Saturday, August 29, 2009

How Showing Work In Progress To The Right People Helps

In a recent interview in Variety, Disney-Pixar’s John Lasseter talks about allowing people to fail as part of the creative culture which originated at Pixar and is now being implemented at Disney too.

At all levels and stages of the creative process, everyone is encouraged to propose new ideas and solutions to problems. As the article puts it:

[Lasseter] ... is adamant that teams not be allowed to sequester themselves or work too long without sharing their progress with others. No matter what state a project is in, every three months, directors are required to put their film up on reels and test how it screens. That way, Lasseter and his fellow leaders can identify problems early.

I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I try and avoid more than having someone read anything of mine that I don’t consider polished and presentable. If I know the writing isn’t ready yet, I keep it well hidden. Because almost no one understands that the process of screenwriting consists of writing draft upon draft of a variety of documents which often only make sense to the screenwriter. That you just have to produce and discard a lot of crap before anything worthwhile emerges. That it takes time and lots and lots of effort to come up with a presentable screenplay.

Which is why having a writing partner can be a boon. That is, if you’re in a writing partnership that can contain and cope with the inevitable emotions involved. The sulking, the accusations, the manipulations, the abuse, the violence and, yes, the affection.

As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve set myself a series of deadlines for an outline (already finished!), a treatment (nearly done!) and a first draft of an animation feature I’m writing together with my writing partner. And this is what happened a couple of days before I read Lasseter’s interview:

My writing partner comes over, for something unrelated to the screenplay in question. (For the sake of clarity, the way we’re working on this stage of the screenplay is that I’m writing and he’s critiquing.) I mention in passing the progress I’m making on the treatment. So he says, why don’t I give him what I’ve written so far, so that he can catch any problems before they become more complicated to solve.

I feel myself freeze. I hear myself offering lame excuse after lame excuse for not giving him the pages. "I’m still working on some set-ups and pay-offs," I lie. "There are scenes at the end which might still prompt changes in earlier scenes," I hypothesize. And so on.

Then it dawns on me that I’ve gone defensive. Big time. Whereas if there’s anyone who’s going to add to the quality of the writing by looking at the work in progress, it’s my writing partner! So I give him the pages, he takes them home and reads them, and gets back to me that same evening with some really insightful notes.

So now you see why the interview with Lasseter struck such a chord with me. He’s basically saying that his people have to show each other their work in progress on a regular basis. Because openly encouraging them to not be afraid of failing, increases the likelihood of identifying and fixing problems earlier rather than later in the creative process. Which confirms the experience I had just a couple of days earlier.

Sure, it can be pleasant to lock yourself in your writer’s ivory tower, but the advantages of identifying problems while you can still correct them relatively easily, are huge. Not only does it save time during rewriting, it also allows for more depth of rewriting.

However, as I’ve written in an earlier post you have to choose the right moment to show your work in progress, and it’s essential that the person reading your work has no ulterior motive for pointing out problems in your writing. As long as you’re both equally invested in and committed to producing the best work possible, then it’s well worth the potential embarrassment of exposing your writing at an early stage.

And now I’m off to finish the treatment before Tuesday’s self-imposed deadline …


Anonymous said...

but did that work for Francis
Ford Coppola or Stanley Kubrick? for example:
Eyes Wide Shut and Apocalypse Now
was never shown to anyone. The director had full control. Disney employees are not creative artists like Franics or Stanley. The are machines. Do you agree?

Raving Dave Herman said...

Coppola and Kubrick? I have no idea who they showed their work to, let alone at what stage in the development, so I can't comment on that.

As for your suggestion that employees at Disney are machines ... that's not just inaccurate, it's pretty rude too. Even the guys who clear up the garbage at Disneyland aren't machines, they're human beings, making a living.

The process of making an animated feature film, certainly at Pixar, is a huge collaborative process involving hundreds of people, all of whom contribute to the end product.

Sure, even at Pixar there's a director on each movie who has ultimate artistic control. However, the channels are open for everyone, regardless of "rank" to make creative suggestions.

More than that, as Lasseter explains in the interview, the director is obligated to show everyone what they're doing every three months.

I think that Pixar's track record proves that this is a pretty good way of fixing problems before a film is released.

Do you agree?

Anonymous said...

I tell, I hate Disney movies.
I can't bear to watch them.
I can't believe folks are working on such films.
Cinema and Disney - I don't get their relationship?
I doubt if the major cinema goers care about Disney...
Real film-making is about doing and then presenting/showing when the movie is completed.
If you show people your work in progress it shows that the vision is controlled by a non-artists who are slaves to the brain-washing corporation like Disney etc.

Name me a Disney movie that's liked
by guys who play popular video games?