Saturday, February 10, 2007

Constraints on Production: Tools or Essentials?

A creative and charismatic friend of mine is fond of saying, "Poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down." (which was probably lifted from Robert Frost). That's another way of saying that art without constraints is not art. As Google VP Marissa Mayer put it in a podcast (iTunes link), "Creativity loves constraint."

I tend to rebel against my friend's formulation of this philosophy. I'm not absolutely sure why, but I know there's something about putting a constraint on the definition of art or creativity or innovation that pains me. With art, I'm inclined to agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe there is some objective definition of art that I can get behind, but I haven't yet encountered it. I think of constraints more as tools to be used or discarded as necessary, more than as defining characteristics of the pursuit. I think Marissa is on the right track here.

Do you require or benefit from rhyme, or a rectangular frame, or 72 dpi web safe colors, or an 8MB memory footprint limit, or a 2 week deadline? Then use it. If not, toss it out.

Improvisational comedy is an arena in which constraints (often in the form of offers or audience input) can provide a catalyst for great results. Imagine the difference between being commanded, "Improvise!" and being asked, over imaginary beers, in a sly manner, "Dude, is she looking at me?".

f(“onomatopoeia”, “vestibule”, “succotash”) = ...

With that boring introduction, I now offer this short interview, thanks to constraints provided by Cute Kate:

"Keblang! Kerpow! It's amazing how long it takes to ink an onomatopoeia that lasts a single panel. So slow to create, yet it goes by so fast." Clive Jenkins is a comic genius, and yet we know so little about him. Jenkins got his start tagging old rail cars at the train depot during a stint as a hobo, but he got tired of all the convoluted arrows and fonts that noone could read. Well, that and seeing his masterpieces rolled over in flat gray once a month by some transit authority wash-out.

As we walk through the comic-adorned vestibule of his studio-cum-tudor flat, I can't help feeling a little giddy, what with being the first journalist allowed an interview in over 10 years (and no, I won't share my secret bribes!). After all, finding out how Jenkins crafts such gemological characters as 'Mr Snoffles' is one of the great unanswered questions in the field. Today I aim to find out.

"Inking is actually my favorite part," Clive says with a tug of his pipe. "I've got the sketch lines already there, and I have to commit to the work; it's crossing a threshold, if you will. You're reaching for that golden ring, and there's no return." With his left hand in the air holding an imaginary stylus, he motions through sketching, then inking, a magnified panel of 'Cleevus the Agonifier' slamming hoof-first into a protruding roofing nail as he talks.

Eager to get to the goods but hoping to time my question perfectly, I wait until I've suffered through two bowls of his succotash, a horrid dish he became fond of during his train-hopping days.

"So, from whence comes inspiration?", I ask, just as he lights up his after-dinner tobacco.

"Oh, mostly from dreams," he responds not a second later. Something's fishy. I push. "Dreams, eh?"

"Yeah, you know that Van Halen song?" Egad! Deflected! Well, maybe the world will never know his secret.

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