Your job, he said, is to fall in love. Everything else is just detail.
It wasn’t what I expected to hear. The rest of AnimFX ’09 had been about animation technology, game sales figures and visual effects processes. Then John Stevenson, formerly a Muppeteer and more recently the co-director of Kung Fu Panda, strode onstage and told stories about the L word. Afterward, amid the standing ovation, you could see minds clicking across the auditorium. It was as though a roomful of people had suddenly been given permission to view the world from a mad and goofy angle that had nothing to do with craft or money.
He got me thinking. And feeling. Here’s some of what he said and where it took me.
In the late 1970s, John Stevenson was a pimple-faced kid working on the low rung of a British advertising firm. One day he spotted something in a newspaper: The show The Muppets was looking for an artist. John’s heart stopped. He loved the Muppets. They were the greatest, funniest, most wonderful thing in the world. The chance to work with Jim Henson would be incredible – but it wasn’t going to happen. It was a high-profile gig. Serious professionals would be applying. John didn’t even have a portfolio. He made the audition call anyway, hoping for one thing: He’d get the chance to meet Kermit before they discovered he was a fraud and kicked him out.
John showed up at the studio with a “portfolio” he’d assembled overnight. There were indeed a bunch of solid artists trying out, guys who could really draw. By comparison, John’s pieces were crap. He knew they were. So he sat and waited, knowing the job wasn’t going to happen but still hoping to get a glimpse behind the curtain.
Time passed. And re-passed. Eventually, one of the cleaning ladies took pity and led John into a room with – joy! – Kermit, Animal and others arranged round a table. This was the greatest moment of his life. He sat down and began to sketch.
Eight hours later or so, Jim Henson popped his head around the corner and saw something he recognized. The other artists had been better, definitely, but this kid was in love. Here was someone who would clearly show up and draw the Muppets all day, every day – without pay if need be – for the simple reason that he was truly absorbed by them. The kid could eventually learn to draw better, but the pros couldn’t learn that Kermit-loving spark.
John Stevenson got the (paid) job and became part of the Muppets team. Thirty-odd years later he helmed Kung Fu Panda, a film about someone who meets his idols, gets a chance to learn from them and becomes a hero himself.
Love – or its absence – always communicates. The job of a creator or storyteller in any medium is to first fall in love with what they’re doing, then use their craft to send that spark out to others. The love, rather than the craft, is what separates it all from bunk. It creates the touchstone moments that spur whole new generations of kids into creative pursuits.
The Muppets embody that spirit. It’s there in every Fozzie Bear joke, every Gonzo stunt and every “hi-YAAA” from Miss Piggy as she punishes Kermit for insufficient swine worship. Jim Henson found a way to communicate love to his team. They, in turn, produced a show that spread it to millions of people. Among those people were many wide-eyed kids who felt a giant “click” and realized: I want to make stuff too.
A classic example in visual FX is Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures. Everyone remembers the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, but there’s also the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Look carefully at it. It’s surrounded by some remarkable techniques of animation and compositing, but at the core it’s a lump of clay, completely lifeless. Except that this lump of clay was loved. Someone cared very deeply about making it the best clay monster it could possibly be, and that feeling comes through in every frame the cyclops is on film. In creating myriad beasts over his 40-plus year career, Harryhausen and his team were incapable of phoning in their work. His creatures display the same loved quality of every great movie monster ever made. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Dennis Muren, Peter Jackson and others saw this, got excited and set out to make stuff.
Me, I was a Muppet lover as a kid, like everyone else, and also had a thing for Asterix the Gaul. But my version of the cyclops lay in 1980s computer games, particularly one called Castle Adventure written by a guy named Kevin Bales.
Castle Adventure is crude even by the standards of the time. You’re an adventurer. You’re stuck in a castle. You have to explore, kill monsters, find treasure, evade traps and escape. The whole thing is done in ASCII graphics with the occasional onboard PC speaker “BEEP” for sound. Compared to contemporary titles like Rogue or Zork, Castle Adventure is tiny and easy. But you can tell that someone loved this world. Someone pored long and hard over where the mad demon was going to lurk and what the secret punctuation mark would do to the vampire. Someone lived in this castle and believed in it utterly. As a child, this reached out to me. I had access to more advanced games, but that little dungeon, with all its limitations, drew me in.
My cyclops list goes forward through a number of well-known titles: Starflight, Hero’s Quest, The Colonel’s Bequest, Xenon 2, Ultima 6 & 7, heading into Doom and TIE Fighter. Some had brutal flaws. Many were cheesy as hell. But it took John Stevenson raving about his obsession with Kermit and the cyclops to make me re-realize the inherent love in those games that grabbed me and took hold of me. Many others of the time, especially those made by the growing teams at larger studios or as movie tie-ins, just didn’t have that quality. It’s why Space Quest 3, for example, still has fansites dedicated to it but the PC adaptation of Terminator 2 doesn’t – and why today more than ever there’s a split between games made for paychecks and games whose creators have had the opportunity to get really, truly, goofily excited about them.
So how do you fall in love with what you do? Especially when you’re not exactly working on The Muppets?
The thing about big, goofy things like love is that it’s easy to forget how simple they are, especially as you become an adult member of a society that’s obsessed with money and very good at cynical manipulation. For a while now I’ve been trying to learn how to tell stories and create things. I’m even mad enough to try to make a living off it. I like getting excited and absorbed in what I’m doing and bouncing around like a little kid. But being a professional creator is tough work. You often find yourself doing things you’d rather not be doing – things that really aren’t The Muppets, to put it another way. Sometimes, inevitably, amid the long hours and stress and creative cul-de-sacs and bills to pay, you forget the basic reasons for doing it in the first place.
I find the main symptom is a tendency to focus too much on the craft itself, the schematics of storytelling and narrative. Knowing the theory is crucial, and the ability to apply it properly is what separates professionals from amateurs. But intellectualizing, at least for me, is a retreat from passion. When I do it too much, something probably isn’t working.
The real key – simple and goofy though it may be – is to allow yourself to be a person constantly capable of falling in love. Not just with your own precious ideas, either. Very few professional creators get the luxury of making their own things on their own terms. You have to be capable of finding a spark of joy in whatever you’re working on, no matter how damn dreary it may seem on the outside. Toilet cleaner ad? Facile political speech? Dive in. You have to be, in some sense, a sucker.
People will manipulate that. Of course they will. They’ll turn your ability to get rosy-cheeked into long hours and your emotional investment into things that often shouldn’t be invested in. You’ll get your heart broken sometimes. But at the end of it, you’ll be the one doing things you love. Like a warrior panda or pig-kissing frog or one-eyed clay beast, no one will be able to take away the essence of who you are and what you stand for.
Whatever mad quest John Stevenson’s off on, I’d like to thank him for his time at AnimFX ’09 down in New Zealand. And now I think I’m going to play some Castle Adventure.
Colin Rowsell hails from Wellington, New Zealand. Tell him your cyclops list at [email protected].