Freedom and limitation
I was giving a talk to the students of IADT last week and one of the pieces of advice I gave was to take advantage of every bit of creative freedom you are offered. You won’t always be offered much. But what if you’re given it all? What if you can do anything you want, with no limits? What happens?
You create the most amazingly creative piece of work ever?
Oddly, no. Not usually.
Instead what often happens is that we just do the same things we always do. We fall back on our old habits (often confusing them with instincts) because we have been given little reason to do otherwise. Being able to do anything and everything is a surefire way to achieve little but a complete lack of focus. It removes all challenge and, really, that’s no fun and it’s certainly not how we achieve our best work. We need our limits. It’s in how work within them or, often, how we challenge them that we find something incredibly interesting. Something that is as unexpected to us as it is to everyone else.
Some years ago, I became very aware of my bad drawing habits. At the same time, I was beginning to create a show. At the early stage of creation, every option was open. After all, at that point, it’s little more than an imagined concept – reality has not yet kicked in. So, in a sense, that was complete creative freedom. But every single one of my drawings looked the same. I had begun to realise the flaws of those bad habits and I needed a way to break out of them.
The answer lay not in freedom, but in limitation.
What I did was this – I drew with a computer mouse. I was so used to a pencil that my hand often went on autopilot, but to draw with a mouse? Well that was a challenge. My arm felt different, I felt a complete lack of control and the results I got were not good drawings. Not by a long shot. They were very crude. But they were different.
Those mouse drawings are what would become the residents of Fluffy Gardens. Refined, yes. But the core of who those characters were came from having to draw them with a mouse. Had I not imposed that restriction, I never would have found these characters.
Many years later, I would come to design Cosmo. Not with a mouse this time. But not with a fancy graphics tablet and huge computer screen either. No, instead all the early development work for Cosmo was drawn with my finger on an iPod Touch, with a screen just a couple of inches high. This image below is the first one that really defined what this show would look like. Building on a style I never would have found without those Fluffy Gardens limitations and now adding a new challenge…
When it came to translating this to a show that would have to fill a television screen, it was actually much harder than doodling them on the tiny screen to begin with. Backgrounds got busy, characters lost some of their charm and I had a terrible time with the colours. Mostly, seemingly, because I could choose any ones I wanted.
So I went back to the iPod but, this time, limited myself to pixels and very small colour palettes. Until I reached here…
Drawn one pixel at a time on a single layer, these images had what I was looking for in the show. They had the charm and they had the colours. And they would go on to form the basis for the design and background development. These limits gave me what I needed and yet they’re what creative freedom couldn’t give me.
They gave me Cosmo:
These particular limitations worked for my preschool aims, where simplicity is a must and yet often harder than it looks to achieve. Each project or creation could use whole different restrictions depending on the desired outcome. I guess the trick is to find a way to prevent ourselves just doing what we always do. And it goes beyond design, of course. When I think about how I have helped others on our shows get the best from their work, I find that comes down to limits too. No tweening in Flash, for example (tool of the devil, I tell you!). No elbow joints. Odd limitations at times and yet, all the while, I’m encouraging animators to surprise me. To use their freedom.
We need limits.
Perhaps real creative freedom is being able to pick and choose just what limits we will give ourselves and maybe, if we’re smart about it, we’ll end up restricting ourselves more and more until something exceptional breaks through.