Written by Randy Thom and reprinted with his kind permission
Reorganize accidents. That is the basis of your creative work. When an artist does work that seems innovative, we say that he or she has created something. The more I think about the process we call “creating,” the more I’m convinced we use the wrong word to describe it.
Articles on film sound usually stay clear of questions as basic as “What is creativity?” and “Is it possible for an artist to become more creative?” Questions like these are usually considered too messy, or too abstract and subjective. I appreciate those arguments, and don’t discount them. On the other hand, I think we do know a few things about being creative. One theory is that each of us is given a bag of creativity at birth, and that the bag doesn’t grow or shrink much for the rest of our lives. But even if our bag of creativity doesn’t change in size, our ability to dip into it varies constantly. Ask any artist or performer.
– Inspiration, insight, and luck are difficult entities to describe, and all but impossible to quantify –
We can interview an artist and chart the sequence of events by which a given set of raw materials was fashioned into to a specific art product. But most of what we get from that kind of examination will be information about craft (technology and technique). We know intuitively that a great artist is more than a great technician. In fact, it might be argued that a great artist doesn’t even have to be a very good technician. So what is it that guides the technique?
– The Tyranny Of Competence –
The frame of mind in which interesting things germinate is often more confused and desperate than organized and confident.
In the movie industry a high value is justifiably placed on technical competence. It is assumed that every craftsperson should know how to use the tools of the trade and be able to perform on cue, under pressure. The trouble with paying so much attention to skill and technical prowess is this: The frame of mind in which interesting things germinate is often more confused and desperate than organized and confident.
Being creative is balancing precariously between, or shifting back and forth between, these two extremes. It is not surprising that a high percentage of very creative people have manic-depressive personalities.
When you begin a project, the surest way to guarantee nothing interesting will happen is to go into it with the assumption that you know exactly how to do it. The best you can hope to do within that frame of mind is to duplicate work that you or someone else has already done. Of course, the first step in mastering a craft is to learn the traditions and conventions, the tools and techniques that have historically produced good work and bad. Having acquired those skills, the challenge is to look freshly at each new project, making as few assumptions as possible about how to proceed.
The best creative ideas usually arise in the process of doing the work itself. They don’t usually form in our minds while we stare at a blank piece of paper.
It’s generally acknowledged that a good film begins with a good script. On the other hand, even a very good script is nothing more than a vague blueprint for the eventual film. The locations, actors, and other collaborators will add depth to the story that the writer is not in a position to anticipate. The serendipity that allows it all to come together will only happen if each collaborator is open to it, and clever about making the necessary adjustments. One thing seems clear: the best creative ideas usually arise in the process of doing the work itself. They don’t usually form in our minds while we stare at a blank piece of paper.
– Complexity –
People often say that “truth is stranger than fiction,” as if we should be surprised. Why wouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? A few moments of human activity in any ordinary supermarket, if fully examined, would no doubt be hilarious and horrific beyond belief. On the other hand, given a supermarket as a location, a very good writer might be able to invent a few amusing and trenchant scenes.
We operate in two worlds:
(1) reality, which contains profundities and comedy unimaginably wild and deep, but on the surface is mostly deadly boring and
(2) fiction, which isn’t too hard to make superficially appealing, but is difficult as hell to make profound or deeply funny.
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– One thing that distinguishes fiction from reality is the level of complexity –
Any real-world situation is infinitely complex. We usually only perceive the microscopic tip of the iceberg of what is happening in our supermarket at 7 p.m.
As writers we go to the supermarket and examine it on as many levels as possible. We don’t just watch what happens, we participate in it. We get a job working in the fresh produce section. We go home with the store manager and the bag boy. By living through these situations (and by watching ourselves live through them) we begin to find threads overlapping in amazing ways. Other threads we assumed were connected turn out not to be connected at all.
The script needs to be shaped by real world experience. Shooting and editing the film involves a trip through more unanticipated reality which will frustrate, but can also improve what you thought you had.
Designing your sound (bet you thought we’d never get to sound) should be no less experimental and no less influenced by process. When we begin to imagine a scene, the first few sounds that come to mind will usually be “appropriate” in a general way, but not very deeply connected to what is really happening dramatically.
Let’s say we have a scene around a kitchen table where two guys are arguing. One eventually jumps up, pulls a gun, cocks it, and points it at the other’s head. The most obvious sound effect to feature is the cocking of the gun. Ironically, the other prop I mentioned (the table) could supply a more powerful sound. As our guy stands, maybe he shoves the table toward the other guy. The scrape of the table legs on the floor could be fashioned to evoke danger more effectively because it comes from a place we don’t expect. Knowing we may want to use the sound of the table in this way will influence everything about the way we set up and block the shots.
If the Director and Actors are really sharp, they will discover ways to use sound in the scene as they’re rehearsing.
The best way to find unexpected storytelling elements is to experiment. If I am designing the sound for the scene around the table, I will want to simulate the set as closely as possible. Then I will move and play with every object and surface in the place, listening for sounds that have the dramatic values I can use to enhance the scene. On the other hand, unless I can do this experimenting before shooting starts, there is no way I can influence the way the scene is to be shot. If the Director and Actors are really sharp, they will discover ways to use sound in the scene as they’re rehearsing. Similarly, they’ll find ways to use the table itself and the space between the two characters in the scene.
If I am directing the scene, I will want to experiment with sound in this way before the scene is shot, so that I will be able to block and shoot, and even construct the set in ways that take advantage of sound.
– A Craftsman knows how to avoid accidents — an Artist knows how to use them –
Writer’s block is not the inability to type. It is the inability to type something of value.
Nothing paralyzes an artist more than fear of screwing up. The first step toward curing writer’s block is to begin writing, even if the most you can manage is to type random words. Writer’s block is not the inability to type. It is the inability to type something of value. So you begin to cure it by typing anything. If nothing else, you copy the phone book, or the Bible, adding a word or two of your own now and then. Another approach might be to tear a page out of a book or newspaper, cut the page into pieces, rearrange the pieces and see if any interesting juxtapositions occur that might beg for elaboration. Sound editing and design can use the same sort of trick. I often begin working on a movie by listening, more-or-less at random, to lots of sounds. Many of these sounds may have nothing to do (superficially) with the movie. Eventually I hear a sound that makes an interesting connection between two moments, characters, or places in the film. Out of this kind of technique you try to form a style for the sound in the movie, and you try, when appropriate, to get other collaborators (including the Director) to help you by modifying the cut, the dialog, the music, etc. in order for all the elements to play off each other. That is what sound design is about. Most people think sound design is making alien vocals, ray guns, and space ship sounds. The same people probably think that film editing is about cutting stuff out of the movie that’s boring.
Rehearsing is not mainly for the purpose of “memorizing” what needs to be done. Actually the best reason to rehearse is to discover what needs to be done.
Mistakes, accidents, and the unexpected often provide the spark that leads to great work. The trick is to plan and execute your creative process in a way that makes room for lots of experimenting and lots of mistakes early. Rehearsing is not mainly for the purpose of “memorizing” what needs to be done. Actually the best reason to rehearse is to discover what needs to be done.
• Why Is Sound Important?
• Designing A Movie For Sound
• Screenwriting For Sound
• On the sound tools we use (and need?)
• The Tyranny Of Reverb
• The Connoisseur of Mistakes… A Craftsman Knows How To Avoid Accidents. An Artist Knows How To Use Them.
• Randy Thom on sound design, storytelling – and what’s wrong with sound for animated films today
• How Randy Thom & Al Nelson crafted ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’s impressively evocative sound
• Randy Thom on creating the dragon roars in ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’
– We may not create or invent — we always discover –
For me, the creative process is about reorganizing things which are already there.
I don’t think the word “create” describes very well the process of trying to do fresh work. Creating implies making something out of nothing. For me, the creative process is about reorganizing things which are already there. The sound artist John Cage often used what he called “chance operations” to decide what to do at each step of his process of composing music. Sometimes he would use the I Ching. Sometimes he would write instructions on a sheet of paper, then cut up the paper, toss the pieces into the air, then try to follow the instructions that randomly formed as the pieces landed. I don’t think Cage’s techniques always produced wonderful work, but they can be a good way to begin. My approach is to use chance only as a starting point, not as the sole mediator of the work.
So, Uncle Randy’s simple rules for being more creative are:
- Learn your craft thoroughly, reading everything you can about the traditions and conventions of the craft, as well as experiments on the modern cutting edge.
- Begin each project with few assumptions about the methods you will use. Let the needs of the project, most of which you won’t know until after you’ve gotten your feet wet, determine your approach.
- Experiment as early and as often and as inexpensively as possible. Make lots of mistakes when mistakes are cheap.
A big thanks to Randy Thom for the insights, and for letting us share this post from his blog!
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