Keep replenishing your source: Namita and Subir at The Block

By , agencyfaqs! | In
Last updated : May 17, 2004
Ad filmmakers Namita Roy Ghose and Subir Chatterjee spoke on how creative ideas occur and how creatives can create opportunities for ideas to happen

One of the most interesting and surprising aspects of the fifth session of The Block - the AAAI's 10-stage creative workshop - that was held in Mumbai on May 14 was the near absence of the screening of television commercials in the course of the three-and-a-half hour session on creative advertising. Now this would easily have escaped notice under a different set of circumstances, but considering the session was being addressed by noted ad filmmakers Namita Roy Ghose and Subir Chatterjee (of White Light Moving Pictures), one would have expected the session to brim over with ad films.

Instead, right through the absorbing (and at times philosophical) session, Namita and Subir screened just four or five commercials - for just two brands, John Smith's beer ('No nonsense') and Volkswagen - that too only to demonstrate a point or two they were making. The duo, on the other hand, chose to focus on things like how creative ideas occur and how creatives can create opportunities for ideas to happen. They also touched upon the structure of good storytelling and narrative, and stressed the importance of "refilling the ideas repository".

Speaking about the importance of a having a good story to tell, Namita explained that the common thread that runs through every award-winning television commercial is a great story. "No amount of technique or gloss can make up for the absence of a story. Despite the lack of finesse, the first Star Wars trilogy worked because it consisted of classic universal stories," she pointed out. (Subir later added that had the second trilogy - the prequel to the original - come first, Star Wars would never have been as successful at the box office.) Namita also said that every story needs the 'Oh, f*** factor' which surprises and involves the viewer at every step. "You have to strike an alliance with the reader or viewer," Subir later elaborated. "There has to be a reward for the reader, a discovery that gives him something to take away."

Namita pointed out that creative people have the privilege of "playing God" with what they create. "Write stories, play games… and ask 'What if…?'," she urged. In an obvious reference to Steven Spielberg's E.T., she added, "Ask what if an alien were to come to earth and meet a child? You can play God, so do it."

The ex-creative director of HTA is also of the opinion that it is the unique experiences embedded in each of our lives that form the raw material for stories and ideas. "While what actually sparks an idea is something that you have to try and figure out for yourself, you have to understand how creativity happens. Use your remembered and unremembered past to discover and tell stories," she said. "The experiences are like a repository or sources that lie at the bottom of a well, so learn to draw from it." Namita, however, warned that the source needs to be replenished continuously. "The trick is to keep topping it up, else the well will run dry. If you are mining the source, you have to keep putting things back, so be continuously hungry for fresh experiences."

To this end, Namita egged creatives to constantly look for surprises in life. "For most of us in advertising, the creative thinking starts with a provocative brief," she said. "However, anything can provoke creativity, be it a brief or a picture. So the first step is to allow yourself to be provoked. You have to be open and receptive to all your senses. You have to be thin-skinned. You will have to look at people and enter their lives. You will have to allow yourself that intimacy. You will have to observe, and get under the skin of words and images and learn the weight and meaning of images. See all this and put it all back into your life, so that you are able to use it." Namita also believes that the basic purpose of the creative act is to nurture the self. "In the final analysis, does what you create nurture you? That is the true test of creativity," she said, adding, "Grow as a human being and you will not be depleted."

Subir spoke in greater detail about the form and structure film, but not before reinforcing Namita's argument about refilling the idea source. "Film is not about 35mm, not about frames, not about smoke… film is about life," he emphasized. "You've got to keep going back to that source, so keep replenishing it or it will atrophy. And what you put into the source will help you in your next creative interpretation."

Listing a set of the must-dos and definitely-don'ts, Subir said that it was important for creatives who wrote scripts for ad films to know the language and idiom of film. "Get to the basics of the craft, even if you don't plan to ever make films," he appealed. He also pointed out that the master knows the rules, then breaks them. "When you break rules without knowing the rules, you get anarchy on television," he warned.

Commenting on the much-used and much-maligned device of montage, Subir pointed out that montage has great effect when used relevantly. Using a battle scene from celebrated Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Subir elucidated how montages could aid compelling narrative. "Montage is one of the most powerful tools when used correctly, but when used badly, it is terrible," he conceded. Subir also borrowed from renowned linguist Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories and William Shakespeare to demonstrate the structure of good storytelling. "The shorter your films are, the stronger and more potent is the deeper structure," he said, using Shakespearean verse to make his point. "And you arrive at deeper structures through deletion, ambiguity, inversion of syntax, syntactical manipulation and the genius of the poet," he explained. Namita quickly pointed out that 'deletion' does not imply a "throwing out of things but their compression".

Subir also dwelt briefly on the topic of insights, currently in vogue in most ad agencies. Calling a bluff on agencies, he said, "Insights like 'people read papers in the morning' are bull. Is 'men are fond of their cars' truly an insight? No." Citing the Volkswagen campaign, he said, "The fact that men are ready to behave like kids when it comes to cars is an insight. The insight that men buy shoes with their hands and not their feet is an insight." He also pointed out that the famed balcony in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was the insight into the play. "The balcony is the obstacle in Romeo and Juliet, as it creates conflict and desire." He also verbalized his belief that the industry needs to develop an ear for dialogue writing. "The written word is not the same as the spoken word," he explained.

In conclusion, Subir listed some pointers for creative folk in agencies. These included nuggets such as: Good ideas are hidden in scripts, briefs and VOs. There is always another way of doing things. It is possible to write a 10-second film. Be careful with freewheeling suggestions from someone who hasn't seen the whole work. If you can't see the film, you can't sell it. Don't order (or create) if you can't pay for it - it is possible to write a cheap ad. Write drunk, revise sober. © 2004 agencyfaqs!

First Published : May 17, 2004
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© 2004 agencyfaqs!