The drawbacks of communicating too directly in media

Stop what you’re doing and watch this animated short:

First, you're welcome.

I recently saw this amazing short animation commissioned by the travel department of the state of Oregon.   I love how perfect the title “Only Slightly Exaggerated” works as a punch line.  It seems like a short excerpt of one of Studio Ghibli’s animated feature films, like My Neighbour Totoro.

I could go on and on about all of the incredible visual things happening here, but I actually want to emphasize the creation of this kind of work, and what it says.  One of the things I find most interesting is that this short is in the genre of fantasy.  You may think that fantasy is fairly common today: yes, if it was a feature film it would be.  For the travel department of a State?  Not really.  It is often to the detriment of many small and large organizations and institutions that they want to solve C by showing A and B.  What I mean by this is that they often think of solving creative problems in a very linear way, ie. by saying it in the simplest, clearest way. 

If we take this video as an example of what might have happened if a different State was in charge, let's deconstruct it.  The overall message was probably something like: “Come to Oregon because we have beautiful outdoors, cities, etc”.  Instead, what Psyop and Sun Creatures Studio decided to pitch was a fantastical, imaginative, fairy tale to capture the indescribable: the magic and emotion of Oregon.  Typically, this kind of idea would seem very out of place, and many organizations would reject it, or gradually pull back elements until it's unrecognizable.  Instead what we have is basically a very irrational, non-linear but creative approach to telling this story.   

Now, we often using the terms “myth” and “fairy tale” in a disparaging way; to say that something is false or naive. J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of Lord of the Rings, has a different take:

“Myths, Tolkien explains, are not fairy tales, intentional lies, or mere fabrications, but are instead powerful vehicles for revealing the world’s deepest truths. All myths, he argues, illuminate layers and dimensions of existence that are often missed by our narrow human vision. In this way, they can actually be more “real” than what we normally call reality.”

I especially love the line “illuminate layers and dimensions of existence that are often missed by our narrow human vision”.  It’s the reason this animated video works for me. It doesn’t simply hand-feed a replication of what our “human vision” would see if we visited Oregon, as a good video camera team could capture.  Instead, the creators use the beauty and power of animation to show “layers” beneath the surface of Oregon in order to tap into our desire for mystery and hidden meanings.  It focuses less on what Oregon's realistic physical appearance is like, and perhaps by doing so, creates a reality that may be truer to what Oregon is really like than actual photos and videos of the literal place itself.  Some may think this is silly, but just know that there are a significant number of writers in history, like Tolkien, who deeply understood the power of fantasy, symbolism, and the power of our imagination.  Even if you're critical, what an aspirational prospect.

In my view, this is what the value of all fantasy and science-fiction is: to reveal deeper truths that aren't otherwise possible within the confines of our current time and place. It’s incredible that Travel Oregon thought it was a good idea to make a fantastical, imaginative kind of video, if only because most State departments would ask for something more direct and obvious.  The latter is a very common error that I encounter regularly when working with clients, and I wish more were willing to risk less direct projects ideas.  "Only Slightly Exaggerated" speaks to how much the travel department of Oregon trusted the artists they hired to be creative; to follow the seed of an idea that might, at first, seem odd on paper.  I can’t imagine pitching a video with a machine-cloud-man making a drop of water from the sky, a giant rabbit, a bicycling caterpillar, and flying whales in the sky to solve the problem of “Make Oregon look like an exciting place to visit”. 

I think that we need more indirect problem solving!  There are too many predictable “explainer” videos (I make some of them!) that produce exactly the information that the company wants to say.  It's often the same "spoon feeding" of content to the audience to which the best writers in Hollywood regularly *face palm* at.  In my opinion, when you’re speaking to strangers, the best thing you can do is simply engage their interest in, intrigue them.  The ways to do this are plentiful, and don't have to involve cheap tricks. When you consider the sheer amount of content being created today, it becomes increasingly difficult to really make something that stands out, and this is why Oregon's animated short blasts through the pack.

To me, this kind of project is why I chose animation in the first place.  From a business perspective, it's also a great way to get attention through sheer force of quality craftsmanship and artistry.  I think it would be interesting to compare this video to other States' travel videos. 

It takes boldness and risk to say that you want to do something different.  If more of us were comfortable with trying solutions less direct and safe, I think we’d have a lot more powerful, and more memorable content out there. 

Another example of a video that stands out amidst such a saturated market is the new hip hop video of Childish Gambino’s “This is America”. It diverges from the typical path of a hiphop video on many accounts, and is particularly politically relevant today.  Although it's redirection is from a different premise than "Only Slightly Exaggerated", it is worth a mention too.

I currently work in Guelph, Ontario, and I feel strongly that as a small town competing with much larger media giants elsewhere (admittedly, Oregon included!) we really need to step up our game to create lasting content that breaches the bubble of our city.  Please share this article with creative professionals you know who might like to rear it.