Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 6th, 2018

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

Quote of the Day

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There was a long time when I thought that if you just worked hard, things took care of themselves. I’ve learned that isn’t always the case.

Conan O’Brien, in an interview with David Marchese of Vulture

Written by nevalalee

June 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

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