Saturday, August 29, 2009

How Showing Work In Progress To The Right People Helps

In a recent interview in Variety, Disney-Pixar’s John Lasseter talks about allowing people to fail as part of the creative culture which originated at Pixar and is now being implemented at Disney too.

At all levels and stages of the creative process, everyone is encouraged to propose new ideas and solutions to problems. As the article puts it:

[Lasseter] ... is adamant that teams not be allowed to sequester themselves or work too long without sharing their progress with others. No matter what state a project is in, every three months, directors are required to put their film up on reels and test how it screens. That way, Lasseter and his fellow leaders can identify problems early.

I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I try and avoid more than having someone read anything of mine that I don’t consider polished and presentable. If I know the writing isn’t ready yet, I keep it well hidden. Because almost no one understands that the process of screenwriting consists of writing draft upon draft of a variety of documents which often only make sense to the screenwriter. That you just have to produce and discard a lot of crap before anything worthwhile emerges. That it takes time and lots and lots of effort to come up with a presentable screenplay.

Which is why having a writing partner can be a boon. That is, if you’re in a writing partnership that can contain and cope with the inevitable emotions involved. The sulking, the accusations, the manipulations, the abuse, the violence and, yes, the affection.

As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve set myself a series of deadlines for an outline (already finished!), a treatment (nearly done!) and a first draft of an animation feature I’m writing together with my writing partner. And this is what happened a couple of days before I read Lasseter’s interview:

My writing partner comes over, for something unrelated to the screenplay in question. (For the sake of clarity, the way we’re working on this stage of the screenplay is that I’m writing and he’s critiquing.) I mention in passing the progress I’m making on the treatment. So he says, why don’t I give him what I’ve written so far, so that he can catch any problems before they become more complicated to solve.

I feel myself freeze. I hear myself offering lame excuse after lame excuse for not giving him the pages. "I’m still working on some set-ups and pay-offs," I lie. "There are scenes at the end which might still prompt changes in earlier scenes," I hypothesize. And so on.

Then it dawns on me that I’ve gone defensive. Big time. Whereas if there’s anyone who’s going to add to the quality of the writing by looking at the work in progress, it’s my writing partner! So I give him the pages, he takes them home and reads them, and gets back to me that same evening with some really insightful notes.

So now you see why the interview with Lasseter struck such a chord with me. He’s basically saying that his people have to show each other their work in progress on a regular basis. Because openly encouraging them to not be afraid of failing, increases the likelihood of identifying and fixing problems earlier rather than later in the creative process. Which confirms the experience I had just a couple of days earlier.

Sure, it can be pleasant to lock yourself in your writer’s ivory tower, but the advantages of identifying problems while you can still correct them relatively easily, are huge. Not only does it save time during rewriting, it also allows for more depth of rewriting.

However, as I’ve written in an earlier post you have to choose the right moment to show your work in progress, and it’s essential that the person reading your work has no ulterior motive for pointing out problems in your writing. As long as you’re both equally invested in and committed to producing the best work possible, then it’s well worth the potential embarrassment of exposing your writing at an early stage.

And now I’m off to finish the treatment before Tuesday’s self-imposed deadline …

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Get Distance From Your Work Now Without Leaving The Room

I’m busy expanding my animated feature outline into a treatment. Adding detail, discovering plot holes and filling them, inventing twists, scrapping and merging scenes, squashing and stretching characters, etc. Always a fascinating ride and always one on which unexpected obstacles crop up. Things that seem obvious in the larger perspective of the outline, don’t work in the detail of the treatment. And ideas emerge from details of a scene at the treatment level which wouldn’t have occurred to me in the outline stage.

But of course, there are those moments when I just stare out the window and wonder what the hell to write next … These are ideal opportunities for what I like to call a cognitive break (read: displacement activity). During one such interval I came across an article in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American, called An Easy Way To Increase Creativity, which seems like it could be helpful in the screenwriting process.

The article refers to a psychological theory called construal level theory. The theory postulates that creativity can be enhanced by establishing a sense of distance between the creator and the task at hand. The distance can be literally geographical, but also temporal or a distance in terms of probability (i.e., how likely something is to occur) or familiarity. Or as the article sums it up:

“ … scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.”

The greater the perceived distance, the more you focus on the central, abstract, general features of the task at hand and the more likely you are to come up with creative solutions. So goes the theory.

Of course, the best way to create the feeling of distance from your screenplay is to put it in a drawer for a year, or travel to some solitary or novel location to write in peace. We all know that, right? But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you can’t afford that luxury. Would it help to imagine yourself writing the script a year from now? Or perhaps envisage yourself writing in a log cabin in the Andes or on the space shuttle? According to the logic of construal level theory it should.

It’s just a theory … but I’m going try it out and let you know what happens.