People often ask about the origins of what has become known as “Common Craft Style” and what inspired us to use paper cut-outs, hands and a whiteboard. The truth is, it was a solution to a problem.
I had been experimenting with drawing on a whiteboard in live action videos and found it frustrating. I felt like such a dork trying to draw and look at the camera at the same time. It felt forced. Sachi, always the problem solver and adult in the room, suggested our current format. She had seen me reach for paper and use drawings when trying to explain something and saw the format as a natural extension of that tendency.
Many years later, here we are. The original format of that first video, RSS in Plain English, is still very close to the videos we make today.
As it turns out, our videos use the same principles of some of the very first animations. They are live action recordings, with stop motion and other visual effects that create animations. I was amazed to see the video below, which was recorded in 1900, 111 years ago:
American animation owes its beginnings to J. Stuart Blackton, a British filmmaker who created the first animated film in America. Before creating cartoons, Blackton was a vaudeville performer known as "The Komikal Kartoonist." In his act, he drew "lightning sketches" or high-speed drawings. In 1895, he met Thomas Edison. Can you guess what this meeting with the famous inventor inspired him to do?
There is amazingly little difference between the animation above and what we do at Common Craft. It's a simple process of holding the camera still and changing what appears on a frame-by-frame basis.
For another example, consider Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python, which doesn't use video, but photos. He was the creator of the colorful animations that became one of the most memorable parts of the show. Here’s a video of him talking about his process in 1974 (via CartoonBrew).
Again, it’s very close to our process. It’s just stop-motion with cut-outs. Take a look at the example of his storyboards from the video above:
We start each project with “thumbnail storyboards” that look like this:
Here’s his lighting a set-up
His hand moving the cut-outs...
So what we do has roots that go back to the very beginning. While these examples came to us recently and were not a part of our early process, I think it’s fascinating that the simple idea of live action animation has changed so little over the years.
They have their niche and nobody good would ever copy their style. Common Craft should be the only people that make a cut-out-videos-that-explain software or web services. Anything else is an echo.
If a client asked, we’d say no. It’d be an admission of creative bankruptcy to try to mimic the very clear, original style that CommonCraft uses.
First, I want to thank Chris for standing up for our work so publicly. I like that Chris’ perspective is not about legal ramifications so much as recognizing another company’s work and making a conscious choice to take a different creative direction. In some ways, it’s how the world should work.
The fact is, there are many videos out there that could be called “Common Craft Style” - we see them all the time. Like Chris, people sometimes expect us to be up-in-arms about other producers who take inspiration from, or even directly copy our work. While plagiarism and trademark infringement is unacceptable, we recognize that there is a gray area and always appreciate attribution if our work is indeed an inspiration. It's this gray area that makes our position on Common Craft Style a bit complicated.
Example: Educational Use
Teachers and students are currently working on what they call “Common Craft Style” videos in classrooms. These are often middle and high school students making videos that help them learn about history, for example. While we are not involved in any way, we have always encouraged teachers to take inspiration from our work in school projects.
Here's an example created by Wendy Drexler:
Here's another made by 8th graders that makes me LOL:
As we mentioned, the existence of these projects makes having an absolute position on Common Craft Style difficult, as we are very supportive of these educational, classroom-oriented videos.
Years ago, we decided that the best thing we can do is focus our attention on building our brand and making the best possible videos. Our goal has always been to create a brand of videos that speaks for itself and I think we’re getting close.
There will always be the company, producer or agency who chooses to make a video in “Common Craft Style”. Sure, you could say they’re copying us. You could say that we need to stop them. But as Chris’ blog post shows, the market has a way of recognizing and even protecting unique and valuable creations. Here's what I mean...
Rock and Roll
Chris quotes Scott Ginsberg in his post, “There are no cover-bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” While this may be true, that building is filled with individuals who were inspired-by and copied the techniques of others. Even though Chuck Berry inspired Elvis Presley, there will only ever be one Chuck Berry. And maybe that’s the lesson here.
More than anything, we want to see video explanations become the next rock-and-roll. We want our little industry to grow and for talented producers to build careers on using videos to explain and educate. And for that to happen, the environment needs to encourage producers who take inspiration, but also find responsible ways to make their own creative contribution.
We’ll always protect our brand and appreciate attribution where it's appropriate. But at the end of the day, we want to be the people who help inspire the next Hall of Fame inductee, not stand in their way.
If you’re considering a Common Craft video, please contact us.
Tim Russert has been a staple of our Sunday mornings for years. He is someone for which I had a great deal of respect. Not only was he very, very good at his job, but it was obvious that he loved it and looked forward to it everyday. His enthusiasm was infectious. May we all be so lucky.
A video that Saatchi Moscow created and produced for Google to attract more Russian people on GMail.
Visually, it's a bit like our videos, but in a giant format. Instead of pieces of paper, they are using giant pieces of pre-printed fabric. The video is quite artful and well done. Isn't it funny too, that it's by Saatchi and Saatchi instead of Lee and Sachi?