Monday, March 15, 2010

Drawing Inspiration

My family ordered pizza and watched "Up" last night. And yes, I continue to marvel at Pixar's technical innovation (how did they light that girl's room up like a kaleidoscope as the balloon-house rose above it?). I can't believe what I watched is animation. I simply refuse to believe it. My theory is that in addition to computer wizardry, there is a healthy dose of magic that is added in post-production and that is how the film turns out the way it does. It's just a theory.

But amazingly, I am more astonished by the aspect of this film that has nothing to do with computer animation or RenderMan technology. I think the true genius of this film (and, most of Pixar's offerings) comes through the storytelling.

"Up" is a clinic in taking a basic story idea and developing richness around it. The basic outline couldn't be simpler: From childhood, a man finds his perfect match. They love each other. They live a long, beautiful life together. But she dies before they can ever do the one big adventure they'd planned since they were children. In her absence, he feels the weight of her death at every moment. How does he move on?

That's where the genius of imagination creates depth and nuance and metaphor. It is the moment in the process in which the author stops thinking solely in linear waves, but in the abstract, in analogies and symbols, in the "what if" and limitless possibility. And in this part of the creative process, in which the expected and the familiar are gently set aside, true creation is allowed to play and breathe and lead and expand.

In "Up", the protagonist Carl's problem is the heaviness of age and adulthood, and so ironically his backstory is that he sells helium balloons - a lighter than air occupation that is entirely connected to the emotional nature of childhood. 

The writers have his dying wife giving him her “Adventure Book”. At a page labeled “Stuff I’ve done”, Carl (and the viewer) think that the rest of the book must be blank, because Carl has never had the courage to turn the page. And yet, at the critical moment toward the end, he turns the page only to discover that Ellie had placed pictures of their whole life together in that section – it wasn’t empty after all. The truth is that life with Carl was the adventure. That the “Stuff” they’d done together was the stuff of their own adventure. Their journey together was the story.

And, of course, there's the beautiful twist that our protagonist must literally let go of his house and possessions in order to move on living in the future. 

But I didn't intend this post to be about plot recap. More about taking a simply truthful story and allowing imagination and potential take it to places elaborate and undiscovered and unexpected. I am inspired to apply this to everything I touch. The question is: how? I see how this is the expectation for artists and writers, but can this be done in the planning world? Is there room for imaginative layer and abstract discovery and promoting the unexpected? What forms does that take? Is it in the brief? At the briefing? In a presentation? Pitching new business? Or only when a creative team shows the desire to go there? When is it appropriate? When is it not? Would a client go for the ride? Would a creative team? How is creative license and the spirit of inventiveness used for constructive positive outcomes vs distracting cleverness?

Inspiration can be a tricky proposition that comes with a lot of questions when a person seeks practical applications for it. But at the end of the day, if I'm not trying to tell a story that's never been told, I guess I think...what's the point? I think the gang at Pixar would agree.

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the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)