Where Do Ideas Come From?

Ideas Are Everything

Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is happy to feature another video from our friend and former student, the tall Canadian Andrew Norton. This one is about The Creative Mysteries. It’s full of voices—including some radio storytellers, along with David Lynch, Chuck Close, Susan Orlean, my 7-year-old son, and others. The video poses the question of its title, “Where Do Ideas Come From?” and the answering words and images will stick with you, blinking on and off in your brain, while you try to come up with an idea yourself. You may even be invigorated by the reminder that it’s mostly up to you. Ideas are everywhere. You just have to notice them.

Cliché Busting

The “ah-ha” moment is a well-worn cliché (and so is the term “well-worn cliché”). Some unsuspecting person suddenly struck with an idea. A bit of inspiration arriving like a lunch your mom packed you. It could be a scientific theory, a screenplay, a way to end that stupid podcast episode you can’t seem to wrap — whatever. Maybe that cliché or myth stays alive because we have yet to prove it wrong. Even the most skeptical person sometimes has an experience that looks a lot like that story. An idea appears, fully formed, when you least expect it. Or maybe it seems that way because we retrofit what really happened into that “ah-ha” mold.

That may seem like a deep introduction to a video that was filmed in large part in my spare bedroom and features someone surreptitiously smelling a book in a public library, but stay with me.


I feel like inspiration is the type of thing no one wants to talk about. Original ideas are essential if you’re a storyteller-type, but I couldn’t find much in the way of people discussing where they come from. It was all specific and after the fact: “I was inspired by this work of art,” “I was inspired by the shape of this thing.” When researching where creative folks find inspiration, I came across one camp that positioned the artist as a lightning rod through which ideas funnel, seemingly out of your control. Another camp believed inspiration could be generated only through elbow grease; like rubbing your socks on the carpet to create static electricity.

This is all to say it seemed like an interesting subject to investigate and maybe bring some grey area to. Collect a bunch of people’s takes on the subject — in part to assure myself that even people more talented than me also struggle to come up with ideas, but also to perhaps figure out some techniques and demystify the idea-generating process.

Video For The Ears

I’m a radio producer, I’m also a filmmaker — I’m always trying to steal my favorite things about radio and podcasting and bring them into the video world. With this video I took an audio-first approach. I basically made and scored a little audio piece and then put pictures to it.

It’s no secret there’s an audience for audio or podcasts — a big audience — but if you’re producing a one-off piece, it’s tough to find that audience. If you have a podcast with multiple episodes, you can release them and attract more listeners with the promise of regularly occurring episodes delivered to their device. But for a stand alone audio piece, it’s tough to reach people. Stand-alone pieces don’t seem to get passed around and consumed like video. My guess is that’s because people don’t tend to drop everything and listen to a piece in their Facebook feed the way they might with a video. Video gives you something to look at and keep you there. Also, something visually enticing on your feed may pique your curiosity.

I’ve learned, and tell everyone I know (bear with me if you’ve heard this before) that a good video should be just as interesting and enthralling with the video turned off. I’m talking here about a short web video — this formula might not work at all for a feature length film. In a short video the pictures add an extra layer and hopefully make it larger than the sum of its parts — rather than leaning on just the visuals to hold attention. There’s nothing wrong with a video that’s visually stunning, but that can only hold my attention so long. And while there are some great short videos that rely just on visuals, if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’re an audio producer and you love making great narratives based on interview tape.

Audio For The Eyes

So, I made an audio piece, but knew visuals would be added to it eventually. This made me edit a little differently.

Introductions: Didn’t have to worry about those because they could be done on-screen with text.

Signposting: Highlighting or underscoring stuff you want the audience to pay special attention to can also be done with text or other visuals.

Pacing: Adjustments made in order to give time for the viewer to take in the visuals.

Interviewing: I also did that a little differently. I wanted a section that evokes visuals. So, I had the subjects describe things or places that in the past have inspired their ideas. That ended up as a sort of tongue in cheek, show-and-tell montage. Just like in making a radio documentary, sometimes it helps to think in advance how you want to edit things — an idea for a montage or how a certain section could work — and get tape especially for that.

I was a little scared while doing the interviews knowing that I would need to find footage that would go with all those words. There were some big ideas and deep concepts being discussed and it was easy to think, “Oh man, how am I going to visualize that?” I had to shut off that part of my brain while interviewing so it wouldn’t get in the way of getting good tape. I made a choice to worry about the images later.

Video Is An Added Layer, Not a Whole New Thing

Anyone who frequents this site or loves radio or podcasting knows the great power of audio storytelling is that listeners fill in the blanks, they create the pictures in their own minds. When you provide the pictures, you take that away from them. The typical thought is their imagination can conjure way better images than you can provide.

That may well be true — but that mindset also limits you. Sure, there’s potential to sour the whole thing by being haphazard with the visuals, but there’s also a huge potential to elevate your work. It’s just like any creative risk — no different to adding music to a story. Let’s use adding music as an analogy — sure, it’s tough to get right — but if you take care (or enlist someone who is more musically inclined than you) it can add emotional impact to your story. It can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Same goes for making an audio story into a video — it’s a huge additional layer you have as a storyteller to effect – and expand – your audience. Maybe don’t think of video and audio storytelling as two different things. Think of video as an added layer to audio with the potential to elevate the piece.

Just don’t f*** it up.

Some Good Examples

So how do you not f*** it up? I’m not sure I have the hubris to extol any hard and fast rules. One place to start is by watching people who do it well. Public radio’s own Bianca Giaever’s work is a masterclass in adding charming imagery. I kept going back and watching this video called Sum, based on a short story of the same name. It does a great job of illustrating while still giving you room to contemplate and draw your own conclusions. There’s also this great profile on the artist Ed Ruscha (commissioned by the MOCA), which to me is like a great radio profile, heightened by a very clever use of photos, interview footage and other cool stuff.

Errant Thoughts

Again, I wish that during this process I had gleaned some hard and fast rules for bringing an audio story to the visual realm — a sure formula for success. But I think I did learn some stuff. To conveniently tie this all back to the theme of where ideas come from: I think we all collect random bits from watching things, hearing things, making mistakes and hitting walls, then we let it all simmer and stew in our brain. Maybe those ah-ha moments are actually just you piecing those errant bits together in a way that approximates a lesson.

In that spirit, here are a few errant thoughts that may help form some larger ideas if stewed upon:

  • Even in video, there’s still room for a listener to use their imagination. Keep that in mind when picking visuals. There are times to be literal, but there are also times when your visuals can evoke a feeling that helps point the viewer’s mind in the right direction without forcing them there. Know when to be specific and when not to. Look for techniques and ways people do that in video and film.
  • If you do plan on making a video from an audio story, put as much work and care into the video as you did casting and interviewing and perfecting the audio portion. Maybe this is a no brainer, but often a visual component is an afterthought. You’re not weird for auditioning four different fake brain props until you find the right one, or spending $100 on hanging door signs, or driving for a half day to find the right dump truck to shoot.
  • Backdrops are expensive!
  • Find a good collaborator. In this case, I sort of had a handle on the technical video aspects, but I enlisted my friend and frequent collaborator, Drew Shannon, to assist as an Art Director. He helped choose the fonts, the colors, consulted on the shot ideas to keep things consistent, etc. Film and video is all about putting together a team.
  • It sometimes helps when brainstorming to ask: “What is the simplest version of this?” Use that as a starting point and add to that. For instance, the simplest version of this piece would be to literally just put the text on screen with colored backdrops. You could totally do that. But then you add another layer. . . “Well, how about some footage of some of this stuff?” I find the process of starting with something stupid simple and adding to it is less intimidating.
  • Make a shot list. This one may sound simple, but in a shoot like this, with so many weird, small specific shots, writing down and checking off what you need, with as much detail as possible, is a must.
  • Get to know your local prop house. Google it. Check it out — they can be lifesavers on weird projects like this.
  • Roll long. When you’re shooting something it’s sort of like getting room tone — the longer you roll, the better. It sucks to get back to edit and the footage you collected doesn’t quite fill the spot you needed it for.

And remember, just don’t f*** it up.


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  • Chris Hall



    That’s an amazing video. I never thought about adding visuals to an audio piece like this before. I think I’m going to try doing this with the next story I start from scratch.

  • Eshan Anas



    I loved it. Thanks for creating such an amazing video!

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