Why execs should refrain from being “creative”

Bill Scott

This is an amusing anecdote from Rocky & Bullwinkle writer Bill Scott which took place back in the early-1950s while he was working at UPA. The story provides a good example of how throwing a lot of talent at a project doesn’t necessarily guarantee success; creative people need a solid foundation to work from and should be assigned projects that are suited to their particular skills. Fortunately, Bosustow was smart enough to recognize that he was more of a businessman than a creative (which is more than can be said for the majority of execs working in animation today). For this reason, he had placed director John Hubley in charge of the studio’s day-to-day creative decisions to avoid situations like the one described by Scott:

Another time, you know Steve Bosustow was close friends with Ted Geisel—Dr. Seuss—since they’d worked together during the war. They were having lunch together, and Geisel says, “I have a great idea for a film about eyebrows. You start with some guy’s face, and see how his eyebrows move up and down, and furrow and knit and all the things eyebrows usually do, and then suddenly the eyebrows manage to move away from the face and just keep on dancing on their own.”

Steve thought it was great, and bought it. I mean, he pulled out his checkbook right there at the table, and bought it on the spot. Then he passed it on to Phil [Eastman] and me, and said, “Here’s a new film we’re going to do.”

We looked it over, and said right away, “Wait a minute. Where’s the story? What happens?”

Steve said, “Well, can’t you figure something out?”

So we worked on it for a while, but basically it isn’t the idea for a film; it’s a gag that has to fit into some other context. When Steve finally realized that, he went back to Geisel and asked for his money back. And he got it.


  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Esn Esn

    Isn’t Bill Plympton’s Oscar-nominated short film “Your Face” basically based on just such a simple concept?

    Or Ryan Larkin’s film “Walking”?

    Perhaps they COULD have figured something out if they had been willing to think and act outside the box, as the above two animators/directors were…

  • paul

    Funny! Big Idea must have bought that idea from the Giesel estate, ’cause they’ve got a “Larry-Boy” animated cartoon called “The Angry Eyebrows” where evil, flying eyebrows attach themselves to people who lose their temper. Interesting …

  • http://magicscience.blogspot.com zoe

    This is a very bizarre little anecdote…but I’m not really sure what it says about the role of executives and “creatives” (a word I don’t think should be a noun anyway).

    This isn’t like the horror stories John K talks about, where MBAs come in and pitch entire series around catchphrases and merchandising, or try to retrofit ideas onto what is essentially a marketing plan.

    In this story, you’ve got one of the most effervescently creative people who ever lived, with a little glimmer of a visual idea that inspired someone who happened to be an executive. The executive actually LISTENED to the “creative”! So shoot him!

    I think Geisel was the one overstepping his natural element here, not Bosustow.

  • http://geniusone.com/blog Frank Kanu

    Every year at the beginning of the (insert your favorite sport here) season there are all sorts of prognostications about that one team that ’s destined to win it all – because of all the talent it ’s bought.

    Yet time and again these dream teams don’t live up to their expectations, and often they get defeated by some underdog.

    It ’s the same in the workplace: Putting together the right teams is an art and not just throwing together some talent.

  • amid

    Esn – Keep in mind that Scott and Eastman were working within parameters that Larkin and Plympton didn’t have to deal with: namely producing shorts for a mainstream theatrical distributor (Columbia) for a highly conservative early-50s American public. The folks at UPA were more than capable of adapting ideas into daring works of art—Tell-Tale Heart, Unicorn in the Garden, Gerald McBoingBoing and Rooty Toot Toot, to name a few. The point that Scott is making though is that it’s difficult to create a good story when the person initiating the story process isn’t the most qualified to be doing so.

  • Robert

    Ted Geisel not qualified to initiate a story? I think he demonstrated he could do great stories. What Bosustow should have done was say “Hey, interesting idea… storyboard it out like one of those wacky books you do and show me how it will work.” Maybe Dr Suess could have made something out of it just like he did with “elephant hears voice on a speck of dust.”

    Actually it doesn’t seem any slimmer a starting point than Chuck Jones’ “High Note” which somehow got mainstream distribution.

    I suspect there had to be more to Geisel’s pitch than the one sentence Bill Scott quotes.

  • Sean

    It’s not that he couldn’t create good stories, it’s that he didn’t in this instance, and the executive didn’t consider that the idea wasn’t developed enough to be bought and thrusted into production — the eyebrow idea is a branching point, sure, and there’s plenty of possibility there, but possibility alone isn’t enough to create a mainstream, narrative, and relatively simple short. One needs to pick and choose those possibilities to develope something cohesive.

  • RL

    To those who state Geisel was somehow not understanding cartoons, one must note that he did create the UPA series about the boy who creates SFX with his mouth, and the Snafu series.

    It sounds like there was a misunderstanding somewhere. Who knows? It sounds like a good idea for a cartoon’s beginning, just choose somewhere to go from there.

  • BWSmith

    If the eyebrows were anthropomorphic, then this could be the basis for not one, but two films: one by Disney-Pixar titled “Eyebrows”, a visual masterpiece about the secret lives of eyebrows, and a similar one by Dreamworks, called “Eyelashes”, a sharp-witted romp on the secret lives of eyelashes, released three months earlier…