Biz Stone is best known for revolutionizing social media as cofounder of Twitter. But he’s also a self-confessed lifelong cinephile with a secret desire to be a movie director.
"I started out as a painter and a graphic artist," Stone says. "I only sort of accidentally became a technologist, so I think of myself as an artist first and a technologist and entrepreneur second."
Until now, Stone’s moviemaking experience has involved starring in a couple of unfinished short films by an aspiring director friend. But he didn’t blink when director Ron Howard and the people at Canon U.S.A. asked him to participate in Project Imaginat10n, a user-generated photo contest that will use still images to inspire short films by five high achievers from a variety of disciplines. Films from Stone, Georgina Chapman (cofounder of fashion house Marchesa), James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), Eva Longoria and Jamie Foxx will be showcased in what Canon is calling the first photography-inspired film festival in 2013.
"I’m a little worried because I have a nine-month-old baby and a start-up, so it’s a little risky for me to push it by doing this project," Stone says. In addition to mentorship by Howard, Canon is supplying a support crew for the fledgling filmmakers. "Because I’m given a chance to work with Ron and the fact that Canon has put together all these clever and talented people to help me, that makes it possible for me to realize a dream."
The project is a follow-up to last year’s Project Imagin8ion, in which Howard and Canon chose eight winning still images from some 100,000 submissions that inspired a short film, When You Find Me. Directed by Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard, it screened at the Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca festivals and on the IFC channel.
"This came out of thinking about the direction of our brand and what we want to stand for," says Rob Altman, manager of camera video marketing at Canon. "Canon has a leadership position in both still and moving photography and we wanted to help people elevate their photography and inspire others."
Today through September 24, the public can submit photos that fall under 10 storytelling related themes including Setting, Time, Character, Mood, Backstory, Relationship, Goal, Obstacle, The Unknown, and a surprise 10th theme to be revealed at a later date at the campaign site. After a public vote on the semi-finalists between September 4 and October 1, 91 winning photos will be chosen by Canon, Howard and community voting. Directors will then select one photo from each of 10 categories to inspire their short film. (Five additional directors will be chosen in the fall.)
"We want this to be geared to get attention and motivate and inspire," Altman says. "So we wanted not just some big names but people from diverse backgrounds who are not necessarily directors but who were creative and driven and leaders in their fields. We were interested in having someone like Biz Stone, who isn’t known as an artist but who has a graphic design background and is a little bit of an artist himself."
Stone says: "I dropped out of college to apprentice with a graphic designer who was a book cover designer, and a lot of times we had to do a cover using a certain photo or a certain painting which was like the author’s wife’s painting, and it didn’t matter if it was good or bad. So I turned that around and said ‘OK, this is just a challenge, it’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it just means I have to figure out a way to make a real cool cover using this art that isn’t so great.’ So I’ll turn it on its side and blow it up 800 percent and now it looks cool. Graphic design taught me that creativity is this renewable resource, it never runs out, you can always take another approach."
Howard says that he was fascinated to know what Stone would make of the film challenge.
"That entrepreneurial spirit is something that itself is so creative," Howard says. "I was curious to see how that mind would express itself and be sort of stimulated and catalyzed by this experiment. Also the whole idea of the contest really promotes and celebrates the application of social media as a jumping off place to stimulate creativity."
Stone insists that while he plans to rely heavily on the creative network that Canon is providing to the filmmakers to help realize their vision, this isn’t a vanity project.
"I want this to be a real imprint of my work," he says, "I want it to carry my philosophy toward creativity and I want in a poetic way to advance the themes that I’ve been trying to advance with my own work over the last 15 years on the web."
Case in point: "Creativity comes from constraint," he says. "That’s one of the basic rules of Twitter. That 140 characters seems like a constraint, but look what people have been able to do with it—it’s amazing, right?"
Stone also says he hopes to express his idea that creativity comes "from a variety of experiences, so when you’re able to draw on non-linear experiences, you’re a more creative person. So all those types of things I hope to cook up into a kind of ratatouille of a film and enforce the themes of creativity through constraint and the idea that everybody has the ability to be creative, it’s just sometimes elusive."
Not only does Stone want the form and content of his film to reflect his ideas about creativity, but he also hopes to approach the filmmaking process in an unconventional way.
"This project is already approaching filmmaking in a different way by saying we’re gonna start with photos," he says. "But I always loved the idea of sort of doing a movie backwards. The traditional way of making a film is you write a story and then you design around the story how you’re going to photograph it and shoot it. What if you just filmed things that were really compelling and then wrote a story? Because it doesn’t matter what order you do things in as long as you end up with something that’s worth watching. I think it will end up being a mix of some of these unique approaches to filmmaking along with some very traditional stuff."
Stone says he has already chosen his film muses: "I’m a really big fan of Wings of Desire and The Bicycle Thief. They have lots of embedded meaning in them, they have a visual style I really like. Other elements I’d like to explore are the elusive nature of things like creativity and love."
He says he often makes reference to Wings of Desire in a master class he gives at Oxford every year on the role of embracing failure in the quest to become a successful entrepreneur. But he admits he’s a little nervous about trying his hand as a director.
"I’m kind of afraid if I do go out on a limb and try to be kind of creative and esoteric and stuff are people gonna just be like ‘Ah, yeah why don’t you stick to technology? Nice try, why don’t you go back to your day job?’" he says. "And that’s fine, because that’s what being an artist is about, right? To be allowed to fail. But to say that it doesn’t bother me at all would not be true. Of course I don’t want people making fun of me, you know?"
The aspiring directors gathered in Los Angeles last Thursday with Howard and Dallas Howard, who talked to them about the artistic and logistical challenges of making a still photography-inspired film and listened to their notions about the kinds of movies they were hoping to make.
"On the film Bryce directed, it all changed once the photos were selected," Howard says. "So it’s great to have a plan but I think you need to expect the unexpected and certainly be ready to be inspired. That was my advice to them. I don’t believe they’re going to need much help. These are powerhouse creative people who are used to getting a lot done in a pretty dynamic way. I’m available to everyone but they’re not reporting to me, I’m not supervising them in any rigorous way, I’m not setting parameters. I’m really excited to see what they come up with, and I think I’m going to learn something from the way they approach it."
Stone says the summit affirmed many of his pre-conceived notions about the filmmaking process. "Preparation is key," he says. "People see these works of art and they always think that some genius swaggered in and shot a film and really 90 percent of it or more is a lot of preparation and scouting and photographing things and writing things down and choosing things way in advance so when the moment comes when you’re all together and it’s really expensive and time consuming you get things right. If you know you have a fall back that’s good then you can go creative and crazy. But if your whole plan is to just be creative and crazy the whole time it’s less likely to work out for you, is kind of what I’m figuring out. It’s very similar to a start up. I mean didn’t I learn that with Twitter—you know, like, what happens if we’re successful? We should have thought of that."
Howard believes that the contest is a working exercise in the notion that "everyone is creative." But can everyone be creative in a movie director sort of way?
"In the last 15, 20 years kids have learned that the tools are there for them to do some pretty sophisticated filmmaking, a lot better than I could pull off in my Super 8 era," Howard says. "With the new equipment and software, you can now create something that isn’t just a kids movie, it’s very watchable and it can be downright dazzling."
Plus, he says, filmmaking isn’t rocket science.
"I can assure you that making a film is really just an exercise in putting one foot after the other in creative ways," he continues. "If you have the patience, the endurance, the curiosity, and some discipline to sort of organize your ideas, filmmaking is not really all that mysterious. It’s complicated; it’s not mysterious."