Efficiency, Redundancy and Art

(note – the bulk of this post was written a few years ago, in 2010, but never published)

“Do one thing, and do it better than anyone else,” solemnly intoned Professor Drew Caspar to the hundreds of students in Intro to Cinema (CNTV-190), the USC School of Cinema Television’s gateway course. The example in question that day was Alfred Hitchcock – If you’re going to direct, be sure to choose one genre of film, and strive to become THE director for that genre, for all time.

Throughout my four years at USC, it drilled into us that the way to succeed in the film industry is to specialize, as early and as intensely as possible. That meant choosing a department: cinematography, art department, producing, editing, sound – and if possible, an even more specific goal. If you knew you wanted to be sound designer, rather than a re-recording mixer, you were that much further ahead.

Many of my fellow undergraduate film students accepted this as gospel and ran with it, but some of us did not – I took classes in a number of departments and even spent a semester abroad – a shining example of what NOT to do, to succeed in the film industry.

Ten years later, I still go back and forth on this question, hearing Professor Caspar’s voice bouncing around my cranium. I have friends in Hollywood working on movies and television shows with multi-million dollar budgets, who are clearly very good at what they do – and I am working on small projects; documentaries, nonprofit fundraising videos, and low-budget commercials.

And yet, I find a great deal of satisfaction in the fact that I’m pretty good at a lot of things – better, in fact, than some people who specialize in those things. I can write, storyboard, direct, produce, shoot, light, edit, color correct, do some basic sound mixing (my weakness is EQ), author a DVD and hand it to you, as a completed film project.

Right now I’m reading “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and one of many fascinating ideas in it which seems to bear special relevance to me is the seemingly obvious observation that nature itself is an incredibly inefficient system.

My whole life, I’ve accepted the conventional wisdom that efficiency is a good thing, morally, ethically and practically speaking. And, I think I’m not alone in that: it hardly needs to be pointed out that when something is labeled inefficient, or redundant, that’s a criticism or an insult.

Human systems, especially in the last hundred years, have taken this idea as an unquestioned first principle: in an evolutionary sense, the natural order of progress is to move from disorder and inefficiency to ever-increasing order, complexity and efficiency. It’s certainly a core tenet of capitalism – the most efficient provider of a product or service can sell the most at the lowest cost, and triumph over the competition.

What gets lost here is the fact that a more efficient and complex system is inherently more fragile. Redundance and resilience go hand in hand.

If efficiency were our highest priority we wouldn’t need two kidneys, for example. The brain itself is a notoriously inefficient system, electrical impulses bouncing all over the place to put one thought together. But that makes it resilient – so after a brain injury it’s possible to learn to talk again, for example. And come to think of it, so is the internet – even though it gets faster and faster, the whole point of the system was to be decentralized – so the signal will find its way through the web of connections eventually (in theory).

Filmmaking has also always been an inefficient process, requiring a team of people, a lot of equipment, and elaborate industrial processes, which were once mechanical and chemical (mass-producing and printing film stock), and are now almost entirely digital. It’s a mistake to presume that the complexity has been reduced, whereas in fact it’s merely been re-allocated to a different set of software designers and algorithm writers – but that’s kind of a different conversation.

And, film has always resisted this inefficiency mightily – because with all of the moving parts of the filmmaking process, it’s very easy for films to get stuck mid-process and never finished. This actually happens all the time, but the filmmaking system, in Hollywood and elsewhere, has always been geared to push films through the process as efficiently as possible, with various strategies of industrialization (filmmaking evolved concurrently with Henry Ford’s assembly line in America, in the 19-teens), engineering and technology, and military-esque hierarchy of chain-of-command communications and authority.

All of that is fine and good – Hollywood is very clear about the fact that it’s manufacturing a product for mass consumption. Why most movies are bad is a separate post as well, and, sidebar, it’s a mistake to assume that a higher percentage of movies in, say, 1941 were higher quality than today – it’s just that the mediocre ones have been forgotten, and if record of them still exists at all, it’s in the form of a single, deteriorating copy in a musty film vault somewhere in a studio basement.

BUT – what I consider to be a mistake is that small-scale filmmakers have, without even noticing for the most part, absorbed this value-set of efficiency, to the detriment of the quality of their work. It’s still true, on an “independent feature film” that dozens of people and thousands of hours of work are required to finish a film, and that more films are abandoned midway than completed.

But of the films that are completed, a great number of them suffer gravely from an unthinking worship of the gods of efficiency, to the detriment of their quality and to their (problematic) classification, hypothetically at least, as works of art.

Filmmaking costs money, yes. And independent filmmakers, as a demographic, tend to be from at least some amount of privilege, upper-middle or upper class – meaning that they have some resources to commit to the aspiration of being filmmakers, and making films. But that also makes them easy targets for the seductions of efficiency and cost cutting. There are entire magazines, and countless websites and blogs, for whom independent filmmakers are not colleagues but merely customers – eagerly absorbing reviews of the latest piece of hardware or software that will improve the quality of a film and/or the efficiency of the process, at a marginal cost!

It’s absolutely a good thing that we have fancy cameras, and light-weight equipment, and that we can edit on our laptops now, and post our work online. But it becomes a huge problem when the ethic of efficiency begins to overtake the other considerations involved in making art.

I’m not going to try to definitively list those other considerations – that’s certainly an ongoing conversation – but in my experience the process of creative generativity shares a number of things with Nassim Taleb’s explanations of redundancy and resiliency in nature – a multiplicity of pathways, ideas formed by webs of associations, and significant periods of, call it fermentation, percolation, layering, revisiting. Maybe the most accomplished and fruitful artists can work in a straight line, from start to finish, but I haven’t seen it.

In the world of film, the increased efficiency in the process actually sabotages the natural progression of creation, which is hopelessly redundant and inefficient. And so that has been a big part of my evolving practice in recent years: rediscovering inefficiency and finding the slow way of doing things, the long way around, the “scenic route” as my mom used to say.

Can I say definitively that better art comes from inefficient processes of making things? Well, I can say it, and I do, though I can’t prove it. But that’s what I’m exploring personally, and you know, it has the added benefit of being more satisfying, to me, and ultimately more meaningful.

Because a part of the conversation about making art has to be, why are we doing this? What’s the point? If the point of making something is to finish it, if the process is ultimately about the product, then yeah – more product, faster, is better. But the point of making art, to me, is not to make as much of it as fast as possible. The point is in the making, the process itself.

I’ll have to revisit this subject, of product and process, because there’s a lot to it – but this feels like a good start.

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