Mr. Self Destruct on his Creative Process

With Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Ren Klyce

On Sunday, I was fortunate to have an invitation to a screening of The Social Network, followed by a Q&A with the guys most responsible for the film’s amazing soundtrack—composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, along with supervising sound editor Ren Klyce.

If you haven’t seen the film, you should. The excellent score plays a huge role in establishing the mood and giving a driving force to what could otherwise be a pretty dull topic.

During the Q&A, Reznor talked some about the creative process. When director David Fincher asked him to do the music for the film, Reznor said his first instinct was to start watching a lot of films and study what the composers did, how’d they’d approached the projects. He’d never composed a film score before. Then he changed his mind. “We decided to just do what we do. David came to us for a reason. He wanted us.”

So he and Ross got to work. The first task, after seeing some early footage of the film, was to generate a bunch of directional tracks, 17 or so “sketches” to send to Fincher and see what was working for him and what he was digging. Reznor articulated how critical it is in the first part of the process (divergence) to not edit or be self-critical.

“I used to get hung up because with each project I wanted to do the best thing I’d ever done. That’s a recipe for a blank page and suicidal thoughts.”

In other words, at this point you’re going for quantity. This is something I emphasize to my students. I’m a huge fan of the “wall approach” early on. Every idea you have, spend some time exploring it, then write it down and put it on the wall. Throw it out there, then throw it up there. Do not kill anything. That comes later.

Reznor said, “The process should be fun. It should be filled with momentum.”

I love that phrase. Filled with momentum. Go as fast as you can. Just get it down. Keep moving. Don’t stop.

This quarter, I’m teaching a copywriting class, and one of my assignments will utilize The thing I like about this site is that it encourages you to write fast. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or how you’re writing. It measures your work in quantity. It helps eliminate all the things that kill creativity, that kill momentum. The client won’t like this…the budget won’t cover that…this is off brief…

After the screening, a friend of mine was talking about barriers in her creative writing class that kill momentum. One of her classmates has trouble because she has an education in creative writing, so she feels like her stuff should be good. The instructor tells the class to write freely, but then adds that they might share what they’ve written with the rest of the class. These things invite the judge into the room. There should be no judging. Just go.

Here’s more on the sound of The Social Network.

“The Social Network” Sound for Film Profile from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.

Match Wits With Professor Layton

I’ve been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on my Nintendo DS. It’s a very addicting puzzle game. Here’s the trailer…

There are over 100 puzzles in this game, from simple riddles to chess games to jigsaw puzzles. A famous riddle that appears in the game is this: “If A is the first letter, and B comes after, what is the last letter of the alphabet?” Of course, you immediately answer “Z,” which is incorrect. Because the question’s really about the last letter of the word “alphabet” and not the 26 letters.
I was really stuck on another one where I had to create a + on a field of pegs. Given the parameters, it seemed impossible. Until I realized that if I tipped the + on its side to make an X, the problem was workable.
What does this have to do with advertising? Almost without exception, the puzzles in this game are solved by looking at the problem from another angle. They’re deliberately phrased to make you assume one thing, but it’s not until you see past those presumptions that you’re able to crack the code.
Like approaching a new assignment, you go in with some presumptions. Like you can’t do award-winning work on packaged goods. Or the client never buys humor. Or the answer is a full-page print ad. Or any kind of an ad.
Presumptions. Scrap them. Ignore them. Pay them no mind. That’s what Professor Layton does.

SXSW I: Convergence & Divergence

A couple months ago, I was fortunate enough to be sent by my agency to the South By Southwest Music/Film/Interactive Festival in Austin. There were a lot of really cool ideas floating around, and I’m going to do a series of posts on some of the relevant ideas I encountered.

My first post on SXSW is from a talk called “11 Tips to Managing a Creative Environment.” The speakers compiled the list after interviewing people who a) work in a creative environment, b) had to work as part of a team and c) had hard deadlines to meet. Some of these groups included entertainers (comedy troupes, theater groups, symphonies), media (print and online magazines), writers groups, restaurants, and a few others. Much of it applied to simply working in a creative environment, regardless of whether or not you had any authority.

One of the points they made was about the steps of the creative process and making sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of what step you’re at. This is critical in a creative department, but also important with a CW-AD team.

There are two phases in any creative process: divergence and convergence. Divergence is the brainstorming part. Churning out as many ideas as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter if they’re good yet. This phase is all about quantity. And the key here is to not judge. Don’t kill ANYTHING. Don’t say why you can’t do it, why the client won’t buy it, how it won’t fit the budget. We all know this is the golden rule of brainstorming, even though we sometimes forget.

An important step to making sure everyone’s on the same page is that, when you’re done with phase 1, make sure everyone knows you are. End the meeting, or say “Okay, now let’s look at everything we’ve got.” One of the comedy troupes marked the turning point with a smoke break. When they came back from the smoke break, everyone knew they were in phase 2.

Phase 2 is the convergence phase. This is when the ideas are culled down, refined, combined and, yes, killed. You have to edit here. Be ruthless. Only keep the great ideas.

Now, the point I want to emphasize is that in this second phase, the golden rule is you’re not coming up with completely new directions. This is about getting to a single solution, not creating more potential solutions–if you did your job in phase 1, you should have plenty. We’ve all been in meetings where we’re trying to brainstorm and someone is shooting ideas down. It’s frustrating, and it’s harmful to the process. But just as harmful is to be throwing out new ideas when you’re in the convergence phase. This is the time to improve the ideas that you have. A constant stream of new ideas in this phase can lead to chaos and frustration.

In an agency, young teams often fall into the trap of spending all their time in the divergence phase, then try to converge an hour before they’re supposed to present their work. I’d say it should be closer to 60/40, depending on your creative director. Most will like to see a few ideas. None want to see ALL of your ideas. Make sure you spend time fleshing your ideas out. Give them the time and refinement they deserve.