Practical Theory. The underlying logic behind the creative process, a basic primer.
There are two things that all audiences are looking for when it comes to investing their time and energy in an artist, consistency and reliability. Now what they're looking for in a work has more to do with ideas, themes and execution but for a moment let's just stick with the artists side of the equation otherwise I'm going to start talking about emotional needs and the nature of intimacy and already I'm going off topic. In order to maintain an efficient and effective work flow as possible, as artists it is imperative that we learn how to develop an understanding of the process that can be externalized in such a way that a step by step breakdown can then be presented to others so that not only can they see for themselves the progress that is being made, but so that an in-depth analysis of any and all elements and aspects of a work can be measured objectively rather then subjectively. If you haven't gotten used to the way I write by now well, synopses and summaries drive me up a wall as its one thing to simplify an idea when you're pitching it to someone, its another thing entirely to remove all substance from an idea and leave people floundering around on their own trying to figure out what the hell it was you actually meant. So with that idea held firmly in our minds the rule of thumb I use to describe this phenomena is, simple systems become complex systems become simple systems again. Why? Because no complex system that exists today started off that way as any engineer worth their salt will tell you if there's something complicated that exists today and it works, it started off as something simple that worked first. So when you look at all of the artistic conventions and literary devices that are in use today, remember that they didn't survive this long by being popular, they survived by being an effective means of conveying the information intended by the artist. Now having said that, here is the basic breakdown I use to collate the massive amount of information involved in order to streamline the creative process.
Development -> pre-production-> production -> post-production-> distribution.
And while each of these will breakdown even further depending on the nature of the project, writing for example requires a very different set of editing skills then drawing a comic does, there are three things that are of vital importance to the health of any project so bear with me while I digress yet again and talk for a moment about practical aspects, logistical concerns, and emotional considerations.
First, the practical aspects of any project can be understood by our ability to answer the question what are the skills that I need to realize this endeavor? Art as a transdisciplinary process shows us that we have to make use of many different sets of skills in order to be able to achieve our ambitions so for me to be able to draw a comic it wasn't enough to simply be able to write a script and draw the characters, I had to study the methods used by various actors in order to understand the essential mannerisms that people would then come to associate with the four levels of a performance, which are passable, believable, convincing and transcendent for those who are wondering, so that the things I was trying to convey wouldn't come off as flat and lifeless. Shout outs to David Tennant, Claudia Black, John Barrowman, Jack Kirby and Jean Giraud for illustrating the four levels of a performance in action, not only is their work what made me aware of the concept in the first place, but it let me watch a ton of science fiction shows and call it "research."
Next up are the logistical concerns, and this has more to do with the materials involved and the resources required to complete a project more then anything else. For example whenever a writer sits down to write a story intended for publishing by a mass market distributor one of the things that has to be taken into consideration is word count. Yeah, I said it, word count, and I'm not talking about the industry standards used for determining the acceptable length of a manuscript as that actually has more to do with the production and distribution side of things because having a standardized layout when it comes time to ship is what allows you to calculate the number of units being moved and how much that's going to weigh. Now if you're morbidly curious to find out what it typically costs to send a manuscript off to a publisher, find out their shipping address and calculate the the postage using a five pound envelope filled with printer paper as when you take into account the standardized format used for manuscripts that's about how much a seventy- thousand word novel is going to weigh. If the price comes back as a shock to the system then you'll understand why publishers don't ever send manuscripts back. Its not just that paper is heavy, its that someone has to physically move it from one place to another and that invokes an entire branch of economic theory called the value chain. Which if you're looking for a way to begin establishing yourself as an artist is all but required reading as all too often I've listened to people who wanted to start their own business only it wasn't so much that they didn't have a plan for how to do this as their plan consisted of, start a business, let the details take care of themselves. Of course when I asked them how they were going to differentiate themselves from others already established in similar markets and what their minimum viable product was, that was when their eyes would bulge out of their heads and I would begin to back away slowly. Now as to how word count affects writers that's where all the wonderful questions about narrative structure, chapter length, arc fatigue and character development come into play as, if we allow a story to develop organically we would end up with a very different result then if we were to rely on either a formula or scenario based system of writing. The same thing can be seen evidenced in comics with page counts, as the logistics involved in planning a panel layout will show you there's a lot of things to take into consideration before we ever set our pen to page.
As for the emotional considerations that come along with working on any project, time is a factor when we sit down to be creative, and since most of us have been conditioned from childhood to serve as replaceable parts for the kind of assembly line jobs that came to define the industrial revolution, the transition from the pharmaceutical revolution and from there the information revolution, has probably been especially jarring. Which is in my opinion quit possibly the understatement of the century but hey, I'm not a sociologist so what could I possibly know about, how societies form around ideological narratives, and how environmental exposure defines the value propositions among different social groups, its not like a writer has to research any of those things. Heh, not at all. Seriously though, when it comes to emotional considerations the primary motivators are typically linked to time, money, prestige, recognition, social advancement and a whole host of other external forces that serve as a physical reward that either excites or sustains the process of being creative. Don't have money for food? Can't afford to go to school? Is your immediate peer group unsupportive of your efforts? These are just a handful of the issues we encounter as artists and before anyone utters that asinine quote about how only the starving artists are the ones who succeed let me give you a quote of my own. To be a starving artist, art must become both your hunger and your thirst, and though they can be said to be sated for a time, they can never truly be satisfied. Sound profound to you? Good, its a prime example of re-contextualization, or how popular words and phrases change their meaning based on context, and how oral history can omit the details that allow us to understand the actual meaning rather then the implied or inferred meaning. Another example of this would be with flying colors which I'm not sure is used as much anymore but its still a good way to illustrate the fact that the language we use to describe our actions and intentions has a profound effect on our mental and emotional states and how when we attribute negative connotations to the things people say about our chosen profession we undermine our own position in both our own eyes and society at large. Also morale typically plays an overwhelming role in being creative as the mentality of the slave and the principles behind the cumulative advantage both show us that there is far more going on behind the scenes of being creative then the words either you're born with it or not would lead us to believe.
Well, now that I've given you a brief glimpse of what informs the logic behind what's going on inside my mind while I'm working out all of the little details that allow me to keep things from getting lost amidst all the clutter, everything that goes on during the development process can in turn be broken down into separate phases that we can then switch between in order to maintain interest in a project, or as I learned quite early in my literary career, a cold start while writing is far harder to achieve then going in hot, so no matter what subject you're going to write about you have to warm up to an idea first, in which case the time, energy and effort I invest in developing a project ends up looking something like this.
Basic Ideation <-> Complex Ideation <-> Research <-> Exploration <-> Iteration.
And while I can move back and forth between the separate phases at will, at this point in the process I'm using a system based on logic gates, heuristic processes and a handful of other mnemonic devices to stabilize the flow of creative energies so as not to become overwhelmed by the constantly changing flux of information while I attempt to navigate the stream of consciousness because while I'm making use of a lot of techniques that are involved in constructing the palace of memory, running such a large scale mathematical model for hours at a time can take up a lot of mental energy and requires a great deal of concentration and focus. Okay, typically I do it while performing a moving meditation but that's because its important to exercise the mind and the body at the same time so the action becomes linked to the intention otherwise marshaling one's thoughts and energies
involves developing a completely different set of mental disciplines such as theory crafting or extemporization but its best to find a method that you're comfortable with and go from there.
Now to break it down even further, this is part of how my research methodology works by the way, I try to reduce concepts down to the simplest units of information that I can find and try to rebuild them in order to test my hypotheses under real world conditions, basic ideation involves asking all of the questions that pertain to the understanding of the nature of the project in question. If its a story, it often begins with the desire to answer a question that enters my sphere of awareness such as, what's the single scariest thing you can think of? I happened to be sweeping the floor at the time and the answer that came to me was, growing up. Seriously, the transition that happens when we change from a child to an adult can be some of the most confusing, turbulent and outright emotionally devastating years of our lives, or as someone once told me, there are those who survive to adulthood because of their parents, while others survive just to spite them. Following that line of questioning however led to an idea for a comic that if I ever want to be able to pull it off meant learning a completely different way of thinking about the approach to narrative agency then the one I was familiar with which meant that two options had just become available to me, either I explored the idea on my own, or I did enough research to become familiar with the methods used by other artists who had worked with similar enough themes that I could use that as a place to start off. Complex ideation would then follow after as each attempt to become familiar enough with the ideas involved meant I would have to go through multiple iterations of the project before settling on my actual approach. Did I mention that being an artist requires a hellish amount of effort in terms of just learning how to design things and that few people rarely if ever get to see it only because development documents that serve to illustrate this process represent a sizable investment on the part of the studio in question and if you know how to reverse engineer those documents it makes tracing someone else's work look like a joke in comparison? Well if I didn't, you didn't hear it from me because information like that has what's called scarcity value attached to it and if everyone knew how to do it, well, there would be a lot more artists in the world now wouldn't there?
Now assuming that a project can hold our interest long enough to make it through the development phase it enters into the pre-production phase, and this is where all of the storyboards, scripts, layouts, character designs and various other aspects of the project get worked on because there's no way in hell studios are going to commit to a project where they can't recoup at least some of their initial investment by cannibalizing all of that development work. Financial considerations folks, its all well and good to be driven by passion but at the end of the day the thing that allows us to continue working is and always has been money, which is one of the reasons why television shows sell ad space as part of their packaging, if you aren't generating revenue based off of any previously developed properties then you're a slave to the wheel and good luck getting off. Also the reason why artists are notorious for being bad at business tends to be a result of the fact that learning how to manage money involves a completely different set of skills from the ones they typically come to specialize in so for now I'll just leave it at that and talk more about the business side of being an artist later. Something to look forward to I guess.
Anyway, assuming we've managed to survive off of the thin scraps of gruel and bowls of pot noodle that passes for nutrition among new artists long enough to begin actually producing a work . . . man, there were times when I would've killed for pot noodle, all those when can I read it, and you're such a good writer compliments I was getting were hell on the bills . . . uh, I mean, if you don't know what goes into actually producing a body of work then I'll throw some terms at you and see what sticks. C.I.W.O. portfolio, rendering, demo tape. Wait, demo tape? I'm really showing my age with that one, who the hell knows what a tape recorder is anymore, its like a boombox only smaller and it fits in your hand rather then sits on your . . . shoulder and . . . I'm from a generation that thought Crystal Pepsi was cool okay, sure it went flat fifteen minutes after you opened it and the taste was nothing to write home about but it was transparent! Just like Sprite and Seven-Up and . . . moving right along.
Post-production in terms of the creative process involves more then just proofreading a story or subjecting your test audience to an initial screening a la Clockwork Orange, it also involves the often tedious and laborious editing of text while looking for spelling mistakes, grammatical inconsistencies, offensive material, we artists do so love seeing how much we can slip things past the moral guardians and arbiters of good taste, I know I certainly do, and removal of any and all references that could potentially see a work banned in various regions. Also there's that whole thing that marketing departments do in terms of forecasting sales and contacting distributors in order to maintain consistent market presence in order to achieve maximum penetration, though if I can speak without the need for buzzwords and spin for a moment that's not something most artists working on their own will need to think about until much later on as spending too much time in the initial stages of development focusing on who you're going to try and sell something to can pigeonhole the entire creative process. But don't leave it too long either because if you over commit your time and energies you run the risk of missing the zeitgeist and can find yourself in an entirely new social paradigm altogether. Its something that I've seen happen as of writing this, oh, four or five times now.
Anyway, as we make each new attempt to bring a project to fruition we are constantly iterating on each of our previous designs until what we're finally left with is a system that has evolved sufficiently in complexity to the point that once tested, holds up to the standards we've been conditioned to expect from years of consuming various media. But take that foundational knowledge away however and because the mind has a tendency to wander and get itself tangled up in all manner of interesting minutiae the creative flow will then dissipate to the point that our energies become too diffused in order to achieve effective results. Best way to think of it is whenever we go to work out at a gym we see more positive gains when we push our selves to perform at higher levels then when we simply perform the same series of exercises in order to maintain our physique. I know I'm mixing my metaphors a bit but I've found that random exo-speak is best followed by ideas that are easy to relate to as it makes digesting the things I say more palatable in the long run. So, while I'll eventually be able to go more in-depth with the different topics I keep name dropping, right now, I'm painting with as broad strokes as possible.
Until next time folks, enjoy being creative.
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9 September 2016 at 12:13:58 MDT
Practical Theory, an artist's guide to understanding the hidden world of art, is a blog in which I'll be discussing all the weird, strange and semi-mystical things I've encountered while researching the emergent principles inherent in the transdisciplinary nature of art. So if you've ever wondered why art works the way it does, or if your just a fan of seeing if words can be weaponized in a way that can make people's head explode, check it out!