Where Do Ideas Come From?

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question lobbed at artists as if it’s a perfectly reasonable and easy question to answer. It’s usually asked with the same matter-of-factness as: “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” It’s an intriguing question (the idea one, not the breakfast one, though I suppose it depends on how creative you get with your breakfast). But whenever I’m asked it, I’m usually at a loss and offer some vague explanation about my general interests. So I figured it might be a good thought experiment. What if I could travel into my brain and see where my ideas come from? Bear with me for a moment…

I close my eyes. Take a couple deep breaths. I imagine I’m in a tiny spaceship, like in “Fantastic Voyage” or the ’80’s quasi-remake “Innerspace” or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” ship… Anyway, I zoom along while electrical charges go off all around me. I have to steer the ship, zigging and zagging so I don’t get zapped by all these synapses firing in my brain! I emerge from the brian storm and spot a nice, clear spot to park my ship. I hop out and stretch my legs. The ground feels squishy beneath my feet, like those pseudo asphalt ground coverings at playgrounds. I look out over the vast network of crevasses that make up my brain. It’s like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon gazing out for what appears to be an eternity. Then something catches my eye. It’s a small bird carrying a closed shell. It drops the shell hundreds of feet and the shell bounces against the brain tissue. As it ascends back towards me the shell splits open and thousands of glittering orbs sprinkle on and around me like confetti and suddenly, an idea comes to me…

So I’m pretty sure that’s not how it technically works, but it’s fun to imagine. And while it might be an entertaining allegory for where inspiration comes from, maybe there’s a more grounded explanation.

In my experience, the creative process is sort of a chicken vs. egg situation — does the idea come first, then you start the creative process? Or is it because you are in the midst of the creative process, that new ideas spring forth? It’s a little bit of both, but more often for me the ideas flow once I’m already engaged in the creative process. While an initial spark of an idea might come while I’m in the shower, or taking my dog for a walk, it’s always a fleeting moment and if I don’t write myself a note about the idea, I often forget it.

So ideas aren’t worth much if they’re not followed up. And usually the follow-up involves a lot of work — examining the initial idea, asking questions and coming up with new ideas, then actually executing those ideas into a form that can be shared out in the world. There’s a great book about the creative process called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. In it, he lays out how the obstacle to creativity is resistance, both internal and external. Often resistance comes in the form of our own inner voice saying, “I’m not talented enough”, “I’m not smart enough”, “What if I fail?”, “What will others think of my idea?” And on top of that, there are external forms of resistance — organizations or people who aren’t interested in your work. The only solution? Do the work, as Pressfield urges. And I’ve found this to work in my own life. For example, writing this blog. There were plenty of negative thoughts trying to prevent me from writing, but once I shut off those voices and started writing, the resistance began to fade and the words began to flow. Imagine it like a river that’s dammed with sticks and logs. The water is stuck. But just remove one stick, and some water starts to get through. Take out a few more, and soon you have a flowing river again.

So are we any closer to figuring out where ideas come from? We’ve got magical birds in the brain (not too likely) and sitting down and doing the work (much more likely). Let’s take a look at what current neuroscience research knows about creativity.

I was really intrigued by this article in Scientific American. Here’s my layman’s understanding of it. Basically, the idea that right-brained people are more creative has come into question. When engaged in the creative process, our brain uses three different networks, to varying degrees. They’re called the Executive Attention, Imagination, and Salience Networks. Yes, there is an actual Imagination Network in our brains! (That must be where I landed my ship during my thought experiment.) The study of this stuff is still early and there’s a lot neuroscientists don’t know yet. Maybe there will be a day where we can take an MRI scan of our brain and know exactly where a certain idea had its genesis. Though I suppose that would take some of the magic out of making art.

So for now, I’ll be content not knowing exactly where my ideas come from, but confident that if I keep doing the creative work, the ideas will keep showing up. I’ll let my brain networks handle the rest.

 

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Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

Korra soundtrack

The Legend of Korra soundtrack will be released on July 16th. This marks a huge milestone for the show. Bryan and I (among many others) have been trying to release an Avatar soundtrack since the early days of A:TLA. Dedicated fans even began circulating a couple of online petitions over the years. We knew that people wanted this music, it just took some time (and a lot of patience) to get the juggernaut of Nickelodeon to get behind it. But once they did, things moved very quickly. And as of this writing (a month until release), the soundtrack is already #3 in soundtracks and #24 in all music on Amazon. Pretty amazing.

Jeremy Zuckerman’s score has been such an intergal part of both A:TLA and Legend of Korra so I’m happy and excited that fans will finally be able to listen to the score on its own.

Since the early days of the Avatar world, the music has added a whole level to the storytelling in the show. Although I was certainly aware of soundtracks for movies and TV, I never really understood how vital they are to visual storytelling until I had my own show. The composer has a difficult job of creating music that supports the visuals without overpowering them. When done well, music often blends into a scene and becomes part of the story, so much so that you don’t realize it’s there. This isn’t a negative thing. It’s similar to how the right actor can blend into their animated character. If a character is matched with the wrong voice, it can be very jarring and take you out of the story. The wrong music can have the same story-killing effect.

Listening to Jeremy’s score for an episode is always a treat. By the time he gets his hands on an episode, we’ve lived with it for about 10 months, in all its various incarnations. We know the story inside and out and have scrutinized every shot and drawing. So it’s difficult to see the show with fresh eyes. But every time I watch a music preview or sit in a mix for an episode, I do just that. It’s like watching the show for the first time. Emotions become clearer, drama becomes more intense, and action becomes more exciting. The whole story is augmented and pushed to a new level that the visuals alone can’t accomplish.

Research shows that music affects our brain activity in various ways, but the most intriguing (as it relates to this post) is that music can activate our visual cortex.  I also came across this research that suggests our senses aren’t so compartmentalized — the different senses are more interconnected than scientists first thought.  I think this might help explain why listening to the music for Korra helps me see the show with fresh eyes. I’m hypothesizing here, but it seems to me that after repeated exposure to the same story and visuals over many months, I experience a kind of visual numbness. Add music to the mix, and now my visual cortex is being activated in different ways and I’m able to watch with a sense of newness.

The music for the show is also magical for me because it’s the only part of the process where Bryan or I are not intimately involved. We meet with Jeremy (as well as sound designer Ben Wynn and foley mixer Aran Tanchum) to discuss the episode and what we envision for the music and sound. We only check back a couple weeks later, after they’ve done all the heavy lifting. After working in animation for almost 17 years (yikes!) I have a pretty solid understanding of how the writing, storyboarding, design, and animation all get made, but music composition is completely foreign to me. I appreciate and love listening to music, but I have a limited understanding of how Jeremy goes from an idea for a score, to actually composing it. I see him jot down ideas for musical phrases the same way I might write a note for a story idea or sketch a storyboard panel. We speak different languages, in a sense, but with the same goal — to tell a great story.

While you’re waiting for the soundtrack to be released, you can listen to one of the tracks here. Enjoy the music!

Violence and story, part 2

Photography of Lascaux animal painting {| cell...

In writing my last blog post and reading all of your thoughtful comments, I feel that there is a lot more to explore about this topic.

For me, the question isn’t whether or not there should be violence in stories. It has been a part of story since the beginning. Looking at ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux, I could imagine that some of the first stories ever told probably involved hunting animals and killing them.

Even children, left to their own devices, add a lot of violence to their imagined tales. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall cites a scholar who studied children’s play patterns. He found that “the typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.  In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”

So if violence is somehow a part of our human nature, and inherent in our stories, the question for me is “why?”

“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment,” writes Mr. Gottschall. But as he goes on to point out, if that were the case, “we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment” where nothing would go wrong.  That, of course, is not the case, as most of the popular “escapist entertainment” is full of violent acts. And if there were a story without any difficulty or struggle for the hero, it would not interest the reader (or viewer) because nothing would have happened.  “If there is no knotty problem, there is no story,” says Gottschall.

Stories are about trouble — trouble that happens to a character. And we vicariously live through that character and root for him or her to overcome those troubles and find success. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story. But if that happy ending isn’t earned, if the hero hasn’t suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said, then the audience won’t enjoy the story.

There are a lot of books about how to write screenplays and novels. I’ve read my fair share. Some have been helpful, some not so much. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that conflict is necessary in a story. If there’s no conflict, the hero has no way to be tested. No test, and the hero hasn’t earned their success or happiness.

As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.” In our everyday life, we usually go out of our way to avoid change and conflict. They’re uncomfortable and difficult, and “In real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible.”

And what’s the one, sure-fire way to show conflict? Something violent happening to someone. Certainly this isn’t the only way. There are plenty of books and movies where characters don’t go to the extreme of shooting guns, or stabbing, or killing. But I would argue that even in the most innocent of stories, there are allusions to violence or death. Even in Elf, the absurd Will Ferrell Christmas flick, there is a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

So perhaps the violence issue can be reframed. I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to rid violence from stories. And what’s acceptable or not will always be debatable, depending on the venue in which the story is presented. But I do think storytellers have a responsibility to keep their intended audience in mind when they add violence to stories and know when to say enough is enough. Or to make sure the violence and conflict serves the purpose of the story and isn’t just there for amusement.

But no matter who the audience is, we all want the heros of our stories to show us what it means to suffer and persevere, so that we can be inspired to overcome conflict in our own lives.

The Science of Story

I came across this video from the World Science Festival called, Why We Tell Stories: Science of Narrative. In searching the web for books and articles about stories and storytelling from a scientific angle, I’ve found a handful of accessible books about the subject, the best so far being The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure there are other, more academic style books on the subject, but I am far from an academic, so those types of books don’t resonate with me.

But as the panelists discuss, the scientific study into narrative is relatively new field. Philosophers and writers have pondered the question for centuries, but only in the last 15 years or so has it been studied with any scientific rigor. Which makes sense why it’s been hard to come by a lot of information on the topic.

The video is definitely worth watching. (The panel starts about 15 minutes in.)

The panel didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I came away with a lot of great insights.

–Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.

–Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.

–Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.

–Stories are the social glue that hold a tribe or society together.

–Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.

All these ideas have me really excited for the possibility of story and what they are capable of. They truly have the ability to make us the best versions of ourselves and to inspire us to be a positive influence on the world. For me, after reading a great book or watching a great movie, I’m inspired to create. And I’ve heard from a lot of Avatar fans who have told me some amazing and heartwarming tales of how the series and characters have touched people and inspired them to study art, or deal with illness, or deal with the loss of a loved one. Your stories inspire me to keep telling more.

I love that scientists are studying story, but I wonder if treating story like it’s bacteria in a petri dish will take away some of its magic. Will there be a point where we understand its effects on the human brain so well that people can tailor stories to resonate with people? I suppose, but this would be the same as propaganda.

I recently heard a definition of art that I really liked – it must be both novel and useful. And I think that can apply to story as well. Science can probably help us make it more useful, but I don’t know that it can ever explain why some stories become great and others don’t. There are so many factors that go into telling a story, that you can have all the ingredients right, and still come out with a half-baked product.

At the end of the talk, the moderator asked what the future of story will look like. And although stories might take different forms or be consumed in different ways, the kinds of stories we tell won’t change all that much, according to Gottschall. I agree. Old stories like The Iliad and Hercules are still being retold, just in modern media. But the essence of these stories still reflect the values we find important, like courage, overcoming fear, love, and justice.

Do you think scientific study of story will have useful results? Have there been any stories that have changed you?