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Stop Being Original and Start Being Innovative

Caleb Ward

Is completely original art even possible? In this post we take a look at some examples of films who borrowed ideas from others to create something wholly original.

Original ideas hold a lot of weight in our culture. As creatives we are pushed to create never before seen content. Government reinforces this with copyright protection. And while this protection is valuable in keeping your intellectual and artistic property protected, could it also contribute to the hindering of creative innovation?

In the following article we will examine if completely original artwork is even possible – and why the focus should be placed on creating innovative work. We’ll examine a few films who pull influence directly from other films and expanded on their techniques/ideas…in some cases making them even better.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

How We Learn

We learn by copying. From our infancy we learn to do basic life skills by mimicking those around us. For example, language isn’t something we just learn one day. We copy the sounds used by others because the words hold meaning to those hearing them. Without a common language we would all be speaking without mutual understanding thus making it impossible to transfer ideas or innovate in any way (i.e. Tower of Babel)

Language however is more than just the words we speak. As artists we speak to the world through recognized mediums (film, paint, instruments) and styles. Just as a baby learns to use certain words when they are hungry or tired, artists select certain mediums to convey ideas to the outside world through their work.

As we stated before, our society places a huge emphasis on being wholly creative, while at the same time rewarding artwork that resonates with that society. This harsh double standard impedes innovation by forcing many artists to focus more on creating original artwork than creating meaningful artwork.

Let’s take a look at the insanely popular Star Wars franchise…Star Wars was a combination of dozens of previous ideas and common story arcs but it has arguably changed American culture more than any film in the last 50 years. Why? Because George Lucas knew that the secret to success was innovation, not necessarily originality.

Lucas expertly combined well known film conventions (shots, character types, story structures, etc) in a unique way. The following video by Kirby Ferguson expertly articulates this point:

In Ferguson’s third video he talks about the three elements of creativity: Copying, Transforming, and Combining. Each element builds off each other and the end result is an innovative product or piece of art that is useful to society.

Innovation is the end goal, not simply copying. Innovation adds value while copying tries to steal value. Innovation takes the work and ideas developed by other fellow artists and combines them to create something with more value than the individual parts.

Examples of Innovation: Good

Filmmaker and video editor Ali Shirazi has created montage videos that compare Scrosese’s Gangs of New York and Kill Bill against the directing work of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. The similarities are uncanny.

Examples of Copying: Bad

The line between copying and innovating can be a blurry one so always ask yourself…is my idea adding value?

American Screenwriter and Playwright Willson Mizner said “Stealing from one is plagiarism, stealing form many is research.” In your quest to create meaning try utilizing the people and resources around you to build greater work than what could have been accomplished as alone. Copy, transform and combine elements and add in your own voice.

More Resources

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Everything is a Remix – Documentary Series