Originality is overrated

Antony Christov, acclaimed art director and production designer at Pixar Studios, on the art, the craft and the human side of working and teaching creativity

Mr. Christov, what keeps you busy these days?

Way too many things, mostly working as Art Director for The Incredibles 2.

But the reason I’m in Europe is that we have started a project called Idea Academy, art school based in Rome. It’s a collaborative thing between me and two other partners.

How did that happen?

They were inviting some famous people from the industry to do masterclasses and one day they got to invite me. We really liked each other - and the idea itself. And so it’s been one and a half year already, and the good news is that we are doing great! We recently moved in to a marvellous building in the center of Rome, which we wouldn't dare to image one year ago. We didn't have any funding, we went pay as you go, grow as you go. And then it happened: now we have 2-years/4 semester courses which enables me to be in Europe every 2 months.

What do you teach your students? Can you teach creative thinking?223311

In order from left to right, we are:

Terence Abbott - south african
Martina Campoli - italian
Alexia Joulianos - italian / french
Tallulah Potdevin - french
Massimiliano Vari - italian
João Moura - portuguese (behind the camera)

I teach my students how to get a job. It’s been 10 years already that I have been teaching at the Academy in San Francisco and I also have my kids in college. The worse thing to happen is when some less competent teacher is wasting your time. Don't think this isn't happening in the US. It happens everywhere where people who haven't been working in the industry for the last 20 years or more are teaching. 

There are two major things I want my students to learn: how to keep themselves constantly inspired and how to think differently.

My definition of art is creative problem solving. Everything you face in life is a problem you have to solve. You can either approach it the traditional way or the creative way. The very act of this problem solving process is art.

In our school we emphasise on the emotional charge and the problem solving process, but also on how to find a job. One has to be very clear with themselves, knowing exactly what they want to do, because the higher the budget, the more divided it is. You have to be aware about all those types of work and job descriptions out there - either it’s set designer, shading artist, character designer or the subdivisions, you have to know very clearly what is it about. You need to be sure what is the thing you want to do the most and what is required. And most importantly, you have to listen to what’s dearest to your heart, find where you feel natural attraction. This is where you would find yourself most natural in your work.

Evеry workplace where in you deal with people is full of vanity and ego. But when it comes to creative industry, we are talking vanity and ego on steroids.

The human part of our job is that we need to learn how to navigate through it and how to balance. At the end of the day, its all about the project. The loyalty we all share is for the end result, after all. So the balance in a creative team is of major importance and becomes art itself: how to not hurt your colleges, how to stay open, be helpful and remain constructive at a time.

Whenever we meet to discuss someone’s work with the team, we involve everybody and we try to find a way to be helpful for the artist to improve their work, and not to criticise. This is art by itself also.

We learn the craft, the art and the human side of it, the balance and the relationships in the creative team. This is basically the essence of what I have learned for the last 31 years.

(Sights) Wow, 31 years? I can’t believe it’s been so long.

I was born like 31 ago.

Let’s move on… (laughs)

Deadlines. Do they spoil or rather stimulate the creative process?

This completely depends on the person. When I’m conducting job interviews, I got my little tricks. Like when we discuss candidate’s portfolio, I usually criticise and observe their reaction. I am very interested to see how people behave under pressure when they’re stressed. Some people just cant say a word, others start a discussion and try to prove themselves right. I want to work with people who are willing to learn and evolve, to improve, to listen. People who would ask me “How can I make this better?”, who a willing to take your advice. These are the problem-solvers who would care more about how to improve rather if they would get the job or not.

To me, deadlines are good, since art is a problem solving process and having a clear deadline increases your efficiency and solving capacity. Otherwise we artists would just play with a project until we get bored. So another pretty important thing I teach my students is planning - how to plan their work, how to put their own deadlines, how to budget. In our work we do man-hour budgeting: how many hours shall I need to complete a task. You can see how many sketches you need to deliver to complete the project, and based on that you calculate how long will it take. And you always track your time: ok, now I got 3 hours left, 1 hour left, etc., so that you always strive to do the job in time. I try to teach them this since day one, that they have to think in this time frame since the very beginning. Basically, this is what I do in my work as well.

Some people see deadlines as a stress factor. Not me. Deadlines isolate you from the “white noise”. Every creative task - whether a design or a story - is full of noise, of things insignificant and minor that should be removed.

Having a deadline is like having a gun pointed in your forehead - it makes you disregard all the noise and focus on what’s important.

Like this saying that perfect design is not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). Similarly, the best way to avoid having too many, unnecessary stuff in your design is to not have too much time. This is what deadline does - it gives you little time, so you would focus on what’s important. The lack of time has to be seen as a good thing, after all.

Why did you decide to make this school in Europe, and not in the USA?

(Shrugs) Probably because there is a greater need here. And because personally, I would love to come back to Europe one day. I absolutely love Italy, it’s a favourite place of mine.321

Which idea is original?

Originality is overrated. There is no new thing under the sun. Everything has been already created, it’s just transforming. The European music of the 17-th century all sounds the same and there is a term for that - classical music. Things that look alike naturally form schools, currents, genres and so. There is this normal process of imitation and assimilation and it was always there, as we are constantly influencing each other.

When we come up with something, we tent to call it original, but actually it is just something from us, being combined with something from somebody else that has been already there. I’m not a fan of originality. Take “Finding Nemo” - it’s something between “Bambi” and “101 dalmatians”, but under the sea. The thrilling thing about it is the way this story was seen differently, how it was told visually. This is what makes it a masterpiece, not originality.

Surely there are some concepts that are truly original - take UBER… But also not all of them are applicable everywhere, to all time, place and context. Just like there are some ideas that are applicable for film and not for short film, and so on.

Just because something is good, doesn't mean it’s good everywhere in the world.

How do you know that an idea isn't good?

We had a case with WALL-E. For a whole year we were following a line that was wrong: we had alien queen and king. We were working, doing storyboards and meetings and test screenings for about a year, since we finally figured out that this line is just not working. No one could ever know.

What I’m saying is that an idea needs time to grow and mature. I often face some ideas of mine that I had lets say 1 year ago, and back then I thought they were quite good. Now that I see them, I’m like, really?! Or quite the contrary, there are some ideas I’ve considered undoable and today I look at them and think Why not?

We need to stop overthinking everything.

Just let it go and do it. Like John Lasseter says “We don’t finish our films, we just release them”.