How to Innovate

Happy accidents can set you off into new and dynamic directions, but intentionality is also a path forward and one more in your control. Consider this example.

Music-video maker Chris Milk had begun to feel his medium, which includes YouTube, was stale, when he met up with web star Aaron Koblin who was also frustrated with the limits of his medium: digital art.

They started talking, their skills and perspectives mixed, and before they were done, created something new—a kind of storytelling that fused animated images with real-life emotion. Drawing upon audience participation (crowdsourcing), the pair combined music and visuals with startling results, such as “Sheep Market” composed of blended images of sheep from thousands of artists, and “We Used to Wait”, which allows the viewer to “drive” to his or her childhood address while the music plays.

To create something new, the collaborators—as well as any of us who seek to create— needed three things.

First: they needed an appreciation of what had come before both in the tech world and musically. Every medium at first imitates the last. Koblin notes: “The first radio is people reading books; the first photographs are similar to paintings; the first films were of the theatre.”

Second: they needed a willingness to give up the constraints of the old. Says Milk: “When cinema started, nobody saw it as ‘the Godfather’; no one saw it as closeups and music and creating shots in color and dialogue and emotion. It grew to be that. . . fooling around in the dark.”

Finally: they needed a healthy curiosity. They had tools that knew no limits, like the web and computer animation, so they went off exploring. They asked, is this good? Could it be better? The result Kolbin characterized as “experiments on what this medium will  eventually be.”

It seems to me that we writers are on the same voyage.

We seek to create, to innovate, to take an ordinary word and use it so remarkably as to make it stand for an entire world. (Vagina Monologues comes to mind.)

We start with what came before, which is where we learn, and then we leave it behind on a personal, intense, but please Lord playful journey of discovery. Is this good? Could this be better? We ask the same questions. And in the end, we hope, like the collaborators, to have to have created something compelling.

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For the full story, see Tom Vanderbilt’s, “The Director and the Techie” (WSJ Magazine, May 2012).

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of the illuminated light bulb by MartinPhotoSport; shattered bulbs by nate2b (catching up).