Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.
~by Scott Pinkmountain
Production Fatigue (Part 1)
Last year I got to do a story for This American Life. I’ve been pitching them stories since back in 1999 when I was dating someone who worked on the show. It only took fourteen years and about fifty rejected pitches for my close nepotistic ties to pay off.
Having had some proximity to the staff, I knew they worked long hours, but nothing could have prepared me for the process of creating a single twenty-minute segment of that show. The reporting was beyond comprehensive, conducting hours of interviews with subjects for what would ultimately be a minute or two of quoted material (if any), tracking down every possible lead, multiple follow-up interviews. But it was the editing and producing of the material that I found the most remarkable. After the many hours of interviews were transcribed and painstakingly picked over, after a draft of the script was hammered out, I spent approximately 30 hours on the phone with my producer, Jonathan Menjivar, and Ira Glass combing over every word of the story, debating, tweaking, scratching out, rewriting, honing and polishing it. Then I spent another three hours in the studio tracking my fifteen minutes of voiceover under Menjivar’s direction. Then he spent god only knows how long, cutting, editing, assembling and scoring the story, turning it into broadcast-ready finished product.
The making of that story involved so much effort from so many people – my producer, Ira Glass, the other producers on the show listening to cuts and giving feedback, the fact checker, the admin assistant who set up studio time and travel arrangements, etc… – that, while I was happy with it, I didn’t feel much propriety over the end result. It was a massive team effort. Being involved in the making of something so elaborate, with so much labor from so many people forced me into a new perspective on the world. I wandered around in a kind of production dazzle for a few weeks. Everywhere I looked, I saw nothing but the extreme efforts of Production.
I’d see a commercial and I’d imagine it being story-boarded, haggled, scripted, edited, set-designed, staged, styled, shot, reshot, color corrected, voiced-over, set to originally-composed music, sound-mixed, compressed, uploaded to satellite. The dozens of changes on the copy, the micro adjustments of timing the music to the film editing, the many hours of script performance and audio editing and nudging to the get the flow just right, the digital manipulation of the reflection on the car windshield, the 2% pantone intensification, the post-production altering of a shadow because it didn’t look “jazzy” enough, all in the service of a fifteen second car commercial to be played when someone jumps up to run to the kitchen for a snack.
Production was everywhere. Every second of every idiotic television show that no one should ever watch, every obnoxious billboard, every article of cheaply manufactured clothing, every quippy coffee mug, every impenetrable government pamphlet, and every disposable pop song; market-tested, argued about, compared against multiple versions, condensed, expanded, then condensed again, labored, agonized and stressed over by anxious employees and decision-weary supervisors, supported with intern-made coffee runs, paper-wrapped handmade deli sandwiches and bottles of iced tea whose packaging and production had been similarly spit-balled, designed, vetted, approved and manufactured. It was an exhausting way to move through the world.
I’ve made records and written and edited plenty of writing, so it’s not like this was my first glimpse behind the scenes. I knew how long it could take and how many thousands of decisions go into the making of a three minute song or a two thousand word short story, but somehow this was different. It’s assumed that making creative work is and perhaps even should be a slow, arduous process, as so much of the emphasis is on the process itself. The thing you’re making may never even reach the public sphere, so you commit to the act of making as the reward. But with this other stuff, it was all about the end result, the instrumental agenda of the product, even though the making was just as all-consuming.
And more importantly, it makes total sense to me that art should require immense effort and thought and time. It’s the reduction of human thought and experience into concentrated form. News and cultural commodities like This American Life occupy a middle ground between art and commerce and I can understand and appreciate the value of those things being labored over. But a Kia commercial with a nine million dollar budget that takes seven months and three hundred people to create? It’s impossible for me to get behind that kind of allocation of human resources. Mainly because the whole point of all that wasted energy is just to sell us stuff we don’t want or need.
That’s where my production fatigue kicks in.
Whereas the production time spent on creative work is generally for the purpose of stripping away opacity and mediation and eliminating the barrier between the object and the audience, the intent of commercially-motivated production is to put distance between the reality of a thing and its projected fantasy image. This is boring and gross and manipulative and it makes me tired to encounter to it at the American Capitalist rate of exposure, which is ALWAYS.
I’ve come to so appreciate the grittily un-produced object in reaction to the constant 5-megaton barrage of toxic polished gleam surrounding us. Behold the distorted, unlicensed, MIDI theme music championing the passable seafood restaurant two towns over. Salute the fearless used car lot owners improvising their own copy, captured by cell phone video and emailed directly to the local Cineplex. All hail that AM radio mainstay, the stuttering grandpa gently inviting you to recline upon his Vietnam-era dental furniture.
While the wares they’re hawking might be sub-par compared to their slick competitors, the minimal production peels away layers of mediation and lets us more accurately see what’s being offered and who is offering it. That proximity to the source, the personal connection to the object and the humans associated with it, feels better even if it looks and sounds worse. Which should matter more?
Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and @spinkmountain.