Creative power comes from within
If there was a theme at this year's 16th annual Creative Conference it was "be yourself."
The day of talks by successful people in the creative industry had no particular structure, but the message was often the same: "I did it my way and hey, it seemed to work." More than one speaker told the sold-out Gerding Theater that their career path was almost random, but what kept them going was falling back on doing things they liked or their which parents had encouraged.
Puppet Lab Alice Bird is a creative director at animation studio LAIKA, where she runs teams of animators working on films such as Kubo and the Two Strings, The Boxtrolls, ParaNorman and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Her job is to act as a bridge between them and the director's vision.
She detailed how she majored in illustration at art school in the UK and felt frustrated until a professor said her drawings looked like they wanted to move. That gave her direction.
Working on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride was the link that brought her across the pond to LAIKA, where she rose to be part of bigger and bigger teams.
At LAIKA they use digital link boards, which are digital screens placed in a line that can be 15 feet long. Each shot is marked on a timeline. With 30 shots per second, it's takes some tracking. This is a production line. "You have to be precise about every shot, otherwise you can get delayed by months."
Much of her job is working with teams of problem solvers and keeping them on track. For instance, in Kubo they created a leaf origami boat in 3D, on which the puppets fought. Designers spent a long-time testing different origami folds to see how they moved.
Director Wes Anderson was such a detail-oriented director that for Mr. Fox they spent days hand sewing a little cloth tag that appeared on the sweater of one character, that read BEAN SECURITY. "Wes Anderson is known for his meticulous vision, and sent us daily emails from Paris to London." He even mailed them his own tweed suit as the basis for the one Mr. Fox wears, having not liked the ones they had designed. He practically storyboarded every frame of the movie himself, even though someone else was already paid to do it. And they created a scale replica of author Roald Dahl's writing hut as Mr. Fox's office.
"It's great to have a director who knows what he wants," Bird said.
Asked how she works with directors who have a vague vision, she said by offering suggestions. "We show them lots of samples to get them to respond."
Bird's favorite part of the job is research. It helps the creativity and the motivation of the studio in the long cycles of making a feature-length animation, cycles which can last three or four years.
But her origins seem clear now. As an eight-year-old, she and a friend used to make up stories. Bird did the drawings. "I can't draw now without direction," she says, meaning sitting down with a blank sheet of paper to just draw is difficult without characters and action to portray.
Hoops an' Ting
Richard Ting of ad agency R/GA manages hundreds of designers and tries to make them think as problem solvers, not prettifiers. He is an executive: EVP, Global Chief Design Officer, a C-suite partner to R/GA's global client roster. So, he immediately established his street credentials by showing pictures from his life. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York City, he loves basketball. He showed an old photo of him and his buddies suited up in the Police Athletic Leagues, then fast forwarded to a photo of his corporate team winning a basketball competition.
Ting wears one advertising award, his Cannes Titanium Lion, on a chain around his neck, but said that the ball game win was his highest honor. He also showed a family photo that included hoops star Chris Mullin, another taken in a Buddhist temple in New York's Chinatown to show his spiritual side, and showed off his devotion to hip hop with logos from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr.
He studied computers at Carnegie Mellon University and got a scholarship at grad school at NYU because he could program the student database in Cold Fusion. "At R/GA we love polymaths, people that cut across the lines of different fields" he said. "If you're a business designer that's great but if you are a business designer that loves basketball that loves music that also loves blockchain, that's the type of person we want to talk to."
Ting has a five ground rules for creative teams:
1. Avoid the addiction to being right. The smartest person in the room makes trust and respect disintegrate and teams can't go into exploration mode.
2. Build diverse teams, to design products, systems and institutions without bias.
3. Build teams with intersections; bring people in who intersect with the problem you are trying to solve.
4. Seek clarity not fuzziness. For example, in a 30-person conference call, cut it into three chunks and explain who will be speaking when.
5. Move from human-centered design to humanity-centered design. Think about the long-term consequences for humanity.
Three interesting digital experiences he cited were John Hancock switching to interactive life insurance, that is where the premium goes down if you prove you live a healthy lifestyle. Ant Forest, a Chinese banking app that plants tree when the customer accumulates enough green points for their green behaviors. This wouldn't mean much if Ant Financial wasn't a subsidiary of Alibaba and didn't have 300 million customers. And then there is the Nike Run Club, which allows users of the Nike Plus Apple watch to run a 5K on a Sunday and share their progress with each other.
Cool story, son
"The things that inspired me are the things I get to do now." So said Kiki Wolfkill, the Studio Head of Halo Transmedia and Entertainment at 343 Industries (part of Microsoft) as she revealed that her inspiration for the storytelling universes she has dealt with in video gaming include the English and Colombian novels The Hobbit, Watership Down and One Hundred Years of Solitude.
"Before I had video games, my play was centered around these worlds and these characters, and my sense of adventure."
Then she brought up a familiar image. "And of course, Star Wars. It is a universe worthy of devotion, human stories told against a giant backdrop where the stakes are huge." Buying the posters, lunchbox and toys let her play extend beyond the movie. Wolfkill started out wanting in to be a writer because she won a contest in second grade. She went to college to study Chinese history. Then she wanted to be a documentary filmmaker or some sort of visual storyteller, but made her way into technology.
As games have become more realistic looking, the urge to "tell more of a story" has grown. Now that games are networked, they have more power since you create the story with others. She talked about translating to television Halo, a game which has sold 75 million copies. (The best-selling original album of all time, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" has sold 33 million copies.)
In the game, you operate the hero, Master Chief, and you don't see much of his face in his helmet. "He is half character, half cypher," said Wolfkill. "His humanity is reflected in the characters around him." On TV (on Showtime in late 2019) he will need more presence. "I had to let go of things for TV."
She showed a video about a boy who used to play Rally Sports Challenge with his dad on Xbox. His father died when he was six, and he didn't touch the console for 10 years. When he went back he found the fastest lap "ghost car" had been preserved in the game. That record was set by his father. The teen started racing against it until he the day he could beat it. Which is when he stopped on the finish line to let it pass, so he would not erase it. This heart-rending tale came from a real comment in an online forum in 2014, which someone read and then went off and recreated, in 2016, as a TV-quality short. It went viral via Twitter.
Wolfkill used it as an example of how the emotional power of video games can be amplified through new media.
Zach Carothers and John Gourley of the band Portugal. The Man (famous for the hit "Feel It Still") chatted about their origins in Wasilla, Alaska. They attended multiple city council meetings to try and get a skate park built. "Sarah Palin hated us," Carothers said proudly, referring to the mayor-turned-vice-presidential candidate.
Their point was that skate culture made them, and they brought that with them when they moved to Portland 13 years ago.
They said they have done some of their best recording by singing into an iPhone in the closet rather than when they were paying by the hour to use Rick Rubin's studio. They toured for years for gas money and rice money (they had a rice cooker strapped to the roof of their minivan) before "overnight success" struck in 2017.
There are some perks to being well-known, better than being Kathie Lee and Hoda's song of the week. Carothers praised Wieden + Kennedy for finding the Wildcat Junkyard outside Sandy and shooting their Feel It Still video there. The brainstorming happened because they already know some of those ad agency people. "Our inspiration comes from hanging out with people who are driven" said Carothers
TV writer Raamla Mohamed gave one of the best talks, fluent and witty. Writers have to channel the showrunner (main writer and visionary) on big TV series. So she had to write like Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes without losing her own voice. Mohamed talked about being given a weekend to write a big speech where a character is in jail in cuffs and an orange jumpsuit. It was a moment to "'give all your feelings,' like Drake said." After futzing with it for a few days she said, "I had some red wine and I'm like, Send! I did it," she said.
On being given the brief to write a scene in Scandal about two strong women arguing in a hair salon, she told her colleagues "This is the blackest thing you'll ever see."
"Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison was the first book she connected with, after being raised by television, and she took lesson to "find the truth in everything you write," including for TV. "I learned from Shonda, in a scene both characters should be right."
Portland native Ronnie Wright, like Richard Ting, emphasized his local cred, showing pictures of his parents, who were "Your average pseudo hippie spiritual tai chi Christians," and talked about their gospel singing and their living room with lime green walls and an orange shag carpet.
Wright tried to get into athletic shoe design as a kid but took his designs to a fashion company. His love of basketball kept his designer hopes alive and he ended up designing a shoe that is a cross between a sneaker and a plaid boot, where the wool blends into the plastic.
Working for the Jordan brand he has had contact with the great man himself, and says "MJ" is nicer than his reputation. "Michael's old, he's got that old stubborn mentality going on," he conceded. "But he's private. He doesn't use the media to explain himself."
Also a musician, Wright gathered eight other Portland musicians together as Bespeak and made an R&B album about love, which went to number one in the UK soul chart.
Wright finished by showing an old photo of Portland he took from the Fremont Bridge. His point was to show how Portland was when he was a kid, and to think about how old Portland used to bring people together in creativity.
To get the shot they had to park illegally and stand by the guard rail.
"ODOT was there in a second, asking 'Are you OK?' That's an $8,000 ticket for stopping there and getting out. But we got the shot."
For the record, they didn't get a ticket.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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