September 23rd, 2012
It’s about variation. If you get enough of it, cool things start to happen. This is the problem with cautious, conservative, non-innovative approaches to communication that fail to foster variation and diversity — they stifle creativity. And guess what, when given the opportunity, science graduate students are capable of amazing creativity in communication. This is what we saw last week with the University of British Columbia’s TerreWeb program.
THE DOMINO VIDEO: PERFECT EXECUTION. It’s about simplicity and resonance. All 5 of the student videos from last week’s workshop at U.B.C. were great, but this one has a little something extra that makes it quite possibly better than any of the previous 65 videos (from about 250 student pitches) that have been produced in the 11 iterations of my 3 Day Intensive Videomaking Workshop since 2005. And keep in mind, this video was made by SCIENCE graduate students with ZERO previous camera/editing experience, given ZERO budget, and just TWO days. The two “actors” are the students themselves (the first person to appear is Megan Callahan who wrote and directed it). Imagine this video with professional actors and the same production crew that made the awesome OK Go music video with dominos. And no, this wasn’t just a cheap rip-off of that video — there is a biological significance to “dominos” namely “the domino effect” that can be a part of collapsing food webs and ecosystem dynamics in general. Which is why there’s an element of resonance to this simple little video. If you cast the net wide enough (i.e. 250 student pitches) you eventually catch winning ideas. That’s the whole secret to innovation — it’s about the variation.
THE U.B.C. TERRAWEB PROGRAM: BEST GROUP YET (NUDGING OUT THE NORWEGIANS)
A week ago I ran the 11th iteration of my 3 day videomaking workshop — this time at University of British Columbia with the science graduate students in their TerreWeb program. As you can see from the letter below, it was a wonderful experience for everyone. There’s three reasons for this. First, their folks did a tremendous job with the logistics (specifically: Julie Wilson, Dan McKinney, and Julia Dordel). Second, the students had absolutely perfect attitudes (filmmaking is a COLLABORATIVE process — attitude is crucial). Lastly , the workshop benefited from the knowledge gathered in the 10 previous versions over the 7 years before. It’s come a ways since the first group in 2005, HOWEVER … there’s a little bit of a wrench in that thinking when you consider that two of what I would say are the top ten videos of all time (the hilarious Turtle Victims Unit video and the sexy Marine Mammal Noise video) came from the very first group — they set the bar high from the start.
A SOLID MODEL
I first devised this workshop in 2005, modeling it on my experience in the Graduate Production Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the mid-90’s. The process at USC involved giving all 50 students in a class the chance to pitch their individual ideas out of which 4 were selected. The selected students become the directors (they still do it this way) and are given a sizable budget, the others end up signing up as crew. It was an intense and fairly horrible process, but also a good model of the real world. I suppose I ended up with not-that-bad of feelings because I got chosen as one of the 4 directors in my class, but there’s also a solid mechanistic justification for this model as I explain below.
WHY IT WORKS I: INDIVIDUAL VARIATION THROUGH PITCHING
In my workshop, the exercise begins with ALL 25 students in the group given equal opportunity to be the 5 eventual directors as everyone gets 3 minutes on the first morning to “pitch” their idea for the one minute film they would like to make. Every time we do this the words of the great evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould echo in my mind as he used to talk about natural selection as a two step process — variation then selection. It’s the same thing we’re doing in this exercise — fostering WIDE variation at the individual level. And you do get to hear some wild and wacky ideas (my all time favorite, which didn’t get picked, was a Scripps student wanting to make a video about the fact that shark fin soup was being served at Hong Kong Disneyland — his idea was a Mickey Mouse character speaking into camera, then a guy steps out with a machete and wacks off Mickey’s ears — absolutely brilliant, but too terrifying for the students to pick it).
It’s this variation stage that is so crucial. This is the complete NON-COMMITTEE element in the process (committees are THE death of innovation) and keeps the videos from all looking identical year after year. You want to know how to foster innovation and creativity — it’s at the level of the individual. But that said, committees are important in the second part of the process — the structuring.
why are you still reading these?
WHY IT WORKS II: STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE
Once the wildly varied ideas are presented, it then comes time to get a little more serious and start applying structure to the process. The students vote, the 5 most popular are chosen — no matter how crazy and unrealistic they might be. The other students are assigned as crew, then in the afternoon of the first day the real world starts settling in as I force each crew to present their “shot list” and explain how they are actually going to bring the idea to life. Giant visions of grandeur are discarded for smaller, more realistic shots, and over-ambitiousness is identified and brought into check. For example, in this last batch at UBC, the “jumping off the ledge” video initially had two examples of testing theories, but once selected the filmmaker quickly realized that she would do better to do just one of them really well, which they did (or at least really well given the constraints).
please don’t copy paste me
CONSTRAINT FOSTERS CREATIVITY
If there’s one clear pattern that emerges from these exercises it is that it’s the constraints that allow the students to work efficiently and creatively. By setting the length at EXACTLY 60 seconds they automatically are bumping up against a major constraint, which is at first frustrating (students always ask to make their video longer, to no avail), but the set length eventually becomes actually comforting as they don’t need to worry about this particular variable. And forcing them to compress their story leads to all sorts of creative solutions.
The absence of any budget and the limitations of time also make it into one big exercise in problem solving, which with a team of 4 bright minds becomes very fun.
The bottom line is that in 11 incarnations there’s never been a single video that has failed to make sense and draw cheers from the crowd at the final presentation. And for many it is truly a life-altering experience as they see for the first time in their life the transformation that happens when an idea goes from paper to screen. The overall proof of the effectiveness of the workshops is in the aftermath as everyone involved takes in “what just happened.” Below is a letter from the Suzanne Simard, head of the TerreWeb program at UBC that sponsored the last workshop. It sort of speaks for itself. I really enjoy doing the workshop. If you think you might be interested in running one I’m more than happy to answer questions. You can write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org