Have you ever watched a movie and wondered how something this bad could possibly have gotten made? If you saw that movie in the theater, chances are it cost tens of millions of dollars, and hundreds of people worked on it. Somebody had to have known this was a bad movie. Right?
If you've had that thought process, you're not alone. And you're right: a lot of somebodies did know. But by the time it was too late, it was too late.
The problem doesn't lie in talent or taste. The hundreds of cognitively diverse people that typically make up a film crew come together with different skills to create something bigger than them all. It's an incredible example of the kind of teamwork that most businesses aspire to.
When a high-potential creative process turns out disastrously bad, the problem usually isn't talent. It's often the waterfall process that leaves each skilled team member powerless to improve the final product.
As a friend of mine (film producer and former President of Amazon Films Ted Hope) put it in his excellent Substack recently, "Everyone wishes all it [took] to have a movie is that 'good idea' and the 'good filmmaker,' but it really is about good processes. And we currently don't have them."
This problem isn't peculiar to Hollywood. The underlying issue is the same reason corporations filled with talented people often see mediocre results despite massive effort.
Visual effects artist Felix Jorge had this in mind when he started his own digital studio, Happy Mushroom. Jorge was frustrated, having seen great artistic work like his—which can take place very early in the filmmaking process—often get thrown away.
It comes down to alignment issues that don't get resolved early on, Jorge says. “It has to do with the fact that the guy at the beginning thought they were doing something. The guy that came after did something else. The guy after that, something else. And by the time you get to the end, it's all being remade."
Lack Of Alignment Creates A Mess Teams Often Only See Too Late
It's sort of like if you were cooking a complicated meal. Your job is to prep ingredients for the chef to use.
Say the chef took the ingredients and decided, in the moment, that she wanted to do something a little different with the recipe. Something that promises to be better than the original plan. She combines the ingredients, and so far so good. Adaptation! Innovation! Huzzah!
But then—let's say it's someone else's job to actually cook this thing the chef prepared. The cook looks at the original recipe, checks what the chef has handed them, and decides, in the moment, the best way to cook this thing. There is no true recipe to follow anymore, so the cook does their best.
Then let's say someone else's job is to take what got cooked and assemble it into a meal. They have the original recipe, but what they've pulled out of the pot is something else. And at this point, it's looking like a bit of a mess.
After all this, the chef looks at the result and panics. They either freak out a la Gordon Ramsay, or ask the assembler to make changes. The cook stops by and asks for changes, too.
At some point, the person paying for this meal might call an emergency meeting. So, the chef, the cook, the assembler, and the ingredient prepper all get in the same room to stop the back-and-forth. No one leaves until they agree on what to do next. But, at this point, the food is cooked with little opportunity to salvage it.
When a film goes well (or any big team project in the workplace, for that matter), it's a function of good alignment and communication across all the steps in the process, even when changes to the original plan get introduced along the way. When the outcome is terrible, it's often because of a variation in this cooking analogy.
“It makes sense," Jorge says. “At the beginning, you have the script. The script turns into a picture. The picture turns into a 3D picture. Then you shoot it, edit it, et cetera. Everything was in order. However, all of a sudden, now you have work that is, frankly, mediocre."
In the cooking analogy, artists like Jorge are the ones prepping the ingredients, using the script (recipe) as their guide. A production designer will take those ingredients and create a film set for a director to shoot in. The director then has their cinematographer capture the action. All this “cooking" gets taken out of the oven by an editor, who figures out how to make it a meal.
The obvious solution to this problem is to hash out the disagreements and get on the same page before the cooking work begins. If you can get all of those parties to engage in the process early together—even before it's time to do one's specific job—a group can hash out changes to the recipe and get alignment before the chopping and mixing and cooking starts.
The problem is it's hard to convince busy people to take time to engage so far ahead of the time to do their job.
“If I can get the intention of the director, the DP [director of photography], and the production designer [up front], it's way harder to tell me that my project or the thing that I'm doing is a throwaway," Jorge says.
But directors and DPs and production designers are busy. If your job is to cook meals all day, it's hard to tear you away to talk about ingredient prep—or to interest you in it.
Besides, this is the way everyone cooks. It's hard to rip people out of best practices that an entire industry has used for years.
Jorge's big epiphany at Happy Mushroom has been that you can use new tools and technology to “trick" people into engaging early.
For example, in the emerging field of virtual production in filmmaking (in which my current company, SHOWRUNNER, works), exciting new tools are expanding the possibilities for how movies can be made. Instead of sending a film crew out to a far-flung location, virtual production allows filmmakers to put gorgeous locations up on giant LED walls, making it look like you're in, say, the jungle, when you're just inside a studio.
Directors and production designers and DPs who are excited about this new technology are having to learn new ways to work anyway—and that's the perfect time to influence positive changes in an established process.
To do that, Jorge says it's helpful to use tools that interest his downstream collaborators—production designers, in his case—in engaging in the creative disagreements earlier on.
A visualization artist like Jorge (in the cooking analogy, our ingredient prepper) isn't the party with the most power in the filmmaking process, but they can “trick" (in Jorge's words) those with influence in the process downstream into weighing in earlier. People are naturally curious about new technology, so Jorge advocates for using it as a hook to get downstream collaborators to pay attention to earlier work.
I recently put this advice into practice with a film project of my own. We got our editing and post-production contractors (Prysm Chicago) involved in our planning process in the beginning of the project months before they would normally get involved. They were specifically interested in seeing the newfangled tools we were planning to use, and that created a natural segue into collaborative creative discussions far earlier than usual.
“If [all collaborators] see things as quickly as possible, they're going to arrive at a stronger product at the end," Jorge says. “And their creative vision can carry all the way through. That's what I want."
The details of how you can do this will vary greatly by industry and company, but the principle is this: seeking to unearth disagreement early on helps a team to get to alignment early on—and that prevents the team from painting itself in a corner later.
“I'm really excited for the future," Jorge says. “I'm excited for people to see examples of projects that are engaging in creative disagreements early [and then succeeding], and for people to start thinking about the future process" with these new technologies that can help filmmakers avoid the cooking problems of years past.