Your inner creative vs. your inner critic

How do we balance our creative minds with our critical minds?

“If you take life absolutely seriously, you must realize there’s the counter-play to it, that the world of law is simply an optional world. When you do something you create a pattern that excludes other possibilities, and there comes a time for opening up to all possibility and the creative act.

“Actually, everybody who has ever done creative work of any kind knows this moment. You make your plans in terms of what the mind can think of, and if you hold to those plans you’re going to have a dry, dead piece of work. What you have to do is open out underneath into chaos, and then a new thing comes, and if you bring your critical faculty down too early you’re going to kill it.” – Joseph Campbell

When I think of creativity these are the words that come to mind: flow, exploration, inspiration, curiosity, no rules, freedom. The word critical makes me think: reasoned, intellect, decision-making, organized, categorized, clarity, communication.

In the act of making art, writing, music, etc., we use our creativity as well as our critical minds. Is one more important than the other? When should we put aside our “creative” minds and put on our thinking caps? There’s no simple or firm answer. For me, I often flip back and forth between the two.

Last week, I spoke to some local high school students about what my job entails. I only had eight minutes with each group of students, so I had to figure out a way to succinctly sum up what I do. My official job title is “co-creator and executive producer”, which is always cumbersome to say, with the added problem being it doesn’t clearly express all the things I do on the show. But in preparing for the students, I realized that these roles encompass the creative aspects of my job and the critical aspects.

On a daily basis, I switch between “co-creating”, which involves everything from the initial ideas for the series to developing and writing episodes, and “executive producing”, which means reviewing and critiquing storyboards and animatics, as well as overseeing different aspects of the production. I enjoy the creating aspect of my job more, but both are necessary to making the show. I think this can apply to our own personal projects as well. You don’t need to oversee a crew of people to be an executive producer of your own work.

So when is it time to put aside our creative sides, step back, and look at what we’ve made with a more critical eye? It’s a personal choice, but like Joseph Campbell warns in the above quote, it’s important not to let your inner critic show up too early in the creative process, or you might risk losing the spark of energy fueling your ideas.

The creative mind says to the critic: “I hate rules! Just let me be free to roam and explore and make beautiful things.” The critical mind says to the creative: “You have some interesting and inspiring ideas here, but I don’t understand some of the choices you made. It’s not clear what you’re trying to say.”

Creative: “You just don’t get it, man! This is the pure expression of who I am.”

Critic: “But don’t you want your art to communicate with others?”

Creative: “I want chaos!”

Critic: “You’re impossible.”

Creative: “Leave me alone!” (Storms out of room.)

The creative mind is a bit of the rebellious teenager, while the critical mind is the more mature adult, trying to make responsible decisions.

So why can’t we just live in the blissful world of the creative mind? It sounds fun. But if we did, I don’t think we’d ever finish a project, and even if we did finish, it wouldn’t effectively communicate with others. Of course, we don’t want the critic running the show either, for exactly the same reason. That self-critical voice that assuredly exclaims “my work sucks” isn’t really helpful when it comes to completing a project and sharing it with others. The inner critic also has a tendency to work on something until it drains all the life from it.

Balancing the creative and the critical came up a lot in the Korra writer’s room. At the start of each season, we carve out a couple weeks where Bryan, the writers, and I just focus on idea generating. We throw out any and all ideas, trying not to criticize them yet. This is where we talk about big picture concepts — what the season’s about, what we’d like to see the characters do and how we’d like them to grow, who’s the villain, etc. But we also pitch on smaller ideas too —  cool action set pieces, funny character moments (like Bolin becoming a movie star), or ideas for new locations.

At a certain point, we then take a more analytical look at all the ideas and figure out what works and doesn’t depending on what we’ve decided are the story and themes for that season. Usually, it’s pretty clear what will stay and what won’t. Those idea generating sessions were a great way to let our imaginations wander freely as we explored new possibilities for Korra and her world.

I’ll leave you with something to consider: In your life and work (whatever you consider your work to be), do you tend to be more creative or critical? Is there a way to bring more of one or the other into your process?

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Legend of Korra: Book 2 Comes to a Close

It was a long, at times difficult journey, but here we are at the end of Book 2: Spirits.

It’s hard to believe, but we wrote the scripts for Book 2 roughly between May, 2011 and May, 2012. We didn’t mix the last episode of Book 2 until Nov. 11, the monday before the show went up on Nick.com. We don’t usually cut it that close, but it was really down to the wire on this round of episodes.

It’s a relief to finally have Book 2 complete and out in the world. (And if you haven’t seen it all, there will be spoilers below…)

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What I’m most proud about in Book 2 is how much we were able to explore the Spirit World and spirituality in general. I want to tell stories that are entertaining, but also enlightening in some way.

Everyone gleans different lessons and nuggets of wisdom from the show, so I don’t mean this as the end-all for what Book 2 is about.  But looking back on this past season, there’s one big take-away for me:

Even though we identify as human beings, we have the potential to tap into something beyond our human forms.

Both Korra’s story and Wan’s story are about humans moving beyond their ordinary abilities, and becoming something extraordinary. Wan used his cunning, bravery, and wisdom to move beyond his humanness, ultimately fusing with Raava to become the first Avatar. And Korra, when she loses her connection to the past Avatars and her Avatar spirit, looks deep within herself and forms a new connection with the cosmic version of herself. When Korra is at her lowest point, Tenzin tells her: “The most powerful thing about you is not the spirit of Raava, but your own inner spirit. You have always been strong, unyielding, and fearless” and that Wan became a legend “because of who he was, not what he was.”

In Hindu philosophy, there is a concept called Atman, which is defined as the “innermost essence of each individual” or “the supreme universal self.” This is my interpretation of what Korra sees and becomes when she meditates. The giant blue Cosmic Korra is a visual representation of her inner essence.

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With this episode, I wanted to show how any one of us has the ability to tap into that cosmic, more-than-human version of ourselves and expand past the possibilities of what we think we’re capable of.

We can all be the Avatar in our own lives.

In Hindu mythology, Shiva takes many different forms. Sometimes he’s destructive, sometimes meditative, other times benevolent. I think of Korra like that. Most of her life she has been in warrior mode, but she is learning that, depending on the situation, she can take other forms.  In our own lives, we put on different forms or act differently, depending on the situation. We act differently with our best friends, than with our parents, or in a business situation.

Through the story of Wan, we come to learn that the Avatar is part human, part spirit. This is how I have come to see all humanity — we’re all part human, part spirit. Like Korra, for a long time I wasn’t aware of my spiritual half, but over the years I’ve become more in tune with it and more accepting of that side of life.

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Theologue by Alex Grey — The union of human and divine consciousness

Joseph Campbell has a couple great quotes related to this in “The Power of Myth”:

“…each of us is a completely unique creature and… if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.”

“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

This is why stories, when made with love and integrity, contain the possibility to affect personal and societal change. And it’s no coincidence that Book 3 is called “Change.” So get ready, change is coming…

Creating Mythology: The Search for Zuko’s Mother Continues…

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As most of you know by now, at the end of The Search part 1, Zuko finds a letter from his father that suggests he may not be Ozai’s son after all.

This cliffhanger seemed to leave people either excited or angry. Like I wrote about in this post when The Search was released, the expectations for this story were such that no matter what happened, I figured more than a few people would be upset with the way it all played out.

But that was just the first of a three part story. (Part 2 is out now, part 3 released in November.) And a story’s job is to throw a wrench into the character’s and the reader’s experience. The reader stands in Zuko’s shoes when he finds that letter and is left to wonder along with him, “Is Zuko’s whole life a lie?”

This question won’t be answered until part 3, but I love that it brings up so many emotions and questions for people (and for our characters).  As part 2 begins, even Aang is upset and, echoing many of you out there, says: “It can’t be true. Or at least, it shouldn’t be!”

I find it fascinating when readers or viewers are upset by an unexpected turn of events in a story, because this is the very reason we like to read them — to be surprised, to find out what happens next, to have a vicarious experience through another’s eyes. When stories don’t deviate from the expected, they become boring. And no one likes a boring story.

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What I love about the revelation at the end of part 1, is that Zuko finds a sense of freedom in his new knowledge. If he’s not Ozai’s son, that means he’ll be unburdened from his past and all the horrible things that happened to him. He thinks he can start fresh. In fact, Zuko seems to be the most relieved of his friends to find out this news — they’re all looking at the big picture and wondering what it means for the world if Zuko isn’t the rightful Fire Lord. Meanwhile, Zuko just smiles and says he feels hopeful.

This story is not just about the external plot of Zuko searching for his mother, but also his internal search for who he is (or who he thinks he is). And that’s what makes this particular chapter in the Avatar saga much more than just a mystery to be solved.

From a storytelling perspective, the facts of Ursa’s whereabouts was never as interesting to me as what this search means for Zuko.

When stories balance a hero’s external quest with his or her internal one, the tale resonates. I love trying to find that balance in storytelling. I enjoy coming up with plot, action, and the “what happens next” of it all, but if the character’s emotional needs and wants are missing, the story falls flat.

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Bryan and I have been asked many times how much of the Avatar world we knew when we started. Did we already have the idea for Korra when we were making The Last Airbender? (No.) Did we always know where Zuko’s mom was, and were we just keeping that juicy information to ourselves? (Again, no.)

The truth is, there would be no way we could’ve known every detail or character in the Avatar world. When we pitched the series, we laid out a lot of the groundwork for books 1-3 of A:TLA, but characters like Zuko, Zhao, and most of Aang’s adventures had yet to be created.

As J.R.R. Tolkein said in the foreword to Lord of the Rings, “This tale grew in the telling.” Even the godfather (grandfather?) of fantasy didn’t know everything about his own creation.

In developing each book of Korra and the Avatar comics, I have advocated creating the mythology to suit the story and its characters, rather than conform a character’s story to some pre-determined mythological encyclopedia.

When I look at sites like Avatar.wikia, I’m amazed at the volume of characters, places, and creatures that now exist in the Avatar universe. And to be honest, I’ve had to consult it now and then to fact check. Bryan and I may have established the building blocks, but many other writers and artists have helped us construct this growing, living mythology.

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Me and Bryan with Gene Yang, the writer of the Avatar comics

The Avatar tale has grown so much in the telling, and I hope will continue to grow for many years to come.

Man of Steel: Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

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I thought Superman’s time had long past. And I didn’t expect to enjoy the new movie as much as I did. How can there be anything interesting left to do with a character who has been around for 75 years and is all powerful? I thought as I headed into a 10:30 AM screening this past weekend (yes, I go to the movies alone in the morning sometimes). I found myself surprised by how much the story resonated with me.

Here’s what I loved about it: It’s a story about having the courage to be who you are. I’m not well versed in Superman lore beyond film and TV, so I realize this theme probably isn’t unique to this film, but it really hit home for me in this moment. Sometimes stories come along at just the right time and resonate with what you’re thinking about at the time.

The crux of the film for me was the father/son relationship between Jonathan and Clark Kent. Clark lives his childhood and early adult life not being able to reveal who he really is because his father taught him that the human race wasn’t ready to learn that that an alien with superpowers lived among them. His father, feared what others might think and how they would react. In fact, he staked his whole life on it.

There is a powerful scene where young Clark saves his schoolmates from a bus crash. (It was in the trailer, so I don’t think of this as a spoiler). Everyone is about to drown, and Clark is given a choice: let them die, or save them and risk showing them who you are. He wisely chooses the latter. But later, his father is upset with him. Clark asks him, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” And his dad replies, “Maybe.” His dad is so set in his worldview — that people aren’t ready to understand the truth — that he would be willing to let innocent souls perish. It’s pretty cruel, but makes for a great conflict that challenges Clark to decide what he believes in and what kind of person he wants to become.

Even in spite of this, I found myself sympathetic to Jonathan Kent and didn’t find him completely unlikable. His words and actions were his way of protecting his son. But he was misguided. Who made him the one who decides if the world is ready or not to handle the existence of an alien?

The father represents any parent, or institution, or religion, or government that wants to prevent you (or me) from coming into our own and expressing who we truly are. This covers the gamut, from corporations not wanting employees to think outside the box, to a society that still isn’t entirely okay with gay marriage. They (the father figure) thinks they know best. They say they have your best interests at heart and they will protect you. But they are just fearful of what will happen when people are living their best lives. I think this part of the film got under my skin because I absolutely hate when someone assumes they know what is best for me.

There have been some articles written about the Christ symbolism in the film (which I found too heavy-handed). But I did find the movie spiritual in other ways. It encourages us to live an authentic life, one in which we follow our instincts as we struggle to figure out who we want to be and what we want to do.

What did you think of the film? What parts resonated with you?

Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

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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!