10 lessons in creativity
from Stanley Kubrick

As a creative, the most common thing I get asked is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. The answer is all over the place. A piece of fabric you see in a shop window. A conversation you overhear on the tube. The changing light on the London skyline. Watching random clips on YouTube.

So it’s always fascinating to see how the creative process works for others. This week we soaked up some inspiration from iconic filmmaker Stanley Kubrick at a new exhibition of his work at the Design Museum. Kubrick was known for his fastidious approach and the exhibition has over 700 rare objects, films, interviews, photographs and letters from his personal archive.

What could we learn about creativity from the legendary director of The Shining and A Clockwork Orange?

1. It’s what you leave out that counts

Kubrick once said: “I do not always know what I want but I always know what I don’t want”

Anyone who creates stuff for a living knows that the creative process is half inspiration and half elimination. Kubrick would shoot over 450 km of film, knowing that most of it would end up on the cutting room floor as he assembled and refined the pieces to create a cohesive whole. Simplicity is always more powerful than clutter.

2. The power of a punchy line

Kubrick understood the power of a memorable catchphrase. Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” ad-lib during the axe-swinging scene almost didn’t make the final edit, but Kubrick recognised its disruptive power and the moment has since become iconic. Any truly memorable campaign is centred around a punchy line that cuts through.

3. Care about every tiny detail

At one stage, while planning to direct a film about Napoleon’s life – a project that was eventually shelved – Kubrick created an index card for every day of Napoleon’s life. It’s always worth taking time over the detail.

4. Put the time in

Kubrick was notorious for demanding multiple takes from his actors. Whilst filming the “Give me the bat” scene in The Shining, Kubrick made Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson (and his camera crew) travel up those stairs 127 times. His theory was that they would stop acting and become the desperation and raggedness that he needed. It worked. First ideas are rarely the best ones. It always pays to put the time in, to develop ideas fully. And that means allocating proper time for creativity.

5. Stick to your vision

Kubrick controlled every part of the creative process and would sometimes fire people who didn’t agree with him. On one script he wrote: ‘THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO DO IT, REPEAT, NO OTHER WAY’. That doesn’t mean we need to be creative tyrants but it does make the point that one clear vision is important. Too many great ideas get watered down by committee decisions.

6. Make people feel

Kubrick said: “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later”. There is always conflict between the functional and the emotive in a campaign but it’s important to remember that B2B audiences are humans too. Research shows that emotive work resonates far more.

7. Have the best people around you

The actor Leon Vitali gave up a successful acting career after starring in Barry Lyndon to work tirelessly for Kubrick as his personal assistant over many decades. Vincent Cartier who worked with Kubrick on the documentary ‘Day of the Fight’ commented: “Whatever he wanted, you complied. He just captivated you”. When you work with people who inspire you, you always get better results.

8. Repetition cuts through

Kubrick often used repetition to create dramatic tension in his films. From the typewriter script in The Shining: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ to repeating the same musical phrases to build tension during a film. Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns. This is a useful tool for us to use in our creative work.

9. Be bold

Kubrick had many letters of complaint about the subject matter of his films, especially Lolita, Dr Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. We can’t please everybody, and often bold, disruptive work is what will get talked about the most.

10. Start the trend

Kubrick was one of the first filmmakers to use Steadicam, allowing him to create tracking shots that were completely fluid and stable. Being first is always harder but if not you, then who?


[All photos: Steve Spicer]

What inspires your creative process? And could ‘the Kubrick method’ improve your marketing? Let us know over on Twitter.


[All photos: Steve Spicer]