Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The MacGyver Theory of Creativity

Despite the Department of Education deeming it an inferior form of intelligence by scaling it down for the HSC, I studied Visual Arts as a subject in Year 11 and 12 – and I was pretty freaking AWESOME at it. That is, until I had to do my final major work. For those of you unfamiliar with the topic, (presumably choosing to study ‘real’ subjects), the major work is the only part of the curriculum where you can do absolutely anything you want as your project, ANYTHING at all – the possibilities were endless, and that was my trap.
I found myself lost without clear problems to solve, challenges to address, and boundaries to push - it was what had always driven my creativity (wanker), and this was what was missing from the major artwork project (for me anyway). That was 10 years ago, so I have since had time to reflect whilst pretending to work, and reflect I did. I have decided that like MacGyver crafting a torpedo out of some sticks, rocks, rags, some pipe and a boiler (fact!), often the best creative work comes from places with the most barriers challenges and limitations to overcome.
Limitation breeds innovation. Or conversely, the bigger the box gets, the harder it becomes to think outside of it.
I will demonstrate what I’m talking about with the 1980s as my backdrop and the video game and film industries as my protagonists (yes you can have more than one, I Googled it!).
Back in the 80’s the 'box' was small (relative to now at least), it was before the CGI graphical capabilities of today – this had huge impacts on these two very creative industries.
Firstly, let’s look at the birth of Mario. 
NOTE: not actual birth, rather a Google image result that I'm unable to accurately source

Shigeru Miyamoto (pictured above right amongst the bevy of Nintendo virgins) needed to create a protagonist (then referred to as “Jumpman”) to fight against the (since reformed) evil Donkey Kong who had kidnapped one said Nintendo virgin. He had an extremely limited number of pixels to work with, and somehow managed to MacGyver a recognizable human being out of 13x16 pixels (below):

It was the limitations that Miyamoto faced that created the unique look of the character:
  • Drawing an accurate representation of hair whilst keeping a distinction between eyes, eyebrows and hairline would be impossible, Miyamoto's solution - give Mario a hat 
  • Why does Mario have a mustache? Again, appearing relatively small on-screen meant animating facial features such as a mouth would be impossible
There is much more to this now modern folk tale, but I think you get the picture. All of Mario's features are an innovative response to an extremely limited situation (like being trapped in a basement with some sticks, rocks, rags, some pipe and a boiler), but Miyamoto was able to make the best of this limited scenario - he was able to innovate his way into creating an icon that remains at the top of modern video gaming.
Let’s compare that to the videogames of today. 
The biggest console games; Call of Duty, Gran Turismo etc - they are all real life simulators. Whilst I am no doubt unfairly generalising, my point is that creating a video game that is 100% realistic feels like a lazy aspiration; surely replicating reality is not the most creative pursuit? Where is the creativity that could craft another reality entirely? A reality like a 2D world where you view your movements from outside your body and everything side scrolls as you jump on top of enemies to kill them and eat mushrooms to gain special powers – that is the kind of creativity I am talking about and that's what Miyamoto was able to achieve back in the 80s.
Is the gaming industry suffering what plagued me in year 12 art? Perhaps! But let's move on.
Secondably, let's look at film.
I love old-school special effects, and it's not just some kind of nostalgic Pavlovian response (like peeing every time I hear the theme song to Golden Girls). There is something amazing in knowing that what you are watching is the result of some extremely creative problem solving. Remember watching "The Making Of" specials and being amazed that the sound of a dude getting smacked in the face was actually made by a baseball bat and a cabbage? These days the equivalent on Blu Ray and DVD special features usually involves a green screen and some computer animation.
This video says it all - it's a behind the scenes look at the special effects from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars (awesome):
The problem is, like I was in year 12, film makers are now spoiled for choice, they can visually create anything they want. Of course this does not mean it is devoid of any creativity, it just means that there are less innovations in response to limitations - instead just CGI (sorry another unfair generalisation for effect).  
Remember when the creature used to transform behind a bush and your imagination would fill in the blanks?
It's the type of thing we no longer see, and it may be killing our imagination. Think back to the 80s - the special effects in Teen Wolf were awesome, yet somehow these now look cheesy. What has magically happened to retroactively destroy these scenes? the movie hasn't changed, it's us. Do we now need everything literally represented to us?
But I digress (wanker line, sorry).
What is the point of all this? Well if you work in the advertising industry like me, or any other creative industry, stop waiting for the perfect brief where the client lets you run free and do whatever you want, because chances are the result will be shitty and lack purpose. Think of every winning advertising award entry you have read, they didn't set up the challenge with "we had a huge budget and the client said we can do what ever we want!".
Embrace the boundaries and then push them - build yourself a box, then blast your way out of it!
UPDATE: Since Googling the title of my own blog post I have come across another great piece covers a similar thought (Macguyver and all) and it seems to land the point a lot stronger than I managed to - check it out here.

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