Thursday, June 19, 2008

Keep it simple

In 1977 I wrote my first computer program. In the 31 intervening years, I have worked for a number of large organizations (GE, Bell Labs, Countrywide, Universal Studios et. al.). During the course of this career, I have come to embrace the idea of simplicity. Now, that might seem to be at odds with the fact that I typically work on very complex systems.

Typically, these systems are only complex when viewed as a whole. However, when broken down into the many components that make up these systems, there is simplicity to the individual components. Consider systems like Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS X. Viewed as a whole these systems appear terribly complex.

However, it’s important to understand that no single individual understands how this complex whole functions in its entirety. There are teams of developers that specialize in specific components of these systems. There is a team that works on the GUI. Another that works on the file system. Another that works on networking. And so on.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by these systems if we try to gain an understanding of them as a whole. But, broken down into functional components, they become much easier to understand because, taken at this level, they are much simpler. Early in my career I was intimidated by systems of this nature until I understood how to break them down and attack only the relevant components.

Now, so far, I have just been blathering on about computers. What the hell does this have to do with film making or post production? Patience, grasshoppah. All will be revealed.

When the solution is simple, God is answering – Albert Einstein

It has been my observation that typically, the simplest solution is the best solution. For many years as a software engineer, I would receive requests from the business side of the company that I was working for to request some new software feature.

Invariably, these requests would be convoluted, complex explanations of how the business felt that a particular feature should be implemented. Before I understood the magic of simplicity, I would go back to the business to have them clarify what they were asking for. More often than not, these sessions did not result in any clarification.

And then, one day, I had an epiphany. The next request that came to me that obfuscated what the business actually wanted, I very quickly resolved by asking the business one question:

State your goal.

Simple. Direct and to the point. What is the end result that you wish to achieve? This new approach worked wonders for me and it serves me well to this day. And, the beauty of this simple approach is applicable in almost every aspect of life and the tasks that we all seek to perform.

Simplicity breeds excellence.

I am a big fan of Sting. I think he is a great composer. If you look at a lot of the hits that he has written, they exude simplicity of composition – Every breath you take, Shape of my heart and many others. Simple and beautiful. It takes real talent to pull that off.

The Log Line

And now we come to the part where I relate this to film making and story telling. Last night, Nancy and I attended the LAFCPUG meeting in Hollywood. We have been to many of them but we tend to be selective. Last night was the 8th anniversary of the LAFCPUG and had, as a speaker, feature editor Norman Hollyn.

Norman was there to give a talk on the craft of editing. Unlike most of the meetings, this talk was specific to storytelling. Typically, LAFCPUG focuses on how to use the tools. Not how to tell the story. Norman brought up a couple of things that reminded me of my “State your goal” approach to problem definition.

The first was the log line. A log line is a way to describe a story, regardless of its length, in one or two sentences. Doing this, forces you to boil the story down to its most essential elements. For example, a log line for Raiders of the lost Ark might be:

An archaeologist finds the ark of the covenant. The Nazis steal it from him. He pursues the Ark, recovers it and turns it over to the US government.

Simple. Taking your story and converting it to a log line can allow you to objectively tell the story with only the most essential information necessary to convey the story. We have all sat through films where there were scenes that were boring, slow and did not move the story forward.

The log line can assist us in eliminating this type of issue by allowing us to ask simple questions about every scene in our story such as “how does this scene serve the essence of the story?”. “Does this scene move the story forward?”.

Norman related a number of anecdotes pertaining to his experience as an editor and dealing with a director or producer when he is struggling to understand a scene and is trying to make the scene work. He asks the director “What is the impact on the film as a whole if this scene was removed?”

Simple. Direct. This forces the director to look at the essence of the contribution of the scene to the film as a whole. How does this scene contribute to the story? If you cannot tell me that, then the scene needs to go away. It’s superfluous. Or the director may realize that the scene needs to be moved – before or after the current place in time in the telling of the story.

The point being, when you break down a complex system to its simplest element– Be it a computer, or a story, you will find that the issues that you thought were insurmountable, now become manageable and clear.

1 comment:

Walter said...

"Simplification of means and elevation of ends is the desired goal." - Ralph Waldo Emerson (Wally says GO MIKE!