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Adobe MAX: Exploring Creativity in Images, Music, Design, and Film

Adobe Systems bills its annual conclave, Adobe MAX, as “The Creativity Conference.” But what is creativity? Where does it come from and go to? How do you make it happen? These are some of the question explored at the Adobe MAX day-two keynote, which took place in October, at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The conference brings Adobe users, trainers, and executives together to learn and to celebrate creativity. To explore the nature of creativity, Adobe brought to the stage photographer Annie Griffits, musician Mark Ronson, sculptor/designer Jonathan Adler, and filmmaker Jon Favreau.

Annie Get Your Camera

Annie Griffiths, one of the first female staff photojournalists for National Geographic, shared her creative journey with attendees.  Her work began in her 20s. “I was in love with photography and I got this wonderful platform to do it on,” she recalled. “I was able to go to places people had never seen and take beautiful pictures, or go to places people knew and take pictures they never imagined. Before this I had never been out of Ohio and it was a blast.”

She said that as time went on, however, she had a longing to show more than just beautiful pictures. “I wanted to show the connections between people and the things that separate people. I also wanted to push back and fight against inaccurate ideas some pictures had spread.”

She began working for environmental and aid organizations in addition to National Geographic.

“My perfect storm came in my 50s,” she said. “my mother took a deep dive in to Alzheimer’s and my marriage of 20 years evaporated in a humiliating way. I read that women like me were supposed to get a bunch of cats and a vibrator. But, I’m allergic to cats.” When the audience stopped giggling, she continued, “I thought about many of the women I had photographed, and the most creative thing they do is keep their children alive in some of the most godawful conditions. So, I started focusing on women in the developing world.”

Adobe Max
National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths talks about why she takes photos

She founded Ripple Effect Images, a photographers’ collective that documents programs aimed at empowering women and girls.

Griffiths explained that the effort to shed light on these women’s struggles was having results. “Poverty is decreasing, and more girls are getting an education,” she said. “It was really starting to become my DNA to work with these women.”

She recalled pausing before taking a picture of Somali woman with an extremely sick baby daughter. She had doubts, thinking she might be exploiting her. Two years later, while working with an NGO, she saw the picture again and mentioned it to a worker with the aid organization. “They told me, ‘Oh, she’s doing great. She’s in Virginia,’” Griffiths said. “Then three weeks ago Adobe helped me find her. That baby is 16 years old and in college now.”

Griffiths encouraged attendees to keep something important in their heart, so they can be ready for their perfect storm and to think about what they would like written on their tombstones. “For me,” she said, “it’s something that Glamour Magazine wrote about me when I turned 60. They called me a camera toting bad ass. And that’s what I want on my tombstone.”

The Music Man

Mark Ronson, a Grammy Award winning producer, songwriter, and musician, is known for his ability to mix pop, rock, funk, and hip-hop. Ronson, who has produced for Adele, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, and Macy Gray, among others, got his start as a DJ in the late-’90s New York club scene. He later demonstrated his DJ skills at the Adobe MAX after-hours party, MAX Bash.

Adobe Max
Adobe software evangelist Jason Levine, left, and music producer Mark Ronson discuss music and working with superstars

He discussed his approach to creativity with Adobe software evangelist Jason Levine.

Levine asked how Ronson got his start.

“I’m from London, but I grew up in New York,” Ronson explained. “I was in crappy high school bands, and then I got into hip-hop and began taking my demo tape everywhere. I got a gig as a DJ and one night Puff Daddy came up to me. He liked my beats, and he took me around to meet people.”

Levine inquired as to who had the biggest influence on Ronson’s work.

“I think when you’re starting out,” Ronson explained, “you’re borrowing from all these different influences and you’re hoping you can combine it someway into something that is your own. It’s like Play-Doh, all these different colors. You combine different colors and hope it doesn’t turn brown.” He also credited Quincy Jones as one of his greatest inspirations.

Levine asked Ronson to explain how, as a producer, he decides whom to work with.

“First, I was incredibly fortunate to meet some of those people like Adele and Amy Winehouse before they were massive superstars,” Ronson said. “There has to be talent, of course, but there are a million talented singers. You talk to people and there has to be a certain spark, so you catch fire with one another.”

He continued, “When I met Adele she was 18 and chain smoking and watching Jerry Springer. She looked like any teenager. I was so surprised that she was so sure of the kind of record she was going to make. She played me this one song and said ‘I want you to do this one.’ I asked her is there anything else you want to play for me? She said, ‘No, this one.’

“Same thing when I went to meet Bruno Mars. I was familiar with a couple of his songs. I asked him what he wanted to make and he said, ‘I want to make something the opposite of what people would think you and me making a record would sound like.’ I loved that right away. He just had that fire in his eyes. I guess that’s how some of these things are started.”

Levine asked, “But you listen to what they want, right?”

Ronson explained, “Yes, no matter how successful they are when they go into that booth to record they are in the most vulnerable, insecure place they’ll ever be, so it’s your job to make them feel like they can do anything. It’s never about me, it’s whatever is appropriate for that artist.”

Ronson concluded, “Whether you’re religious or not, I love what Quincy Jones said, that you’ve got to leave a little space in that room for God to come in, because you never really know what’s going to happen.”

Just a Potter

Jonathan Adler is a potter and designer. He left his day job in 1993 to pursue working with pottery. Today, he has 25 stores around the world and a significant online presence, and is involved in many residential and commercial projects. Adobe Executive Vice President and CMO Ann Lewnes interviewed him in front of the 12,000 Adobe MAX attendees.

Adobe Max
Jonathan Adler and Adobe CMO Ann Lewnes in front of and sitting in Adler’s designs

Lewnes began by bringing up Adler’s company motto. “Your company motto is ‘If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.’ So how does that mantra play out in your creative process?” she asked.

“I had an incredibly chic grandma,” Adler said, “and when she died about 20 years ago, my brother, sister, and I had fistfights over her stuff. I thought, that’s what I want my stuff to do. I want it to engender lawsuits among siblings. That’s how I’ll know I’ve succeeded.”

Lewnes described Adler’s work as provocative and commented that he was very prolific. She asked, “How do these ideas come to you?”

Adler said, “Basically, I make stuff and my approach really comes from En Vogue: Free your mind and the rest will follow. The world is so crowded it’s impossible to say where inspiration comes from. I get ideas from my dreams. I wake up and write stuff down. I don’t take any drugs, but a lot of my work is an homage to LSD and mind-opening drugs. I just keep opening my mind.”

He continued, “I make the stuff I want to make. My career is really about me. I think the key to design success is to be very honest and personal and self-aware.”

Lewnes asked, “What is your very favorite Jonathan Adler design and why?”

Adler answered, “My favorite thing is probably whatever I made most recently.”

Lewnes countered with “What was that?”

Adler said, “I just made this vase with lips all over it. It is going to be the vase that changes the world. I know it. Really, you have to be on that journey, believing that whatever you are making is going to be incredible.”

Lewnes asked, “What are you working on next?”

Adler replied, “Well I just want to do more. Every career has a sell-by-date. We’re all not going to do this forever. While I’m in the middle of it, I just want to do as much as I can.”

The New Lion King

Director, writer, and actor Jon Favreau came on stage next to share his thoughts on creativity. Favreau is working on the new live action version of the Lion King, a follow-up to his successful live action Jungle Book. Prior to these projects his directorial successes included Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and the Christmas classic, Elf.

Lewnes asked how Favreau dealt with new technology.

Adobe Max
Adobe CMO Ann Lewnes, right, talks to director Jon Favreau about film and tech

“Your initial kneejerk reaction is to turn away from something new,” Favreau said, “but the technology is just a means by which you connect. What’s nice now is you don’t have the gatekeepers that you used to have. Years ago, even on the cheap it was hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a film. Now you can do it for thousands.”

Lewnes observed that distribution has totally changed, and that streaming was now a major force. She asked him if that was a good thing.

“I don’t think changes are good or bad,” Favreau said. “They are just different. Find ways of doing things that you like and steer that trend.”

Lewnes asked about Favreau’s first film from 1998: “And so if someone is watching Swingers on a phone?”

“I think that’s great,” he said. “To me being a storyteller is the core thing that connects all these projects. The old myths and the old stories have been the formula for a long time. They are themes that connect us on a primal level. Now we can use that technology to reconnect it to people in a new way.”

Lewnes asked. “What’s the best way?”

Favreau said, “The best projection system with a full house, Dolby or Atmos sound. If you go to a new Thor movie you want to have that energy. But, I’m just as happy if I want to watch a whole season of something at home. I like going to see revivals of Elf. There’s nothing in that movie I don’t know, but seeing it with people who are seeing it for the first time gives you an opportunity to learn.”

Lewnes pointed out that with the Internet, today all the viewers are the reviewers. “Is that a good thing?” she asked.

“I think people are still seeking out curated information,” Favreau said. “I think film critics have a very important role because they are coming from a specific point of view.”

Lewnes asked if Favreau cared about what people say online.

“If you see what the feedback is on a trailer for a new film, it’s like listening at every water cooler. It’s extremely valuable. You used to have to wait for a magazine article to come out to get any feedback.”

Lewnes asked, “What’s one of your failures?”

“If you’re batting 500 you are in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “My first experience, with Swingers, bombed at the box office. Coming off the success of Iron Man, Cowboys and Aliens was not successful. But don’t worry about it because you’ll self-censor because of fear.

“As I get older, I continue to learn. I learned how to cook a brisket while making Chef. I love that sense of being excited about things. I do much better if I’m passionate about something. I’m grateful because I can jump out of bed and look forward to working on my job. Do things that bring you joy. If you’re operating at 100 percent in an area you love, it’s better than working at 40 percent in an area where you were told you could make more money, but don’t love.”

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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