What Creators can Learn from Filmmaker Icon Larry Clark

“When you’re young, not much matters. When you find something that you care about, then that’s all you got.”

When I first heard about “Kids”, the movie was expected to be a scandal. I well remember the headline at that time: “«Kids» is too hard for kids”. When I got my hands on the VHS a bit later (I was still too young to see in the cinema), it blew me away. What I expected were sex, drugs, and filth. What I saw looked real, authentic. Not like the typical 25-year-olds in GAP fashion that would play teenagers on TV. Instead of shallow conversations and pretty pictures, “Kids” opened a whole new world to me. A window into skateboard subculture that I didn’t know about.

Lots of this is owed to the fact that most of it was real: The locations, the dialogues, and even the characters weren’t made up by big studio bosses. They were taken from the hood. Chloë Sevigny and Michelle Rodriguez weren’t famous actresses back then, but friends of Harmony Korine, the skater boy who wrote the script for the movie. “Kids” wasn’t a video project made by bored teenagers on their DV Cams – it was merely the amazing work of photographer Larry Clark.

Already gained a bit of fame as a photographer, Larry Clark was 50 years old when he got into filmmaking. He learned how to ride a skateboard just prior to the movie, getting him in contact with the subculture.

Can you imagine a middle-aged man on a skateboard, holding a film camera? I call this dedication. And also the secret to Clark’s authentic view on a topic that he doesn’t own. It is this kind of ruthlessness that I find extremely inspiring about Larry Clark, especially when it comes to my own work as a designer.

Larry Clark, age 73 now and still an active filmmaker, gave an interview with DAZED magazine last year. In this “Manifesto of not giving a fuck”, Clark gives a lot of helpful advice for filmmakers, photographers but also creators, designers, and makers. Here are my favorites:

Be flexible

When faced with drunk and striking actors during shooting “The Smell of Us”, it seemed like this project was about to fail. Instead of giving up or postponing the shoot, Larry Clark rewrote the second part of that movie and finished it.

Changing the project parameters when the circumstances or requirements change is a very important skill for creatives on any kind of project. We fall in love much too easy with a certain way of doing things or handling a project. Being able to adapt when needed can really help to focus on releasing a product.

When we worked on the Aside Magazine in 2011, Mobile Safari would crash if you used more than one web font – nobody knew why we only knew that this killed our beautiful design ideas. Instead of giving up, we switched to a combination of web font and system font – and saved the project.

Take as long as it takes

You can’t always be as flexible, some projects just take longer than expected. That should not be a reason to quit. The Aside Magazine was scheduled to take us 6 weeks, we only released it 10 months after we estimated this timeframe. We were just really bad at guessing workload back then.

The good news: There was nothing bad in releasing it later, not pushing too hard helped us to release a quality product, instead of a fast one. Giving projects the time they need while remaining flexible is a great juggle – but worth it if it works out.

Embed yourself

Larry Clark learned how to skate when he was 47, 48 years old for a photo project about skateboard kids. “You can’t just run and chase them, you have to skate with them to keep up”, allowing him to get a whole different view on the subculture that would eventually result in the movie “Kids”.

Getting to know your audience and embedding yourself in their lifestyle is an amazing lesson. Use your product, adapt the behaviors and procedures of your audience.

Imagine this almost like the way a method actor would immerse into a role – method designing, doesn’t that sound great?

Do it for yourself

There is no sense in pursuing a product if you can’t identify with its purpose, ideas, and principles. If you don’t like the thing you’re working on, you won’t be able to do a good job.

Often this is the case with products that you create for a completely different demographic or an audience with a very opposed mindset. If you do a side project, don’t put up the burden of having to deal with people you can’t identify with. Start with doing a project for yourself!

Welcome outside influence

People get influenced by people. Larry Clark was influenced by artists like Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan. Identify your heroes and allow their influence in your work.

Get feedback, often and broadly. Welcome critical as well as positive feedback. Form a group of peers that you can show things and gather feedback from – tools like Slack, Wake or even WhatsApp make that super easy today.

Trust your visions

Okay, that’s a tough one. You have this thing, this idea, and you feel very lonely with it. There is no way to describe your idea as “Uber for X” or “Like Spotify, but …”. And that is a good thing.

“no one had ever made a film like that. I was just overwhelmed. I said, ‘This guy sees like I see.’”

When you have a clear vision of what you’re after, keep doing it. Don’t quit because no one understands your idea. Pursue it until you find a way of making people understand. Don’t be trendy, don’t try to round wash your idea. Trust your vision!

Stay Busy

Like in sports – if you stop practicing, if you stop exercising, you will lose shape.

“I just try to keep busy. Robert Frank made a film once called Keep Busy. That’s a great title and a great thing to do in your life: just keep busy! Try and stay in some kind of shape, that’s what I’m doing – I’m just keeping busy, super busy.”

When you’re creating, you need to keep creating. Make it part of your daily routine. Create something every day. No matter what you do, if you design, if you photograph, if you draw or paint, if you code or write. Keep busy, do something every day. Keep a journal. Post to your Instagram or Youtube. Take on a challenge to add some peer pressure on you. Staying in your creative shape will not only make you a better and more consistent creator, it’s also a very rewarding thing to do.

Keep busy.

I hope this piece was actually helpful for you. Make sure you read the full manifesto on DAZED. If you liked this summary, please tell all your friends about it. If not, I would be happy to discuss with you on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →