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Big Ideas

Secrets to a Successful Creative Road Trip  

Strike out on an adventure that marries the freedom and exploration of travel with your artistic passion. It’s the chance to move outside of your normal working conditions, where you have all of your tools, and force yourself to make something outside of your comfort zone.

The sameness of office life has a way of dulling your senses, lulling you into a dreamlike state and turning you into a task robot, mindlessly staring into the world wide ether day after day. Your only solution to avoid becoming that sad sap who is so immune to the world around them that they wear their phone headset both into and out of the bathroom, while carrying on a conversation with the caller the entire time, is to bust out of your confines and go on a creative road trip.

You heard that right – a creative road trip, which marries the freedom and exploration of travel with your artistic passion. It’s the chance to move outside of your normal working conditions, where you have all of your tools, and force yourself to make something outside of your comfort zone.


The route that Winslow (right) and Ackerman (left) took from Maine to Oregon.

Take 3D artist Craig Winslow. When he moved from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, he turned the coast-to-coast drive into a personal quest to produce daily, impromptu light installation projections at each of his 15 city stops, many of which were hundreds of miles apart and completely new to him. Oh, and he pushed himself to finish one light installation each day, and that often meant he had to grind away through the night to complete each concept before sunrise. The endeavor, Projecting West, was one-part scenic drive, one-part the chance to make work unlike any other he had created, and one-part personal challenge to see if he could do it.

Winslow convinced his buddy Mike Ackerman, a Bay Area concept designer, to join him and the two packed themselves, a pair of light projectors, and one generator into a gray Honda Element and took off. Though they had successfully raised $7,038 via Kickstarter to cover their expenses, they hit the road weeks before the funds actually were transferred into their bank account. “We were always going to do it for ourselves, whether or not we raised the money,” says Winslow.

Sometimes they’d catch a few winks during the day, other times if they were in a real hurry they simply went sleepless.

He handled the projection mapping at each stop, while Ackerman designed the different elements that would be projected. For setting backdrops, they used mooring buoys in a Maine harbor, an empty silo in Buffalo, New York, an old wall advertisement in Omaha, Nebraska, a barn and fence in Montana, and a small forest grove in Idaho. While the locales were unique, their process was uniform: pull into a town in the early evening and throw an installation up against an unsuspecting backdrop. Then they’d orchestrate their light show that revolved around a fictional narrative of their main “character” Little Buddy taking a trip, videotape the result to show their backers, and pack up their equipment by the time dawn broke. Sometimes they’d catch a few winks during the day, other times if they were in a real hurry they simply went sleepless.

The trip resulted in more than personal satisfaction and self-discovery; Winslow had a catchy side project that ultimately helped him land a spot as an Adobe Creative Resident this year, where he is being paid a 12-month salary to further explore the field of light projection.

Here Winslow shares firsthand his advice on how to set up your own creative road trip that will spark your imagination, compel you to adapt on the fly, and help you strike a balance between the pressures and pleasure of working on a challenging albeit rewarding project.

1. Map our your trip but don’t plan every single minute

When we arrived in the cities, we usually had a vision of what we wanted to do, but we still had to find the right location. Our goal wasn’t to find a blank wall. That would be a curse for me. If you have a blank canvas, you tend to overscope and go nuts with it. When you have limitations, it forces you to make decisions quickly based on your landscape, so we were looking for existing elements that could provide an interesting surface like grass or trees. Coming into Chicago, I really wanted to project under a bridge, and we found a great spot under a bridge that wasn’t super dark, but had very interesting shadows. Instead of fighting the streetlights, we embraced them, focusing on the shadows to put new architecture into story as Little Buddy wandered through a city, following his compass.

The very next night, we arrived in Omaha and didn’t find a location until midnight. Feeling impending failure, we wandered around this massive downtown sculpture, Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness, which depicts travelers on the Oregon Trail. A sobering feeling washed over us, realizing their venture was far more treacherous than ours. Suddenly, we realized the old wall advertisement from earlier in the night was a perfect canvas. (A year later, that day’s concept turned into the idea for my entire Adobe Creative Residency.)

We turned a rock into a digital campfire, and a tree into a dreamscape recalling heartbreak. 

And on day nine, our plan was to camp in Yellowstone National Park and project off of something there. When we got close to the campsite, however, a huge storm had flooded the area, so we backtracked and ended up in the cute town of Sheridan, Wyoming, and stayed at a KOA campground. We thought it would be an uninspiring location, but we got a tent site with electricity, so we could avoid generator noise, and turned a rock into a digital campfire, and a tree into a dreamscape recalling heartbreak. It was one of our favorite overall projections, perfect for a drizzly night.

2. Embrace collaboration

Up until this project, it was often hard for me to fully collaborate with someone else. I’ve worked on teams and initiated projects before where each person owned a part of a project, but on this one, Mike contributed to every level of narrative, design, and ideas as much as I did. We were fully entwined into one singular project. During the start of the trip, I felt like I had this edge of East Coast hustle and could stay up later and get more work done. Mike, who had been living in San Francisco for a few years, adopted a more laidback personality.

The trip helped me learn to trust him and share the load.

When you’re racing against the clock, that can become a point of stress. I was really trying to push him, but I didn’t want to be harping on him. Plus, I preferred to drive most of the time, putting a lot of pressure on him to be productive during the drives. Halfway through our trip, this hit a peak: We got ambitious, Mike passed out, then I passed out, and we missed a day (see point #4). I realized it was all a give and take and, over the course of two weeks of non-stop making things, Mike’s stamina-based approach helped us pace ourselves. The trip helped me learn to trust him and share the load.

In the above video, Winslow describes the ideas behind his different Projecting West videos. 

3. Remain authentic to your mission

“While we were raising money on Kickstarter, we were offering higher level sponsorships for each day. There was a moment where a previous client of mine said they would be happy to be a sponsor, but only if we agree to a specific installation at their shop, at a certain time during the day. That would have felt very obviously sponsorship-y, especially for a crowd-funded project. Like, why are we doing this part of the story in a retail store? That’s when we realized this was a chance to not have corporate sponsorships and retain full creative freedom. It was a defining moment to make sure this cross country trip was very worthwhile for us and our creative ambitions, and not a point of stress fulfilling sponsorship requests.” 

4. Understand that failure doesn’t mean you’ve failed

“Usually after we decided on our locations, we averaged four hours of work until the installation was complete. However, on day seven, we we didn’t get to the Badlands in South Dakota until the sun had set, so we were working in the dark. As I mentioned before, with no location limitations, our ideas and concepts that night became very general and complex – we wanted to project on every single peak around us to create a parallel universe. The time got later and later and we still weren’t finished. We decided to take a half hour nap around 3 a.m., and when we got up and tried to make more animations, we heard birds chirping.

If we fail, we fail  we shouldn’t feel pressure not to fail.

At this point on earlier days that went long, we’d be packing up our equipment, but we hadn’t even driven to our location yet. We rushed off, unprepared, but it was too bright already. That was the worst feeling; we let our backers down. We had failed to do one projection every day. The more we reflected on the failure over the next day, however, we realized the thing we needed to do for the rest of the trip was to just have fun and not succumb to time pressure. If we fail, we fail  we shouldn’t feel pressure not to fail. We adjusted our scope and efficiently busted out two installations the next night, catching ourselves up. And even better — we got to bed early.”

5. Give your creative mind the chance to breathe 

“On the road from one town to the next Mike and I would ‘real talk’ a lot about where we were in life, our struggles and about our perspective moves out west, to inform the narrative of our project. Because we were racing against the clock, we often felt like we should be working during those drives, but we knew we couldn’t push ourselves creatively 100 percent of the time because— well, you know how people get their best ideas in the shower or doing something else mundane? We needed that downtime to not think about or do anything.

If I were to do it again, I would abolished the whole “thing-a-day” sentiment and committed to a projection every other day

It was such a challenge for me as a perfectionist, to attempt one projection a day. Time itself became a large point of stress. If I were to do it again, I would abolished the whole “thing-a-day” sentiment and committed to a projection every other day – a driving/scouting day, followed by a creating day. One installation a day was very ambitious, especially in the long days of summer.”

6. Focus on the journey, not the destination

“By the time we got to Portland we wanted to have a grand finale and not unlike previous nights, we raced the sunrise to wrap up the narrative. Little Buddy and two characters that joined him along the way finish their journey but discover giant new monsters await them in Portland. But from their past struggles, they’ve gained the strength and courage for what new adventures lies ahead. Boom, what a story! Once we were done, the sun started to rise in my backyard, which has a heated, shared pool, so our reward was to jump in a steaming hot pool. Right as we dove in though, we rapidly learned that the heater broke the day before— and the water was freezing cold.”

7. Carry the lessons with you after the last mile

“I’ve always had a knack for staying up all night— when I’m on a roll with something, I tend to stay up until 3 a.m or 4 a.m. especially if there are any impending deadlines, but Projecting West gave me some appreciation for figuring out how to find a better work / life balance. When I take on ambitious projects now where I wish certain working conditions or timelines could be better, I look back at Projecting West and remember what I accomplished under such challenging limitations.

Beyond that, I’ve realized how important it is to be selective and aware of what I’m currently working on at any moment, and how it contributes to what I want to be doing in the future. Pursuing that weird self-initiated project that came from your gut is the best way to really discover what you want to be working toward in life.”

More Posts by Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

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