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Take It To The Limit: An Artistic Paradox

“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.”

- Leonardo da Vinci

This da Vinci quote seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Freedom of expression is intertwined in the DNA of “art” at the most basic level, and the very definition of freedom includes the absence of restraint. Leonardo da Vinci should know better. And so should the other numerous artists and philosophers throughout history who have made similar conjectures. How could these people believe this?

Because it happens to be true.

Art, when subjected to limitations, thrives. There’s something about a restriction that spurs creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention. A need brought on by a limitation drives the creative mind to overcome the obstacle and satisfy the need. It’s inherent in human nature to overcome. Just as it is inherent for the absence of a need to subdue innovation. The muscles of ingenuity atrophy when they are not exercised. If insufficient time, material, or physical ability is available to perform a task, the human mind begins problem solving, and more often than not a solution is realized. This is understandably true at the basic instinct level, but the fascinating thing about it is it’s also true in the realm of artistic creation.

There are several modern-era examples that demonstrate this phenomena.

Rock And A Hard Place

Consider Rick Allen, the drummer for rock band Def Leppard. In 1985 he had to have an arm amputated due to injuries from a car accident. Undaunted by the loss, he rigged up a special drum kit to allow him to continue to play. His determination led him to find new ways to keep the beat and create unique rhythms, and the band entered its most financially successful period of time.

A Long Time Ago And Far, Far Away

Both sides of the art and limitations theory are on display in Hollywood’s biggest film franchise. When George Lucas made the original Star Wars, he faced a mountain of obstacles to bring the magnificent space fantasy of his imagination to the screen. He had a very limited budget and a tight schedule to keep, and studio executives were scrutinizing his every decision. The technology needed to create the many robots and space battles in the film simply did not exist. And because Lucas envisioned a unique blend of character archetypes, story pacing, score, and editing, he had to take on the roles of writer, producer, director and editor himself.

The whole ordeal nearly destroyed him, but he overcame each hurdle, first by motivating his special effects team to create the new tech needed to realize his vision, and then by piecing together scenes and character moments in such a way as to tell a classic fantasy story in a completely new way. The resulting film is considered by many to be a cinematic and cultural masterpiece. Score one for limitations.

Flash forward twenty years. Camera and computer graphic technology has advanced leaps and bounds. Nearly anything the mind’s eye can envision can be put on screen. Lucas is a mega successful, mega wealthy film-making tycoon. Whatever film he chooses to make gets made. Whatever he says to do gets done. George Lucas decides it’s time to go back to his Star Wars creation and tell a prequel trilogy of stories. He can finally put the worlds of his imagination on screen without technological restriction. He can write and produce the films without budgetary concerns on a timeline of his choosing, and without studio executives dogging his every move. The result? The first film of the new trilogy, The Phantom Menace, is considered by fans and critics alike a great disappointment. Bloated, boring, muddled, devoid of the charm and heart found in Star Wars, The Phantom Menace is an anemic, uninspired kin of the original. And the special effects, although at times impressive, often cross the line into cartoon-ish imagery. It seems Lucas unintentionally proved that the struggles and limitations he faced making Star Wars were actually beneficial to his creative process. For Lucas, the absence of those obstacles led to a substandard film.

The Final Frontier

A similar example is found in the Star Trek film franchise. When Paramount decided to bring their iconic sci-fi series Star Trek to the big screen in 1979 they assigned legendary director Robert Wise to take the reins, and lavished the production with millions of dollars to craft amazing special effects. Although the film looked good, it lacked a soul, moved slowly, and failed to capture the spirit of the series that fans loved so dearly. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as tepidly received as it was, made just enough money to convince Paramount to give it one more try. For Star Trek II, however, they slashed the budget to just 25% of what the first film had been given and they hired a relative newcomer to fill the director’s chair. Nicholas Meyer was coming off a couple of modestly successful but well-received projects, The Seven Per-Cent Solution and Time After Time, and he signed on to direct Trek II with very little knowledge of the Star Trek universe. A fresh set of eyes. He had no complete script to work with, just rough drafts of 4 or 5 different stories that nobody liked. And the clock was ticking. Paramount had already set an opening date for the film. Meyer had less than a year to take the film from nothing to the red carpet.

As fate would have it Nicholas Meyer is one of those artists who agrees with daVinci. “Art thrives on restrictions,” Meyer contends. “It’s when you haven’t the money or the facilities to pull off your project that you are obligated to be imaginative.” So he went to work, sifting through the scripts at hand with the film’s producer and picking out story elements from each they agreed were good ideas. In 12 days he wrote a new script comprising all the elements they had selected. Knowing he was operating on a shoestring budget, he steered away from scenes of huge spectacle that would require lots of expensive effects work, and instead judiciously selected key scenes to expend his effects budget, even reusing shots from the previous movie. He focused the script heavily on character relationships and histories, building on what the series had created. And he shot the film as efficiently as he could, giving concise direction to the actors to get them where he wanted from scene to scene, and redressing sets to serve multiple purposes in the story. The result: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is overwhelmingly considered the greatest of the film series by fans and critics alike.

The Greatest Pitch

More recently the art and limitations paradox came to light in the production of the phenomenally successful film The Greatest Showman. This musical spawned a soundtrack that broke sales records in the United States and Great Britain, and included the anthem “This Is Me,” which won an Oscar for Best Original Song. Now, the genesis of this song is amazing. Before the studio gave the green light for the movie to go into production, writer/director Michael Gracey had to pack up his company of performers and musicians and make a final pitch to executives in Los Angeles. The only problem was he felt he did not have that one special song that captured the spirit of the movie well enough to convince the studio to bankroll the film.

Songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek were stumped. They knew this one tune had to hit a home run. They’d been trying to craft lyrics for the Tom Thumb character to sing, but came upon the idea to give the spotlight instead to bearded lady Lettie Lutz. “The reason we thought that,” Pasek explains, “was because of Keala Settle. Keala is such a force and such an incredible human being and performer who brings such visceral vulnerability to everything she touches.” So they made the suggestion to Michael Gracey.

Gracey approved the idea on the eve of the trip to Los Angeles. With less than 2 days to the pitch meeting, Paul and Pasek boarded the flight to LA carrying a small keyboard and a laptop computer. Under the crush of time and with the fate of the movie on their shoulders, they composed 90% of the song “This Is Me” on that five-hour flight. Something about the pressure and urgency of the situation sparked in them a flood of inspiration. The pitch meeting ended with an emotional performance of “This Is Me” by actress/vocalist Keala Settle, and that rendition proved to be the final deciding factor for the studio executives to green light The Greatest Showman.

A Tale Of Two Drafts

Restrictions and limitations work to improve artistic expression on a smaller scale too. For instance, when an author writes in the short story format he is forced to distill his story idea down to one salient point, which helps clarify the main objective of the tale and aides in making each scene and dialog exchange flow in concert. Working under publisher guidelines such as a strict word count also forces an author to make his narrative concise and focused.

I learned these things in my early writing days while submitting to magazine publications, and carried the idea into my novel writing projects. I find setting a constraint for my novels in the form of page length helps me a great deal. When writing a first draft I pay little attention to how much I’m putting on paper. I get it all out, try all the little ideas that pop and lure me from the outline I’ve put together. But on the second draft I pull out the butcher knife. My page number target is a natural law, and I shalt not break it, give or take a few pages. Starting with chapter one I sift through the narrative, keeping only what is pertinent to character and story development, and cutting out the rest. The old sage advice to “Kill your darlings” is dead on target.

For example, the first draft of my manuscript for Equal Measure ended up too long for my liking, far beyond my targeted page count. By the time I had gotten through the second draft I had knocked out roughly 49 pages of BS. That was 11% of the total. Not bad. The process of trimming back to my self-imposed constraint really helped me focus on what was pertinent to the story, and what was superfluous. I’m very satisfied with the result. I think Equal Measure contains the best characterization I’ve written, and not a beat of story is wasted moving from chapter to chapter. Now, as Equal Measure is finally getting out to readers, I hope to receive confirming feedback.


It appears that da Vinci knew what he was talking about, as well as Nicholas Meyer and the rest of them. Their counter-intuitive philosophy has been proven time and again in film, music, literature, and every other artistic medium. So the next time you stop to appreciate your favorite art form, stop and wonder, did the artist take it to the limit?

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