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Guest Post: Difficult Is Worth Doing

Guest Poster, Will, has sent in this essay on the release of Pixar’s WALL•E and Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, and what this means for creativity, society and life. It’s a interesting read, just click the maximize button in the top right to take it to full screen for easier reading. Thanks Will.

Read this document on Scribd: Difficult Is Worth Doing
“Difficult is worth doing” Humans are hungry beings. We want food, security, pleasure, love, consolation, answers, family, friends and rituals. We long for stories, reflections on life, candour – art in all its various forms. From our primitive roots we are all born with innate drives and basic needs. But humans, like all living organisms, are lazy beings too. Why should we exert more energy than necessary (i.e. from our subjective viewpoint) to satiate our hunger? McDonalds, Burger King etc, offer food that is on all accounts low in true nutritional – and, lets be honest, taste – value. So why are they behemoths? Because they’re fast food. Supermarkets are constantly cited as destroying local communities. In the British press at the moment, you can’t avoid experts telling us how to cut our food bill in the face of rising food and fuel prices. The advice is always common sense: plan meals ahead, don’t fall for buy-one-get-one-free offers, buy fresh ingredients instead of ready made meals. Recycle left over food. So why do we not listen? Supermarkets are convenience stores. Ready made meals make a point of advertising their absence of effort required. They exist to make money out of our laziness, to be at our convenience. When asked why he didn’t grow his own vegetables, a radio show caller replied he ‘didn’t have the time’. As a subsequent caller rightly pointed out, he had the time, just not the priorities. He couldn’t be bothered. Why is the adult pornography business a multi billion dollar leviathan, when we’re told it’s immoral, degrading and wasteful? Because it serves a basic drive for pleasure. A drive so powerful it’s almost unstoppable in its domination of our minds. Why do we turn to religion for answers, consolation, guidance, and ritual? Because it’s an incredibly easy option. And finally – stories. Ever since our time round the fireside, so they say, we’ve needed this nourishment for our soul. And in the 21st century, we can get it anywhere and anytime. In Britain, of a Monday night, you can sit down at 5.30pm, and watch three and half hours of consecutive TV soaps. It’s that time of year again where the ‘Big Brother’ craze fires up, giving us yet another soap by a different guise. Yet, just like fast food, these are all qualitatively inferior to the gourmet meals of the classic literature, poetry, theatre, film and television. So why do we watch them? Why wouldn’t we watch them. Our voracious appetite for stories, or at least the rate with which we’re consuming them whether we like it or not, seems to far outstrip the ability to produce quality. From the viewing figures of TV, or the box office figures of recent cinema, we don’t seem to care what we’re given. If there’s a roaring marketing campaign of spectacle and dazzle, of a franchise we’re well accustomed to, then we’ll cue up through the night to see it. Parents give in to their kids’ incessant hollering to see it. We see it, and in all honesty, once we rebuild ourselves from the bewildering spectacle thrown at us, are we truly entertained? Or do we get home and flick the TV on, catch the buzz for the next offering. On and on. I’m in danger here of imitating Duhamel’s despondence of the film as “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” I think Ingmar Bergman would have something to say about that. But clearly, in the inexorable rampage of quantity, quality has intrinsically suffered. Creation is just about the hardest task anyone can accomplish. And when the demand is so high for an incessant proliferation of content, what will win out: effort or laziness? Is it really worth trying, if we just seem to eat what we’re given? The problem increases exponentially when we take in to consideration the thought process of today’s studios and distributors. Walter Benjamin ( writes of the screen actor in contrast to the theatre actor. In the latter, there is the personal intimacy, the actor stands immediately before their audience who witness the performance first hand. Not so for the screen actor. The screen actor is performing to a camera – and then where? To unknown audiences around the world. This creates the problem of on the one hand trying to create an honest performance of truth and beauty, yet on the other considering the reaction of the innumerable and faceless audience. Do you focus solely on inspiration, or pander to your expectations of the audience? Or attempt to meet between the two? Extrapolate this to the financiers, executive producers, studio bosses, distributors, and primarily the creators. Hollywood especially aims for a mass audience. It could be a well crafted aim with profound talent and genuine sentiment, or it could be a cold, calculated precise heat seeking aim. And isn’t the latter the definition of a hack? Could be a hack writer, or hack creator in any sense. Steven Pressfield builds on McKee’s thoughts: “A hack is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for. The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them. In other words, the hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for? The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he takes a position. He’s a demagogue. He panders. Now think to Pixar. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Doctor, Brad Bird, and the myriad of artists inhabiting that wondrous place. How many times have they revealed their true selves to us? Time and time again, they’ve looked into their own hearts, chiselled down to a piece of themselves, and held it up to the shining sun: Here is me. Here is how I see the world, here is what I believe. And they tell a story for them. They make films they want to see. What’s their reaction? What do they think would make it better? And because they’re artists, because they’ve married their natural talent with a honed craft, such guidance is a universal human truth. What they connect with in the stories finds a home within us all. It’s the transcendental experience. We know who they are. We know their beliefs on friendship, childhood, parenthood, family ties. We connect with them too. Learn the true value of friendship. Do not bully and scare children for your own gain. Believe in your children’s strength. In contrast – what do we know of the Dreamworks staff? Honestly, when we look back at the stories they’ve told us – what meanings, truths, expressions of life, have they offered us? If you had to say, from the films Katzenberg has made, what kind of impression you got of him as a person, what would it be? I found his recent interview very revealing. Firstly, his experience of animation. From being a kid to running Disney, animation ‘did nothing for him’. Just really think about this for a moment. A man is put in charge of Disney animation, and he has no emotional, honest, profound or even visceral connection with the medium. “I had zero interest in [animation films].” Now compare this to the childhood tales of Lasseter, Bird, Stanton. A common anecdote is the realisation, when watching the latest animation at the cinema, ‘You can do this for a living?!’ Is it any wonder such directly opposed modus operandi have emerged? Katzenberg, clearly, only had one option: to focus on the commercial. That was his job: get Disney making money. You can see Katzenberg almost lying down and assuming the shape of a dead body at a crime scene. He fits what Brad Bird yelled about in that splinecast (it’s implied here the result of hacks is failure): “Lets say that we’re in the thirties. Imagine that the only good filmmaker was making Westerns. There’s John Ford and a bunch of hacks. And so Ford is making Westerns, and they’re awesome, they suck you into them, and the lighting’s great, the stage is great, and the way the wind blows through the guy’s scarf is great, and wow! the action sequences blow me away. Then, all the other types of films, the horror films, the romance films, the period films, they’re all made by the hacks. Well suddenly, some financial guy comes to the conclusion that the only thing that works on screen is clearly westerns.” Can you see Katzenberg looking at the classic Disney successes? ‘Hmmm, fairy tale romance, five songs…’ Continuing with Brad Bird: “Well, the only people who really concentrated on building an animation team, making the team study colour, composition, and all of that stuff, were Disney animators, and so the kind of stories they told worked because they studied the form and used it how they saw fit, telling the stories they want to tell. So the Disney films succeeded, but people believed the reason they succeeded were due to the kinds of stories they were telling. [What else would Katzenberg’s conclusion have been? Remember, he wasn’t animating as a kid, or even drawing. He no perspective from the inside out, from the artist’s perspective. So all he could do was look from the outside in, from what sold, then unweave the tapestry to study the material. ] So if you ever tried to get something going, those were the kinds of films they would let you do. I tried for years to get The Spirit off the ground – it was perfect for animation. But where’s the talking animals? Where’s the magic? Where’s the fairy story (that we’ve seen six times before)? Where’s the opportunity for a song? I don’t see it. And so, therefore your idea isn’t backable.” The second nugget from the interview was the open admittance of envy for Pixar. Again, lets just take a stand back, and really think about what this means. We have a billion dollar animation company making films … driven by envy. What supposition does this fact carry? An absence of natural talent? A contempt for their own creations? A tendency to imitate? At its absolute best, what could a work motivated by envy give its audience? Arthur Koestler draws up some contrasts between habit and the diametrically opposed originality. Habit is based upon “association within the given confines of a matrix … guidance by the extra-conscious process … repetitiveness … conservative aims.” So habit only gives someone the vision to pull together already established ideas; it makes them overtly governed by a conscious eye on the audience, the current zeitgeist, the current hot topic; it makes the repeat past success; above all it makes them not want to change the rules, they want to maintain the status quo, the formula that’s working for them. Remember Andrew Stanton in the talk at the Computer History Museum? “With making Toy Story, we had such a desire, for as much as it was built on the house of ‘we want to make the first CG movie’, it was driven by something much larger – we were so frustrated by the animation of the past 10 years. We hated it. This was 1990/91 – how come it had now become law that if you make an animated movie it has to have to songs, it has to be a fairy tale, it has to have ‘our little town’, it has to have a villain, it has to have the ‘I want’ song, and the ‘Villain song’, and the ‘love song’ that’s reprised over the end titles. Animation is not a genre, it’s just a medium you can use. You can tell any story you want, and everyone’s picking this one thing. And we knew there had to be a better story you could tell – there was a better movie that could be made.” Instead of being conservative, Koestler states originality almost dictates you have to be destructive-constructive. Like Stanton and the stagnant conventions of animation, you have destroy what has gone before and establish what works for you. Construct new principles, new ways of working. You “Bisociate independent matrices” meaning you really are thinking outside the box, connecting unique ideas; “guidance by sub-conscious processes normally under restraint” the marriage of talent and craft; novelty instead of repetitiveness. Lets go back to Brad Bird one last time: “So Pixar succeeded by basically having the permission that a new medium gave them. “Hey it’s a different medium – there’s no rules!” Which is ridiculous! They could have used the same rules if they wanted to, but because it was a new medium they gave it the elbow room. “Okay, you can have a contemporary story, you can have products from our world intermingling with each other in a contemporary way, you can have a song that nobody on screen is singing – it’s Randy Newman, doing Randy Newman.” Can you feel the twist coming… “Okay, so they succeed at it, and they make a couple more films. What does everybody do? They imitate the Pixar films, and its ad campaign . . . it’s now become its formula. Most of them are contemporary films with wisecracking guys. It mirrors what was happening in the mid 90s with 2d” Pixar destroyed the Disney model, only for others to then replace it with a Pixar model. Again these people, either bereft of talent or driven by envy or both, look at Pixar’s success from the outside in. They think the reason Pixar is successful is because of the types of stories they’re telling. This mania doesn’t even have to be based on a released film. From To Infinity And Beyond: “People were accustomed to talking freely about their work, and as a result, it was common knowledge that Pixar’s second movie was going to be set in the bug world, with ants as the main characters. It wasn’t until production was in full swing that the Bugs team heard unsettling rumours that Dreamworks had instructed PDI to make an ant movie, Antz. Dreamworks assured Pixar there was no need to worry because their movie would come out after Pixar’s. Sure enough, DreamWorks ultimately announced that they were moving Antz’ release forward to just seven weeks before A Bug’s Life.” This is evidence of Katzenberg’s envy, and I also think panic. “We need a hit! We need a hit! What do we do? What are Pixar doing? An animation about insects? That must be the secret! Copy it!” And so, here it comes again. In the corner representing originality, creativity, and art – Wall-E. In the corner representing commerce, hacks, and the exploitation of audience – Kung Fu Panda. It was Andrew Stanton who came up with the idea of Wall-E. You’ve heard of the ball game he went to? He spent most of the time toying with a pair of binoculars, realizing the sheer array of emotion they could convey. Then came what if humanity abandoned earth, and forgot to turn off the last robot? This is inside-out storytelling. A Dreamworks executive woke up one day and said ‘Hey, get this! A Panda . . . that does Kung Fu!’ But lets think about this, why is Kung Fu Panda such a bad premise? Well . . . it’s not all that bad, in honest truth. It has the same dynamics as Ratatouille in a way. A character aiming for ideas way above his station, a world in which he is not meant to be. A sewer rat trying to be a gourmet chef. A giant panda trying to be a kung fu master. But it’s about heart. Even when Ratatouille passed from Jan Pinkava, I bet Brad Bird’s first process was “Where is the me in this story? What can I bring to this film?” A couple of directors are tossed Kung Fu Panda and thrown together, while the execs hurry about signing stars for the voices, that are then plastered all over the trailer. What are the directors left – or even allowed – to do? Do they look for the them in the story, or do they resort to clichés and conventions? I saw a brief snippet of Kung Fu Panda, and it didn’t excite me. It was of Panda at the lowest of the low, probably just been expelled from the academy, meeting the old wise master. And what does the old wise master say? Believe in thyself. What’s wrong with this? It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers. This is someone flicking to page 69 of Joseph Campbell going “Bam! ‘A little old man, protective figure, gotcha!” Yet one could argue Michael Arndt did this with Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine. But Alan Arkin’s character was fresh. Was he a benign magnanimous guiding figure when we first meet him? Or was he a heroin snorting foul mouthed moaner yelling “What’s this? Chicken? Every night it’s the ******* chicken!” There’s heart there, there’s truth guided by principles. Not ideas squeezed into a straightjacket. Yet, you can almost see the box office reports. It’s clear Kung Fu Panda is going to rake in the cash. Will this satiate our hunger? Or the envy of Katzenberg? To be honest, I think as long as he’s chasing Pixar, he will never be pleased with the cash he makes. It’s an entirely hollow goal. He’s a sell out. We can not singularly rely on box office figures as a measure for excellence. We need a rounded approach. If we just followed gross, the best film of all time would unequivocally have to be Titanic. Followed by Return Of The King, Dead Man’s Chest, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, At World’s End, Order Of The Phoenix, The Two Towers, Phantom Menace, Shrek 2, and Jurassic Park. These would be the 10 best films of all time ( Do you see the problem here? So why bother? Why bother spending years killing yourself to produce a work of true art? Why avoid the McDonalds, porn, religious dogma, Supermarket targeting, and the work of hacks? Because art is the current peak of civilization. If hunger is our foremost need, it would be the foundation of a pyramid. Then security. Then sex/love. We’re getting higher now, the ease of satiation decreases. Family, then friends. And finally art and philanthropy. It is the zenith of our needs, therefore the boon of its achievement must be something remarkable. Hunger is about nourishment of our gut, basic survival, art is about nourishment of our soul, our thought, our emotional wellbeing. It pushes us, it inspires us, it makes us appreciate the world around us in new ways, it develops our thought, it makes us use our vast brains, the result of our evolutionary path. To take the new slogan of a car manufacturer: Difficult is worth doing. Walter Benjamin writes, in the essay cited above, “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Think about it.

0 Responses to Guest Post: Difficult Is Worth Doing

  1. Kolya says:

    It’s very interesting, I’m definitely glad I read it. This is one of those things that everyone’s thinking but nobody says…or maybe just me? Thanks for posting!

  2. You just wanted an excuse to use iPaper – admit it, Thomas. =P

    There are some really good points in this essay. I’m glad that Katzenberg’s non-animation background was pointed out, since that’s one of the things that jumped out at me too, when I read that interview.

    One of the things I love about Pixar is that they take risks. They could have followed the same formula over these years, and chosen the safe options and still would have been moderately successful in all departments. But they choose to go to different places and tell stories that haven’t been told before in order to learn and grow as a company. That takes more courage than to play it safe.

    With Ratatouille they had a bit of a marketing nightmare on their hands – the main character was a rat of which people have somewhat negative connotations beforehand, it was mostly an adult’s movie, but it had to be marketed towards kids, as well as the fact that in the US, it went up against the biggest blockbusters of the year. But rather than do what is best for Disney, and trying to simply get people in the doors, they do what is best for the story and then make marketing makes adjustments around the story instead of vice versa, which is what Dreamworks does.

    The Kung Fu Panda reviews are just coming in – supposedly it’s Dreamworks’ best film to date, but even then I bet it’s nothing on WALL-E. Also, the bar wasn’t set that high with any of Dreamworks’ last few films so it’s not that hard to go up from where they were.

    But anyway, that was a great read. A+

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