For a significant part of human history, it was thought that a sharp line existed with us (as humans) on one side, and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other. In truth however, there is very little that separates us from the other species with whom we share this planet.
“We are part of the continuum of evolution,” notes the leading primatologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, “and [we] are not the only beings on the Earth with personalities, minds, thoughts and feelings.” Dr. Goodall has spent the vast majority of her life studying primates in their natural habitats to learn more about them and- in turn- ourselves, and when I asked her about what is it that makes us human, she paused and gave a rather beautiful response. “For me, our sophisticated way of communicating- with words- is that crucial difference. It meant that for the first time, we could teach another about something that wasn’t present… whereas young chimps just learn by observing. We can read books about the distant past, and plan the distant future. Chimps can only plan the immediate future. As far as we know, they don’t have any concept of a distant future to plan for.” (Thought Economics, June 2013)
This capability to communicate is hooked on the fact that we are hard wired to understand our existence, not in isolation as a series of causal events- but rather, in a discernable context… as a story. As Sir Ken Robinson notes, “Human beings have very powerful imaginations; and we don’t live in the world in the same way that other creatures seem to. We don’t live in the world quite so directly, we live in the world of ideas… we have concepts, artefacts, languages, music, images, theories, philosophies, faiths and values which we work-on, inherit, construct, challenge, change and form. We end up living in the world virtually through the ideas that we conceive.” (Thought Economics, October 2014)
Each of the 100 billion humans who lived and died before us, and the 7 billion who exist now, carry a unique biography. Each of us was born into a line stretching back thousands of years, will lead lives that nobody has ever lived before, and will die an uncommon death. Humanity relies completely on storytelling as the primary architecture by which we make sense of our lives and communicate our culture, heritage, news, values and knowledge between people, generations and even through time. Stories engulf our lives in a way so primal and profound, that only perhaps the most skilled meditators have been able to quieten their conscious minds sufficiently to experience existence outside their narratives.
With that in mind, understanding storytelling is a crucial part of understanding ourselves.
In these exclusive interviews we speak to Ed Catmull (Co-Founder of Pixar Animation, and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios), Nick Park (Oscar Winning Writer, Director and Animator with Aardman Animation) and Jonathan Gottschall (A world expert in storytelling and Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College). We discuss the fundamental role of storytelling in human existence, and learn the secrets of creativity, animation and great stories.
Ed Catmull, Ph.D, is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Previously, Catmull was Vice President of the computer division of Lucasfilm Ltd., where he managed development in the areas of computer graphics, video editing, video games and digital audio.
Catmull has been honored with five Academy Awards, including a Technical Achievement Award, two Scientific and Engineering Awards, and one Academy Award of Merit for his work. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Catmull with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics for the motion picture industry.
He also received the ACM SIGGRAPH Steven A. Coons Award for his lifetime contributions in the computer graphics field, and the animation industry’s Ub Iwerks Award for technical advancements in the art or industry of animation. Catmull is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Visual Effects Society, and the University of California President’s Board on Science and Innovation. Catmull was honored with the Randy Pausch Prize from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center in 2008, and was selected as the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s 2008 Computer Entrepreneur Award.
Catmull has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and physics and a doctorate in computer science from the University of Utah. In 2005, the University of Utah presented him with an Honorary Doctoral Degree in engineering.
Park began using his mom’s 8-millimeter camera and pieces from her dressmaking kit to create stop-motion films, and at age 13 he finished his first short, Walter the Rat. At 15, he submitted another creation, Archie’s Concrete Nightmare, to the BBC’s Young Animator’s Film Competition; the piece didn’t win, but it aired on BBC2.
Park studied art at Sheffield City Polytechnic before moving on to the National Film and Television School, where he began work on his first 35-millimeter Claymation film. A Grand Day Out tells the tale of a middle-aged man named Wallace, who builds a homemade rocket and takes his quietly frustrated but faithful dog Gromit into space to procure some moon cheese. The unfinished product caught the attention of Aardman Animations Ltd. founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton, who hired Park in 1985.
At Aardman, Nick Park initially contributed to commercials and music videos, including Peter Gabriel’s award-winning “Sledgehammer,” while finishing A Grand Day Out. Additionally, he began work on Creature Comforts, a five-minute piece in which zoo animals offer a range of opinions on life in confinement. Both were completed in 1989 and nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 1991 Academy Awards, with Creature Comforts claiming the prize.
Park followed with two more Wallace and Gromit shorts, The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which further refined the characteristics of the well-meaning but shortsighted inventor and his silent canine compatriot. Both were well-received and garnered Academy Awards.
Having secured Hollywood’s attention, Park and Lord co-directed Chicken Run (2001), a feature-length animation film distributed by DreamWorks Studios. A feature-length Wallace and Gromit adventure co-directed by Park and Steve Box, The Curse of the Ware-Rabbit (2005) also fared well for Aardman and DreamWorks, but the two studios soon ended their association due to creative differences.
A fire at an Aardman Animations warehouse destroyed several original Wallace and Gromit sets and storyboards in October 2005, a misfortune that was offset by an Academy Award win for Ware-Rabbit a few months later. In 2007, Park oversaw production of Shaun the Sheep, a television series based on a character from A Close Shave. The fourth Wallace and Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, earned Park another Oscar nomination in 2010.
Known worldwide by fans of all ages, Wallace and Gromit have become cultural icons in their creator’s home country. In 2009, London’s Science Museum opened the “Wallace & Gromit Present: A World of Cracking Ideas” exhibition, where fans could inspect the duo’s famed offbeat inventions. In conjunction with the exhibition, a contest was created for kids to submit their own weird and wonderful creations.
Jonathan Gottschall is Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His research at the intersection of science and art has frequently been covered in outlets like The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, Science, and NPR. His blog, The Storytelling Animal, is featured at Psychology Today. The Storytelling Animal was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.
Q: What is creativity?
[Ed Catmull] I think of creativity very broadly, for me it’s about solving problems. A lot of people put creativity into the narrow bucket of artistic expression; including film-making, creative writing, music and so on- but there are many who understand that if you look at science and engineering, there are a lot of very interesting problems that require creativity and you see a great outpouring of new ideas.
Fundamentally, where creativity is concerned, people are trying to express an idea or solve a problem. This applies in business, the arts, or even solving family or societal problems.
Creativity has a spectrum: if you compared segments such as the arts, business and so on, you find things in common, and differences. If you look at the arts as an example, there are people who stir us and make us think about things differently or see things in a different way- but you also find people in the arts who do derivative work. You might ask what the difference is between someone who creates art that stirs us, and someone who creates derivative work- and it’s pretty hard to define, but you do know it. In business you also find people who think in a process-oriented way, replicating what is known to work externally or internally. On the other hand, you find businesses that challenge themselves in what’s happening both within and without and creatively change the world. We always have this mix in each area, but people tend to categorise creativity by discipline rather than by the individuals within those disciplines.
One of the surprises to me was when I began diving deeply into what happened at Toyota many years ago. I was looking at this firm because in the early days of PIXAR we were a manufacturing company! What I realised was, that in studying other manufacturing companies, in particular Toyota, I could see that their mechanism for distributing responsibility and pushing it far down the organisation turned them into a creative enterprise! This is the opposite of what most people think, which is that the purpose of manufacturing is to reliably produce the same thing over and over again. In one sense, this is one of the goals- but in order to achieve that goal, the group of people doing it had to be very creative in order to solve the problems that came up. To me it was a great revelation to find creativity in the midst of something that was not thought of as being creative.
[Nick Park] Creativity makes us human, it defines our humanity… that freedom and ability we have to contemplate our existence, make changes to it, and leave it different to how we find it.
I believe that everyone is creative in some way or another whether that be using words, music or using one’s hands to paint, or whether it be changing the environment, or making the world more beautiful in some way.
Creativity makes you very powerful, and being a storyteller is a very powerful position. A friend of mine told me that the ability to move people is a great power, perhaps one of the greatest you could have.
[Jonathan Gottschall] Creativity is hard to define, and probably harder to teach.. The last book I remember reading about the subject was Jonah Lehrer’s now infamous ‘Imagine,’ and the advice on how you become more creative struck me as obvious or vague with little gems like, “hey, go take a warm shower and may be an idea will come to you…” I’ve sometimes suspected that the buzzwords of creativity and innovation, amount to little more than a way of selling business books and TED talks.
As far as I can tell, there aren’t any shortcuts to becoming more creative. You find something you really care about. You immerse yourself in it. You work like hell. If you do that—and if you get lucky—you might turn up something new.
Q: What is the role of storytelling in human culture?
[Ed Catmull] Storytelling is our fundamental way of communicating with each other, and informing each other. If we start from the beginning, one of the most rewarding things for the child and the adult is having the child on your lap whilst you tell them stories or read to them from a book. You are not only telling a story, but forging an emotional bond in doing that. Then you go to school and receive another form of storytelling, where you’re told the stories of our past, our history and our culture; what happened with our presidents, kings, revolutions and heroes… Whatever those stories are, they are always simplifications of what happened… We can never live through the events of the past, the only things we have left are the stories… The art-form of storytelling is trying to figure out how you capture the essence- to inform someone about what’s important in what happened, but they can never live it themselves. This is an on-going process.
If you look at the world of animation, we went through something in developing this art-form and we tell new people what happened. When we tell them what happened, it becomes a mythology; we lived through it, they cant. All they can have are the stories.
As we move forward into the future, people aren’t trying to relive the stories of what happened in the past, they’re creating their own. We want people to think about creating their own stories and live their own experiences, but at the same time pass on the essence of what happened to other people in other places.
[Nick Park] Storytelling seems so important to humans. Every culture revisits stories throughout their lives- from children hearing the same stories over and over again, to people sitting around the campfire sharing tales and experiences.
There seems to be something very primal and basic about storytelling that involves us re-affirming who we are, our world, how we understand it, and the forces that are shaping it from within and outside. Someone once told me that stories are the rooms in which we grow up; and as children- that’s how we explore the world! You can encounter allsorts of evil and other things- stories help equip you for the world!
Humans seem to have this ability to contemplate our world and our existence. We tell stories that speak of truths about this existence, that are not necessarily there in a physical or immediate way.
[Jonathan Gottschall] People sometimes look for a role that storytelling plays in society, but I object to that. Story is not a single-purpose tool like a hammer or a screwdriver. It is a multipurpose tool, somewhat like a Swiss Army Knife.
In a very basic evolutionary sense, it’s quite weird that we tell stories at all. We spend an enormous amount of energy and time telling stories without any obvious biological benefit. Why do we spend such huge chunks of our lives inside all types of story worlds? What are the possible benefits that offset the costs?
For a long time, anthropologists have argued that story acts as a social glue; it binds a society together around a common culture, core values, and collective identity. That can be hard to see in our big, modern societies but if you go back and look at the traditional tales of small-scale tribal societies, it’s pretty obvious. And even today with our fractured media world, we are spending a lot of our lives absorbed in the same stories. You might read Harry Potter at a different time than me, but we’re both reading it. You might binge-watch something on Netflix at a different time than me, but we’re both being subjected to the same stories. And stories almost always portray a basic human morality. They are set up so that they affirm the prosocial values of the protagonists, and condemn the greed and selfishness of antagonists. And studies show that the values we read about in stories sink in. They shape how we look at the world.
So we love stories. We are enormously fascinated by the fake struggles of fake people. But the love is mixed with a little Puritanism: If it feels so good, it can’t be entirely good for us. So, for centuries we’ve worried not only that stories waste our time but, worse, that they promote laziness and moral corruption. I think this worry is misplaced. My book argues that stories—from conventional fiction to daydreams—are an essential and wholesome nutrient for the human imagination. Stories help us rehearse for the big dilemmas of life, bring order to the chaos of life experience, and help unite communities around common values. We shouldn’t feel guilty about our time in storyland.
Q: Is storytelling learned or instinctual?
[Jonathan Gottschall] Story is absolutely instinctual. There are aspects that are learned, and an awful lot of learning goes into becoming a master storyteller- but the hunger for story is instinctive, and the structures of storytelling seem to be instinctive also.
Stories are universal. As far as we know, there has never been a society without storytelling in the history of the world. Furthermore we are hard pressed to identify societies where stories are significantly different from our own. If you travel to the Africa or the Arctic Circle or to any far-flung place you will find that their stories are , more or less, exactly like ours. They translate easily- we can enjoy their tales, and they can enjoy ours. It’s just not plausible that all these people around the world happened- by chance- to develop the same forms and structures of stories.
The other line of evidence that’s even more powerful is children’s storytelling. Kids come into the world wired for story. We don’t have to bribe or teach them to do it. You take small children, put them into a room, and they’ll spontaneously create stories. This isn’t a Western thing. It’s a people thing. Children’s make believe is universal.
Q: What makes a great story?
[Ed Catmull] Most of us recognise that there are some films, for example, that have impacted world culture. Into this you could put Toy Story, Star Wars, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King and more.
When you have a story that touches culture so strongly, you will always have people that say that they want to replicate it in some way. The safe way to do that is, “I will do something like what they did because if they touched world culture and copy what they did, then I will touch world culture too…” It doesn’t work that way!
To touch world culture, you have to tell something new and take a different kind of risk. Stories are the communication of our emotions to other people, we are drawing on the life experiences of the storytellers who- in turn- are trying to put those life-experiences into their stories. Rather than copying the generic form of a story, they are trying to do something else.
How do you do that? One of the ways is to draw on your experiences, and of those around you. What we did at PIXAR, to avoid the trap of repeating what someone else did, was to go out into the world and go somewhere where you would learn something you wouldn’t otherwise know. In Finding Nemo for instance, the filmmakers went to Australia and went diving down in the reefs! With Ratatouille, they went into the 3* Michelin restaurants in Paris… into the kitchens… to see what really happens. What happens in that kitchen is not the same thing that happens in your home kitchen, or the same thing that you see on the Cooking Channel! When making Ratatouille, we got an insight into what takes place in those kitchens (which we could only have made by being there) and we put those insights into the movie. Since most people have never been inside the kitchen of a real high-end restaurant, they wouldn’t know whether what they are being shown is correct or incorrect- how would they know? Yet- we put it in there, and the audience senses that it’s real. It’s not explicit… but they sense that it’s real, and they know they got something they didn’t see before, it touches them and gives them something new.
[Nick Park] We like to keep coming back to stories for some reason. The scriptwriting guru Robert McKee says that classic stories are those you can come back to again and again, they don’t fade with time and hold power across generations. They speak of some truths that are universal, and perhaps humour is a big part of that. Homer (not Simpson!) eluded to the fact that things are funny because they’re true; and that’s quite a profound statement. It doesn’t matter how abstract, absurd or ridiculous what we’re seeing is- we ultimately recognise something within it that makes us laugh.
Great stories can also be quite an extreme form of our own lives in caricature, yet recognisable. Stories cannot exist without this simple truth. You don’t always inject that truth deliberately, but it has to be there.
There’s a striving for authenticity underneath storytelling. That’s what makes clay so attractive to me, it’s a real material. What’s been important in creating the stories and characters is that there’s been some kind of struggle going on… creativity usually needs time and a struggle, and that’s what makes it hard- what means everyone isn’t doing it- but that’s what makes things that are unique and special.
Great stories often come from a creative struggle and a long incubation period.
There’s a lot of interest in the literal effort that goes into animation; with people talking about the millions of drawings and frames, models and movements- but it’s the story that matters- that’s the thing we want people to relate to. We want people to relate to the characters, be gripped, compelled and engaged.
There’s something about the technique in which animation is made, which also has a lot to add to that. I’m a great admirer of CGI, and especially PIXAR. I love their work and learn a lot from it all the time. For me however, a lot of our story is born of the technique. Gromit for example, was born out of the clay technique. I don’t know if I would have arrived at Grommit, or the same Grommit if I was working on a screen. I was actually planning to have him as a much more lively and exuberant dog to start with, but the difficulties of the technique made him the way he is- I found it so hard to move him, and to re-sculpt every frame, that I started to just move his eyebrows- I found that gave me so much! It was a great economy, but it was wonderful. Moving his brow made him an introvert, a very feeling and put-upon dog that had very strong feelings and emotion- this contrasted well with Wallace who was already the extrovert. The intensity of Wallace made Grommit suddenly feel very human and misunderstood… this wasn’t by design, I found it in the clay.
Economy can be a huge strength to storytelling. It’s not about being elaborate and expensive, less can be a lot more.
[Jonathan Gottschall] Story has a universal grammar, without which you have almost no chance of making a story great, and without which you simply cannot rivet people’s attention, rouse them passionately, and change how they look at the world. The structure is extremely simple.
A story always has some form of character. The character has some type of problem, predicament or trouble in their life that they want to solve. Stories around the world have a problem-solution structure.
You’ll find some counter-examples to this pattern, but you will find these to be primarily in the realm of 20th century experimental fiction where- on purpose- writers try to break the rules. Those are fascinating artistic experiments, but they universally fail to attract big audiences. Rather, they’re designed for an elite or academic audience.
If you want to really absorb human attention on a grand scale, you have to stay within the grammar.
But the grammar isn’t enough of course. A great story has a lot more to it. When that little kid comes into the world, they already know the basic grammar: batman is in trouble, the baby is in trouble, how are we going to save them? Great storytellers use the basic grammar, but they also employ a great deal of subtle art and craft.
Q: Is there a biological component to our love of stories?
[Jonathan Gottschall] Biology is deeply involved in our processes of storytelling and story enjoyment. There are tendencies within the brain that create a story-hunger. The brain needs stories to make sense of the chaos that is continually pouring through your senses. The brain filters and sorts this information, hunting for story-patterns. The downside of this is that the human mind seems unable to tolerate a vacuum of story. Stories create meaning and they are comforting. So if the brain can’t find a meaningful story to account for some phenomenon it tends to simply make them up. You see this in a lot of psychological research. You also see it in conspiracy theories and perhaps religion.
There is a peculiarity about the way story is processed by the brain that can account for its power. You can slide a person into an FMRI machine that watches the brain while the brain watches story, that can read the brain while the brain reads a story. And if you do that you’ll find something interesting–the brain looks less like a spectator on the action, than a participant. So if Clint Eastwood is angry on screen, your brain looks angry too; if the scene is sad, your brain will look sad too. Not like you are sitting back passively and watching someone else get angry or sad, but that you are actually experiencing the emotions yourself.
So stories are so powerful for us, at least in part, because at a neurological level whatever is happening on the page or stage isn’t just happening to them, it is happening to US as well. “We” know the film is fake, but that doesn’t stop unconscious parts of the brain from processing it as real.
Q: Can stories impact and change society?
[Jonathan Gottschall] When I go into my introductory literature classroom, I sometimes point out how strange it is that we spend such a large part of our lives telling and absorbing stories. Why do we care so much about the fake struggles of fake people? I ask my students for an explanation and eventually one raises a hand and says, “escapism.” They look at story as a kind of mental vacation. They go into storyland, they have a nice time, but then they walk away unchanged. Research suggests this is wrong. It suggests that we are moulded strongly by the stories consumed in our lives. Stories wash over our lives, shaping us in the way that flowing water shapes a landscape.
Studies repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story.
For instance, if psychologists get a bunch of people in the lab and just tell them all the reasons it is wrong to discriminate against homosexuals, they don’t make a lot of progress. People who feel differently, dig in their heels, they get critical and skeptical, and they don’t walk out of the lab with more tolerant views.
But if we watch a show like Will and Grace—or modern family, or glee, or Six Feet Under, and so on–that treats Homosexuality in a non-judgmental ways, lab studies suggest that our own views are likely to move in the same direction.
And if a lot of us begin empathizing with likeable gay characters—on shows like Ellen, Modern Family, The L-Word, Glee, Six Feet Under, and so on—you get a driver of massive social change. American attitudes have liberalized with dizzying speed over he last 15 years or so, and many social scientists give TV a lot of the credit. Social scientists have a theory to explain this rapid pace of change: They call it “The Will and Grace effect.”
By the way, the psychologists even have a theory for why this works. The best predictor of whether or not you’ll have liberal attitudes toward homosexuality is whether or not you know one, and that you know that you know one. Whether you have a friend or a family member who is gay. This is a better predictor than education level, or religious affiliation, or whether you are democrat or republican. But here’s the cool part: it doesn’t seem to matter if the people you know are real or not. Fake gay friends like Will and Jack seem to do the job.
Q: What makes a great animation?
[Nick Park] People often look at animation and say, “wow, you can be so creative… that’s the freedom of animation!” In a way, they’re right… but… freedom can be a great set-up to fail. If you have too much budget, you can end up with enough rope to hang yourself! Discipline is very good for creativity.
We fight this constantly on projects- how do we find solutions by being creative rather than using another helicopter shot, or blowing something up. We want to film creative solutions that are more to do with the edit and story, and less to do with special effects.
An example for me was when we created the penguin, Feathers McGraw in ‘The Wrong Trousers.’ He was such a simple thing, and I had a wonderful reaction. My colleague Steve Box animated him for me, and we very much talked about making sure that we didn’t make him some funny Disney-style penguin with Donald Duck actions as he waddled along. He’s almost not a penguin, he’s a milk-bottle floating along; and this brought the sinister aspect to the character. He turns in basic ways and gives solitary blinks. This gave the character a lot of power rather than doing an elaborate animation.
Q: Why has animation grown to become such a popular art form?
[Ed Catmull] Reality can never be expressed in a complete and true story; it’s always going to be too complicated. The story we can tell, whether it’s live action or animation, is an abstraction. With animation, you easily accept the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t reality. With live action, people sometimes think they’re seeing reality – but with animation we don’t have that delusion, and that allows the animator and storyteller to focus on the essence of what they’re trying to tell, and in doing so- we connect with people. From the viewer’s perspective, this allows them to accept the rules of the world they’re being immersed in and to feel the emotions that come from that; and this happens regardless of whether it’s hand-drawn animation, puppets, paper cut-outs or full CG. We just accept it as a different world, accept the rules of the world, and explore how to connect with it. Animation gives a great freedom to the storyteller.
Q: What is the role of anthropomorphism in animation?
[Ed Catmull] If you look back at the earliest days of animation, it tended to be very much gag-oriented. People were enthralled by funny and silly things that were happening on screen. You had plants dancing, boats tooting around… that wasn’t anthropomorphic, but they had a sort-of life to them. Then Walt Disney put together a group that went to the next stage; they wanted the audience to believe what that character was thinking.
As a species, we think at a different level than other creatures; we recognise of course that pets and animals think, but there’s something different about our thinking. In recognising thought processes in something like a lamp, and believing that the lamp is thinking, something in us connects with them. We can call it anthropomorphism, but in reality we are trying- in an abstract way- to touch some of our deepest emotions and sensibilities.
Interestingly, we have had numerous cases where animation seems to have touched people who have specific brain processing problems and issues where they almost can’t understand other people, because there’s something about the presence of a real person that makes them cower. Animation gives them a safe space; something about it draws them out. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.
[Nick Park] There has been a great tradition in animation to use anthropomorphism, and animators are able to bring animals and objects to life.
We accept something from an animal where we feel for them more because they’re helpless, vulnerable, cute or powerless – or they express some focussed aspect of ourselves. When I did Creature Comforts back in 1989, it was fundamentally just human beings talking- that was what we did first, interview people talking… then we added the animals. Until that point, the founders of Aardman had done similar things with human beings, and I took it into the animal kingdom. Grommit isn’t really a dog, he’s a person!
What I love about PIXAR is that they’re animals are a certain degree of anthropomorphism… lets take Nemo- he’s very human in aspects of his speech and emotion, but he’s very much a fish too! Let’s compare that with Sharks Tale where the characters are very much more humans dressed as fish….
The balance with anthropomorphism is how much reality and how much fantasy you choose to use!
[Jonathan Gottschall] Good question. I’ve never considered it before. But here’s what I would say. Anthropomorphised stories seem- in the main- to be targeted at children; just take a look at films from Disney Pixar or at folk tales from around the world.
In Brian Boyd’s On The Origins of Stories he noted something simple yet powerful. He said that the first job of a storyteller is to rivet our attention. If the storyteller cannot grip the attention of an audience, then what’s the point? Without attention, Boyd says, art dies.
So it seems to me that one common strategy for riveting children’s attention is to anthropomorphise animals, plants, and inanimate objects in order to grab attention and to signal the magical nature of the story-world they’re entering into. Some stories for adults also anthropomorphize, but they’re few and far between in comparison to those aimed at children.
Q: How has technology impacted animation?
[Ed Catmull] If I go back to the earliest days of animation when film was just invented, it was a new technology- although, we don’t think of it in those terms now. When the technology was new, it stimulated people to try to use this technology to tell stories. Until that time, storytelling was verbal, books, plays and so forth. The technology of film broadened the base of storytelling and brought more people to it. I don’t think many people understood the interplay of technology and art, but instead focussed on the final output. Over time, people remembered the art- but down-played the technology. Over time, technology ceases to look new and becomes an artefact of the past. When computer graphics arrived, it injected into the art form of new technology which then stimulated more people.
The number of animated films produced now is much higher than 30 years ago, and more people have access to it. One of our goals is to ensure that we don’t forget that it is this combination of art and technology and that it is an on-going stimulating relationship. We don’t want to forget this as people have in the past. As computers get faster and more accessible, you open the door for more people to use it; you now see more pieces, such as the funny little vignettes produced on YouTube. If you look at feature-length films; they’re more widely available for sure, but I wouldn’t call it ‘democratisation’ as they still cost many millions of dollars to make. But the trend will continue as costs go down and more people are enabled to tell stories.
At the same time, the new technology is enabling a lot of stuff that isn’t very good … but in this process, you will also find gems, because people who don’t ordinarily have access now do so. We will have surprising new storytelling in the future; but we can’t foresee what that is. When you enable more people have access to storytelling technology, you are giving yourself more opportunities to be surprised.
The internet has clearly altered the mechanism by which stories get out into the world. This has pros and cons. It enables a large number of people to distribute their work in various forms, and also enables a large number of people to sift through work and recommend it to others. At the same time, the mass of the content being generated is so large, that you lose a shared cultural experience. It used to be that movie-houses and radio became a nationwide shared experience. Television then became a shared experience due to a limited number of channels… now we have this technical evolution where there’s a diminishing of that, with a few long-form programmes coming out with cultural impact. Rather than watching certain channels for example, people may watch a particular series such as Sherlock Holmes – and I wish we had more content like that! My daughter and I watch Dr. Who all the time, it’s watched a lot here in the USA and for those who are watching it, it’s a shared experience. But it is shared with a smaller percentage of the population than when I was young.
The Internet gives you different types of experiences, but I wish more people could share them.
[Nick Park] I wouldn’t want to sound like a stick-in-the-mud as technology is part of the artform now. We use technology, we make armatures for our puppets- we use video to record and playback, but we want to retain a hands-on quality.
CGI doesn’t help or hinder, it’s a choice… The challenge is different… Technology enables the animator to manipulate the character in the most human way they can. What I like about clay animation is that it’s very direct. When we know that we simply can’t do something using clay- for example, fire or a waterfall- we may use CGI. I like the charm that comes from reality- from fingerprints, from clay, from people actually manipulating things.
However… CGI is great for certain subjects. Let’s take the film Frozen for example. The way the ice crystals were, or the snow… or the building of the tower… the dress of the girl – and how realistic everything was. It was so amazing- but it’s not in my aesthetic- that’s not my personal artistic style.
[Jonathan Gottschall] Today, we often hear a doom and gloom narrative suggesting that that twitter or facebook or whatever are ruining story. But I don’t think the digital revolution or social media are killing storytelling—quite the opposite. First, many people use their social networking accounts as storytelling platforms: Facebook, for example, is a way for many people to tell their continuously updated life story. Even many twitter users tell serial stories, and the site is—in large part—a way for people to promote and share links to longer form storytelling.
The larger point, for me, is that I think story is utterly unkillable. People are storytelling animals, and that won’t change until human nature does. In the future, story may evolve in new directions (in my book, I talk about the emerging form of video game storytelling). But in a thousand years the basic structure of story will be exactly like it is today. What’s happening right now is NOT that modern technology is crowding out storytelling, it’s that most of us are using new technology to cram more story into our lives than ever before.
Q: How can people benefit from applying creativity into their lives?
[Ed Catmull] Most of us want and have a deep feeling of needing safety. The easiest way to see and get safety is to repeat the things that you believe worked in the past, and believe that others are doing; and that applies at a personal level or business level. If something is known to work, you tend to want to copy it and it feels safer.
What differentiates the creative person, is that they are willing to abandon certain elements of the past and do something they haven’t done before. This is tricky as you can’t abandon everything, and you don’t really know what to abandon; you are going into unknown territory. The differentiator is: do you have the ability to let go of certain things with the belief that if the new thing you try doesn’t work, then you can always go back to the thing that worked. A lot of people can’t do that, and it’s an emotional need for safety that keeps them from venturing into doing something that may not work. By definition, if you’re going off into a new area, then a certain percentage of things you try won’t work and furthermore, you don’t know how big the problem will be if you try something new! It could be rather minor, or very major. The mind-set of the creative is that they will still continue to do it!
Q: What would be your piece of advice to the next generation to put creativity into their lives?
[Ed Catmull] I’ve thought a lot about this; and it’s a hard thing to describe. People want to go to the safe side… they want to repeat what works without understanding that rut they are in. Even for people who venture into the unknown and do something original, a large proportion of those people, having experienced something new, then fall back into repeating what they did in the past.
People should adopt a fearlessness where they are trying new things, but then accept that by doing this- a certain percentage of things will fail. Failure is not a necessary evil, but rather- it is a positive part of on-going progress. If you don’t have some failures continually, it is a signal that you have retreated into the conservative past.
Most people still interpret failure as an unfortunate thing to get to success, but this isn’t actually what it means. What failure really means is that you are trying to live life, and the fact that you fail means that you are trying. As soon as you try to avoid failure, you are facing the wrong direction.
[Nick Park] Yes, do it!! [laughs]
The way younger generations are naturally comfortable with technology is great- but they have to realise that technology is a tool. David Hockney was using an iPad last time I saw him on TV, he commented that the Paintbrush itself was technology!
An interesting parallel; I’m writing a new script for a feature film at the moment. It’s been a good 2-3 years in writing, and I’ve read so much about screen-writing techniques and theory- but ultimately the war is between you and a blank piece of paper. It relies on you for good ideas, and to work those ideas up. You can use those techniques and tools to help you stay on course and to challenge you, but tools will never be a substitute- they won’t help you to write a great script- you need creativity and good ideas.
Technology could become a substitute for creativity if we’re not careful. Let’s not forget that you can be incredibly creative with a pinhole camera or a pencil and a piece of paper. Having technology won’t make you more creative….
Creativity comes through practice, learning and doing it!
[Jonathan Gottschall] You don’t need to tell people to go have sex, to eat, or to breathe. If people can do these things, they will – they don’t need your encouragement. People are going to consume stories, and they will consume them heavily.
Stories are a very good thing. They are one of the things that make life most worth living. But you can have too much of a good thing. Compare story to food. A tendency to overeat served our ancestors well when food shortages were a predictable part of life. But now that we modern desk jockeys are awash in low-cost grease and corn syrup, overeating is more likely to fatten us up and kill us young. Likewise, it could be that an intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors, but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs, and iPads make story omnipresent—and when we have, in romance novels and TV shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, something like the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies.
So people need to learn to regulate their story diets. Flipping on the TV to channel surf is like standing in front of an open refrigerator and boredly stuffing food in your mouth. Instead, plan out a Netflix strategy. Plan out a novel strategy (I like to work my way through good internet lists of classic thrillers, sci-fi stories, mysteries, and canonical classics). Try not to consume in a haphazard way but to do so more thoughtfully.
A characteristic of humanity is our unwavering sense of growth. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “…We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level- in other words, not to discount perspective- would be lunacy… we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, a well as with our own.” (An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Lewis was here talking of literature, but where we consider this [literature] as a metaphor for storytelling, the depth of his analysis can be seen. “[Literature] admits us to experiences other than our own…” he writes, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk to an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is a prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough… Literary experience heals the would, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
This urge to transcend flows from without and within ourselves. Maya Angelou told me “We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone- because we have the impulse to explain who we are. Not just how tall we are, or thin… but who we are internally… perhaps even spiritually. There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know.” (Thought Economics, October 2012)
Whether we look at the domains of art, the humanities or science, we see storytelling as their basis- a foundation on which things can be built. In each of these intellectual territories, the works that stand tall- sculptures, essays, theories, films and more- do so because they speak authentically, and with certain essential truths that we can each resonate with intuitively and naturally. As a Jewish teaching describes “Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the doors and was readily welcomed into the villagers’ houses. They invited her to eat at their tables and warm herself by their fires.”
Storytelling is ‘that’ which makes us human, and our relentless pursuit of the story of our species means that each of us is now able to start our own narrative, once upon a time, at the beginning of the universe, when we existed together- forward through the branches of individual existence, and onwards to the time the universe will end, bringing us together again.