Crawling Into the Skin of Innovation - Comments From a DreamWorks Animation Innovator
(Early summer, I became interested in investigating how innovation in film might translate for game developers. Is innovation a solid stand-alone topic that is translatable whatever the industry? Or, does it mean something different for each industry…more technology driven for some and more artistically driven for others? I took my questions to the one place I knew had a heart for innovation…a company so known for it that you rarely hear the word innovation without the company mentioned in the same sentence. After working all summer swapping questions and answers with a particularly knowledgeable source, I completed an article that is scheduled to be published in the winter edition of Casual Connect magazine. What follows are excerpts from the multi-page, unedited article. Enough info here for a bit of reflective thought and perhaps a larger bit of inspiration. My thanks to Jonathan Leaders for sharing his time and wisdom. To view back issues, visit Casual Connect.
CRAWLING INTO THE SKIN OF INNOVATION…COMMENTS FROM A DREAMWORKS ANIMATION INNOVATOR
Jonathan Leaders is a Technical Director at a company that embraces innovation so completely that you rarely find a description of the company without the word “innovation” in the same sentence. DreamWorks Animation wears the “skin” of innovation - every cell infused with the nutrients that support healthy creativity. If the company, itself, is the skin, then the web of interconnected talent of Leaders and his colleagues surely makes up the “muscle.” What Leaders does everyday plows the path for creatives at the company to make mind-blowing magic. Attaching logic to design and resources to human need, he builds the right tools to enhance the ability of artists to manage their creation and bring to life the most memorable scenes on the planet.
Leaders became an innovator at the early age of nine, when he decided to build a game that allowed him to play against his sister. He continued making games and began selling them in high school at age fourteen. Leaders later became a student at Guildhall at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which has a strong video game software development graduate-level course. He worked three years and had three shipped titles on four platforms in the games industry before transitioning his talents into film. “I simply applied for a job opening using the World Wide Web,” says Leaders. “From a technical and artistic perspective, animated 3d films require a lot of the same skill-sets as what I was using in games. The difference is largely that of workflow, pipeline, and scale.”
At DreamWorks Animation, Leaders found the environment for innovation that rarely exists in major corporations. With a culture that’s over-the-top with creative outlets and rewards, DreamWorks Animation has managed to provide a scenario whereby every single employee becomes an “artist.” And, the results are, of course, phenomenal.
“Every one of our films showcases world-class technology and artistry,” says Leaders. “Stereoscopic 3d has become a signature for our films,” he continues, “and we're one of the few companies that continuously gets glowing reviews for our stereoscopy. If I'm not mistaken, Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation CEO, shared in a 2011 company update that over 70% of critical Kung Fu Panda 2 reviews highlighted the stereoscopic 3D as a great part of the experience. This is contrasting with some other companies who throw in stereoscopy as an afterthought or gimmick, often to negative remarks by the audience of reviewers.”
When innovation is not something you do, but something you are, work and play flow seamlessly together making room for enhanced creativity. It’s at that place where the priority given to creativity and the requirement for attention to detail intersect between company and artist and artist and task that greatness happens. It’s a matter of quality…and DreamWorks Animation values quality in everything. Says Leaders, “move to a new desk? Get $200 to decorate it. Flowers stop blooming on campus? Swap them out for new ones. Koi fish, art, and fountains are everywhere on campus. From robotic desks, so we can stand, to free espresso, lunch, breakfast, and nice parties celebrating milestones; the support is amazing. Even companies that do really well financially don't necessarily value the same culture of quality. And because of it, workers don't always feel they should do their very best, because they cannot justify the extra work to polish what they are doing. Instead, they move on to the next task, and nothing comes to its fullest potential.”
“By way of an example,” says Leaders, “I once finished a simple tool in a way I felt was very efficient, useful, and effective. But, it was sent back to me as 'unfinished,’ because it wasn't as nicely colored as it could have been. Thus, began my understanding of what it is to value quality. The visual renovation of that tool became a standard for more than ten other tools. There is a direct correlation between quality and innovation.”
“Innovation is at its heart, risk. Though risk is something that causes us hesitation, and fear, (and instinctively rightfully so) sometimes that fear and hesitation becomes paralyzing. The main reason people put their dreams on the shelf is because they are afraid. But, the fear is incorrectly amplified, because we are afraid to fail. We become freer to pursue our dreams when we embrace failure.
“At DreamWorks Animation, technology project lead, PJ McNerney, shares some wisdom about innovating on a personal level: ‘Innovation comes from taking risks and going big…having the courage to start and the stamina to push through. It is fueled by early successes, but missing the mark once, twice, or even 1,000 times, doesn't mean you've failed. Part of the process means embracing failure while refusing to accept it as an end. If you want to innovate, you need guts, lofty goals, and thick skin. The road is hard, but the rewards are worth it.”
An example of a game developer that, in Leaders’ opinion, has the innovative “guts” is thatgamecompany http://www.thatgamecompany.com developers of the award-winning Playstation Network title, flOw (2006). Flower for PS3 was announced at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, and is what Leaders upholds as an impressively beautiful and imaginative game. The game is a visual confluence of chaos flowing into serenity, mimicking real life. Your experience is driven by your ability to “fly” and collect petals determining air currents and wind with your controller.
The team at thatgamecompany has mastered innovation by providing us an almost out-of-body-like adventure, while keeping it relative to our human experience. They pulled the future to them. Co-founder of thatgamecompany, Jenova Chen, abides by a simple philosophy: “Doing things that you think people need but are missing always leads to innovation. Doing things that are popular and making money doesn't."
Leaders’ final prediction on innovation in games…“I can imagine interactive films, and I can imagine games with epic stories. The technology for the crossover I would argue to be the simplest part of the equation, however the design of the experience is the greatest complexity. Technology is and always has been fundamentally driven by business, and how strong the incentive for the crossover is of question. The naive eye sees a new year of excelled game graphics, and says "Wow! Games are becoming like films!" The reality is that games are starting to look more like films, but their experience is no more convergent. There is a trivial element of increased believability and greater available emotional artistry, but we all still cried when the pixelated low-poly Aerith died in Final Fantasy 7. Insofar as mere plain text has carried all of humanity's epics, lore, and tales of old, visual elements remain but tools in a master storyteller’s hand. It is hard to eat popcorn and hold a controller at the same time for more than one reason.”
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