Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Creativity, and OK Go

Sometimes I overlook how great OK Go’s music is, because I’m too overawed by great their music videos are. In case you need a reminder, OK Go, an alternative rock band from Chicago, are best known for their elaborate, original, and extremely complex music videos, often involving complicated mechanisms, and shot in a single take. Dancing on treadmills, an 89-step Rube Goldberg mechanism, a time lapse music video shot over days, are just some of the amazingly creative music videos they’ve done.  


It’s their latest music video, “Needing/Getting”, which set me thinking about the nature of creativity, and the misconceptions we have of it. No one would deny that the concept of this music video (in a nutshell: the band, in the car, sings while car plays various musical instruments by driving past them) is creative. The question I often heard asked in Singapore is how we should teach creativity to our students, or foster creativity in our artistic communities - yet we often misunderstand what creativity is. 

Creative thinking is work 

When we talk about creativity, we often focus on the intuitive leap, that moment when an idea pops into the head of the thinker, whole, complete, unique, novel and ingenious. We even have a name for it: the “eureka!” moment. There’s no doubt this is part of the process of creative thinking, but it’s only one part, and it often overshadows what comes before, and what comes after. 

What comes before “eureka!” is the context that allows that creative leap to take place. It is partly the history of the creative thinker, the skills and training they’ve acquired, often slowly and painfully, over the years (think of the years Da Vinci spent training in technique). It is partly the context of other ideas, from other thinkers, which inspire, inform, and incite: thinkers may build upon other thinker’s ideas, challenge them, riff off them, or rip off them - but in all cases, their great and ‘novel’ idea couldn’t have existed without the background and context of other great ideas. It is partly the context of time and opportunity, of random events that set off the chain of thought, of being in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time. 

Putting the “create” back in “creative” 

What comes after is the work that brings a creative idea to fruition. There are almost 7 billion people on this planet. That’s seven billion thinkers, some consciously working hard at generating new ideas, others idly day-dreaming, but all thinking. “There is no new thing under the sun”, goes Ecclesiastes, and statistically, that’s likely to be true. Very few of those creatives ideas, however, are brought to fruition, because it takes work, real work, to create something. OK Go are hardly the first people to think about using a car to make music: in 2009, Honda paved a road in Lancaster, California with strips that played (albeit badly) the William Tell Overture when a car drove over them. Somewhere out there, some one, watching the OK Go video, must be thinking to him or herself “I thought of that once!” The difference is they didn’t put in the work to bring those ideas to fruition. It took OK Go four months to set up the music video, and then four whole days to shoot it. Making 1157 instruments from scratch, planning and setting up the track, and working out the mundane logistical details doesn’t seem very glamorous, or creative. Getting 288 guitars and 55 pianos at short notice seems more the province of a supply clerk than an artist. The lead singer took lessons in stunt driving to prepare for the video, so he could drive a 1000kg car with the finesse of a musical instrument, while singing. It took four days of takes and re-takes until they got it right. Nowhere in there can we discern an “eureka!” moment, yet without all this, they wouldn’t have created something. 

When we think about teaching creativity, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach our children “get” creative ideas, when it turns out “getting” those ideas is only half of the problem. People “get” ideas all the time - and, with so many people on this planet, odds are that interesting ideas are being generated all the time. There’s a story I once heard about Christopher Columbus, and it goes like this: returning from his discovery of America, he was feted at a grand dinner, where guests sang his praises. One guest, however, jealous of the attention Columbus was getting, was heard to ask loudly what the big deal was. All Columbus did was sail west until he hit land: any one could do that. Columbus rounded on the man, and challenged him to balance an egg on its end. The man said it was not possible, and Columbus promptly took an egg, tapped it on the table so the shell flattened, and stood it on its end. “But any one could do that!” the embarrassed guest exclaims. Yes, replies Columbus, any one can - once someone does it first. 

Creative work is hard work

Creative work appears easier when reverse engineered (and I’ve often wondered whether this could be an easy heuristic to distinguish creative from non-creative work). We focus on the ingenuity of the idea, but ingenuity is only hard to achieve the first time, and easily copied the second. It is the wrong thing to focus on. Friends who are in the creative industry tell stories of clients asking them why they should pay so much - “I could do this myself” is often the refrain, whether its photography, writing or design. Yes, any one could do this: but it takes a creative to do it first. The ease with which something is replicated in subsequent reproduction is not indicative of its worth, or the worth of the work of the person who created it. 

If there’s any doubt that creative work is work, take a look at these screenshots from what is (in my opinion) OK Go’s most ambitious music video so far: White Knuckles, involving 12 dogs, performing complex stunts, and moving (almost) perfectly in cue to the music. It took four weeks to prepare, and 4 days and 124 takes to shoot (and it is noteworthy that they ended up using take 72 - yes, they went on for another 52 takes after the optimal one, just to be sure, just to try to do it better). It’s not the numbers that I want to draw your attention to though, but this screen-shot from the music video, of the band: 


Look at their faces: it is the look of concentration, of someone praying please, please, let this be the last take. It’s the look of someone working, hard. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Confucian ethics as you exercise

The last place I'd expect to see a quote from Confucius: the jogging track.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black Swans and Old Lenses

I've always regretted that the switch to digital photography meant that my Voigtlander lenses sat in the dry cabinet, un-used. About the last time I used those lenses extensively was in Cambodia in 2004. Aside from a few weddings, they've seen little use since.

I've kept an eye out for various options for mounting them to a digital back, but since a Leica M9 is not really a viable option, I've waited. The Micro Four-Thirds system, with the Panasonic then Olympus cameras, seemed to offer the best chance, but I balked at the 2x crop factor. Then came the Sony Nex series.

True, they're still a 1.6x crop factor, but that's something I've grudgingly learned to live with on the Nikon D70 anyway, and I've had good experience with Sony cameras. I bought a Nex 5 and a Leica M-mount adaptor when they dropped the price, in advance of the Nex 7 coming out, and have been waiting for an opportunity to try it out.

As you can see from the shot of the swan, it's not bad at all. This was taken with the Voigtlander 50mm f3.5 Heliar that came with the T101 Anniversary set - my favourite lens, but oh so very difficult to use for fast moving subjects, and all the more so with focusing on an external LCD screen. The Nex's focus assist was turned on, which magnifies the centre of the image to allow for detailed focus, but in practice this takes so much time that only relatively stationary subjects stay in focus. Still, I am quite pleased with how this shot turned out. I could go on about the resolution and detail in the dark areas (in this case, a black swan is a very appropriate subject to test he resolution of a camera) but I what I like most is the feel of the lens: it looks like film, and has a certain aged look - and not the kind that comes with instagram or hipstamatic filters (though I have nothing against those, especially given the limitations of a smartphone camera — but it's nice to have the real thing once in a while though :)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Plumbing the past

A while back I thought of a great business idea: buy and mothball a computer system every 2 years, and then wait 20 years. Set up shop, and offer a service to help people recover their data from media which were no longer supported by current technology.

The first computers I used had 5¼-inch floppy disk drives (that really flopped), then saw the shift to 3½-inch drives (that no longer flopped, but were still called floppy), and then the first hard drives.  I saw the evolutionary dead-end that were the "super-floppies" (and even worked a temp job at Iomega's local office for a while), and then the rise of optical media, and then USB and flash drives.

Each time we crossed a threshold from one media to another, there was a brief window - a few years usually - where both systems of media existed side by side, and you could transfer data from one to the other: computers with 5¼-inch drives alongside 3½-inch drives in the mid-eighties; then 3½-inch drives with hard-drives; then a brief period where computers had hard drives, 3½-inch drives, and an Iomega Zip drive, before CD-ROMs took over, to be replaced in turn by DVDs.  When Apple got rid of the floppy drive from their iMacs in favour of an optical drive, that signaled the crossing of one threshold: similarly, the lack of an optical drive in the MacBook Air signals another threshold crossed.

I found all my old photo back-ups yesterday, a thick stack of CD-ROMs.  I spent today transferring them across to a hard-drive because in a few years, I don't think there will be computers with optical drives any more. Physical media aside, I wonder about the file format: besides transferring from one physical medium of storage to another, I wonder whether jpg files will be readable, or Nikon RAW files for example, will be readable.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

I used to blog: now I Facebook

I used to blog: now I Facebook. I used to spend hours editing, post-processing, and tweaking every photo: now I upload them 'as-is', or maybe with a few in-camera (i.e. in-iPhone) filters applied. I used to shoot on film, or large digital SLRs: now I shoot mostly on the iPhone.


I used to upload my carefully crafted images to flickr, and I used to post them in various groups for feedback, and (of course) appreciation: now I post them mostly on facebook, mostly for appreciation, or a few funny comments - 'for the lulz', in effect. I used to agonize and re-draft blog posts for hours, to get it right, to make sure they said what I wanted to be said, a habit I carried over initially to Facebook and Twitter: now, more likely than not, I'll post a status update with only 5 minutes of pondering.

From 2004 to 2008, most of my 'creative' (small 'c') output was on flickr and blogger, and it consisted of generating ideas (like this) in a style of writing that would have been familiar to essayists throughout the centuries, and in photos (articularly infra-red landscape shots and 'hockneyesque' composite shots which required hours of work in photoshop or GIMP). From 2007 onwards, most of the data I've generated has been on Facebook, mostly pithy observations (at best) and throwaway comments (at worst). Disposable ideas for a disposable age. Fast production for a culture of impatient consumption.

The brief and immediate have triumphed. There are still moments of considered, weighed and weighty pondering on Facebook (just as there were moments of the frivolous on blogger) but the balance has shifted. The fact that I am typing, and soon uploading, this on an iPhone shows how technology has shifted the foundations of our culture rapidly, giving us the new New even as we've barely got used to the current New. I used to joke that blogging was like maintaining a homepage, but without learning HTML; Facebook, when I first encountered it, seemed to me like blogging without content (back when 'content' meant 'original ideas you generated' rather than 'here's a video I like'). Twitter, i initially thought, would be like blogging without even the thought. It's more than that, of course, insofar as any tool is limited, or has it's potential fulfilled, by how people chose to use it: for every Twitter account that is nothing more than a series of retweets, or an endless moan about the minutiae of someone's sad life, there are many which genuinely offer insight - albeit 140 characters at a time.

And that's what is on my mind right now: how to bring the balance back. All this was spurred by a conversation with Wesley on the changes in photography over the years we've known each other, as well as the unexpected wave of nostalgia started by Steve Jobs's death. It's a bit of a cliche at this point in time to talk about moving forward, but I am reminded of Heraclitus: you can't step into the same river twice: the river has changed, and so have you.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

How to assemble a PC

No, we didn't really use the hammer. Or pliers. Or knife. But the screwdriver was used to short-circuit and start the computer when we were testing the motherboard. I spent the afternoon helping a friend put together a computer: good fun, and great catching up! :)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Memoriam Steve Jobs


In memoriam Steve Jobs:

It's safe to say we're a Mac household. Over the past ten years my wife and I have owned, and enjoyed, many Apple products. I heard an interviewee on BBC radio today point out that people develop an emotional connection with Mac products that they don't with other products: how very true. We've never thrown away a single Mac product, and most of them still work. I didn't think I would be so moved by the death of someone I didn't know, but then again, a bit of him was in everything Apple made.

Everything on this table is a Mac, and all but one were because of Steve Jobs (bonus: spot the one Mac that isn't the result of Apple)

Clockwise from top left: MacBook Pro circa 2007; iMac circa 2000; iMac G5 (2005?); iBook G4 circa 2004; iBook G3 circa 2002; Titanium Powerbook circa 2003ish; iPad; iPad 2; MacBook Pro 2010

Small devices in front row: original iPod circa 2002; four-button iPod; 3rd or 4th ten iPod; iPod Shuffle 2GB; iPod circa 2007; iPod touch original; iPod shuffle (second gen?); iPhone 4. Oh, and a magic mouse.

Thanks for making our lives a little better: you'll be missed.