Lessons in product design with Peter Jackson

Recently I watched a remarkable video taken from the the Blu-ray edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It offers a surprisingly candid (and borderline apologetic) look at the film’s tumultuous behind-the-scenes production. Have you seen it? No? Take five minutes to watch.

I’ve seen the original Lord of the Rings trilogy twice, but have yet to see any of The Hobbit. I’ve heard from other people that — despite the involvement of the original trilogy’s director Peter Jackson — The Hobbit films were generally considered to be inferior.

But this video isn’t about Tolkien, Jackson, the comparative quality of The Hobbit or the Hollywood film industry. This video is really about the struggles of one man trying to create something of value. A man with all the money, talent, and resources he could possibly ask for — more than he’s ever had in his career — yet he feels completely powerless. He’s lost, exhausted and most dangerously of all, winging it.

“I just started shooting the movie without most of it being prepped at all.” — Peter Jackson

Unlike Lord of the Rings, with an extended amount of planning and pre-production, Jackson never had time to think. He had less time (thanks in part to original director Guillermo del Toro’s departure), in addition to the creative responsibilities of filling-in extra content to flesh out the (thinner, comparatively) Hobbit storyline to form three complete films. Without clear direction or an idea of “what the hell I was doing”, Jackson appears to focus on what’s worked for him before — a giant battle scene.

“We were waving around in the wind, really.” — Andy Serkis

Jackson’s lack of focus and communication also spread to his crew.

“The battle was a mystery to us. We didn’t know what we were doing.” — Liz Tan

It was at this moment that Jackson pulled the plug and shut down the set. He could no longer simply “lay tracks in front of the moving train” as he had been doing before. The only way forward for Jackson and his crew was to stop, regroup and organize. Whether the final product improved as a result will never be known, but one thing is abundantly clear — Jackson knew he was in trouble, and had to resort to extraordinary measures to get himself, his crew, and his film back on track.

From both a product design and managerial perspective, this video deeply resonated with me. It’s about a director and his film, obviously, but it may as well be about design, business and leadership.

Jackson couldn’t lead because he couldn’t articulate the mission to himself or his crew.

Jackson couldn’t lead because he wasn’t making informed, well considered decisions.

Jackson couldn’t lead because he was trying to fulfill requirements within a timeline that didn’t match the scope of the deliverable.

Jackson couldn’t lead because he was spending too much time putting out fires and answering questions.

Jackson couldn’t lead because he was focused on details at the wrong time.

Again, Jackson’s problem wasn’t a lack of money, talent, or experience. He had all of that, and then some. With The Hobbit, Jackson couldn’t find his creative voice, formulate a roadmap, or empower others on his team. He made matters worse and unwittingly injected more uncertainty and anxiety by trying to solve his problems through the process of production instead of the careful, judicious planning that went into Lord of the Rings.

If it can happen to Peter Jackson, it can happen to any of us. Jackson’s struggle exemplifies the problems many of us face in the creative process when deciding how soon or late to begin production. As tempting as it is to start working on something — hell, anything — we have to force ourselves to allow sufficient time for storyboarding, experimentation, and exploration before we ever turn the cameras on.