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Tim Burton, Creativity, Originality and the Mashup Culture

This article argues that we need to seriously examine the relationship between genuine creative activity and the mashup culture. The pressure to produce competitive show reels and creative work can easily result in derivative results that try to short circuit the effort needed to master the core skills and personal style that distinguishes the best artistic work.


Last week I took time out to review the Tim Burton retrospective exhibition at the Bell LightBox in Toronto.  I’m always fascinated by the evolution of the creative spirit in an artist’s personal and public work over the course of their career and this exhibition didn’t disappoint - except that there wasn’t perhaps enough his latest work on display.  

Included in the exhibit were examples of his earliest drawings and conceptual thoughts from high school and college as well as many drawings from his time at Disney in the 1980’s followed by a large number (about 700) exhibits from his 27 year career.  It’s particularly striking to see the extent of his work, the development of individual style, the evidence of extensive exploration and his experimentation over the past three decades.

What stimulates the imagination and influences an artist (in Burton’s case director/storyteller /character designer) to develop his or her unique style?  How does his or her work evolve over time?    Where is the evidence in a body of work of creative thought and originality?   Can we see evidence of potential success and future distinction in a student’s works? These any other questions were the subject of my research many years ago centered on the evolution of personal constructs in artists at different levels of their professional development - but that’s for a future post.

The issue I want to raise this time is about the relationship between demonstrable creative production and the digital environment’s pressure for “quick and dirty” solutions for generating new ideas.   The pressure to demonstrate high quality skills is at the core of a show reel – to show what we can do and to distinguish one’s work from the competition.  This weighs heavy on the student and the learning institution and it’s tempting to find short cuts when we need to stand out from the rest. 

In the past ten years, democratized access to powerful networking, communications and networking and social tools has democratized the creative process – or has it?

From every direction, creativity and innovation are proselytized as the answer to today’s problems and tomorrow’s challenges.  In the media world we are expected to be highly creative, to solve problems creatively, to produce novel products,  “think differently” and to be original. It’s a tall order and a LOT of pressure to be constantly inventive.

Sadly, we have yet to reinvent formal education and training method that adjust to the new convergence reality.  The exceptions demonstrate the effectiveness of a new approach, for example Animation Mentor and fxPhD.  The tools are there, the networks are there, the information is “out there” yet many formal learning continues to linger, for the most part, in the 20th Century, constrained by the academic structures of yesterday and the intransigence of institutional structures.

I’m talking globally of course – there are exceptions.

As I have suggested in a previous post, excellent learning processes should be highly iterative, ubiquitously interactive, socially connected and with copious and constant feedback and critique.

The Internet provides a truly amazing range of diverse ideas that can stimulate creative thought and cross-fertilization as well as poorly articulated drivel and clichéd efforts to amuse; plus everything in between.  It’s brought us immediate access to both great performances and banal efforts to amuse, the best music and the worse mashups, serious intellectual thought and trivial musings, the finest art and highly derivative artifacts.

In a world where innovation, change and transformation energize our evolution, the creative spirit should reign supreme. Digital networks provide everyone connected to them with access to an unprecedented and broad catalogue of different ideas and concepts on which to build new ways to see the world, make new discoveries, create positive change in the way we do things and provide a global forum for personal expression of all kinds.  It’s an unparalleled and unprecedented environment for clever exploration, learning and productivity.

But this incredible and exciting evolution in global and personal awareness has another side to it – the digital mashup culture.   Putting aside the issues of intellectual property for a moment, the media environment also fosters the combination of disparate media artifacts (music, sound, video, graphics, photographs, animation etc) into new combinations of sloppy and inane remixes and distorted works built entirely on pre-existing source materials. In the March 17th, 2010 issue of the New York Times’ Art Beat section, MICHIKO KAKUTANI writes:

Although a lot of this material can be inane, sophomoric or sloppily done, there are also lots of fascinating mash-ups and remixes on the Web that are not only clever, inventive and meticulously executed, but that also raise important questions about art and appropriation.”

From one point of view, it can be claimed that all creative novelty is to a large degree a result of building on existing ideas and concepts.  Tim Burton’s life work shows evidence and all kinds of influences from other artists, performers, and directors. It’s not surprising; we all stand on the shoulders of giants. 

How do we differentiate among “creative” concepts? A formal view is that “genuine” creativity results in original ideas that have value (for example Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on Creativity).   Original meaning that the new concept is distinctly different from anything existing in the past and that it has an emergent property that distinguishes it from what has gone before. Relativity theory, the appearance of new art forms, the first heart transplant, the Internet, the first time animation crossed the uncanny valley.

What has this to do with learning and education?  Well, it’s increasingly easy to be clever and inventive with digital hardware and software but it doesn’t necessarily result anything particularly new or novel. There’s so much pressure these days to absorb new information, to compete for grades, jobs and for attention, to learn quickly and to become productive that shortcuts are attractive options that substitute for long hours of hard work, honed skills, intellectual analysis and reflective practice.  

So many students (and some professionals) turn to the appeal of generating quick mashups, to copying, to creating derivative work and even to plagiarism.   The temptation to take the easiest route often clouds over the reality that it takes years, often decades, to develop professional level practical skills, breakthrough ideas and a distinctive and unique style.  That’s why an exhibition such as Tim Burton’s is so important – it demonstrates the relationships among the generative and creative spirit and disruptive innovation, experimentation, hard work, constructive imagination and radical novelty.  It’s as important to see what didn’t work as what did work. Inspiration often appears from chaos or apparent chaos.

How does this relate to education and training?   Finding a balance between teaching and training the “language” of animation, the core skills, and finding ways to stimulate and motivate students to generate a personal and distinct style and approach to their craft is critical.  On the one hand we want them to graduate with industry ready skill sets and on the other we have a desire to see them grow as individuals with life long critical, analytic and creative capabilities – to create a new generation that will stand on the shoulders of today’s best.

Animation has come a long way on the past twenty years. The quality of the best performance is exceptional – and with each advance a new standard is expected.

Education and training should have matched that progress but it’s far behind and it’s time for radial change and a revolution in how we educate and train.  We need to shift our mental state.  As Mark Field of Ford Motor has pointed out “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.