Orson Welles, Herbie Hancock & The Magic of Accidents
‘Everywhere there are beautiful accidents.’
When it comes to the creative process it can be helpful to differentiate between idea and execution. The idea is the core concept underpinning your movie, short story, music video, commercial or whatever it is that you’re making. The execution is the way you choose to realise the idea, to make it real. For any one idea there can be a thousand different potential executions.
While the moment of inspiration when the idea hits is magical, mysterious and beyond explanation, the execution of the idea is a much more rational and methodical process. To make the idea real we have to think practically about how we might achieve it: we have to consider time, space and money; we have to storyboard and sketch; we have to plan.
Anyone who has been involved in shooting a film or a commercial will know that there is usually an extensive pre-production process. Every detail of the shoot is considered: the cast, the costume, the locations, the lighting, the lenses. A good director is said to be one who can visualise a scene in their mind’s eye before it has been shot.
Yet while this approach is able to produce consistently good work, on its own it rarely produces anything truly sublime.
Orson Welles is often described as one of the greatest directors of all time, and his film Citizen Kane the greatest movie. In the documentary ‘They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead’ Welles talks about his process. Having watched his films and been witness to scenes like the stunning three and a half minute single shot which opens Touch of Evil, a masterclass in choreography, you might reasonably assume that Orson would have ascribed his success to meticulous planning and exhaustive pre-production.
However, the opposite is true.
For Orson, ‘the greatest things in movies are divine accidents … my definition of a film director is the man who presides over accidents … everywhere there are beautiful accidents … they’re the only things that keep a film from being dead. There’s a smell in the air, there’s a look, that changes the whole resonance of what you expected.’
Without doubt Orson’s success came, in part at least, from his vision, from how he could visualise a movie straight off the script. But what made his work truly exceptional was his capacity to seize upon the accidental, those beautiful and unexpected moments which would lead to something greater than even he had envisaged.
If in the creative process you adhere too faithfully to your plan then you limit your view. You blinker yourself. The best creators know that the truly magical moments of creation happen in spite themselves.
The artist Frank Auerbach appears in a documentary called the Last Art Film. And there’s a scene where he describes how the moment in time when a work is realised always brings something which the artist couldn’t have anticipated. By way of explanation he draws six ducks very quickly. Each is executed in a second or two. Each consists of a head, a beak and an eye, nothing more. And Auerbach sets out to make them exactly the same. I’ve recreated this experiment in a page of my own note pad …
In spite of the artist’s desire for consistency and the conditions of their creation being the same, each duck is different; you could say each duck has a different personality. Duck one is a simple chap, intent on food. Two is a little scared. Three looks rather cocksure and, well, maybe a bit stupid. Four is sad. Five is happy. And six is dopey but lovable.
Being alert to these subtle but substantial accidents gifted to us by the moment of creation defines whether we have the capacity to make work as an artist, or simply plod along as an artisan, adhering to a long established set of plans.
By way of a final example, this time from music, I’d like to share with you a story the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock tells about playing with the arguably even greater jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
They were performing together on stage in Stuttgart, Germany in the early 1960’s. And they were playing Miles’ classic tune So What.
‘It was a really hot night. The music was tight, it was powerful, it was innovative. We were having a lot of fun. Right in the middle of Miles’ solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, I played the wrong chord. It sounded completely wrong, a big mistake. I put my hands around my ears. Miles paused for a second and then he played some notes that made my chord right, it made it correct. Which astounded me – I couldn’t believe what I heard. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right. I couldn’t play for about a minute – I couldn’t even touch the piano. What I realise now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened – just an event – part of the reality of what was happening at the moment and he dealt with it. That taught me a very big lesson about not only music, but about life.’
If you are a creative professional who is being paid to execute an idea then you absolutely need a plan. But always keep this in mind – at the moment of creation fate is almost certainly going to throw something unpredictable at you, an accident beyond your anticipation. And how mindful you are of the potential magic of that moment and how you respond to it will define whether your work is simply good or whether it is great.