Can you define creative? . . . in three words? I can. And so can any of the nearly nine hundred people that came to bask in the magic of yet another awe-inspiring weekend in September. The three words? Portland Creative Conference!
Admittedly, my last two reports (1999 and 1998) covering this annual celebration ranged anywhere from unabashed exuberance to downright reverence. I can’t help myself. At the risk of sounding terminally hyperbolic, I’m back to do it again and I swear I am not making this up!
September 14 – 16 marked the 11th year for the Portland Creative Conference and Ground Zero was once again the opulent Portland Center for the Performing Arts. In this latest three-day excursion into the heart of creativity, the richly talented, the risk-takers, the ones who live way out on the brilliant edge of entertainment, film, TV, digital media, advertising, radio, and performance art, all came together under the same roof. They came to dazzle, to amuse, and to amaze, but they especially came to share their secret insights into the creative process and convinced us that anything is possible.
Let’s cut to the outtakes.
You know that old adage, “to be a good writer, write about what you know”? Well, Mike Rich, long-time radio guy with the KINK-FM morning show in eastern Oregon told us to forget that one. Mike knew he had a screenplay inside that was trying to escape. It would be his first. In spite of a hectic work schedule, he found time to transfer it from his heart to his vintage Apple.
The story, entitled “Finding Forrester,” is about a teenage boy growing up in the Bronx (like Mike knew anything about growing up in the Bronx!) The boy dreams of becoming a writer and finds a reclusive mentor via the Internet.
Mike submitted the script to a competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Forty-five hundred other hopeful screenplay writers did the same. But guess who won! And a week later Columbia Studios paid him six figures for screenrights. But wait, there’s more.
Sean Connery plays the leading role and the film is scheduled for release this December. Mike wanted to show us some clips but Columbia said, “No way.” Oh yeah? The director on the film is Portland’s own Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) who also happens to be on the board of directors for the Portland Creative Conference. Long story short, we got to see the clips. Looks like Connery picked a winner!
Will Vinton of Claymation fame, Executive Producer of Eddie Murphy’s “The PJs,” and chairman and co-founder of the conference spoke eloquently about creativity as something we can not afford to live without. He dubbed it the one skill that will never become obsolete and gave us a recipe for expanding our own creativity I.Q. Then he treated us to several “unfiltered” short animations from the Will Vinton Studios’ team of animators—a kind of R&D in creativity which they use to inspire one another, exchange points of view and look for kernels of ideas to run with.
Award-winning film editor, Paul Barnes gave us a sneak preview of Ken Burns’s next PBS series, “Jazz” scheduled to air early next year. Paul and his finely honed editing skills were all over that thing! It is affectionate and nostalgic storytelling at its best. Expect rave reviews from long-time jazz aficionados and probably from a raft of converts as well.
Ever wonder how Joe Rohde, Executive Designer and VP/Creative at Disney Imagineering convinced top execs to buy into the idea of using live animals to create Disney’s 600-acre Animal Kingdom theme park where cartoon fantasy and imagination had typically reigned supreme? It went like this. At the appointed moment during his presentation to Michael Eisner, et al., the executive conference room doors swung open and amidst gasps and paled faces, a regal Bengal tiger entered, did a little grooming thing and then exited in style. Any doubts about whether that stirred the imagination?
During the break after Rohde’s presentation, the lights dimmed and Claire Dune of Imagine Institute led the audience through a guided visualization in search of our creative centers against a background soundtrack of monks chanting OM. Nobody missed a beat. Could anybody make this stuff up?
You never know when creativity will strike, as evidenced by five sisters raised in a small rural town of Oregon. With life paths that have spread them cross two continents, how do they stay in touch? Answer: National Public Radio. The high-spirited Dolan sisters, creators of their own acclaimed weekly “Satellite Sisters” show, play catch-up over the airwaves and the rest of us listen. In a lively panel discussion they talked about the evolution of their idea, how they are building audience, and the importance of interaction.
And then there is George Meyer, an executive producer and writer for “The Simpsons,” past president of the Harvard Lampoon, and former writer for the old “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.” Alas, neither Letterman nor SNL could offer enough creative freedom to a guy who possesses what can only be characterized as “the most insanely bizarre sense of humor on the planet.” So he left.
George took us on a strange and comic journey through his life and shared some of his prize trophies: the censor messages from the Fox Department of Broadcast Standards. “Please remove Bart’s reference to spanking the monkey” and “Otto can not slam SNL with his statement, ‘there is not enough weed in the world to make that show funny’.” And much more that I can not possibly repeat here.
That 70’s Show” script writer Linda Wallem delivered her unscripted presentation like a stand-up comedian and showed us a preview of one of next season’s shows. She shared behind the scenes stories about how they pull off some of their controversial subject matter with humor and how, even though you never actually see any smoke in that downstairs rec room, the camera panning the faces is your clue—as if you needed one. We all came away with a final copy of a script from one of the episodes.
Second Story, an interactive media design company founded by Julie Beeler and Brad Johnson, is elevating the art of storytelling through elegant Websites and kiosks. They partner with companies like Dreamworks, National Geographic, PBS, Kodak, Nike, and NASA and demonstrated nine of their top projects, including a Jimi Hendrix kiosk for the Experience Music Project of Seattle.
When advertising giant Wieden & Kennedy, was voted top agency in the world last year, Susan Hoffman, Executive Creative Director, decided it was because most other agencies are afraid to let people think. With clients like Nike, Miller Hi-Lite, and Alta Vista, her firm has learned to take risks. But that didn’t stop her from showing a few humorous examples that didn’t make the cut, including an aborted Nike spot with a pair of men’s jockey shorts hanging on a clothes line and bursting into flames. The screen faded into the words, “Nike Women.”
Michael Curry, a designer, and sculptural engineer from St. Helens, Oregon, visited New York and on a whim, stepped into a Greenwich Village parade wearing a huge homemade reptilian head with moving parts. It just so happened that someone having robotic stage prop problems with an upcoming Siegfried and Roy Production was also there. Michael was whisked off to the Manhattan studio to peek over the shoulders of the engineers. He intuitively pinpointed the solutions and walked away with a half a million dollar contract. A new career was born. Maybe you’ve seen some of his work . . the 1996 Olympics? . . Superbowl 2000 halftime? . . all the puppetry and masks in the Broadway hit show “Lion King”? You get the picture. Michael’s mission: to reach the mainstream with his imaginative ideas and raise the cultural awareness and appreciation for the arts.
The momentum throughout the three-day conference never slowed. There were evening film screenings including this year’s Oscar winner for best “Short Film Live Action,” a comedy entitled, “My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York” produced by Portland’s Tammy Stedman; Joe Nussman’s award winning parody, “George Lucas in Love”; and the Mayor’s Film Screening of “Girl Fight,” a film that took home the Best Direction and shared Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
We’ve all experienced a myriad of exciting conferences. This one is still far and away the most entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring. But there is something else that sets it apart. From the talented and committed professionals steering the event year after year, to the high profile visionaries who share their creative discoveries, to the people who come to take it all in, there is an electrifying sense of openness and camaraderie that weaves everything and everybody together into something uniquely special.
Will anyone ever articulate the exact meaning of creativity or will it forever remain that indefinable essence that lies behind everything we do? Come to Portland next year and maybe you’ll find out. See you there?
Reprinted with permission from Multimedia Reporter