Making Films and Making Websites

I recently listened to an episode of the Scriptnoes podcast interviewing Christopher Nolan, director of films such as The Dark Knight, Inception, and Oppenheimer.

Generally, it’s fascinating look at the creative process. More specifically, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between making websites and making films.

Coincidentally, I recently read a post from Baldur Bjarnason where he makes this observation:

Software is a creative industry with more in common with media production industries than housebuilding.

As such, a baseline intrinsically-motivated curiosity about the form is one of the most powerful assets you can have when doing your job.

You definitely hear Nolan time and again express his fascination and curiosity with the form of film making.

As someone fascinated with the form of making websites, I wanted to jot down what stuck out to me.

Screenplays Are Tools, Not Films

Here’s Nolan talking about the tension between what a film starts as (a script, i.e. words on paper) and what the film ends up as (a series of images on screen).

Everyone’s struggling against, “Okay, how do I make a film on the page?” I’m fascinated by that...I enjoy the screenplay format very much…but there are these endless conundrums. Do you portray the intentionality of the character? Do you portray a character opens a drawer looking for a corkscrew?

There’s a delicate balance the screenplay form must strike: what needs to be decided upon and communicated up front and what is left up to the interpretation of the people involved in making the film once the process starts?

The problem is you have to show the script to a lot of people who aren’t reading your screenplay as a movie. They’re reading it as a screenplay. They’re reading it for information about what character they’re playing or what costumes are going to be in the film or whatever that is. Over the years, it varied project to project, but you try to find a middle ground where you’re giving people the information they need, but you’re not violating what you consider your basic principles as a writer.

However, as much as you want the screenplay to be great and useful, moviegoers aren’t paying to read your screenplay. They’re paying to watch your film. Nolan notes how he always re-centers himself on this idea, regardless of what is written in the screenplay.

I always try to view the screenplay first and foremost as a movie that I’m watching. I’m seeing it as a series of images. I’m imagining watching it with an audience.

Interestingly, Nolan notes that the screenplay is a medium that inherently wants the editing process to be intertwined in its form. If you don’t leverage that, you’re not taking advantage of the screenplay as a tool.

[movies are] a medium that enjoys this great privilege of Shot A plus Shot B gives you Thought C...that’s what movies do. That’s what’s unique to the medium.

A script is words on paper. A film is an interpretive realization of those words as a series of images.

But it’s even more than that. Just think of what it takes for words on paper to become a film:

It may seem obvious, but a screenplay is not a film. It’s a tool in service of making a film.

Software Artifacts Are Tools, Not Websites

In other words, what you use to make a website is not the website itself.

The “Source of Truth”

When a movie is released in theaters, it would be silly to think of its screenplay as the “source of truth”. At that point, the finished film is the “source of truth”. Anything left in the screenplay is merely a reflection of previous intention.

So do people take the time to go back and retroactively update the screenplay to accurately reflect a finished film?

No, that would be silly. The finished film is what people pay to see and experience. It is the source of truth.

Similarly, in making websites, the only source of truth is the website people access and use. Everything else — from design system components to Figma mocks to Miro boards to research data et. al. — is merely a tool in service of the final form.

That’s not to say there’s no value in keeping things in sync. Does the on-set improvisation of an actor or director require backporting their improvisations to the screenplay? Does cutting a sequence in the editing process mean going back to the screenplay to make new edits? Only when viewed through the lens of the screenplay as a working tool in service of a group of people making a film.

Figma Mocks

The screenplay is an evolving document. A screenplay is not a film, but a tool that allows disparate groups of talented individuals to get what they need to do their job in service of making a film.

Nolan emphasizes this a few times, noting that the screenplay is not what moviegoers ultimately experience. They come to watch a film, not read a script.

As individual artisans involved in the process of making websites, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact. Often more care is poured into the deliverable of your specialized discipline, with blame for quality in the final product impersonalized — “It’s not my fault, my mocks were pixel perfect!”

Too often websites suffer from the situation where everyone is responsible for their own little part in making the website but nobody’s responsible for the experience of the person who has to use it.

Nolan: writing words on paper (screenplay) in service of making a series of images people experience (a film).

Me: designing visuals in Figma (mocks) in service of making interactive software people experience (a website).