Ugly Babies

Embracing the creative process.

I’m currently redrafting a sitcom pilot.

Whenever I feel like what I’m writing is a complete waste of time, I like to remind myself of this quote from Ed Catmull — the co-founder of Pixar — from his book Creativity, Inc:

I call early mock-ups of your films “ugly babies”. They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow.

The natural impulse is to compare the early reels of our films to finished films — by which I mean to hold the new to standards only the mature can meet. Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.

In other words: it’s stupid of me to expect my early drafts to be gold, when even a bunch of the best storytellers in the world have to go through a process of vomiting ideas and refining them before they turn into the films we know and love. My favourite example of this:

In the first version, there was a castle floating in the sky. In this castle lived a king and his two sons, who were each vying to inherit the kingdom. The sons were opposites — they couldn’t stand each other. One day, they both fell to earth. As they wandered around, trying to get back to their castle in the sky, they came across a tall bird who helped them understand each other.

Only two things survived from that original version: the tall bird and the title, Up.

Frozen went through a similar process too. In her interview on the Scriptnotes podcast, director Jennifer Lee described how, in the beginning, Elsa and Anna weren’t sisters. They weren’t even related. Which means one of the best, most original moments in the film — oh, they mean sibling love rather than romantic love! — wasn’t even possible in the first draft.

Even though I’ve known all of this for years — I first read Creativity, Inc when it came out in 2014 — it’s taken me a while to fully internalise it. I have a tendency to abandon projects as soon as they’re anything less than the wonderful ideal they were in my head — which is probably why I still don’t have a polished sitcom script after nearly ten years of trying.

But I’m going to keep that ugly baby this time.

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