “almost”. And it will take way more hours of work to change “almost” to “done.” So I can think of two things that help:

  1. I like to think of it like Dr. Leo Marvin…Baby steps. I think about just conquering each scene, and making that the best that I can make it. By doing this I’m agonizing over details in a shot NOT over the story (which is the ultimate inspiration). I know the story works because I saw it in the animatic so I don’t need to agonize over that. Actually, as a side note, animation allows me to baby step it. If it’s a production edit you’re kind of forced to watch things over and over. I actually find myself having post-inspiration doldrums more on production edits than animation.
  1. I like to treat viewings as special occasions. Call the team over so everyone can watch it. I don’t watch the whole thing every time a scene is complete. It’s always exciting to see things come together…that focuses your attention on what you were excited about to begin with. But you do that too often, then things become boring and you become numb to your story.
  1. By the time you get to polishing you’re just screwed. It’s the worst.

 John Carpenter's Assymlum -- Trailer by Reel Captivation

 

Jeff Balke (Urban Legends)

YES!  A LOT of times in the comic book world you are so excited about working on a certain project/comic, but then as you’re having a good time working on the comic, you start realizing that your editor is kind of a beast and sending you updates and fixes every 4 minutes.  Then is when it starts to become…WORK!  lol

But what I do is take that and think to myself..”hey, I could be back working retail and being very unhappy at my job.”  That usually lights a fire under me..lol

 Jeff Balke

 

Scott Sava (Blue Dream Studios)

 Short Attention Span Boy here. So yeah. If it’s anything more than 15 minutes… I’m moving on. So working on a 3 year project… I get that a LOT.

 But you have to keep these things in perspective. While working on a film and dealing with “not fun” things can get you down… you have to remind yourself (sometimes 30 times a day)… YOU’RE WORKING ON A FILM!

 Not digging ditches. Not struggling to feed my family. 

 Making a movie. 

 So, I think ANYTHING artistic that “gets boring” you need to remind yourself that you are blessed with the opportunity to work on something creative. To release that creativity.

animal crackers movie

The Conclusion of Creativity

As for me? I lose excitement quickly, and the flood of emails, notes, mark-ups, and interminable meetings quickly builds distance between myself and my initial ideas. I manage this with designated “black-out” windows where I’m off the internet and working, loud music to further seal me off from the world, and keeping myself from interjecting chaos. I have this issue where I’ll try to use stress as a replacement form of excitement, so a lot of my strategies are based around mitigating that behavior.

I also focus as myopically as I can about finishing each portion as I work on it, and not letting myself go back until the final polish stage. Otherwise I’ll keep reworking one element or one paragraph, letting myself drift further and further off course and off schedule.

Finally, there’s something that Scott said when I brought up that Toon Boom was backing this article:

Yeah. Some of our story artists used it [Storyboard Pro] and they loved it for how quickly they could get work to me. Definitely something that’s indispensable for film and animation.

Rapid prototyping is critical for getting through things faster. I can’t (and shouldn’t) front-load everything and force burn-out early, but the more things I can solve in the sketch phase, generally the better I am at avoiding a massive, structural problem in a design or write-up. Working digitally means I can rapidly test out ideas and see them on the page, which gives me more room for discovery and experimentation (the previously rarefied fun parts of the working doldrums).

Creative work is still work. It’s still a job that requires immense patience with yourself, boundaries with other people, and setting expectations with everyone.

So go, be productive. Just remember that you can write, draw, or animate a montage… but you can’t live one.
This post was sponsored by Toon Boom Animation, Inc..

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John doesn't really know what he does for a living, but chances are you've played a video game he's worked, on own an article of clothing he had some hand in bringing to market, or heard his words come out of some creative director or chief executive's mouth. You've for sure read his writing, unless you got to this bio by accident. As a kid, John used to tell people he wanted to grow up to be a giant spider, and lately he's starting to consider that a viable career change. But he's afraid he doesn't have the right degree for it. John lives on the South Side of Chicago with one very wonderful wife, two horribly manipulative felines, and about a bajillion comic books, screen prints, and gaming accessories.
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