The Yoga Mat Hack

Constraints as creative fuel.

One of my favorite ways to find inspiration is to watch as other creative people work.

And one of the best places to find creativity is in the presence of significant constraints.

Most indie filmmakers work with a prominent constraint – limited capital – to create an artistic work. The input to the filmmaking process is passion and a small budget, and the output is (at least ideally) a compelling film that is enjoyable for the audience to experience.

After thoroughly enjoying Another Earth, I came across the following clip while researching how the film was made:

Brit Marling explains how they shot the scene that depicts Rhoda, the character she plays, being released from prison:

This was the kind of movie where almost everything was for free.

The jail, the scene where Rhoda was released from prison, we couldn’t afford to shoot the exterior of a prison.

So Mike [Cahill] and I just drove around Connecticut in his mom’s car until we found a prison that we could get close enough to the front entrance, and then Mike parked across the street, rolled down the driver side window and was holding the camera, and I put the costume on in the passenger seat.

I took a yoga mat out of the back of the car, and I walked into the prison and I was like “Hi, I’m here to teach yoga”, and they were like “What?” and I was like “Yeah!”, as if I do it all the time. And they went to go and figure out that problem, and I dropped the yoga mat and turned around and walked out in costume, and Mike shot it.

And that is the release from prison shot in the film.

That’s a lot of how this film was made.

Floored by the yoga mat hack, I was obliged to learn more:

She [Brit] moved to Los Angeles to act and, after spending a couple of years exploring the movie industry and being offered roles as “the cute blonde in horror movies”, she taught herself to write, reasoning that the best way to get decent parts was to write them, herself.

Brit Marling’s IMDB bio

There is undoubtedly a constraint on the number of interesting roles available to a budding actress. Especially given the number of budding actresses in Los Angeles.

But writing your own parts changes the playing field.

The bio continues:

She worked on two movies, simultaneously - one in the mornings, one in the afternoons - and eventually both Another Earth (2011) and Sound of My Voice (2011) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011.

(Perseverance doesn’t hurt, either.)

This link between creativity and constraints is fascinating.

Igor Stravinsky famously wrote in “Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons”:

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.

(i.e., treat constraints as advantages in disguise.)

Scott Berkun took this even further, questioning if it is indeed possible to be creative in the absence of constraints.

Certain types of creative work do not require committing to a finished product. (Consider the difference in finality between releasing a movie, and releasing Web-based software that can be updated instantly without user intervention or any discernable disruption.)

In these cases, rapid iteration is a highly effective way to work.

Iteration-centric processes are effective because frequent checkpoints afford an opportunity for constant learning and course correction (think: “ready, fire, aim”).

However, there is a hidden benefit.

Iteration is about delivering small (i.e., highly constrained) units of change. This constraint imposes a significant challenge: determining the smallest units of change that will add the most overall value. And the accompanying mindset shift, from “what are all the possible things that can be done next?”, to “what are the smallest changes that will make the most difference?”, is profound.

When you have the opportunity to work iteratively, take it.

A few anecdotes are hardly proof.

But at least some data suggests that there are benefits to be gained by applying constraints liberally – even, counter-intuitively, constraints that don’t necessarily need to be there – as a means of channeling creativity and thus increasing quality.

Constraints, it seems, are a lot like creative fuel.