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It's like a brainstorm: storm with lightning

How To Brainstorm Your Next Animated Video

Why brainstorm? There is a weird and wonderful alchemy that happens when creative people bounce ideas off each other. You might have spent an hour staring at a blank piece of paper, trying to think of something that will work, to no avail. Then you enter a meeting room, hear someone else’s half-hearted notion, and in it you see some potential – so maybe you add a wheel or two to the chassis. Then someone else picks up your contribution, and decides they’re going to put a motor on it. Pretty soon, everyone in the meeting realizes there is a very good idea roaring down the road.

It’s a joyous experience. But to get there, it’s useful to follow some guidelines.

Define The Process

Meetings will have more focus if participants know what output is expected from them. There’s two places in the video-making process where brainstorming usually pays dividends.

The first is the conceptual stage. What is the story of the video? What is the style or technique? Is there a dominant metaphor? What you’re usually looking for from this kind of meeting is 3 or 4 ideas that can be considered by the client or Creative Director.

The other point when brainstorming can be useful is when images are being married to words. Usually, the writer will come to this sort of meeting with a narration, title blocks, or dialog. Out of the huddle two outputs will emerge: the writer will create an A/V script, with a visual description to complement her words. And the art director will come out of it with some thumbnails – very rough drawings of what each image in the video will look like. 

Invite The Right Mix Of People

In the 60s, Bill Bernbach from Doyle Dane Bernbach revolutionized advertising practice by combining copywriters with art directors into creative teams. Ever since, teaming wordsmiths with designers has been something of a best practice.

There is a third skill, however, that should be present in the brainstorm meeting. That’s the skill of telling a story with serial images, which is different than just creating beautiful still images. There is a whole grammar of visual storytelling that has been refined through a century of films, television shows, comic books, and advertisements. Maybe it’s the art director that has this skill, or maybe the copywriter has a latent filmmaker inside her, or maybe it’s a third person, but it’s really useful to have someone that’s cinematically literate in the room.

There is also the question of how many people to invite, and the common mistake here is to invite too many. Everyone in the room should be a contributor – if they’re not, they will just inhibit the productive participants. Usually the right number in the meeting for a business video is two or three people, but some asks might require more. Writers’ rooms for television comedies often have eight contributors or more.

Get Everyone Prepared

If you have created a creative brief, it’s good to send it out to participants at least a day before the meeting. Often, creative people are solving problems in their sub-conscious even while they go about doing other things, so it’s good to give your people a chance to tee up the problem in their heads before they really take a swing at it. If the period between reading the brief and making the meeting includes an interval of sleep, that is ideal – sleep is a great incubator of solutions.

Another task you may take on yourself or assign to others is finding inspiration for your project. Looking at other artists’ solutions to similar problems can sometimes raise the bar for the meeting and inspire new approaches. Ask for links to videos that the team likes; seeing them is a good way to set the tone for the meeting.

Forsake Idea Ownership

Ego is sometimes a fuel of top-flight creativity. When it starts getting in the way is when meeting participants become too infatuated with their own notions to really listen and appreciate the ideas of others. With good and experienced people, this is rarely a problem, but people unused to the process will sometimes come in tight.

A dead giveaway that this is happening is when participants start claiming part of the output as their contribution. When this occurs, you will be forgiven for suspecting that these players are looking at their personal stats rather than the team scoreboard. If they had given up ownership, then the authorship of each idea would seem like a blur – the meeting’s ideas would have been created by everyone at the meeting (and this is often close to the truth.)

It might help to set non-ownership as an ideal beforehand, but realistically, you’re not going to change anyone’s psychology overnight.

 Start With Yes 

In his autobiography Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones – the genius director behind many of the greatest Looney Tunes – talks about the unusual brainstorming sessions that he and his team would have.

This was not a brainstorming session in the usual sense, it was a “yes” session, not an “anything goes” session. Anything went, but only if it was positive, supportive, and affimative to the premise. No negatives were allowed. If you could not contribute, you kept quiet. For want of a better term, I have always called it… THE “YES” SESSION… The “yes” session imposes only one discipline: the abolition of the word “no.”

The principle is simple here. The imagination wants to run free, not be hemmed in by judgements and objections. By literally outlawing objections, Jones was able to solicit and receive the greatest number of contributions.

Now once you have these ideas, you will need to edit them. But it’s usually worthwhile to separate the two functions:

  • First you have a YES session. No idea is too stupid or outlandish to be written on the board.
  • Then you look at the ideas and pick out the ones you want to pursue.

This will often be far more productive than coming up with ideas and editing them as you go along.

Communicate in Multiple Modes

During the meeting participants will need to communicate with each other. Use the whole panoply of human expression! If you don’t draw well (as I don’t) then draw anyway. Do impressions of your characters. Talk, sing… make sound effects. The point of this meeting is to share visions, so loosen up and share.

Also, it’s a good idea to keep a laptop nearby; google image search is a godsend in these meetings.

Avoid Exerting Authority

We’ve talked about creativity hating judgements; it also hates authority. It is best not to have a boss in a brainstorming.

How is that possible? Somebody has to make the decision as to what’s going in the video, don’t they? Well, not necessarily. Among small groups of creators, it is possible to operate on a consensus basis. Just don’t move forward until everyone is happy with the solution. If you have two people in the meeting, a consensus mechanism is fairly easy. With three people, it’s still possible but a bit more challenging. With more than that, consensus starts becoming problematic.

So if you need a decision-maker, be clear about designating who that is. If that person is you, be aware that the people in the room are likely going to be the ones that execute the idea. They will be much more likely to execute well if they have already bought in. Governing by diktat usually does not provide effective creative leadership.

Embrace Challenges And Restrictions

We’ve talked now about how creativity hates the restrictions of hierarchy and judgement, but ironically, it will often respond well to formal restrictions. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, and they all have the same rhyme pattern, they all scan in iambic pentameter, and they all have an 8-line exposition and a 6-line resolution, with a twist in the last couplet. I have to imagine that Shakespeare did not feel oppressed by this form; he felt liberated by it!

When you are brainstorming, try to do things that are hard to do: the sustained metaphors, the elaborate jokes, the double meanings. Embracing formal restrictions is more fun, and in a strange way, somehow easier. Infinite possibilities are narrowed, so you are able to identify the right choices quicker.

Have Fun

If this process feels like play, then you are probably doing it right.

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