A note on notes (from Creativity Inc)

If you haven't read Creativity Inc, on the formation and rise of Pixar by Ed Catmull (one of its founders); you're missing out. As well as a business biography, there are a huge number of philosophical theories on how to best nurture creativity in the film-making process, and how to bring all employees together to make the best product possible.

My Kindle informs me that I've highlighted 35 sections in this book - for non-technical manuals, I usually will make around 2 maximum per book. So, it's fair to say that a lot of it struck a chord.

I'd like to share a short passage on giving meaningful feedback, which applies to many stages in the film-making process, and certainly not just animation. As an editor, I receive a lot of notes - and sometimes send them out, either on cuts I've made or on scripts and films that other people I know are working on.

A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. “I’m writhing with boredom,” is not a good note.

On Character Creation

I'm currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon on my Kindle for the half hour or so I spend each way on the underground to and from work. I'd put it off for quite a while (in fact, I think I have the paperback somewhere), but I'm glad I've finally gotten around to it.

I just had to share this excerpt*, which shows a wonderful set of ideas in the creation of a comic book super hero and the setting up of backstory and motivation to make the character feel more real. The importance of this process cannot be understated if you're looking to create something truly special, and I think that the way it's been written as a discussion amongst friends (in themselves working through the setup to the core of the story) is wonderful.



“My guy flies,” said Davy O’Dowd. “That I know.”

Joe shot a look at Sammy, who clapped a hand to his forehead.

“Oy,” he said.


“He flies, huh?”

“Something wrong with that? Frank says this is all about wishful figments.”


“Wishful figments. You know, like it’s all what some little kid wishes he could do. Like for you, hey, you don’t want to have a gimpy leg no more. So, boom, you give your guy a magic key and he can walk.”

“Huh.” Sammy had not chosen to look at the process of character creation in quite so stark a manner. He wondered what other wishes he might have subsumed unknowingly into the character of lame Tom Mayflower.

“I always wished I could fly,” Davy said. “I guess a lot of guys must have wished that.”

“It’s a common fantasy, yeah.” “It seems to me that makes it something you can’t have too many of,” Jerry Glovsky put in.

“All right, then, so he can fly.” Sammy looked at Joe. “Joe?”

Joe glanced up briefly from his work. “Why.

“Why?” Sammy nodded. “Why can he fly? Why does he want to? And how come he uses his power of flight to fight crime? Why doesn’t he just become the world’s best second-story man?”

Davy rolled his eyes. “What is this, comic book catechism? I don’t know.”

“Take one thing at a time. How does he do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Stop saying you don’t know.”

“He has big wings.”

“Think of something else. A rocket pack? Antigravity boots? An autogyro hat? Mythological powers of the winds? Interstellar dust? Blood transfusion from a bee? Hydrogen in his veins?”

“Slow down, slow down,” Davy said. “Jesus, Sam.”

“I’m good at this shit. Are you scared?”

“Just embarrassed for you.” “Take a number. Okay, it’s a fluid. An antigravity fluid in his veins, he has this little machine he wears on his chest that pumps the stuff into him.”

“He does.”

“Yeah, he needs the stuff to stay alive, see? The flying part is just a, like an unexpected side benefit. He’s a scientist. A doctor. He was working on some kind of, say, artificial blood. For the battlefield, you know. Synth-O-Blood, it’s called. Maybe it’s, shit, I don’t know, maybe it’s made out of ground-up iron meteorites from outer space. Because blood is iron-based. Whatever. But then some criminal types, no, some enemy spies, they break into his laboratory and try to steal it. When he won’t let them, they shoot him and his girl and leave them for dead. It’s too late for the girl, okay, how sad, but our guy manages to get himself hooked up to this pump thing just before he dies. I mean, he does die, medically speaking, but this stuff, this liquid meteorite, it brings him back from the very brink. And when he comes to—”

“He can fly!” Davy looked happily around the room.

“He can fly, and he goes after the spies that killed his girl, and now he can really do what he always wanted to, which was help the forces of democracy and peace. But he can never forget that he has a weakness, that without his Synth-O-Blood pump, he’s a dead man. He can never stop being … being …” Sammy snapped his fingers, searching for a name.

“Almost Dead Flying Guy,” suggested Jerry.

“Blood Man,” said Julie.

“The Swift,” Marty Gold said. “Fastest bird in the world.”

“I draw really nice wings,” said Davy O’Dowd. “Nice and feathery.”

“Oh, all right, damn it,” Sammy said. “They can just be there for show. We’ll call him the Swift.”

“I like it.”

“He can never stop being the Swift,” Sammy said. “Not for one goddamned minute of the day.” He stopped and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. His throat was sore and his lips were dry and he felt as if he had been talking for a week. Jerry, Marty, and Davy all looked at one another, and then Jerry got down from his stool and went into his bedroom. When he came out, he was carrying an old Remington typewriter.

“When you’re done with Davy’s, do mine,” he said.


 *represents a tiny percentage of the book, reproduced with the intent of educational purpose and discussion.

The creative impulse

Last night I went to a reading of "Wall" by David Hare. I've enjoyed several of his plays, and there was a £5 offer on, so I went along.

"Wall" is about Hare's own experiences with the Middle Eastern conflict between Israel and Palestine, and is being presented as a companion piece to "Berlin". I think it may be a testament to the fact that I'll never be a true theatre-type that when people start talking about the walls we build around ourselves, I'm more likely to think about Pink Floyd than the Pyramus and Thisbe reference  that followed last night.

Nonetheless, amongst several astounding pieces of commentary last night from both the subjective and objective viewpoint, I feel compelled to share the following paragraph - a quote from the reading last night:

I don't entirely understand this. People always ask: how do you choose the subjects you write about? I have a glib answer. Why did Bacon paint popes? Meaning: the artist doesn't choose the subject, the subject chooses the artist. 'Go to Rwanda,' said my American agent, when ten years ago I first proposed a play about Israel/Palestine. 'Better still, go to Kashmir. Now there's a dispute nobody understands. Throw some light on Kashmir.' But unfortunately it doesn't work like that. Recently, I found myself writing about Berlin because I don't understand it. Now I want to write about Israel/Palestine because I do. No, hold on, let me rephrase, that's a preposterous claim, nobody understands the Middle East - but put it this way: I recognise it. It answers to something in me.

I found editing whilst on a degree course which had absolutely nothing to do with media at all. I joined the student television station and tried all sorts of roles - camera, floor managing, sound mixing, vision mixing, co-producing... but when I got my first chance to creatively put something together at my first year - a trailer out of an evening's recorded event at the university - something was answered in me. From that point on, I knew I never wanted to do anything else. And with each project that I look at - some will inevitably stir more passion than others, and those are the ones which will really work.

Editing can often be seen as a technical vocation by the people who don't understand it - but it's truly anything but.