5by5 | The Critical Path #23: Auteur Theory

Horace talks to Prof. Bill Torgerson from St. John’s University about the writing process and how it survives and/or thrives as a commercial enterprise. We touch on writing for movies and compare the collaborative process of “content creation” vs. the “single voice” of an author.

5by5 | The Critical Path #23: Auteur Theory.

If you make software you really should pay attention to how art is made. And vice versa.

Show notes:

  • I’ll listen soon.

    But a note on the notion of disrupting Hollywood, inspired by your last podcast: apparently, Jobs did not see a big profit opportunity with Pixar to actually disrupt the old system; he settled for a very lucrative sale that sustained Disney. Maybe the technology for disruption is not here yet, at least as a priority for one very committed, serial disrupter.

    • Pixar was not disruptive to the Hollywood business model. I noted that the cost and distribution model did not change with Pixar-type movies. What did change was the production process. The disruption, if there is one, was against the unionized production infrastructure. Instead of spending production dollars on sets they spent it on animators.

      • Anonymous

        (Witness my class solidarity in action below.)

        They imported the 80-hour-a-week-exempt-employee-video-game QA labor model to our proud crafts, such sadness.  On the other hand, it has recently transpired that Pixar did in fact participate in certain industry wide labor coordination schemes, so what’s good for the goose is maybe not so good for the gander.

        On the other other hand, most of the animators and VFX people I know are rather happy with their situation, but something that lacking a guild really hurts is their mobility from shop to shop.  Yours truly is an IATSE brother, so he can work at any movie studio in the US, one week somewhere, one week somewhere else, while keeping the same health and retirement benefits, even across employment gaps as long as they don’t exceed certain thresholds. My union benefits give me much more agility in choosing my employment opportunities in terms of what I want to work on and what I get paid.

        This isn’t a good argument for a union per se, but it certainly is a good part of a guild/mutual aid association, or national entitlement reform, take your pick.  I’d rather everybody had what I had, even if that meant I took home less money, than I be some sort of privileged class.  Unfortunately, Taft-Harley makes it almost impossible for uh… “crowdsourced labor” to uh… “disrupt” employment agreements of adhesion from the bottom up.

      • Anonymous

        Excellent points!

        I think that computing state of the art, the craft of computing, is too immature to admit unions or guilds: you could form one, but 18 months later most everything your guild knows is obsolete. Your best bet is to work 12-hour days on your thesis/book/startup and move as fast as you can, so that you are more likely to be there when your idea is a “hit”.

        Or so my boss tells me…

      • Anonymous

        I think you put the wrong emphasis on what a modern guild would be, I don’t really believe a labor syndicate based on “protected knowledge” would really be workable these days, although there are certainly things about software development that are pretty constant. A modern union should act more as a “community of interest” that advocates for the craft in public, offers continuing education and meaningful skill qualification, and pooling of benefits.
        I think that’s the most a developer can hope for at this time, basically a Freelancer’s Guild on steroids; it’s just to easy to outsource dev jobs for direct actions to have any effect at this time. Jobs in entertainment, outside of visual effects, are a little different, mainly because the skillsets are very rare and only developed in a few

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think this is the right emphasis one should put on a modern guild, a “protected knowledge” approach wouldn’t really work nowadays. A modern guild is more like a “community of interests” that combines craft advocacy, education and meaningful skill qualification, and risk pooling for those who need it. Basically the Freelancer’s Guild model.
        Dealing with employers collectively, through direct action, probably won’t work for now, because developer labor is so easily outsourced. But collective action could still be used to advocate favorable regulation, and to compel more favorable relationships with the large quasi-monopolist power centers, like the Apple App store or Google.
        Entertainment works a little differently because the skillsets and talent market is only really developed in a few places on earth, aside from certain visual effects tasks, and most entertainment jobs require physical presence at a job site. Over the last decade there’ve been experiments to outsource other parts of the business, like post sound, to other parts of the world or even just to right-to-work US states, but not many of these have really taken and almost all have been abandoned.

      • Anonymous

        Come to think of it, I think a guild/coder’s syndicate could also offer a compelling non-state alternative to administration of the scarce resources of the Internet, like the domain name system, and for ownership in trust of vital common intellectual property, such as patents having jurisdiction over protocols, RFCs and open implementations. Someone must own open software to have the legal standing to defend it, particularly if it’s GPL software, and a syndicate of a thousand dues-paying developers is going to have significantly more legal muscle than one BDFL doesn’t answer his email.

  • Mage

    Here is a link to a collaborative fiction site that’s been running for a couple of years now.

    • I was just looking at Penguin’s Book Country and I mentioned to Horace that I know of one of these collaborative reading / writing / publishing communities called Red Lemonade.  I’d like to see these platforms make it into education.  Or else I’d like to try out some of the platforms in my writing courses. 

      • Mage

        Shadow Unit is a bit different from Red Lemonade in that it is an ongoing net published set of stories by several authors. I felt that it was more in line with something Horace commented on late in the pod cast.

      • Bill, it was great listening to you!  It was like listening to myself in so many ways — super excited, and you just can’t get it all out fast enough and there’s so much to explore.

        Like you, I’m trying to get my innovation beyond myself and involve five, fifteen people. 🙂  What’s interesting about what I’m doing is that I’m bringing a couple of new elements to the art of software development that haven’t been seen yet, and everyone I describe it to immediately says “So, it’s kind of like (insert existing thing here)” and I have to say NO, it’s not like that at all!  

        The only solution was to learn how to make a video with my iPhone 4S (and friend’s cameras), Final Cut Pro, visuals and simulations with Motion 5, and enhance the words to describe far more clearly what the heck I’m talking about.  

        I was able to quickly learn how in a couple of months utilizing books and the amazing  I’m now involved with the local chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH, hosting my own weekly developer nights in an art gallery, and it’s all folding together nicely.

        The democratization of the tools, education, and web hosting is now allowing me to find like-minded people to collaborate with, and hopefully bring a new kind of product to market that will further democratize app development.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day!  It’s so cool to be working at this time, so exciting.

        I also spent a decade straddling computers and the book industry and have been to many a Book Expo America.  One innovation that has yet to happen is making it easy for specialty stores to easily manage a specialty book section.  The concept of a bookstore is not an all-or-nothing proposition!  It’s still a pain in the a** for a store owner to decide what to order, establish 5+ publisher relationships and get caught between their turf wars, differing minimum orders and return policies, and keep things restocked and fresh.  There needs to be an app for that!  🙂

        Anyway, the best of luck to ya!


      • Hi Mark.  I connected with you on Google+ and thanks for directing me to  I hadn’t seen the site.  Looks great. 

  • Mage

    What could be really interesting is a conversation between you and John Scalzi. John is a science fiction author and a movie critic.

  • Anonymous

    “Tool makers are getting into the value chain in a somewhat controlling manner.”

    Understatement of the century, and the very heart of the debate for incumbent content creators.

  • berult

    No creator should be tentative in exposing the toils …the sweat …the vulnerability of an opus-in-progress. One’s got to feel the heat spewed out of the dragon’s mouth to bear any hope of slaying it with …magnanimity; one final …one mighty thrust of sharpened artistry. 

  • Anonymous

    Just some random thoughts on auteur theory, which complement the podcast — these are from memory, I am after all a College-Educated Filmmaker ™:

    – “Author Theory” was developed by contrarian French film critics in the 1950s, basing their opinions primarily on their observation of American films made in the First Golden Age of American cinema, 1930 thru 1945.  The primary exponents were film critics Andre Bazin, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and their collaborators at the French journal “Cahiers du Cinema”.  Truffaut, Godard, Erich Romer and other critics from this group would eventually go on to direct their own films, at first to prove, justify and expand their ideas. 

    – The Theory is an extension of something that’s common sense or a lemma in writing: the idea that one particular person may guide the creation of a film.  Emphasis on “may.”  The idea is that one individual ‘s sensibility, creative ideas, etc. may make an identifiable imprint on a work, to the extent that you can watch a film without knowing who directed it and possibly  detect who did.

    – Many directors identified by the “Cahiers” writers and later theorists are auteurs: Hitchcock, Hawks, maybe Capra, etc.  Many directors are NOT auteurs, people like MGM’s Woody van Dyke, “hired guns” who were merely competent and made some great films, but are “not” identifiable from their works.

    – The idea that this is true is heavily contested, and wether filmmakers are or aren’t “auteurs” tends to be based on the particular critical rubric the reviewer is using: a neo-formalist will disagree with a classicist, etc.

    – The particular job title associated with “auteur” is contested.  The original theory attached it to the director, however revisionists indicate that producers or studio executives often exert “authorial” forces: “Gone with the Wind” had no less than six shooting units, with their own directors, the “auteur” of such a film could only have been the producer David O. Selznick.  Most of the films made by MGM through 1934 were guided by Irving Thalberg, their Executive Producer, who often didn’t even get screen credit.

    – This issue is complicated by television, where “show runner” producers may be auteurs while “directors” positively are not.  Someone like John Dahl, of “The Last Seduction” fame, a director who’s a textbook example of a modern film auteur, is suddenly not an auteur when he directs half a season of “Breaking Bad”, where Vince Gilligan, of “X-Files” fame, is uncontested as The Man who decides how the show looks, feels, and works.

    – As a technician who has a lot of face time with directors, I’ve never met one that simultaneously received a paycheck and used the term “auteur.”  There is a general taboo among working filmmakers to talk about critical theories in general, and producers, directors, writers are constantly (usually politely) fighting over creative authority.  The original auteur theory was basically descriptive, in that it didn’t make any claims on the process, only on the outcome.  It’s not clear that auteur theory has any “prescriptive” application, or any meaning in a commercial context.

    (I’ve noticed this is a BIG rift between developers and filmmakers — developers usually hold their abstractions and theoretical interpretations in high regard, while most working artists HATE talking about that stuff.  I think artists often feel that abstractions diminish their craft and constrain them, and create a situation where their “vital impulse” (see Hegel) is reduced to mere symbol crunching, while coders see abstractions as an extension of their craft, a way for their art to reach OUT into the wider world.  It is as if filmmaking were trying to fly over the ground and programming had something to prove.)

    (As a filmmaker and developer, I remember I used to really enjoy the works of “Why the lucky stiff”, a Ruby coder who didn’t seem to care about how clever his GangOfFour patterns were as long as the text of his work was original and engaged the mind.  He was, to my sensibility, an artist.  But he’s gone now.  I think he’s the vanguard of a few developers who are realizing that Open Culture has its benefits, but has the potential to be a tragedy for people who are creative instead of being merely clever.  These are two different things and they get rewarded in really different ways.)

    Just throwing it out there.