New York-based filmmaker John Morena challenged himself to a unique idea called Area52, which involved creating 52 experimental short animated films over the course of one year. One film each week. The challenge was born out of frustration of having created nothing he could call his own after having worked 17 years in animation and filmmaking. Each week, he wouldn’t necessarily know what the subsequent film was going to be. Sometimes, he’d be completely out of ideas. What is it then that kept him going? Where did he seek inspiration (or probably not) each time? Today, for Flickside, John Morena writes about what drove him and the limitations that shouldn’t come to define us or our creations.
By John Morena
I think as much as people claim that they want to see new and fresh material, they still find some sort of comfort in the same old thing.
It’s why big studios here in the U.S. keep cranking out repackages and rehashes of successful films/TV shows from 35 years ago. It’s why Stranger Things is so popular. It is why Star Wars will never go away. And by the looks of things, neither will Jumanji.
They’re giving us nothing but nostalgia and it’s really boring.
But it’s completely shaping what gets green-lit, what people think they should consume and what filmmakers think they should be making.
Because of this, movies don’t inspire me anymore.
They haven’t for quite a while.
So when I set out to make 52 animated short films of my own in 2017, I really wanted to make films that were unfamiliar and surprising to me and to the viewer. For a while there, I had a rule to make films about humanity without showing any humans.
That’s always tough because we’re so used to seeing nothing but pictures of people talking to each other in TV and film.
But such limitations led to me making films like this one I made with an old TV/VCR combo:
It’s important to resist the temptation to watch other films when searching for inspiration for your work because you’ll always end up in a familiar place.
For example, if you want to make a mob film, don’t turn to Goodfellas or The Godfather for inspiration.
We’ve been there already! I can’t even begin to tell you how many half-baked mafia films I’ve seen that rely on tired tropes. If I see one more mafia film with that low angle shot of an angry Italian guy stomping on someone’s head like Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas, I’m gonna stomp out my TV the same way.
We get it. You saw Goodfellas. *slow claps*
The horror genre has fallen victim to the same thing. This business of including callbacks and homage to older classics does a disservice to the art form. (Yes, horror is an art form). All it does is show other horror fans that you’re a horror fan too. So if you’re going to make a horror film, don’t turn to Friday the 13th or The Devil’s Rejects or Rosemary’s Baby when you’re looking for inspiration.
This all sounds ridiculous and counterintuitive, I know.
But if you’re interested in creating a unique voice for yourself — and really making new and fresh work – – you’ve got to stop studying the films that show up on every top ten list there is. Sure, watch them, love them, know your history. But don’t let them obscure your vision.
You deserve better, and the world deserves better, than your rehashed version of something else.
In order to make 52 films in a year, I needed to stay home in front of my computer a lot, so I couldn’t cannibalize the world for inspiration as much as I feel is required.
Thankfully, I live in New York City so it’s fairly easy for me to refill my mojo tank.
When I felt I needed to be inspired, I’d jump on the train, with no particular destination, and just completely change my perspective for a few hours. I’d observe other people. I would take train lines I never or rarely took. I’d get off at stations in neighborhoods that I never would otherwise, just to walk down streets that were new to me.
Not only did this cleanse my palette, but I also turned those experiences into films that had a fresh perspective on a place I know so well:
Utilizing this fresh perspective, I learned that I actually had a lot of things to say about a wide swath of topics. Things like:
Religion can be motivation for murder:
Certain cable news networks are like smutty tabloids:
I found a new respect for the exceptional form and strength of world-class ballet dancers by making this motion study:
I learned that I like making animated “portraits”, like this one about anxiety:
Creating fresh work requires an innocence and naiveté. It requires that you are uncomfortable. It requires big risks. I found that changing your perspective in everyday life really helps a lot with this mindset.
Most of us cannot get on a plane whenever we want a change of scenery so little things are the best and easiest to change.
For instance, try sleeping on the opposite side of the bed. Try traveling to and from work using a different route. Or listen to music that you wouldn’t normally listen to. Or eat with your opposite hand. Get uncomfortable. Get your senses off autopilot.
Once you’re really aware of new ways of doing things, the world becomes fresh again. And that does translate into your work.
Are you asking yourself, “Who does this guy think he is telling me not to watch The Godfather and be inspired?”
Fine. Don’t just take it from me. Here are some quotes to illustrate my point:
“If I were doing work related to a living being or historical being where there was visual or audio recordings available, I would find that extremely difficult because I don’t know how you would avoid the process of mimicry. And mimicry, to me at any rate, is a very dull prospect.” – Daniel Day Lewis
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London, Author, Call of the Wild and White Fang.
“If you want a teacher, try a waterfall, or a mushroom, or a mountain wilderness, or a storm-pounded seashore. This is where the action is. It’s not back in the hive.” – Terence McKenna, Author, Food of the Gods
Also, this video made by a motion graphics creative studio called Belief is required viewing whenever you need great insights about making fresh work and reaching deeper for better ideas: