What “Star Wars Minus Star Wars” says about creativity


Rob beat me to the blog this morning with a post about Star Wars Minus Star Wars, a stupendous video in which Kyle Kallgren retells the entire story of the first Star Wars movie with footage that either inspired George Lucas or was inspired by him after the movie’s release.

As with Kirby Ferguson’s 2011 “Everything is a Remix” video about Star Wars, the point of Kallgren’s work isn’t to deride Lucas’s material for its lack of originality: it’s to move “originality” where it belongs, as the ability to combine things in ways that they haven’t been combined before, while filing off the serial numbers so as to hide your sources.

As Dali said, “Bad artists copy; good artists steal.” (He stole that line from someone else, of course).

This was the punchline of my novel Pirate Cinema. The difference between good work and bad work isn’t whether it’s derivative: it’s where it’s derived from, and how. This was the message of Bruce Sterling’s 1991 GDC keynote, which convinced me to drop out of university and become a software developer:

Don’t become a well-rounded person. Well rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish. If you want to woo the muse of the odd, don’t read Shakespeare. Read Webster’s revenge plays. Don’t read Homer and Aristotle. Read Herodotus where he’s off talking about Egyptian women having public sex with goats. If you want to read about myth don’t read Joseph Campbell, read about convulsive religion, read about voodoo and the Millerites and the Munster Anabaptists. There are hundreds of years of extremities, there are vast legacies of mutants. There have always been geeks. There will always be geeks. Become the apotheosis of geek. Learn who your spiritual ancestors were. You didn’t come here from nowhere. There are reasons why you’re here. Learn those reasons. Learn about the stuff that was buried because it was too experimental or embarrassing or inexplicable or uncomfortable or dangerous.

And when it comes to studying art, well, study it, but study it to your own purposes. If you’re obsessively weird enough to be a good weird artist, you generally face a basic problem. The basic problem with weird art is not the height of the ceiling above it, it’s the pitfalls under its feet. The worst problem is the blundering, the solecisms, the naivete of the poorly socialized, the rotten spots that you skid over because you’re too freaked out and not paying proper attention. You may not need much characterization in computer entertainment. Delineating character may not be the point of your work. That’s no excuse for making lame characters that are actively bad. You may not need a strong, supple, thoroughly worked-out storyline. That doesn’t mean that you can get away with a stupid plot made of chickenwire and spit. Get a full repertoire of tools. Just make sure you use those tools to the proper end. Aim for the heights of professionalism. Just make sure you’re a professional *game designer.*

This is why I love Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books: there are lots of people writing urban fantasy, but not many of them have Kadrey’s facility with original texts of obscure daemonological lore. He’s not serving up the thrice-brewed tea of HP Lovecraft: he’s gone back to the well for some OG High Weird, with a “K”.

That’s why Kyle Kallgren’s video is important, even in a world where we have “Everything is a Remix.” The latter only talks about Lucas’s influences, while the former shows you all the ways in which Lucas has gone on to influence new films. The commons isn’t a thing that was made in the past, when everyone was coming up with the plumbing that we run through the art of the present: all that art we’re making today isalso plumbing for the art that will come tomorrow.


December 17, 2015