How the lack of constraints killed the quality of Star Wars David 21 Jul 2005

43 comments Latest by John

Constraints drive innovation and forces focus. They are to be embraced, not removed. That’s one of the points we’re pushing in the Building of Basecamp workshops. To explain the need of constraints, I’ve used the decline of quality in the Star Wars movies as an example. A couple of weeks ago, I found the following comment on Slashdot, which boiled down my argument down to a single spot-on paragraph:

No the problem is money. Lucas has way too much of it. Especially for the first film [New Hope] there was a severe budget crunch. They were limited in both money and time. I think this forces a film team to make decisions that in the long run are good for the film. If you have no boundaries, you are more likely to throw in little bits that really have no business being in the movie. If you are limited, you are forced to trim the fat and leave the good bits. With the prequels, Lucas had no limits. He effectively had infinite money and time in which to make these films. As a result he wasn’t forced to REALLY think about which parts worked to help the film and which didn’t.

Constraints are a unique advantage that small teams have over the big guys. Less money, less time, less people. Don’t be too eager to relieve yourself of these advantages through VC money, long release cycles, and quick hires.

43 comments (comments are closed)

Mike 21 Jul 05

I couldn’t agree more. Star Wars or not, constraints are one of the biggest necessities for art. Yes, not only because of the pragmatic reason that tough decisions have to be made, but also in a more abstract sense… Art itself is an extension of us, human beings, as it is the only thing we can truly create (other than more of us). We as people are constrained in innumerous ways. The best art seems to revel in that.

In a more immediate sense, consider the rise of minimal (or should i say ‘simple’) design that has arisen probably in large reaction to technological limitations during the early rise of the web. Yet it is not a design fad.. it is an abstraction of the essence of design which is impacting fields which never had those limitations in the first place.

John Zeratsky 21 Jul 05

Couldn’t agree more, David. I think web application development is an endeavor chalk full of constraints, and that’s why there’s so much great, creative work going on in that space.

John Zeratsky 21 Jul 05

Ack! We (Mike and I) said basically the same thing, but in different words.

Brad 21 Jul 05

Constraints foster creativity in most arts. Just think of music: all the great music was created within the bounds of constraints. When you remove all constraints, you get stuff like 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. That’s not creativity, it’s a publicity stunt.

David Goodlad 21 Jul 05

I’ve found that not only do constraints improve the final product of my work, but they also seem to improve my ability to get the work done. When I’m working without any time (and other) pressures, I relax _too much_, procrastinating since there are no real negative repurcussions to just doing it “tomorrow”.

The flip side is that when you have too many constraints that are too tight, decisions are made in a very rushed, sloppy way. Sometimes they’re just made quickly because the feeling is that there isn’t enough time (or money, or whatever) to spend on studying the problem properly.

My other observation about the effect of constraints on a project is that constraints are usually give-and-take. Since many constraints are related (time, money, manpower devoted to tasks, etc), one can sometimes re-allocate between those constraints. Of course, this doesn’t always apply: there is always going to be a fixed maximum number of hours to a specific deadline, and so on.

Dean 21 Jul 05

Just think - the Beatles only had 4 tracks to record on…

Simple is often better.

David 21 Jul 05

I don’t know how Lucas’ excess equates to taking VC funding. Just because one has funds doesn’t mean they lose constraint and solve all problems by throwing money their way.

Don Wilson 21 Jul 05

Good ideology behind the “Constraints are good” paragraph.

Art Wells 21 Jul 05

I think this explains most sequels

..and why it is harder to write good free form poetry than rhymed and metered (or how amateur haiku can be excellent)

…and, to some degree, why digests and summaries can inspire more thought than what they are meant to describe

…and, metaphorically, why obesity is unhealthy.

neil 21 Jul 05

I agree with the overall idea of constrains being good for project quality, but the Star Wars example is pretty flawed.

Let’s face it - the original Star Wars is more memorable because how different it was from anything else out there and the innovative effects. As far as standard barometers of what makes a good movie (plot, characters, acting) it’s pretty terrible. So if you’re looking at it from a “decrease in quality” perspective it’s not a very compelling example. Wowing someone with something they’ve never seen before is temporary; quality lasts much longer.

This could probably be applied to any of the Star Wars films (notable exception being The Empire Strikes Back)… all sizzle, no steak.

A better film analogy would be The Matrix series. The first film had a budget of $65 million, compared to $127 million for “Reloaded” and $110 million for “Revolutions” (data from http://www.the-numbers.com/). I couldn’t find any data on how long production ran for any of the three films, unfortunately… anyone?

Tony 21 Jul 05

“When you remove all constraints, you get stuff like 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. That’s not creativity, it’s a publicity stunt.”

I assume you are refering to John Cage’s 4’33”, here. Notice the word “silence” doesn’t appear in the title. The entire point of that piece is that it ISN’T silent, and you are totally missing that point. And don’t think Cage didn’t have constraints just because you don’t “get” his artwork.

I also don’t think David was postulating that constraints equal better results, but that no constraints might equal worse results.

Colin O'Malley 21 Jul 05

There are no absolutes here … long product cycles can be necesary … complexity is sometimes required … until your group has cash flow, funding may be pre-condition for forward motion … but the larger message that I find inspiring here is that constraints are natural and, in some ways, beneficial. We tend to expend far too much energy railing against or bemoaning our time, money, and bandwidth constraints. Embracing them as a competitive advantage is quite an attitude shift. How zen. I buy it.

Dan Boland 21 Jul 05

I think most of us agree that excess is bad for a number of projects. Here are a couple of other examples I can think of off the top of my head:

The New York Yankees have the highest payroll in the history of baseball and they aren’t even in first place, let alone dominating the sport.

Would Jaws have been as effective in frightening the audience had the fake shark actually worked?

Dan Boland 21 Jul 05

I assume you are refering to John Cage’s 4’33”, here. Notice the word “silence” doesn’t appear in the title. The entire point of that piece is that it ISN’T silent, and you are totally missing that point. And don’t think Cage didn’t have constraints just because you don’t “get” his artwork.

But at some point, you have to call a spade a spade. If 4’33” is music, then my farts are music, too.

Tony 21 Jul 05

But at some point, you have to call a spade a spade. If 4’33” is music, then my farts are music, too.

You can call it a spade if you like, but it is not silent, and was not created in an environment lacking in constraints. I wasn’t so much trying to make a value judgement on the art, as I was trying to point out that it wasn’t necessarily relevant to this discussion.

Marc Hedlund 21 Jul 05

I certainly agree with the general point; but don’t forget that many people point to Empire Strikes Back as their favorite of the series. While Star Wars was tightly budget- and schedule-constrained, Empire was not at all.

My personal view is that George’s priorities and interests changed a lot over the years of the series (haven’t yours?), and that he probably became much less engaged in the community of filmmakers, working together and criticizing each other, than he was at the times he made Graffiti and Star Wars. Of course there are probably plenty of other reasons I don’t know about, but those two seem significant to me.

Maybe one good thing about the blog world is that all of the attacks on, say, Ruby on Rails keep you attuned to other people’s opinions — engaged in the community of your peers that will give you hell if you wander off course. David, when you get rich selling Rails Action Figures, don’t build a ranch and stop reading blogs, okay? Engagement and community probably matter at least as much as constraints.

Luke Crawford 21 Jul 05

Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now:

We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.

Tony 21 Jul 05

Marc,
Lucas didn’t direct V and VI, so that may change the dynamic a bit. The directors were operating under constraints imposed by Lucas, I imagine — if not monetary constraints, certainly creative ones.

rick 21 Jul 05

Or, maybe they’re just more talented than Lucas?

Brad 21 Jul 05

Actually I think 4’33” is relevant here: the piece really was about silence, or more precisely the fact that what we perceive as silence isn’t silent at all (Cage discovered in the anechoic chamber that as humans we can’t experience total silence because we hear the workings of our bodies), but when he approached that as a performance piece he had to move beyond the constraints of what we typically define as music. It works as a piece of performance art, but as music it comes off as a stunt, especially given that he had a pianist come out on stage and turn the pages as quietly as possible.

Tony 21 Jul 05

So your point is that by breaking the barrier between what is considered performance art and what is considered music, Cage removed the constraints imposed by a traditional definition of music, and the result was something most people wouldn’t consider music?

Or, perhaps he just took the idea of aleotoric music and evolved it so far as to stretch the boundries of what is considered music.

Tony 21 Jul 05

I wish there was an edit button…

It’s aleatoric. Sorry for the typo.

Brad 21 Jul 05

I guess my point is that when Cage removed the constraints imposed by a traditional definition of music, the result was something that most people would consider just plain silly. Working within the constraints, other artists have produced work that most people would consider profound.

I’m all for artistic freedom and breaking boundaries etc., but the results aren’t necessarily any more creative than what is produced under traditional constraints.

kirkaracha 21 Jul 05

My theory is that both the first Matrix movie and the first Star Wars movies were one-offs and the subsequent films in both series were based on capitalizing on the original movie’s unexpected success. There are way too many inconsistencies between movies (agents are nearly invicible in the first Matrix and anyone can fight them later; Luke and Leia are the romantic interest, then brother and sister) for me to believe they were actually written as multi-film series.

josh Williams 21 Jul 05

(Ultimate power * large sums of cash) + lots of “yes” men = crappy products.

beto 21 Jul 05

Just three words: Comfort breeds conformism.

And by the same token, necessity is the mother of invention (and good ideas). The sweetest spot for creativity and innovation probably lies somewhere between a broke college student’s ramen diet and a lobster and champagne dinner at Maxim’s.

Dan Boland 21 Jul 05

Luke and Leia are the romantic interest, then brother and sister)

But isn’t that plot twist in the books? (I’ve never read the books.)

Lucas 21 Jul 05

Bite Me!

Alex King 21 Jul 05

It makes you wonder if Peter Jackson’s King Kong will be of a lower quality than Lord of the Rings. Although I doubt it, he does has access to just about any resources, and probably any time frame he wants at this point. Let’s just hope he puts some constraints on himself :-D

Eric Nova 21 Jul 05

Sorry for posting the url instead of the link. Here’s the text I was refering to (Jef Raskin’s words):

WHY SOFTWARE IS THE WAY IT IS

What has been described as “creeping elegance” is probably better described as “feature blight”, for like a fungus on a plant it gradually elaborates and blurs the true outline of the product while it drains its sap. The antidote to feature blight is, of course, the “constricting deadline”. This results in features being discarded in proportion to the time it would take to implement them. It is often the case that the most useful features take the longest to implement. Thus the combination of the blight and the deadline yeilds software as we know and love it, comprised of bountiful quantities of useless features.

Mark 21 Jul 05

I don’t agree with your using Star Wars as an example of laziness due to an apparent lack of constraints.

Star Wars is (and always has been) more about pushing the boundaries (constraints?) of special effects technology than it is about the story.

ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) is a LucasFilm Company. The Star Wars franchise built ILM into what it is today - the premiere special effects house in Hollywood. Here’s a link to their filmography.

I guarantee you that if LucasFilm had no constraints budget wise, they created their own creatively in order to push the boundry of what was possible.

In doing so, new software was developed, rendering farms improved, new techniques in motion capture were discovered, 3d / miniture modeling improved, sound management improved…

I would argue ILM / LucasFilm is all about embracing constraints, they consistently push the special effects industry further outside the box of where they were before.

Michael Wood 22 Jul 05

Firstly Empire was “tightly budget- and schedule-constrained” owing to the need to get a sequel into production before Lucas’s option reverted to Fox as Biskind reveals in Easy Riders and Raging Bulls.

Secondly yes the Beatles had four tracks and did some great things with them but Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds with 48 layers of overdubbing and it is at least as good as Revolver.

Thirdly, and getting to the point, imposed constraints are not the key to success but rather imposed controls and often these are self-imposed controls.

Having a tiny budget for a project may focus the mind on what is needed and what is not but having a large budget should not allow the mind to wander away from what the project needs into fancies which do little to enhance the quality of the project.

We have all read proposals which contain columns headed “Nice to have” where not a single thing enhances the user’s experience and real focus - the focus of a small budget - tells us to not add those element to the project and to stick with the “Need to have” column.

In that way we get website which are better for the user because they focus on the core user experience. Get a website like that and you can throw all the money you want at it and it will not significantly improve although the corporate bottom line will.

We should be committed to self-imposed controls because they create a better product.

Tim Almond 22 Jul 05

I think that some of the other constraints would have been that Lucas would have had some people around doing some of the work - the problem when you look at EP1-3 is that many of the key roles (Writing, Producing, Directing) are basically down to Lucas.

I once worked in a team where a manager let me just do my own thing. I’ve also worked in teams where positive peer review is done, and I know that the time spent in peer review is very valuable to my work.

MrBlank 22 Jul 05

Lord of the Rings turned out fine and it didn’t look like there were too many constraints in making those films.

I think the key is to make the best out of what you have. Egos and complacency are what kill creativity and innovation, not low budgets.

MrBlank 22 Jul 05

Oops … I mean “not big budgets.” Sorry.

Hey, on another subject, doesn’t this place use cookies to remember my name, email and URL? I have to type it all in again when I post a comment. (OS 10.3 Firefox 1.0.4)

Ken 22 Jul 05

I’d have been happier if he’d simply spent some of that money on a competent screen writer. And maybe a therapist.

Brian 22 Jul 05

Ken, that’s what I’m sayin’! The film could have benefitted from fewer constraints on the writing — not just him with a pencil and paper. Not more writers, but better writers with more input — with the dialogue at least. Dump more big money on a few good writers and fewer CG asteroid modelers. lol. :]

Or maybe have fewer constraints on the number of people around him that can tell him when something is stupid. ha.

Darrel 22 Jul 05

The new Star Wars films were the lucas’ equivalent of the graphic designer’s ‘3-D spinning, drop shadowed, every CSS-trick, die-cut, embossed, flash based, 8 spot color, foil stamped’ project.

We all do those once in a while just to get all of the silly crap out of our system in one fell swoop. Yea, it’s crap. But it’s SHINY crap, and now that it’s out of our system, we can concentrate on that next project with a clean slate…

But, in general, the less $$$ a film has, the more it has to focus on the story. In graphic/web design, it seems the less $$$ a project has, the less is spent on the copyrighting/message/purpose. There actually seems to be an opposite effect.

Pault 22 Jul 05

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”
Orson Welles

MW 23 Jul 05

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”
Orson Welles

That limitation he speeks of is not only of exterior origin. It could very well be limitations from within the artist himself. E.g. the german author Stefan Zweig would keep refining his text until only but the true essence remained. Let it be mentioned that he was a well established writter and had all the finance he needed.


mrod 10 Aug 05

What ruined Star Wars were the kids who saw the originals grew up and forgot how to enjoy a movie.

John 01 Nov 05

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