In 1988, a movie was released by Disney called “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It was one of the most advanced full-length films to combine animation and live action scenes throughout an entire movie. The attention to detail throughout the movie is astounding; the synchronization of the characters against the live action camera movements, the audio effects making the animated characters sound as if they were in the room with the live actors, the realistic lighting and shadows added to the characters so that it matched the on-set lighting (done by Industrial Light and Magic no less).
Thinking back, do you remember appreciating any of this the first time you saw it? What about the second time? Would the presence (or lack) of those details have affected your enjoyment? These are questions that can’t really be answered. I certainly don’t remember noticing any of those details. We can’t know what impact was, the details were all rolled into the movie and became part of the many intangible aspects that made it a success.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” went on to win 4 Academy Awards; Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, and a Special Achievement Award “To Richard Williams for the animation direction of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”1
What got me writing today was a combination of two things: an article I read today on FastCompany2, and a specific memory of a phrase I came upon while reading through a comments thread on Hacker News3 concerning the value of paying attention to detail.
It’s not a phrase I had heard before, but it’s one I now take to heart. The phrase was “bumping the lamp.”
Bumping the Lamp
This is a phrase that Disney animators have adopted after a particular incident that has become a part of the companies mythos. It refers to a scene where the live-action Eddie Valiant drags the animated Roger (pun intended) into a room to try and saw off a pair of handcuffs. There is a lamp that hangs from the ceiling, and Eddie bangs his head on it repeatedly as they struggle back and forth. The light from the lamp moves wildly around the room as it swings, rapidly shifting the light and shadow across the two live-action actors and all of the props on the set.
There are a few varied but similar accounts on how this story came about. According to one retelling, the scene didn’t originally have the swinging lamp gag. It was after reviewing an early cut of the scene with rough animation that director Robert Zemeckis decided that having Eddie continually bang his head on the lamp would add to the scene and be a lot funnier.
The scene was reshot with the lamp gag added. The animators had to re-draw all the frames that had Roger in them and account for the dynamically shifting light. Each contour of Roger’s limbs, ears, clothes, face… everything had to by lit and shaded as if it was right there in the room, and then cast the appropriate shadow onto the set behind him. A tremendously arduous and detailed task.
As the story goes, the incredible attention to detail when drawing the shadows is something that the animators added of their own accord. It is believed that no one would have noticed if Roger’s dynamic shadow wasn’t perfectly in sync with the lamp, and that this extra detail was almost superfluous. This was long before computer animation was mainstream, audiences had no expectations for this level of realism. What compelled the Disney animators to pay special attention to something that would barely be consciously noticed? Were they anticipating those Academy awards and knew that their peers would notice and appreciate their extra work? I don’t think so.
Reportedly, Michael Eisner has used this story as an example when promoting how Disney animators go the extra mile when paying attention to details. Details that the audience might not notice. Details that if left out would not have affected box office revenues one bit. So why did it matter enough that the animators did it anyways?
Knowing What Matters
In the work that we do there will always be small details and things that have room for improvement. There will always be a gnawing sense when you know something you care about isn’t quite right or lacks a certain completeness. A feeling that you’re neglecting something that matters.
But how do you decide which details matter? Do you do it because they are things our users or customers will notice and appreciate? Because other self-proclaimed “creatives” will ooh and ahh over our craftsmanship? Because it will increase revenue? Should we only pay attention to the details when it has a measurable and significant effect?
No. You don’t need external motivation to justify your actions. You do it for yourself. Because it’s who you are and what you do as a “creator of things.” By their very nature, the things you create are impermanent. What stays with you is the care that emanates from within. The intrinsic motivation that can’t be taken away.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer, programmer, business exec; If there’s a detail missing you care enough to notice, care enough to add it. If you hear a voice telling you it doesn’t matter, saying that it’s indulgent, that it’s obsessive, ask yourself: who that voice belongs to. Is it your own?
If the concern is that the extra attention to detail won’t affect the bottom line in a significantly positive way, ask yourself if it will affect it in a significantly negative way. The concern about wasting resources when caring about details reminds me of the guy who wants to start lifting weights, but warns that he “doesn’t want to get too big.” Don’t worry buddy – you won’t.
Perfection Was Never the Goal
I’m not advocating obsession and compulsion over minutia, and I absolutely believe that perfect is the enemy of good. It’s not about perfection. Fine attention to detail doesn’t make someone a perfectionist, you can still care a great deal about what you do and remain efficient. The care you put into your work will guide you towards what you feel is best, and give you the confidence to know when you’ve paid just enough attention to stop.
If a certain level of care and attention is a part of who you are, don’t deny it. Caring about what you do and valuing details are traits to be admired and emulated. In the world of technology, startups, and products, it’s a constant balancing act between knowing when to ship and when to hold off. Some believe that they can’t afford to do more; I believe that they I can’t afford to do less. In the end, intrinsically motivated passions will always take you farther than externally derived demands.