Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

Fan vitriol

Tuesday, 1 June, 2010

Being one of the creators of Darths & Droids, I take some time every now and then to trawl forums and blogs for new comments and reviews of the comic. The comments are generally good, although there are the odd few people who say, “I looked at it, it sucks.” But we can live with those.

One interesting trend I’ve noticed is just how much people seem to hate the Star Wars prequels. I mean not just dislike but actively hate. As in they think George Lucas went back in time and raped their childhood and shot their dog and the prequel films should be burnt, stabbed through the heart with a stake, and buried at a crossroads.

The slightly disturbing thing about this (besides that these people should try directing their passion into something positive for a change) is that it’s instantly leapt to when Darths & Droids is mentioned. A typical mention goes something like this:

Hey, check out this webcomic. It’s hilarious and it actually makes the prequels entertaining. This is the only possible justification for the existence of the prequels. Ha ha! look at the fun they’re poking of the stupid prequels! Hilarious!

Now, while it’s nice to have a reason why people like our comic, this actually worries me a bit. Because another thing that many of these posts seem to do is assume that we’re making fun of the prequels. As in just the prequels. I fear that many people haven’t read the FAQ, in which we state that we have a storyline plotted for all six movies.

What’s going to happen when we reach the end of Episode III, and start on Episode IV? Are people suddenly going to think we’ve stopped poking fun at the hated prequels and are now desecrating the original classics? I don’t know.

I’m not poking fun at the prequels because I hate them. They’re not masterpieces, and there are certainly groanworthy moments that are difficult to watch, but they’re still fun if you don’t treat them like they’re supposed to be the ultimate expression of cinema. I prefer the original trilogy, but I wonder how much of that is just nostalgia. There are also cringeworthy moments in those films.

As a resource for making the comics, we drew up a list of “Stupid things we need to explain” for each movie. People seem to think it’s hilarious when we point out how stupid something is in one of the prequels. Plot holes, bizarre character actions, ridiculous technology that defies physics and/or common sense, and so on. But you know what? We have lists of pretty much the same length of things just as stupid in each of the original trilogy films. When we use these to point out something silly in the original films and make jokes about it, what are the readers going to think?

Honestly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if our readership dropped by half or more when we move from the prequels to the original trilogy. I hope it doesn’t, and that the story we are telling keeps readers hooked, and that the majority of people approach it with the same view of affectionate parody that we’re actually aiming for in the prequels, and stay to enjoy it. But I’m not sure that will happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.


Tuesday, 25 May, 2010

I was just thinking when was the last time I got home from work and did nothing but slump on the lounge and watch TV all night. Or at least the equivalent – just relaxing and essentially doing nothing but passive activities. And I can’t recall the last time that happened.

I’m always buzzing around, doing stuff. Making comics, or writing annotations, or composing puzzles, or tinkering away with code, or doing some 3D rendering – or writing blog posts. Occasionally I’ll do some housework or home maintenance stuff, or if I get really wacky I’ll start pulling out ingredients and make a batch of cookies or something. If I really don’t feel like doing any of those, and it comes down to the last resort, I go through my collection of unprocessed photos and play with them in Photoshop and post some to my Flickr page.

I don’t just kick back and say, “What’s on TV?” I watch some TV, when I know there’s something on that I want to watch. But I never channel surf. I’ve always got half a dozen more interesting things to do.

I’m beginning to think that for me, noodling around, playing with ideas, making things, doing creative activities – is relaxing. Sitting in front of a TV isn’t.

100 ideas in 100 days

Wednesday, 28 April, 2010

I’ve said before that not everyone can make a webcomic. Oh, plenty of people say they could make one if they wanted to. They say they’ve got loads of ideas, and all they have to do is put them together and post them. Only they don’t actually put them together and post them. Because that’s the hard part – actually doing the work. Coming up with the ideas is the easy bit.

This is not to denigrate the generation of ideas. That can be tricky if you’re not used to how your own creative juices flow and to capturing those fleeting thoughts we all have dozens of times a day. There is a skill involved in that. But the point is that if you’re tuned in to your idea generation engine (i.e. your imagination), then you can generate lots of ideas pretty easily.

Olaf Solstrand is in the middle of posting 100 ideas in 100 days on his blog. Not any old ideas. Ideas for webcomics. A hundred different ideas for webcomics. Some of them are so good that I want to run out and do them. Except I don’t have the time.

If you’re sitting there thinking you could do a webcomic, grab one of Olaf’s ideas and run with it. No, seriously. I’d like to see some of those turned into comics. There are ideas in abundance. What we lack is the time and resources needed to make them into finished products.

This is the lament of creative people.

Vetting Ideas

Sunday, 25 April, 2010

At my work recently we had a staff competition to design creative new features for digital cameras. I briefly thought of entering, but didn’t in the end. This resulted in me being approached to act as one of the judges (of five).

The judging process was interesting. One overriding criterion was that the ideas had to be novel. We work for Canon, an electronic imaging company, so the competition was strongly aligned to our corporate strength, and the goal was to encourage new ideas that could potentially be converted into real, new products. So the novelty criterion was primary. Anything that other camera companies had done was out. Anything that someone had patented already was out. Anything that had been described in a scientific paper, or advertising, or even on someone’s blog, was out. The ideas had to be something that, as far as we could discover, nobody had ever presented before.

Once we’d eliminated anything that we could find prior presentations for, we had to decide the ranking of ideas in order of various creativity and practicality criteria. And this is where the arguments started. (Well, there was no shouting or anything, it was more like spirited discussion. The whole judging process was handled well by all involved.) The disagreements centred on whether people thought certain ideas were “cool” or “I’d never use that feature” or “this would actually be annoying if my camera did this”.

There were a couple of ideas that two of the judges thought were really creative and clever and that people would love, but which other judges just thought were ridiculous and that nobody would ever want such a feature on a camera. The point here, as we more or less agreed after some discussion, was that the market for cameras is huge, and is extremely diverse. What a serious amateur wants on a camera to take artistic photos is very different from what a teenager wants on a camera to take snapshots to post on Facebook. One idea in particular, a couple of judges were naysaying, claiming that such a feature would just annoy the user and nobody would ever buy a camera with that on it. I and another judge countered that teenagers and kids would positively love it, and would actively seek such cameras.

Bringing this back to my topic, in general ideas aren’t universally good or bad. Just because someone doesn’t like your idea doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. People like finding faults in things, they like deconstructing them and picking all the bits that don’t appeal to them. This is not to say that your idea is brilliant – it might actually be a bad idea – but just that you shouldn’t dismiss it on the opinion of one person. There may well be an audience out there for it somewhere. If you think it’s worth pursuing, then that’s one person who appreciates it. And where there’s one, there can be more.

On Puzzle Hints

Monday, 19 April, 2010

Once again my friends and I are organising the annual CiSRA Puzzle Competition, which has just opened for team registration. Part of the process of running such a competition is of course creating the puzzles, which is a lot of fun.

Another part, for the sake of the competition format, is writing a series of 3 hints for each puzzle. The puzzles are worth points, and the point value decreases as more hints are released over time. We’ve actually spent many hours discussing (or arguing may be a more accurate term) how to approach the writing of hints.

A major problem with trying to run a competition like this and writing suitable hints is that we get feedback from participants criticising the structure of the hints. In particular, people strongly dislike it when they feel they have done most of the hard work involved in solving a puzzle, and are stuck at the final step, and we release the first hint, and it tells them about one of the initial steps of the puzzle – a step they already figured out with their own effort.

This is understandable. We’ve felt exactly the same frustration ourselves when participating in other puzzle competitions. When you’ve put in hard work and figured something out by yourself, the last thing you want to see is a hint that lets the other teams who haven’t figured it out yet catch up to where you are. What you really want is a hint that helps you. Ideally a hint that helps you and nobody else!

We could write hints so that the first hint helps people stuck at the final hurdle in the puzzle, and only later hints give away the earlier bits of the puzzle. But what does that mean? It means we’re helping the good teams. The teams full of strong puzzle solvers, who are already ahead of most of the pack, because they’ve probably already solved a bunch of other puzzles that other teams are still struggling with. And we’re not helping the weak teams – the ones who really need a kick start to even know what the first step in the puzzle is. If we did this, the effect would be to boost the strong teams and give nothing to the weaker teams. It would be making the already strong teams “win more”.

On the other hand, we can structure the hints so that the first hint helps people with the first step of the puzzle, the second hint helps with an intermediate step, and the final hint helps with the final step. What does this approach do? It helps the weaker teams to get a leg up on puzzles that they were really having difficulty just starting on. It doesn’t help them with the rest of the puzzle.

Now if we assume the stronger teams have figured out steps 1 and 2 by themselves, maybe 20 hours ago, and a weak team is now given a helping hand with step 1 by the first hint, while the first hint doesn’t help the stronger teams… do you know what? The stronger teams will still generally solve the puzzle first! They still have the advantage of being better puzzle solvers, and the extra advantage of 20 more hours to cogitate on the final step. Hints that help the weaker teams just level the field a little bit. They don’t help weak teams to beat strong teams.

And levelling the field a bit is useful. Imagine you’re on a team that is struggling to figure out how to even start a puzzle. A day later the first hint is revealed, and it’s a big hint for the final step of the puzzle – a step you’re not even up to yet! It helps the strong teams, not you! That’s discouraging – you’re falling even further behind. You may as well give up on this lousy competition.

So hints that step through the puzzle in order are useful to encourage teams to stay in the competition. They flatten the point spread a bit. And they don’t really hurt the best teams – the ones who are (understandably) a bit frustrated that the other teams are “catching up” thanks to hints. Because, I’ll say it again, the best teams are going to solve those hard puzzles before the weaker teams anyway. When the last hint comes out that gives the game away, the strong teams will still beat the weak teams who have been guided through the early steps by the first two hints.

So that’s the main principle we use when writing hints. We sometimes cop flak from strong teams who feel frustrated, but we’re okay with that. A second principle is that we also try to mitigate that a bit by making hints double-barrelled if we can. The first hint must provide a somewhat strongish clue about how to start the puzzle, but may also provide a more or less cryptic hint to getting past a later roadblock step. It should be slightly cryptic, to give us room to make it more obvious with a later hint.

I actually argued against doing this, but some of the other puzzle organisers were so adamant that we had to give something to the teams stuck on the last step that we adopted it as an option.

Anyway, the basic point of this post is that figuring out the philosophy of puzzle hint writing is difficult and full of contradictory pulls and opinions. It’s something we’ve actively spent time arguing over, to arrive at what I’d describe as a slightly uneasy truce, rather than total agreement. Further, this serves as an illustration that what many people may think of as some rather trivial consideration can be extremely complicated and involve deep questions of game-theoretical philosophy. If you’re serious about organising something like a puzzle contest, you’d better be prepared to think deeply about stuff like this.

Now what?

Tuesday, 9 March, 2010

A friend of mine recently completed a project he’d been working on for almost as long as I’ve known him. It started as a short film, for which I helped film some of the initial scenes back in, I think, 2006. The idea was pretty much fleshed out at that stage, and just needed filming and editing to put together.

Aside: Filming, by the way, is hard, hot, tiring work. A 30 second scene on film can take hours of work, interspersed by long periods of boredom while various things go wrong or need to be adjusted. And the work itself is repetitive – you don’t just act the scene or control the special effects once, oh no… you have to do it dozens of times until everyone gets it right at the same time. If you think actors have an easy and glamorous job, when it gets right down to what they actually have to do, think again.

Anyway, the project stalled. It was only with the imminent release of a song by this friend’s friend’s band that the film suddenly became highly relevant, as it happened to match the subject matter of the song nicely, and would make a great music video for it. So with a deadline of March this year, I and a bunch of other friends were drafted into more filming. Hard work, but fun when it was all over. For us anyway, because my friend then had to spend long hours at the editing program to cut things into shape.

The result is great: We All Wanna Drive Our Cars. As I said, don’t be fooled. This 3 and a half minutes of video took nearly 5 years, about 20 days of filming involving half a dozen or more people each time, and I hate to think how many hours of editing to put together. It’s a lot of work.

At one point my friend called this project “the biggest millstone around my neck”. The question is, now that it’s finished, now what?

This touches on the core of creative endeavour. Everyone (I believe) has a great creative work inside them, waiting to be released. Some people never get to it, through lack of time, or self-belief. But some people do, and the feeling of creating something worthwhile is wonderful. But then you have to face the question of what to do next. You’ve already shown that you can successfully make something. Just doing the same again seems like much less of an achievement. To justify going to all that trouble again, you want to make something better.

You’ve released a killer album. What are you going to do for a follow-up? Will it be a disappointment? If you go down that road, you might give up and not even start your second project.

But that’s the wrong way to think about it. You’ve shown you can achieve something once. That may feel like a huge step over what you’ve done before. But your second project will be just as big a step, even if it’s not as successful. You don’t need to make a double-platinum album to follow up a platinum album. You just need to make another album. And then another, and another.

Because why are you creating this stuff? Unless you’re literally a rock star, it’s not to be successful and make money. It’s for the joy of creation and of making something that you can share with others. There’s no onus on you* to make your second work bigger and better than your first. In the end, you got fun and satisfaction out of your first project, right? That’s what you want out of your subsequent projects. It doesn’t matter if nothing you do ever measures up to the dizzying heights of your first achievement. The measure of your success in creating is how much work you put in and the sum total of your creative output, not the height of the biggest single pinnacle.

(* If U2 or James Cameron are reading this, drop me an e-mail. Yeah, I didn’t think so.)

After Edmund Hillary climbed Everest, did he stop climbing other mountains? Did he stop caring about mountains and the people who live near them? Did he not go on to found charities and perform humanitarian work? In his own words (and I swear I found this quote after I decided to refer to Hillary in this paragraph):

Why make a fuss over something that’s done anyway? I was never one to obsess about the past. Too much to do in the future!

On creativity

Sunday, 28 February, 2010

I, with the help of some of my friends, generate a good deal of creative stuff. Some of it is sprinkled across a handful of websites (linked in the sidebar, so I won’t repeat them), some of it can be found elsewhere. My friends say to me quite often that I am the driving force behind our group – the one who gets things done.

We all come up with ideas. That’s the easy part. In a single lunchtime we often come up with a dozen or more ideas for things we could do. It’s an aphorism I’ve seen repeated several times in various contexts that “ideas are easy, execution is hard” – I saw it again the other day in an acquaintance’s blog. It really is true. Not to take any credit away from my friends – several of them also put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make our collective ideas come to fruition. I believe they just see me as the spur to get them going. :-)

Because as clich├ęd as it can sound, it really is true. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s doing something with them that is the hard work that few people can manage.

We have a sort of rolling conversation in our group about xkcd. There is some professional envy there, of course, since our own webcomics are nowhere near as popular, and it would be cool if they were. But that aside, we do have a genuine respect for Randall Munroe and what he does. it’s very easy for critics to say, “Huh, stick figures and geeky reference gags, anyone could do that.” But the point is anyone didn’t do it – Munroe did. He got off his butt and actually made the comics and made a website to put them on. And he’s continued making them – he didn’t quit after 3 weeks because it was taking too much time or effort.

There are a lot of failed creative ventures out there, where people had a cool idea and tried to do something with it, and gave up after a while because it was too much work. And there are even more where people had a cool idea and simply never got around to doing anything at all with it.

My determination is to actually put in enough effort to see an idea to fruition every now and then. Some of our ideas are non-starters, and some we put some effort into and then more or less abandon. But we keep trying, and some of the ideas do manage to reach a point where we can sit back and say, “Yes, we’ve done this idea.” Or even, “Yes, this idea is now up and running, and we are happy to dedicate some of our effort into maintaining it into the future.”

Someone once asked Harlan Ellison where he got his ideas from. He flippantly replied from a mail order business in Poughkeepsie. If he’d bothered to answer seriously, the real answer is that everyone has ideas. What people don’t have is the drive to do something with them. And because most people don’t do anything with their ideas, they end up thinking they don’t have any good ideas. That’s just wrong. If you have an idea for a story, or a blog, or a piece of artwork, or whatever, invest some time into making it happen. Get someone to goad you into it, if need be. It is hard work, but if you put that work in, you might get somewhere, as opposed to merely ending up envious of other people’s work and saying you could have done the same.

I didn’t intend this post to end on an accusatory downer. I’m sure some of you have put effort into creating something, or even started and then realised just how much work is required to bring an idea to fruition. You should be proud that you’ve achieved something which few others even bother to do. The external success of creative endeavours is determined by whims and the way the wind blows. But the internal success is determined by you and your hard work. Just because your stuff doesn’t become as popular as xkcd doesn’t mean it’s crap. Go! Create! And be proud of the effort you’ve put in. The hard work is what counts, not the success.