Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The prankster principle

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Totoro in Toy Story 3

In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ed Catmull of Pixar was recently asked: “How do you, as the leader of a company, simultaneously create a culture of doubt—of being open to careful, systematic introspection—and inspire confidence?” He replied:

The fundamental tension [at Pixar] is that people want clear leadership, but what we’re doing is inherently messy. We know, intellectually, that if we want to do something new, there will be some unpredictable problems. But if it gets too messy, it actually does fall apart. And adhering to the pure, original plan falls apart, too, because it doesn’t represent reality. So you are always in this balance between clear leadership and chaos; in fact that’s where you’re supposed to be. Rather than thinking, “Okay, my job is to prevent or avoid all the messes,” I just try to say, “well, let’s make sure it doesn’t get too messy.”

Which sounds a lot like the observation from the scientist Max Delbrück that I never tire of quoting: “If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the ‘Principle of Limited Sloppiness.’”

Most artists are aware that creativity requires a certain degree of controlled messiness, and scientists—or artists who work in fields where science and technology play a central role, as they do at Pixar—seem to be particularly conscious of this. As the zoologist John Zachary Young said:

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

I suspect that scientists feel compelled to articulate this point so explicitly because there are so many other factors that discourage it in the pursuit of ordinary research. Order, cleanliness, and control are regarded as scientific virtues, and for good reason, which makes it all the more important to introduce a few elements of disorder in a systematic way. Or, failing that, to acknowledge the usefulness of disorder and to tolerate it to a certain extent.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

When you’re working by yourself, you find that both your headspace and your workspace tend to arrive at whatever level of messiness works best for you. On any given day, the degree of clutter in my office is more or less the same, with occasional deviations toward greater or lesser neatness: it’s a nest that I’ve feathered into a comfortable setting for productivity—or inactivity, which often amounts to the same thing. It’s tricker when different personalities have to work together. What sets Pixar apart is its ability to preserve that healthy alternation between order and disorder, while still releasing a blockbuster movie every year. It does this, in part, by limiting the number of feature films that it has in production at any one time, and by building in systems for feedback and deconstruction, with an environment that encourages artists to start again from scratch. There’s also a tradition of prankishness that the company has tried to preserve. As Catmull says:

For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy…Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “Okay, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea.

It’s hard to scale up a culture of practical jokes, and Pixar has faced the same challenges here as elsewhere. The mixed outcomes of Brave and, to some extent, The Good Dinosaur show that the studio isn’t infallible, and a creative process that depends on a movie sucking for three out of four years can run into trouble when you shift that timeline. But the fact that Pixar places so much importance on this kind of prankishness is revealing in itself. It arises in large part from its roots in the movies, which have been faced with the problem of maintaining messiness in the face of big industrial pressures almost from the beginning. (Orson Welles spoke of “the orderly disorder” that emerges from the need to make quick decisions while moving large amounts of people and equipment, and Stanley Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for collaborators like Ken Adam who would allow him to be similarly spontaneous.) There’s a long tradition of pranks on movie sets, shading imperceptibly from the gags we associate with the likes of George Clooney to the borderline insane tactics that Werner Herzog uses to keep that sense of danger alive. The danger, as Herzog is careful to assure us, is more apparent than real, and it’s more a way of fruitfully disordering what might otherwise become safe and predictable. But just by the right amount. As the artist Frank Stella has said of his own work: “I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.”

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