South Park is one of television’s longest-running animated series in history. The other night a friend came over and we watched 6 Days to Air:The Making of South Park. The creative process of Trey Parker and Matt Stone is nothing short of inspirational: each episode is written, recorded, animated, and delivered in just six days.
That shit is cray.
Here is what I learned about their creative process:
Separate Creation and Execution
The documentary begins by showing the South Park writers’ meeting, where the staff bounces ideas back and forth. One key insight, which I think is really important for the creative process, is the need for a separation between the creation and execution of ideas.
For my own creative process, I’ve always separated the two.
Throughout my day, I’ll always be writing down ideas in Evernote or in my small Moleskine notebook.
When I sit down to write a blog post, I normally start by brainstorming, based on my notes, on a sheet of paper. Once I feel that I have the basic outline down, only then do I sit in front of a laptop and start editing what I want to write.
In his book, Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon also promotes this piece of advice, discussing how the computer is good for editing and publishing your ideas, but not for generating them because "there are too many opportunities to hit the delete key." Austin even goes as far as to have both a digital and an analog desk, to help him separate the two different processes.
Inspiration Is A Product Of Following A Process
I’ve always viewed inspiration as something that has to be worked at and worked on. I’m always more inspired when I have a platform to explore my inspiration (my blog), a lot of different inputs (conversations, books, podcasts), and time away from what I’m actively looking to be inspired to do (walks, showers, working out.)
It reminds me of a quote from W.S. Somerset Maugham: “I wrote only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
In the documentary, Trey Park and Matt Stone were just coming off the success of their play, The Book of Mormon, and were returning to write South Park without anything written or formulated in their heads, despite only having six days until the first episode was due to air.
How do they accomplish something in such a short time frame? By trusting in their process. The process that they’ve performed time and time again.
This is what author James Altucher often refers to as "building your idea muscle."When you’re not putting pressure on yourself to generate ideas, your brain will atrophy and become smaller.
The Creative Process Is About Improvement and Action
As one of the longest-running animated series in history, South Park is constantly improvising and improving. The difference in both what they now get away with and the visual scenes of the series are night and day from when they first released The Spirit of Christmas in 1995.
As mentioned above, by trusting in the process and putting in your hours, you’ll improve.
Similarly, we’re often afraid to start creating because we don’t think we have the time, energy, or resources.
That's the resistance talking.
Start with what you have, and then begin to improve your resources. As Scott H Young says, “if you want to be fit, don’t buy running trainers.”
Increase Creativity By Setting (Self-Imposed) Deadlines
Our biggest enemy when creating anything is ourselves and the expectations we set on what we can achieve.
Perfectionism really is a loser’s strategy.
Instead, embrace Parkinson’s Law by allowing your work to expand to fill the time available.
In the documentary, Trey Parker discusses how he always wishes he had longer to work on the show, but he accepts that importance of what Seth Godin calls ‘shipping.’
The More Creative Control You Have, The More Authentic Your Product Will Be
Trey Park and Matt Stone have no allegiance to anyone or anything. They have complete creative control over the whole product, scripting and directing every frame. This is so important.
Just look at the difference between Louis CK's Lucky Louie and Louise. In the former, Louis CK was handicapped by the creative controls put on him by HBO and unsurprisingly the show was cancelled after 13 episodes. Louie, on the other hand, is still going strong after five seasons.
Creativity Is Subtraction
To create something you have to follow a process of elimination.
For the South Park writers, sat in the writing room, it’s all about throwing paint on the wall and seeing what sticks. When you follow the process, you’ll always be cutting, editing, and refining the product.
The Creative Process Is Manic
There is a tendency to mistake passion for constant excitement, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The creative process is manic, with a series of highs and lows and periods of expansion and contraction.