Constraining creativity and the lessons of Blackadder

Working in the field of commercial creativity, it can sometimes be very frustrating having to meet a client’s demands.  There’s often a huge temptation to think that if only you could be set free to express yourself truly as an artist, you’d produce amazing work.  The constraints of not enough time, not the right equipment, not enough or the right personnel, can feel like a huge weight pressing down upon you, preventing you from doing your best work.  There’s also a natural inclination amongst us arty creative types to feel that we should be unencumbered by the mundane aspects of the staid, commercial, real world, and that total freedom is inherently better.  On rare occasions, I’ve certainly found this to be the case, but on the whole, I find that the opposite is true:
Too much freedom is no good for creativity.
Ouch,  that’s not a nice thought for those struggling against all the demands of clients, budgets, art directors, and deadlines.
So where does Blackadder fit into this?  Well, personally I think it’s one of the best demonstrations of how much more creative it’s possible to be when you apply constraints rather than simply work away with no limits.
For the 2 people in the world out there who don’t know, Blackadder was a historical comedy broadcast on the BBC in the 1980’s, across 4 series, and 4 periods in history.  It starred Rowan Atkinson as the titular hero, and Tony Robinson as his side-kick Baldrick, with a regular supporting cast that included Tim McInnerny, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, and countless other guest stars.  It’s frequently rated as one of the best sitcoms of all time, and as you may guess, I’m a bit of a fan.


Now, all that aside, anyone who’s watched all 4 series will tell you the the first series is rather different from the other 3.  For one thing, the characters are very different – Blackadder is often a fool, with Baldrick being the voice of wisdom, and these roles were completely reversed in series 2-4.  It’s also produced on a totally different scale – with quite lavish locations, lots of exterior shots, and hordes of extras.  This meant it was quite expensive to produce, and since the ratings weren’t great, the BBC were not about to commission a second series.
Richard Curtis (writer) and John Lloyd (producer) pleaded with the powers that be at the Beeb, and managed to secure a 2nd season, but on the understanding that they cut costs way back.  To this end, they shot almost everything in the studio, used a very limited number of sets, and kept the cast of characters much smaller.  



These restrictions forced everyone involved to concentrate much more on the script, dialogue and characters, which in turn of course, created the legendary comic icons we all came to love so much.  The focus on sharp wit, and very rapid back and forth between the characters was a natural consequence of shooting within quite a confined set-up, almost like working in a theatre.



If you’re struggling to be more creative, an approach like this is something that’s worked very well for me.  Just place some sort of frame or restriction on what you intend to shoot, and then work away within those boundaries.  There are classic examples of going out on a photowalk and just snapping one particular object – say graffiti, or old signs; limiting yourself to just one lens, or just one light; or setting specific time limits to the period you work in.  Personally I’ve had to learn the hard way that sometimes having too many options and tonnes of equipment can actually be a limiting factor, rather than a spur to creativity, and that I may produce better work by narrowing down my range of options.


I won’t go so far as to say these suggestions count as a cunning plan, as I wouldn’t deign to include myself amongst such auspicious company.

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