Creative practice research, making the invisible visible

By Associate Professor Susan Kerrigan

Successful filmmaking requires the filmmakers to be invisible. Any trace of the maker in the film is usually scorned at, particularly in commercial films, that is unless the film requires the filmmaker to be in the film - think Michael Moore or Louis Theroux. Regardless of a film’s style, genre narrative, performances and visual or digital effects, filmmakers can see traces of their peers in a film. It’s simply the degrees of visibility afforded through the medium and its conventions which permit filmmakers to creatively cover their tracks.

Practice based research provides a third rigorous way to research ... By adding creativity theories as a framing device and a methodology that defends the creators perspective, it means the internalized relationship between the spectator and the filmmaker, or vice-a versa can be brought to bear on practice.

When filmic creativity is achieved the audience becomes suspended inside an authentic storyworld. When creativity is flawed the makers of the storyworld are revealed and the façade becomes visible. The visibility or invisibility of the maker provides a rich arena for creative practice research, because creative practice is scalable.

This can be seen at the undergraduate level where students are learning the techniques to make their practice invisible, through to doctoral and professional practice research where the making of the film, the creation of a narrative that is meaningful to others is described as research. It is the embodied methods and process of filmmaking also known as screen production, which are gathered over time by the maker, that can only be researched from the uniquely subjective perspective of a film’s maker. Supporting those understandings of practice are a range of creativity theories and the Practitioner-Based Enquiry (PBE) methodology that brings reflective practice, artifact analysis, audience critique and personal accounts of the practice to the fore.

Viewing creativity as a system allows the maker, a screen practitioner, to place themselves inside systemic structures, where they are able to hold the knowledge of a spectator and the filmmaker simultaneously. Holding these two deeply-connected perspectives is possible when creativity is understood to be a rational process that is distributed by peers and comes into being through collective understandings and procedures. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi knows, creativity is systemic and it can be researched as a process, as a practice (individual or group) or as an idea.

One of our aims should be to reveal what we do, so that the richness and the creative complexity can be seen by more than just our creative peers, because for us to prosper as artists and creative industry professionals our research needs to be obvious to our academic peers too.

Psychology and sociology have produced multiple theories which allow creativity to be described and researched from the outside, taking a positivist’s perspective that observes creativity as a phenomena. Reconceptualising creativity theories and using them to frame practice as research in the communication and media arts space has allowed for new knowledge to be gathered that uses group creativity, flow theory, staged creative process theories, tacit knowledge, habitus, embodied practices and intuition. Combined, these theoretical understandings allow creativity to be seen a system in action and for it to be researched by the maker.

Researching the maker’s experience is more commonly being framed using practice-led, practice-based, research-led approaches, much like the discrete approaches of quantitative, which permits the use of big data and statistics, and qualitative, which allows for the rich descriptions and ethnographic details to be gathered through in-depth interviews or case studies. Practice based research provides a third rigorous way to research the making of, either on its own or in a mixed methods approach, in tandem with qual or quant. By adding creativity theories as a framing device and a methodology that defends the creators perspective, it means the internalised relationship between the spectator and the filmmaker, or vice-a versa can be brought to bear on practice. 

To get this balance right the ontologically and epistemological differences need to be disclosed, to avoid the jarring conflation that may sometimes occurs when quantitative methods are applied in a practice research setting. When done poorly these can lead to subjective and bias findings that are flawed. As creative practice researchers, who teach these ways of studying practice to our undergraduates and to our doctoral students we need to defend our ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies and methods so that our unique practitioner perspective, that is how we use ourselves, our tools and our environment to create, becomes visible and can be defensible.

As researchers we need to make visible our devices, techniques, social codes and cultural conventions used to research our practice, or generically creative industries practices. We need to take the opposite stance that we take as makers and creator where we want to be so masterful that our practice becomes invisible, as creative practice researchers we need to go against our intuition and those embodied desires to hide our practices. One of our aims should be to reveal what we do, so that the richness and the creative complexity can be seen by more than just our creative peers, because for us to prosper as artists and creative industry professionals our research needs to be obvious to our academic peers too.


Susan Kerrigan is an Associate Professor in Creative Industries and Communication at the University of Newcastle where she teaches screen production in the Bachelor of Communication. Susan is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Scholar and has published in international journals and has presented internationally at film production and media arts conferences on creative documentary practice and Creative Industries.