Jim Nielsen’s Blog
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The Case for Design Engineers, Pt. III


I wrote about the parallels between making films and making websites, which was based on an interview with Christopher Nolan.

During part of the interview, Nolan discusses how he enjoys being a “Writer/Director” because things that aren’t in the original screenplay are uncovered through the process of making the film and he sees the incredible value in adapting to and incorporating these new meanings which reveal themselves.

In other words, making a film (like making a website) is an iterative, evolutionary process. Many important motifs, themes, and meanings cannot be in the original draft because the people making it have not yet evolved their understanding to discover them. Only through the process of making these things can you uncover a new correspondence of meaning deeper and more resonant than anything in the original draft — which makes sense, given that the drafts themselves are not even developed in the medium of the final form, e.g. movies start as screenplays and websites as hand drawings or static mocks, both very different mediums than their final forms.

Nolan embraces this inherent attribute of the creation process by calling himself a “Writer/Director” and indulging in the cross-disciplinary work of making a film. In fact, at one point in the interview he noted how he extemporaneously wrote a scene while filming:

I remember sitting on LaSalle Street in Chicago filming The Dark Knight. We flipped the [truck and then] I sat down on my laptop, and I wrote a scene and handed it to Gary Oldman. You’re often creating production revisions under different circumstances than they would normally track if you were in a writers’ room, for example, or if you weren’t on set.

If you live in a world where you think people can only be “Writers” or “Directors” but not both, this would be such an unusual and unnatural state of affairs. “Why is he writing on set? He should be directing! We’re in the process of filming the movie, we should be done with all the writing by now!”

But the creative process is not an assembly line. Complications and in-process revisions are something to be embraced, not feared, because they are an inherent part of making.

Nolan notes how, when making a film, you can have an idea in one part of the process and its medium (like writing the screenplay on paper or filming the movie on set) but if that idea doesn’t work when you get to a downstream process, such as editing sequences of images or mixing sound, then you have to be able to adapt or else you’re completely stuck.

Given that, you now understand the value of having the ability to adapt, revise, and extemporaneously improve the thing you’re creating.

Conversely, you can see the incredible risk of narrowly-defined roles in the creation process. If what was planned on paper doesn’t work in reality, you’re stuck. Or if a new, unforeseen meaning arises, you can’t take advantage of it because you’re locked in to an assembly line process which cannot be halted or improvised.

Over the course of making anything, new understandings will always arise. And if you’re unable to shift, evolve, and design through the process of production, you will lose out on these new understandings discovered through the process of making — and your finished product will be the poorer because of it.