Iʼve recently been thinking more and more about formats. The boxes that we shape ideas into so that they can be understood or more easily received by others. You have to deal with formatting whenever you make a vague, artistic idea into a concrete, often commercial reality.
More ambitious artistic ideas require money to get them to happen and that usually means convincing someone or a group of someones to give you the funds to do it. If itʼs a film or television or traditional audiovisual media idea that you want to bring into existence you will more often than not need to go through the process of making a script, a pitch document, visuals and/or other items to get the peopleʼs attentions who can make the decisions that will bring your idea into reality.
The problem is, I find, that this process of focusing or developing or firming-up, (during which the invisible dream becomes a real, palpable and distributable thing), that the singular beauty of the mysterious, original dream itself is gradually in some respects lost. It is usually replaced by a hard-cornered, brightly lit, pre-formatted notion that is easier to understand, quantify, and, patently less original and ultimately meaningful than what you had in the first place.
This impostor ultimately gets the job done and we often decry it as being a superior synthesis to that inexplicably powerful original which we were forced to abandoned out of necessity.
Like a baffled dreamer who awakens from a particularly deep slumber, an artist who must constantly retell and explain or justify his or her visions over and over to a wide range of strangers, will naturally lose the original essence of the magical, intimate, often non-verbal insight that they gained during their private moment of inspiration. So often, artists become skilled practitioners of a kind of slight of hand; a “now you see it, now you donʼt,” form of pitching ideas, in which the true, personal intentions are kept hidden from the funding bodyʼs sight.
The funding body, in our age of fetishized spreadsheets, usually expects a spreadsheet-style formula to inform and explain the artistʼs work, and in narrative projects, that spreadsheet was first outlined by Aristotle. If you refuse the confines of Aristotleʼs 3 (or 4) act spreadsheet, then the spreadsheet will refuse you and your work in turn and keep itʼs 0 and 1s out of your projectʼs bank account, ensuring your idea will remain visible only to you. So often, the artist will eventually succumb to the idea of fitting their project into a pre-formatted box, a genre, a timeslot, and adhere more or less to the rules that each chosen convention brings with it.
People who deal in audio-visual narratives, but donʼt necessarily first-hand create them (some producers, a g e n t s , s a l e s , distributors, television reps) talk endlessly in terms of formats and surface packages. Itʼs not their fault ; we possess no otherlanguage to talk about the artistic creation that film, television and web-based narrative-making actually yield. Also, at the end of the day, the idea becomes actual work which becomes physical product which needs to be quantified and distributed lest it wither on the (even digital) vine. In the beginning stages, the more these industry people talk about a project, the more it becomes real. In some cases they literally talk it into existence. And the artist has to provide his network of serial talkers, or industry shamen, with enough magnetic, electric elements, (or spells if you like), so that the project achieves a critical mass by attracting enough raw power to it, so that it actually tips over the brink of mere imagination and falls out struggling, into the light of the real world.
Many screenwriters complain about the loss that occurs between the beginning of an idea and itʼs final execution. Oftentimes, some filmmakers, like Roman Polanski, claim that their main job while making a film, is to try to remain true to that initial glimmer of inspiration the material gave them back when they first “saw” how to do it. The strength of a director in this analogy is measured by his fidelity to his first impression throughout the entire process of working on a piece, which can take years. Other directors would consider this approach a handicap at best, as they encourage and embrace a constantly evolving perspective regarding their narrative that develops hand-in-hand with every step of their film projectʼs maturation.
There is a necessary paradox between the infinite range of possibility that exists at the beginning of a work, when everything is still open, and that moment when it congeals into a final, solid, piece of finished work. This distilled narrative is the natural result of endless stages of necessary decisions, of human involvement, of a filtration that focuses in on this performance and not the other, on this available location instead of the set youʼd once imagined.
The imperfect opportunities that were available to you in the real world gradually replace the unclear, mysteriously energizing whispers that got you up and running in the first place. The final fire cannot perfectly resemble the original spark- it seems to be a question of physics.
Once I had a quite dramatic letter-writing romance that threatened to become the real thing. But as we attempted to bring our wild affection into the light of day, it just as quickly began to vanish. As I was confronted with the impossible, deadening confines of the real-life situation, which did not match at all what Iʼd been dreaming about for several infatuated months, I said to my pen-pal “this isnʼt what I imagined… but I guess thatʼs why itʼs called reality”. She laughed, warmly at first. Then very dryly.
I wonder about formatting. I wonder about what we willingly give up, what we lose, right at the opening stages, in order to communicate an idea in a way that can get it to happen. Some people are better than others at communicating their initial charge. And transferring the magical, crackling energy your ideas give you, to the right person, at the right time, can make all the difference in the world. It can literally make our world into your world; a place where your own ideas can get passed on more and more fluidly to others, with less and less degeneration each time. Until maybe you have nothing left to communicate. If thatʼs the case, you can always lean back and rely on the formats, as many do. They are extremely satisfying and they exist for a reason. And if they lack that fleeting, otherworldly flash of genius that so resists their pasteurizing embrace, most of your audience will never know the difference. Or perhaps they will, but most likely, they wonʼt be able to put that difference into words.
Sometimes I wonder about the power of unrealized ideas. They are perfect, irreproachable. Sure, they do not actually exist, but theyʼve also never been sullied by the hands of man, or met his soul-crushing methods, his spread-sheets, his infinite systems of compromise. They are private, also, strangely transient. And the instant you attempt to convey their presence to another, they are replaced by something new, something expressed, something with imperfect, ersatz form. And whatever it is that they were in the first place, the one thing they are now, definitely, and quite permanently, is gone.