Why Man Creates: Saul Bass’ Oscar-Winning Animated Look at Creativity (1968)

Maybe you already had a fascination with Saul Bass’ celebrated movie title sequences, or maybe you gained one from yesterday’s post about the current designers he’s inspired. Either way, you can round out your understanding of the man’s artistic sensibility by watching Why Man Creates (part one, part two), the animated film by Bass and his wife/collaborator Elaine which won the 1968 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. An eight-part meditation on the nature of creativity, the film mixes animation and live action, using Bass’ advanced repertoire of optical techniques, to look at the issues surrounding how and why humans have, throughout the history of civilization, kept on making things. It begins with early hunters felling a beast and making a cave painting out of it. From that cave rises a tower built out of every major phase of human civilization: the wheel near the bottom, the pyramids somewhat higher up, the literal darkness of the Dark Ages as the camera rises higher still, ultimately capped by a heap of planes, trains, and automobiles. One wonders how Bass might, in an update, have stacked his representation of the internet atop of all this, but the sequence’s datedness costs it none of its virtuosity.

Some of Why Man Creates’ subsequent chapters, in their bold late-sixties “trippiness,” may strike you as more dated than virtuosic. But it would take a hardened viewer indeed not to crack a smile at Bass’ Pythonesque turn when a drawn hand flips open the tops of a series of unthinking partygoers’ heads, revealing the emptiness inside. In its 29 short minutes, the film also looks at the creative struggle in terms of the coarseness of evaluative crowds, the tendency of successful radical ideas to become self-perpetuating institutions, and how people just like things better when they have American flags on them. Its journey ends in an unexpected setting, amid the toil of agricultural and medical scientists who may pursue an idea for years only to find that it has no application. This note of frustration leads into a montage of sun, fire, statuary, the Sphinx, canvasses, and rockets. Assembled with Bass’ signature subtle visual complexity, it takes us from antiquity to modernity in a way only he could.

Why Man Creates has been added to our list of Free Oscar Films on the Web as well as our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

by | Permalink | Comments (12) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (12)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Lauren says:

    At first I thought Bass’s film would be too dated to be relevant to the types of art that are appreciated today. Instead, his steps of creativity lead us through a series that entertains and challenges. I enjoyed the abstract scenes such as adding milk and ice cream to the girl head-banging as much as I enjoyed to the political comment about adding an American flag to his piece to suit society. The 8 parts do a wonderful job previewing just what a creative mind endures in the process of creating something wonderful.

  • Jordan Tyjeski says:

    I don’t know what I was expecting from the clip, but I was just about as confused after I watched it as before I did. I thought it was very weird while I was watching it, and even kind of pointless and dumb. After I had watched the whole video and was eating lunch, I was thinking about it, and things started to make sense. It took me awhile, but I started seeing what I think Bass wanted me to. I even went back and watched parts again, because there more I watched and thought about it, the cooler the video seemed to me.

  • Jaycie says:

    I really liked the video. I think I grasped the meaning and the intention of the video pretty well. I like how the format was different from other informational videos. I like the illustrations and the stories involved in the video.I think it helps a lot to have the video separated into 7 categories. I think it is important to remember how ideas evolve and to encourage people to keep thinking of new ideas and ways to improve the world and this video did that.

  • Molly Hoffman says:

    At first I thought the film was very confusing and I was confused as to the point it was making. However, as it went on I started to understand some of the symbolism. I thought it was very interesting how the film maker showed these symbols.

  • Anika Sheela says:

    This video is very thought provoking. I liked how he used animation, comic style and different styles to express the definition and meaning of this video.

  • James Donnellan says:

    I was very confused throughout most of the film but i began to see the reasons they conveyed, IE passion or good deeds. I like how the creator didnt just lecture the points but instead used symbolism to allow the audience to figure out what he meant

  • Angelica K. says:

    I found this film to be confusing at first. However, it made you think deeper about what point they were trying to get across. It brought up multiple interesting points on creation. Things that I would have never thought about without the films help. The visuals were interesting to help keep the viewer entertained.

  • Kayla R. says:

    This film was pretty random, but i think the message they had was interesting. I think humans are problem solvers and we make a lot of trial and error before we come to a good product. Most things that are found today are made by mistakes. We all look at design in our own way including this clip.

  • Dustin B. says:

    I started watching this short film with no expectations. I struggled at points to connect the dots of another persons thought process. Although, I think watching it this way enhances the visual experience and message overall. I enjoyed it and was captivated the entire time.

  • Elliot V. says:

    As I started to watch this short film it caught my attention with the writing down of ideas, but also confused me to why things were being written down. As I continued to watch I started to understand the meaning of the film and the clips in the film. Many different meanings how humans came to be, how we interact, and treat one another. It was a very strange on how things were represented but also pretty to understand after a couple minutes in.

  • Andre W says:

    I thought that this film was slightly confusing and difficult to understand at some part. There were various parts that made me feel a sort of astonishment at how complex the scene was and the type of connects that I made from them. There is a chance that I was confused by the other parts because I was not thinking deep enough, or I was thinking too deeply.

  • AJ says:

    My 9th grade English teacher showed this to us back in ’80. It was a tad confusing for us 14 yr olds in places, but of course we dug the humor and laughed at the parts that seemed “funny.” The older I got, the more I understood it and put the pieces together. It is a PHENOMENAL, thought-provoking film and I still go back to it from time to time. Sure, some of the sequences are dated (the “gogo” scene) but if you substitute today’s culture for that, it’s absolutely the same. I cannot overstate how brilliant this piece is.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.