Creative constraint #1 / Sam and Dave dig a hole

Sam and Dave dig a hole is a book written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.

I added it to my bookshelfs initially because I was hung by graphics. Moreover, other books illustrated by Jon Klassen then joined this one (the splendid Extra yarn, for exemple, also writen by Barnett), it is a very talented illustrator. I enormously like the way in which the color is used, with much matter. The nuances are very beautiful, and the dark colors are deep and rich.


But this book became even more invaluable to me for what it tells.

« Quand arrêterons-nous de creuser ? demanda Sam.
– On est en mission, répondit Tom.
On creusera tant qu’on n’aura pas trouvé quelque chose de spectaculaire. »

Mac Barnett, in Sam et Tom L’incroyable aventure

The two young Sam and Tom, accompanied by their dog, will dig a hole, in search of something spectacular. Us, readers, are the only ones to see that they pass just beside increasingly large precious stones. They will dig a long time, without never finding these stones, will arrive until the end of the ground, and will make a long fall which will bring them in front of a house. They will find that “rather spectacular”.

I will not always break the magic of the discovery of a book by telling the end of the story, but for this one I needed to precise the facts. Why? Because this book is a kind of image of my artistic practice, and of the course I give to the students of 2nd year at Supinfocom Valenciennes.

I broach with them the concept and the realization of a very short film, on the model of a commissionned film, whom I invented the subject. The students work by groups of 2 (like Sam and Dave). The subject abounds in constraints: of time since it is necessary to manage to finish the film in a few weeks, of duration (not more than 30 seconds), of subject, technique of animation (After Effects in priority), of form. Work in duo also is often perceived as constraining, at least before work really starts.

This very constrained work can seem off-putting at first glance, and there are always some sighs with the announcement of the subject. I understand perfectly the desire of the student for being freer – there will be for some of them the first experience of creating a film from A to Z. I have some courses, over 6 months, to make them foresee a freedom that they only can discover by themselves through this project full of barriers: the creative progression.

Sam and Dave dig a hole shows us that the treasure that someone discovers is sometimes quite different from what he imagined to seek. The reader hopes secretly that the two friends will find a precious stone, and it is not the disappointment which is at the end of the road, but another discovery, a new amazement.

The creative constraint (carried at succulent tops by Oulipo) gives the possibility to the creators of exploring new fields, and, especially, to meet their own capacities to invent in “hostile environment”. It is not a question of seeking at all costs to release itself from the barriers, but rather, once they are well located, to dig as further as possible, to look further into research. To observe your own limits, your resources, to put in your memory feelings (the pleasure of finding the “key” of the subject, the distress in a dead end, and the way you circumvented it), are treasures which will be always valid, and which will enrich freer creations. Moreover, there does not exist situation of creation in total freedom, but rather the situations which one accepted or integrated the constraints.

I am often astonished by the idea that some have that commissioned films are less creative than the other kinds of film. A director, recently, to who I said that I directed mainly films for museums or scientists, asked me what I in addition did as really creative. This ignorance of one part of the field of creativity seems to me to have to be fighten indefatigably, especially with young people. I thank people who commissioned me for not to falling into this stereotype, and to always expecting from me to be more creative, particularly in the most complex and constrainted projects.

Sam and Dave show us also a moment of perseverance, and that also must echo in the spirit of young budding artists.

The reading of this album for children to an adult public was a rich experience for it as for me. It inaugurated our ritual of course’s beginning: a course, a book read aloud and left at disposal during the course.


Sketches by Léa Cousty, student of 2nd year in Supinfocom.

I will often broach in my articles the subject of the creative constraint, but if you wish right now to react, the comments expect your words.