Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Max Delbrück

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.”

The founder’s mutation

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Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

The scientist Max Delbrück never wrote for television—he was a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist who laid the foundations for the modern discipline of molecular biology—but he understood how it worked. In an interview with the oral history project at CalTech, he famously said:

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.”

Which, when you think about it, is also the recipe for constructing a good genre series. When the pilot first airs, you almost never know what the show is going to be about. (This is not to be confused with its premise, which is something else entirely.) All you can really do is explore possibilities, set up story elements, pair up characters, and throw out ideas, most of which turn out to be dead ends, but some of which theoretically lead to useful adaptations. If it’s too random or sloppy, the show will die before it evolves into something more interesting, but it’s only by “embarking on pathways randomly presented,” as Gregory Bateson said, that you have any hope of finding something new. And the mark of a great showrunner is the ability to create the conditions under which this limited sloppiness can gradually pay off, while minimizing the consequences of any mistakes, of which there are bound to be plenty. As Dana Scully once observed: “There are hits and there are misses…and then there are misses.”

As I once wrote at greater length for Salon: “What strikes me now about the first season of The X-Files is how relentlessly it kept reinventing itself, and how willing it seemed to try anything that worked…As time goes on, the show’s formal incoherence starts to look like its greatest asset.” I thought of these words again last night while watching the show’s return, in an episode aptly titled “My Struggle,” which comes more than thirteen years after the conclusion of its original run. I went in with modest hopes—a level of anticipation that would have been very different if a mediocre second movie hadn’t adjusted my expectations downward—and I agree with most critics that the result is undeniably messy, particularly for a show that had well over a decade to think about how its next phase might look. Characters are introduced and never fully developed; entire scenes seem to lead nowhere; much of it feels rushed, as if large chunks of story had been cut at the last minute; and promising ideas, like the implication that Mulder’s brand of paranoid speculation feeds all too neatly into the conspiracies of right-wing nuts like Glenn Beck, are raised without really being addressed. It doesn’t have the clarity and suspense of the best episodes of the show’s classic mythology, like “Piper Maru/Apocrypha,” and much of it feels like it’s simply laying the groundwork for “Founder’s Mutation,” which airs tonight. As a fan, I enjoyed watching the old band get back together, but I have a hunch that a wider audience was left wondering why it was supposed to care.

Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Yet this kind of sloppiness was so integral to the original show’s success that we had no reason to expect anything else. Series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, was never a particularly strong storyteller in his own right, and staff writers and freelancers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Vince Gilligan were generally responsible for the show’s most memorable moments. But that’s notable and revealing in itself. Carter’s genius, which shouldn’t be underestimated, lay both in conceiving of the show’s premise—which was an unparalleled engine for generating stories—and in managing the whole complicated machine in a way that allowed for its inherent sloppiness to catalyze the work of others. Its first season was a string of increasingly wild one-off experiments that resulted in many of its most useful formulas and ideas, as well as a bunch of episodes that went nowhere and were quickly forgotten. Keeping the whole enterprise moving while scattering seeds that would bear fruit for later writers was what Carter did best, and it worked great when he had twenty or more episodes in which to refine the results. But it doesn’t really work with six. There isn’t enough time. And while I don’t blame Carter for falling back on a tone and approach that worked so well when the show, against all odds, had time to develop it, I do question whether it makes sense in such a limited window. (It’s also instructive to note that the show’s single most significant mutation, in the form of the tonal expansion of Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” didn’t occur until late in the second season.)

But I wouldn’t necessarily have it any other way, especially because I’ve come to realize that the sloppiness of The X-Files had repercussions in my life far beyond that of the show itself: it’s the primary reason that the original series has influenced my own career as a writer more than just about any other work of art. I’ve published three novels that can best be understood as a veiled love letter to what the show accomplished, as well as another book’s worth of short science fiction that tries to recapture the same magic. Even my fondness for female protagonists can be traced back to Scully. (Just as the Scully effect encouraged a generation of young women to pursue careers in medicine, science, and law enforcement, her example caused me to think intuitively about science fiction and suspense through a woman’s eyes.) And if the series had been tidier, or more reliable, it wouldn’t have seized my imagination to the same extent: a more consistent show would have allowed me to settle for what it had to offer, rather than seeing what I could do with the tools it provided. A “perfect” show tends to close off possibilities beyond what its creator envisioned; a show of limited sloppiness provides its writers and fans with the material for unlimited dreams. In the same interview that I quoted above, Delbrück noted: “I have said…that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.” That’s what The X-Files was for me. And it still is—despite, or because of, all its hits and misses.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2016 at 10:22 am

Quote of the Day

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Max Delbrück

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.”

Max Delbrück

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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