Goals! Prototypes! Action!

A thread in comments on a post from Michal Migurski got me thinking about the analogy of film making to software design and development. The more I explored the idea, the more multi-faceted the analogy became.

Movies and software are both very creative and very custom-craft intensive. They are both extremely collaborative — moreso than almost any other endeavor. Both encompass a wide range of styles, audiences, scale, and budget. For each there is a relatively subjective determination of completeness, that point at which the product is ready for release. And history is littered with spectacular successes, and failures, both within and outside the formal "system."

We can learn a lot by looking at parallels between film making and software, if only to recognize the issues we face around budgets, timelines, clarity of direction, conceptual and tactical authority are not unique. We can recognize that there are numerous models to adopt or avoid as the situation demands. It allows us to examine the interplay of money, talent, ego, authority, collaborative energy, role specialization, and market forces at a comfortable distance while learning lessons applicable to our own work.

To begin, let's establish a basic model that compares the film making process to the software making process. In a loosely time-based perspective, consider these parallels:


Naturally, there are countless variations to this flow, with more or fewer steps, multiple feedback loops, things happening in parallel, and so on.

Moreover, countless questions that fall out from this comparison:

  • Is there a parallel in the world of software to a screenplay?
  • How do the roles in film making relate to the roles of software?
  • Which types of movie productions are similar to the various types of software projects?
  • How are feedback, iteration, and evolution handled in film vs software?
  • Who exerts creative control, assesses market viability, predicts audience acceptance?
  • How is technology changing established ways of working?

I'll explore more of these in subsequent posts, but for now, I'm curious to know if this analogy seems useful. Are there other lessons that can be drawn?


Jason Richardson
Love the post! This a natural comparison and can easily be dissected into smaller groupings. For instance, testing/post production could include focus groups on both sides, re-takes/voiceovers vs. revisions and on and on. Looking forward to further comparisons and more thought on the subject. It's always good to look at other fields and pick apart their process in order to learn more.
David Farkas
I think the relationships outlined here are a great start for comparing design to other fields to get understanding from the outside world. As far as some of the questions that fall out from the comparison, I think there are distinct comparisons on a high level. - Project managers and producers for roles in film making, - Movie productions and software projects relate to scale, time, and money so an example would be a short term charity website compared to a low budget independent film. From my past experience in film, I think we can also draw lessons from the parallels between editing processes and design processes. Design has seen a drastic change from a linear process to the iterative method and this can be compared on many levels to the non-linear editing techniques provided by digital editing software.
Rod Davenport
I find this comparison compelling. I read a good book dealing with this theme and software development a few years ago - http://bit.ly/KBtr7
Francis Beaudet
When I try to explain this to my coworkers, I actually tend to use the TV Series metaphor, not the movie. You basically have the same steps but you have releases every week. You have writers making sure that the main arc of the storyline gets followed. Even if it strays for one episode or two. It sticks better to the more "agile" way of dealing with software. Especially since many software people view the movie analogy as waterfall and they hate waterfall.
Dave Cronin
@Francis, I love the TV variation, especially in light of the fact that in the post-Sopranos era, television has now become more associated with quality and depth.
David Takahashi
Another is parallel is the use of the question: "Good, fast or cheap...pick two"!
Dorian Taylor
I'm quite certain Mr. Cooper himself made the comparison between the respective productions of software and film in Inmates. Having some exposure to film I concur; I find software acquisition to resemble film production probably more than anything else, despite that it gets routinely coerced into a construction metaphor. A friend of mine recently mused, in fact, that the software discipline now is much like the filmmaking discipline before Eisenstein, and then went on to explain that before him, filmmakers would essentially point a camera at a theatre set and roll film. One of the most compelling things I think the software discipline ought to borrow from the filmmaking discipline is the concept of the line, referring to a horizontal line scrawled across a ledger once upon a time. Work above the line is conceptual (screenwriting, production design), work below is implementation (sets, props, filming). The former is unpredictable but the latter is almost always more expensive.
Doug LeMoine
@Dorian: I am fascinated by this nuance: "The software discipline now is much like the filmmaking discipline before Eisenstein ... filmmakers would essentially point a camera at a theatre set and roll film." I think this is quite a powerful and vivid analogy, especially since the on-set work is the most expensive part of the process, as you go on to note. Thanks!
Victor Zambrano
In his book "Sketching User Experiences" Bill Buxton mentions many comparisons and even goes further into the world of animation and choreography in search of similarities and finding inspirations when sketching to design for these worlds. Worth a look indeed.
Dorian Taylor
@Doug: Cheers! Some things I find really fascinating about "above-the-line" work in film: * Above-the-line participants often have an equity stake; * There aren't very many of them; * It is understood that the work doesn't scale or parallelize very well; * It's done when it's done. What's puzzling, however, is that it took them a relatively short time to figure this out compared to the software industry (not the only thing apparently stunted about computers, come to think of it).
Ian Swinson
Interesting discussion. I'm particularly interested for a couple reasons; one, I have a film degree but work as a ui designer, and two, I've recently used some film-specific documentation standards for planning, prepping and scoping a large-scale prototype demo for executives. The end goal was, and I kid you not, a 254 slide deck that took 3 hours to present and we didn't lose the interest of a half-dozen executives and senior engineering staff members. There are also interesting parallels between film and agile. Both have a clear product owner (in film it's the Director), the backlog is well-structured as an epic with smaller stories, and reviewing the dailies is basically the same as a daily scrum.

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