Creative Best Before: — Insert Date —

Even legends like Ron Burgundy can struggle to find creative inspiration at times.

When I heard the news last week Guillermo Del Toro, the creative visionary behind the brilliant movies Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and most recently Splice (executive producer), had suddenly quit development of the highly anticipated Hobbit films, I was a bit disappointed—yet not surprised.

If you’ve been following the news and events surrounding development of the Hobbit films you’ll know Peter Jackson, the director behind the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, asked Del Toro to creatively commit roughly 6 years to the project (ultimately 2 films), living and working in New Zealand where his WETA Studios are headquartered.

Let me repeat that: 6 years creative commitment on a single project!

This is an incredible amount of time for anyone to commit to a project—creative or otherwise. Guillermo Del Toro was slated to write, design, and ultimately direct both films with Peter Jackson contributing as executive producer.

This story is fascinating and really caused me to stop and think about how delays can have a huge impact on creativity—not just in movies—but in any endeavour. The analogy I immediately think of is way most foods have a predetermined shelf life when they usually taste best and won’t cause you to become ill.
In this same way, I believe creativity and design solutions generally have a best before date during which the absolute best work can be realized. Call it a window of opportunity for conceptual creative development then execution—but venture outside this sweet spot and things potentially start to fall apart.

Example: Guillermo Del Toro walking away from what many would consider to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Del Toro, having already devoted the past 2 years immersed in script writing, character/animatic design, set and wardrobe development, felt future long term projects were becoming jeopardized due to the immense challenges facing production of the Hobbit films.
The movie studios, realizing the lucrative potential of these films and hoping to capitalize on the global success of Lord of the Rings, have been squabbling over production and distribution rights for years. Further compounding the situation, heirs to Tolkien’s estate have sought financial compensation for LOTR causing production of the Hobbit to exist in a perpetual state of delay.

Unfortunate, yet anyone working in a field similar to film design and production likely knows, there are typically rigorous demands and business interests at stake on large, well-financed projects like the forthcoming Hobbit films. Add to this the logistics of employing literally hundreds of multidisciplinary creative and technical specialists responsible for every aspect of the film: script writing, art direction, production design, sound, editing, special effects, and so on. The director usually carries the unenviable responsibility of ensuring the final cinematic vision of the film, among other elements, stays relatively intact—quite a daunting task when a film requires several years commitment.

When a new project begins, initially there is a huge surplus of energy and enthusiasm among creative contributors to quickly dive-in and start coming up with ideas and building things immediately. When delays and roadblocks invariably occur further into the production pipeline, the once smooth flow of creativity and design execution can suffer amidst production uncertainties and a constantly shifting set of priorities, challenging even the most passionate and motivated of contributors.

The other problem specific to the film industry is that studio executives (I gather) sometimes forget how fragile the creative process can be when financing resources and structuring film projects. It now seems modern movies are designed to function more like corporations than artistic creative endeavours.

It’s common—and I find it strange—to hear media journalists and others refer to movies not as stories but as franchises, suggesting films are regarded more as business commodities than cinematic works of art. Certainly when film budgets for major international releases routinely exceed the GDP of some small countries, studio executives will naturally focus on the financial aspects (e.g. budgets, the weekend gross) over the integrity of the creative content.

In many ways this mindset devalues the cinematic work by focusing disproportionately on numbers instead of what really matters: story, design, and artistic vision—the core attributes of any great film or creative work.

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