Creative lessons from District 9

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The surprise hit movie of the summer has got to be the sci-fi thriller District 9. The film is produced by Peter Jackson and conceived and directed by a 29 year old South African named Neill Blomkamp. There are some wonderful lessons to be learned from the story of this very talented artist who began his career as a 3-D animator. Though his family relocated to Canada when Neill was 18, he never forgot the South Africa of his youth, an area ravaged by the effects of apartheid. It is the application of allegory, brought about by Blomkamp’s South African upbringing, that gives District 9 real authenticity and relevance that connects with audiences in in a relatable way. In other words, it is born from the truth of experience.

Blomkamp attended the prestigious Vancouver Film School and worked as a 3-D animator on projects like Stargate SG-1 and Smallville. As a rising young star he directed, wrote, and produced a small short film in 2005 called Alive in Joburg. The clip below is his original film that was to become District 9.

Blomkamp was tapped by Peter Jackson to direct a movie based on the popular video game Halo. When the deal to complete the film fell through, Jackson felt compelled to allow Blomkamp to direct a larger version of Alive in Joburg. Jackson arranged the financing to back the film for $30 million, a tiny budget compared to, say, Transformers 2 which cost in excess of $300 million. And District 9 is far and away a better film. Here’s a link to the trailer of District 9.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6PDlMggROA

Here are 5 things that we can learn from the creative process of Neill Blomkamp.

1. Create from the core of you. This single factor is what sets Blomkamp apart from so many young creators ( and old ones as well) and why his movie is so fresh and feels so original. He incorporated his own personal reflections of the environment he grew up in and translated it into a new story arch. He not only wrote what he knew and what he had experienced but found the right kind of story to share those experiences.
2.Follow your bliss. Blomkamp combined his love for science fiction, his affinity for video games, his talent and background in special effects together with his own life experience to create something real.
3. Let your influences inspire, not conspire. Blomkamp’s creative influences are apparent in District 9. The basic premise for the movie is taken from 1988’s Alien Nation, as well as other science fiction classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Independence Day. Even his love of the game Halo is a part of the making of this film. But Blomkamp puts a fresh, new original spin on the genre, and makes it his own. Though the influences are there, they are part of the creative process, not than the creative outcome. It takes creative confidence to achieve that, one that is born from a lot of experience. Sure, Blomkamp is only 29, but he started as a 3-D animator at 16. He listened to that internal voice to create from. The inspirations were only a part of the mix.
4. Give the process time. The gestation period for creative projects varies, but it is often years in the subconscious before it comes to the forefront. I’ve read stories about creators who work amazingly fast (John Hughes, for instance, in one our previous blog posts), but rest assured the seeds for stories, paintings, songs, comics, and screenwriting are planted long before they blossom. Blomkamps short film Alive in Joburg was done in 2005, but it’s story was conceived in the miind of the creator years before it came to the big screen as District 9 in August 2009.
5. Don’t let a defeat dictate your destiny. Creativity of any kind faces obstacles. The moment that Blomkamp learned that the film he was supposed to direct ,“Halo”, had been shelved, my guess is he probably didn’t consider it one of the greatest days of his life. But it was. He went on to direct District 9, a more original film, one that will better position him to achieve more as a director and creator. Every act of creativity takes courage. The road is never easy. In 1982, I had a newspaper editor tell me that I had absolutely no talent, and that I needed to get out of the cartooning business. Rather than let it defeat me, I used it as a driving force to land a cartooning job for a paper in Colorado. It kept me motivated during my 26 year career there (the paper folded in February 2009) and still pushes me to continue to create in new ways as I continue my career. So standing firm in the face of adversity, believing in your creative product and persevering until it comes alive makes the outcome so much sweeter.
Remember: Be Fearless. Create Boldly.

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The Creative Mind of John Hughes

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‘Life moves pretty fast – if you don’t stop and look around, you could miss it.’ Ferris Bueller

National Lampoons Vacation
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Sizteen Candles
The Breakfast Club
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Home Alone

John Hughes created some of the most indelible and memorable movies of the last 30 years. He defined an entire genre of films that resonated with teenagers and their parents alike, because they were based on truth and authenticity. Hughes believed in creating strong characters that were anchored by honesty and some serious inner soul searching. It’s the biggest reason why the movies that John Hughes made had such an incredible impact on an entire generation of moviegoers.

There’s a lot we can learn from the John Hughes creative process. He was uncompromising in his method of storytelling, refusing to write movies and projects he did not believe in. He worked fast, but only after research had finely tuned his initial spark of an idea.

Here’s just a few highlights and insight into the creative mind of John Hughes

1. He took a risk.
Much like last weeks Incubator spotlight on Bone cartoonist Jeff Smith, Hughes had a very defining moment when he decided to follow his dream. After tremendous success at a Chicago ad firm, Hughes had an epiphany, He simply did not want to come to the end of his life not knowing if he could have been a writer on his own terms. So Hughes left his job at the ad agency, even with his wife expecting their second child. He made the final decision after a snowstorm kept him homebound for a week with nothing t do but write. It was then he knew he had to give it a go.
2. He set a time frame. For him it was three years. His wife agreed and he set out to follow his dream.
3. He built a bridge. He did freelance work for the National Lampoon, writing one piece called Vacation that went on to spawn several hilarious film movies starring Chevy Chase. So even though he quit his day job he still had the bridge of freelance to help pay the bills.
4. He worked fast, believing that good story telling begins with not censoring yourself along the way, instead refining the piece only after getting to the end. How fast? Two days to finish Sixteen Candles, and eight hours to polish off the last 40 pages of Home Alone.
5. He worked off of what he referred to as “benchmarkmoments”. Those times in life when we find ourselves having to adapt to change. Marraige, Death, Gruduation, the birth of a child. He also believed in upbeat endings which is perhaps one of the reasons we find his movies so appealing.
6. He wrote knowing which audience he was writing to.
7. He wrote what he knew but also believed in writing as a “process of discovery”, Writer Joshua James explains Hughes process best when he says “If it’s going to be any good, you’re going to have to find your way in to a part of yourself that you didn’t know existed, so that reading it, your readers can go to places inside themselves that they didn’t know existed.” James continues “He created characters who had the spark of life and truth which only comes from going deep into those unexplored places — if a writer doesn’t do that, he/she will never create anything but cliches and cardboard cutouts”. Planes, Trains and Autombiles was loosely based on an actual incident in his life. His movies based on his memories as a teenager were actually filmed at his former High School.
8. He kept “idea books” jotting things down, generally from his sponge-like observations of his own experiences as well as the experiences of others.
9. He made movies for himself. If your writing is based on authenticity it will resonate with its intended audience.
10. He believed music was a key component to creative storytelling. If you haven’t seen Breakfast Club in awhile, do so now and you’ll see a perfect example of why.

How Johnny Depp Developes Characters

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I’m a huge Depp fan. I think he is without a doubt, the single greatest Character actor of our time. A recent article by Rachel Abramowitz from the Los Angeles Times gives some interesting insight into the way Depp molds the characters he portrays on film. “When preparing for a role, he sketches the character, or paints him in watercolor, allowing his brain to bounce along it’s own idiosyncratic path. Capt. Jack Sparrow’s coal-rimmed eyes weren’t inspired by glam-rock but by Berber nomads who lined their orbs to protect them from the sun,” Abramowitz says. It has been known for some time that the screen personality of Jack Sparow was inspired by the mannerisms of Keith Richards, Depp’s good friend, and guitarist for the Rolling Stones . It’s interesting to find out that the eye-shadow wasn’t from the Keith Richards part of the character but actually had some historical fact behind it. That’s Depp working his magic. His portrayal of Dillinger in his newest flick “Public Enemies” was actually influenced by an audio tape he found of Dillinger’s father. Depp related because his own grandfather sounded exactly like him. Building solid and believable characters takes research and realism. They have to be grounded in someone you really know. Otherwise , they ring hollow.