Just Create

New look! New blog! Well, not exactly…

I want to evolve this blog from being story-centric, to creativity-encompassing. There is a lot of talk in the marketing and blogging worlds about “branding” yourself, a term I despise. It reminds me of farmers branding cows. It’s limiting and I squirm at the thought of being put in a box. I understand the idea behind it – you want your potential audience to know what they’re signing up for when they buy your book or watch your movie or read your blog. Compartmentalization can sometimes be helpful, just not so much for me when it comes to living a creative life.

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Part of what I’ve struggled with in writing this blog is figuring out exactly what I want to do with it. It initially began as a way to explore stories and understand why we need them, but it’s also been about Avatar and Legend of Korra. But my creative interests expand well beyond those things, into photography, painting, philosophy, spirituality, sociology, cosmology, nutrition, etc. There are many things which fascinate and inspire me. I try to remain curious and open to new ideas and new ways of understanding myself and the world around me. Story is one way to funnel a lot of these interests, but at the same time, it feels limiting.

I realized the overarching theme I want to explore is creativity and living a creatively satisfying life. So what does that mean, exactly? For me, it’s about living authentically, honestly, and as transparently as possible. It’s about listening to new ideas, taking what works in my life, and discarding what doesn’t. It’s about being proactive and creating a life that inspires me, and sharing what I create, hoping it will inspire others to pursue their own passions.

And this isn’t just about art and writing. Creativity appears in myriad ways across every discipline and aspect of life. I’m not a great cook. In fact I don’t really like cooking, but I am in awe of chefs who can take various ingredients and create something visually stunning and mouth-watering. In an age where craftsmanship has been too often replaced by automation, where fast-food becomes preferable to thoughtful preparation, we lose a connection to what matters. We lose a part of what makes us human.

I totally accept that I sound like an old man lamenting the “good old days.” But I’m not advocating we all move out to the woods, throw away our cel phones, and forage for our own food (though I’ve thought about it). But I often wonder if we’ve lost our connection to our more primal, spiritual selves by moving away from the physical and into the virtual.

When we started the Avatar production in 2003, the artists and I all drew with pencil (or pen) and paper. Other parts of the production used computers to color and composite the show, but by and large, there was a lot of physical evidence of our work. By 2010, nearly everything is done digitally. Everyone still draws by hand, but it’s with a stylus and Cintiq. The exception is at Studio Mir, where the animators all draw with pencil and paper, then scan the drawings into the computer to be colored and composited. The show looks better than it ever has, and I still think the style of each artist comes through in the digital medium, but I can’t help but feel like something gets lost along the way. It’s something small and almost intangible, but I can sense it, like a dream you can’t quite remember upon waking, or a smell that triggers a nearly-forgotten memory.

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

So I guess the reason I’m writing all this is to reaffirm my commitment to creativity, no matter what the form, and to hopefully inspire others to do the same. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we write our novel by hand, or by typing it on a screen. It doesn’t really make a difference if we photograph with film and develop it in a darkroom, or make photos digitally — what matters is that we write the novel, or take the photo, or paint the picture, or cook the food. Just create.

Check out these TED talks (here and here) by Elizabeth Gilbert if you need a creative kick-start. She’s one of my favorite speakers on the challenges and joys of the creative process.

The Academy Awards: Why the best picture nominees should make Hollywood take note

The Academy Awards are next week, and looking over the list of best picture nominees, I’m surprised I’ve actually seen a majority of the films (Amour, Django Unchained, and Argo being the exceptions.) But I’m also pleasantly surprised that these were, by and large, excellent films that connected with a lot of different audiences.

This crop of thoughtful, challenging, and sometimes controversial films proved that audiences don’t just want mindless summer movie fare. Six out of the nine films have made over 100 million domestically. And out of all of them, Lincoln made the most (about 176 million at current count) which is astounding considering the film is essentially a straight-ahead drama with no action, no obvious special effects, and no sex appeal (though fans of Daniel Day Lewis might disagree.) I love history and historical fiction and drama, so I really enjoyed the film as an historical recreation of the events of that time, but have to admit that I also found myself getting a little antsy through all the debates on the house floor. But I liked that it presented some profund questions about the nature of freedom, courage, and personal conviction in the face of great opposition.

What I took away from Les Miserables was that we all have the power to overcome our past and choose a new path, no matter how others define us. Spirituality and faith was also a major theme throughout.

Zero Dark Thirty was a tough watch, but I think it raises an important question about whether violence as a means to ending violence works, or is a pointless endeavor that will leave us, as a nation, bereft and spiritually wrecked.

And Life of Pi, my favorite film of the year, was essentially a mediation on the meaning of story and belief. Unlike the others, it did have a lot of effects that were amazingly executed and vital to the telling of the story. I want to go into this story, both the movie and the book, in more depth in a future post.

The meaning I take away from these films as a whole is that audiences really do long for stories with depth, and that they are willing to go to the theater to explore the deeper questions of who we are and why we’re here. Often films that are critical darlings and considered more “serious” fare are not big hits at the box office and that’s why studios don’t want to invest in them. But I think those with the power to green-light films have a lot to consider after this year’s Oscars.

Some of the biggest disappointments this year were films whose budgets were huge — John Carter and Battleship being the most publicized examples. There seems to be a belief among the studios that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. And sometimes the gamble pays off – The Avengers, for example (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Every studio would kill to have the next Avengers. But why aren’t studios willing to make more modest budgeted pictures that yield healthy returns on investment?

I believe there is a directive among the studios (which I’ve heard first-hand) to put their main focus on the big tentpole movies, at one extreme, or small, micro-budget movies at the other. They aren’t really interested in mid-sized budget movies (20-70 million) and haven’t been for a while. But all the nominees (minus Django at 100 million) had budgets within that range. Beasts and Amour were below that.

Studios will never do away with the summer tentpole, but I think they are missing a huge opportunity to shepherd stories with a little more depth through the development process.

What were some of your favorite movies of the year? What stories resonated with you?

All my budget figures I took from Box Office Mojo.