Saturday, June 18, 2005

Creative Restriction

When people think about creative expression, they also tend to think about the need for “creative freedom” – the freedom to do anything they can think up. But in a world where special effects allow us to bring even our most bizarre imaginings to life and cable television shows can say or show explicitly what once had to be implied, I think we are forgetting the creative value of working within a restrictive space.

Take, for instance, a piece of paper. If I tell you to create something using paper, you may use markers or pencils or crayons to draw a picture. You may use scissors to cut out a shape. You may cut out shapes from several pieces of paper and combine them onto another sheet. Or any combination of things. While you are certainly creating, some of those solutions require less creative thought than others. And because you have no limitation, there is a risk that, given so many choices, you may take the simplest path. Now what if I tell you to create something using a piece of paper and nothing else? It may take considerably more thought. Anyone who has ever tried origami knows that folding a piece of paper to look like a swan is somewhat more difficult (or a least less apparently possible) than drawing a swan. Thus, the restriction requires the artist to think harder about the possibilities.

Let’s look at horror movies for a second. It used to be that special effects were so pitifully horrible that actually showing a ghost or monster or whatever was just as likely to produce laughter as screams (see many, many 50’s B-movies). It was more effective to visually obscure the source of horror at least partially if not entirely. Throw a few strange sounds on the soundtrack, glimpse something in the shadows, and let the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. As we became more capable of rendering truly frightening images, they were more likely to be shown. In an effort to display their own imaginations, directors and special effects crews have taken away the most frightening element of all – the unknown.

Verbal taboos can also be dealt with in creative waves. It’s sometimes interesting to hear how different radio stations will handle songs with certain words in them. Some words won’t be censored at all on one radio station but will be censored on others. Other words are edited out no matter the target audience, but they may use different editing techniques to cut them out. You may get silence over part of the word, silence over all of the word, or any number of sound effects that cover up the word yet still signal “something naughty was here”. On broadcast and basic cable television, different shows deal with their restricted vocabulary in different ways. Farscape and Battlestar Galactica both have invented F-words (and BG’s “frak” is the only linguistic holdover from the original, which invented a whole slew of curse words). On many shows, characters will often get cut off by a scene change or some distraction when they start to utter a forbidden word. Still other shows will use mild words and phrases in place of harsher ones. Spongebob says various sea and seafood-related words (Tartar sauce! Barnacles!) when frustrated.

Supply and time restrictions can also force you to be creative. This applies even to non-artistic creativity. If you’ve never seen Junkyard Wars on TLC, it’s a reality-type show where two teams are asked to build something given a junkyard full of stuff (almost certainly pepper purposefully with potentially useful objects) and a limited amount of time in which to plan, find parts, and build. MacGyver would always come up with creative solutions given few tools and often little time. Films with smaller budgets for stunts and special effects are forced to focus on (gasp!) characterization and plot.

It’s not that it is not possible to have good characterization in a movie with action sequences or to use swear words in new and creative ways or to create nightmare inducing images without resorting to smoke and shadows or to make a truly original and entertaining movie with a $300 million price tag. But restrictions force you to make a choice. They force you to ask yourself, “Is this really necessary, or can I do this in a different way?” When the possibilities are endless, you spend your time flailing to find something to cling to. It’s much more interesting when, given few options, you are fighting to stretch the limits of a box.

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