Every Tool’s a Hammer
1 DIG THROUGH THE BOTTOM OF THE RABBIT HOLE
“How do I get started?” Across four decades of making, I have been asked this one question more often than any other. It’s a simple question on its face, with not so simple answers underneath. At an individual project level, my answer is usually “Well, it depends,” in large part because creation and making have their own particular dynamics that involve unique concerns with the mental physics of inertia, momentum, structural cohesion, friction, and fracture. Thus, the rules of what you’re making often determine how you begin.
Most of the time, however, the question really being asked is, “How do I get started when I have no idea what to make?” That’s when the question moves from the physical world of making to the internal, mental space of ideation and inspiration. I have come to believe that the answer to this question resides within one of the grander, fundamental principles of physics, the first law of thermodynamics: an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted
upon by an outside force. Which is to say, to get started you need to become the outside force that starts the (mental and physical) ball rolling, which overcomes the inertia of inaction and indecision, and begins the development of real creative momentum.
With my personal proclivity for speed and experimentation, I rarely have an issue getting moving, and rarely have difficulty coming up with ideas as a result. With eyes that have always been bigger than my stomach, my creative plate has been consistently full to overflowing with ideas. My battle is usually with time and resources more than worrying about what my next project will be.
I know this might make me unique in some maker circles, and probably infuriating to others, but I assure you that this has less to do with any special skill on my part and more to do with one specific trait: obsession. In my experience, bringing anything into the world requires at least a small helping of obsession. Obsession is the gravity of making. It moves things, it binds them together, and gives them structure. Passion (the good side of obsession) can create great things (like ideas), but if it becomes too singular a fixation (the bad side of obsession), it can be a destructive force. As a maker, which result you experience depends largely on how you discover, engage with, and manage the sources of your obsessions.
I am a serially curious person. Countless things have captured my attention over the years: history, science fiction, film, the architecture of public spaces, mechanical computers, glue, LEGOs, curse words, magic, storytelling, Star Wars, physics, philosophy, armor and weaponry, magic and monsters, new tools, tiny cars, space suits and spaceflight, animal consciousness, eggs. I’ve not found an end to the list of things that have sent me deep down various rabbit holes for exploration. Thankfully, I had early support from parents who cosigned many of these flights of fancy
and encouraged my natural interests. My dad was an artist and my mom was a psychotherapist. I lucked out there. If I was curious about something, they gave me permission to explore it. When I didn’t know how, they made the tools of exploration available to me. At one level, I think that what my parents were trying to do was to keep my curiosity aimed at something constructive, something other than mischief, though I was certainly able to engage in a fair amount of that in my time. In the house I grew up in, my folks put real value on following one’s passionate interests wherever they might lead. They knew that if I would let those feelings be my guide, I would be more likely to do something with the fruits of that exploration.
Emotional self-awareness is a tall task for a kid. Hell, it’s tough when you’re an adult. It’s hard to put words to emotions. It’s even more difficult when verbalizing them in public might subject you to scorn. That was certainly the case for me. The pubescent teen me had no earthly idea how to describe what Star Wars or science fiction or the Apollo astronauts made me feel. At least not in a way that I wasn’t sure would get me stuffed into a locker. So I kept my enthusiasms and feelings to myself. This is a strategy that is not unique to young, enthusiastic, creative types. Where I differed was that in keeping my feelings secret, I did not also bottle them up and extinguish them, as so often can be the case when you don’t have a supportive environment at home. Instead, I simply let them multiply inside me until they were all that I could think about.
In this sense, what my parents had really done by nurturing my curiosity was to give the original green light to my creative obsessions, and I will be eternally grateful to them for that. Their encouragement demonstrated to me that my budding obsession was a thing of value, not a trifling thing to be dismissed; my fascinations
were worth something; my curiosity was currency to be spent in the service of deep exploration, both of the external world and also of myself. They gave me license to pursue what I have called my “secret thrills.”
FOLLOW YOUR SECRET THRILLS
Secret thrills can come from anywhere and anything at any time. If you happen to be a cinephile or an architecture fan like me, it might be the MacGuffin that pushes your favorite movie’s plot forward, or it could be the verdigris patina of some weathered architectural detail on a building you pass every day on your way to work or to school. If you’re paying attention, those types of things will catch your eye, and if you let them, they’ll start to engage your mind. Once in a while they will even thrill you enough within the privacy of your own imagination to feed a desire to go deeper into that thing, to know more about it, possibly even to possess and do something with it. Budding (and matured) obsessions like these are where ideas come from.
In my experience, when you follow that secret thrill, ideas pop out from the woodwork and shake out of the trees as the gravity of your interest pulls you farther down the rabbit hole. And yet, so few of us give that thrill much purchase. We may even dismiss it as an indulgence or a distraction. There is almost a quiet shame in it, which is a big part of the reason why that secret thrill always seems to remain secret for so many. Over the years, I have lost count of the times people have come up to me and begun a conversation by quietly, almost reluctantly, admitting to their own curiosity about something I’ve done or a hobby I pursue. There is a belief among many of these types, that to jump with both feet into something like that is to play hooky from the tangible, important details of life. But I would argue—and have—that these
pursuits are the important parts of life. They are so much more than hobbies. They are passions. They have purpose. And I have learned to pay genuine respect to putting our energy in places like that, places that can serve us, and give us joy.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to follow my secret thrills into adulthood and then into professional success. But even if I hadn’t been able to do that for a living, if I could only chase those thrills in my free time, I would still be constantly making stuff.
This stands in stark contrast to other fleeting interests and random skills that I used to pursue, like juggling or dramatic performance, which I gave up on once I got a notch better than mediocre. With so many of those early fascinations, I never knew how to push past that point of proficiency, and I didn’t care enough to find out. I was the Patron Saint of Mediocrity+1.
When I realized in my early twenties that I could pursue, and maybe catch, real excellence at a high level of making, that is when I dove in headfirst. And that pursuit has radically improved my ability to incorporate the skills I already had with new skills I hoped to acquire. It’s also made me more comfortable with acknowledging the limits, which are substantial, of what I can do. For instance, I would love to be a writer of screenplays. A screenwriter’s way of seeing is a special thing. They have a unique type of brain, one that filters the world it experiences entirely through narrative and has, over time, become a highly tuned machine in the service of character construction, world building, and plot layering. Screenwriters are basically human 3-D printers for story.
But I’ve learned that is not how my brain works. I don’t think in arcing, twisting plots. It’s not that I wish it were different. I’m actually okay with how my brain works. I don’t view it as a deficiency. I don’t need to write screenplays. Each one of us ends up building different ways to interpret and recapitulate the world as
we make our way through it. Each of us has a unique way we share our stories, which means that each of us comes to our ideas differently, and we each express them differently. This is the magic that makes culture.
How does your brain work? What is your secret thrill? How do you process your world? Screenwriting is simply one route to creating stories. The specific skill set my brain has equipped me with is one solidly within the realm of making physical things. It has served me very well, even if it doesn’t end up yielding a screenplay. And I’m okay with that, because for me making stuff has always felt different. Making stuff utilized my brain like no other skill I’d learned. There was something special in the marriage between the structure of my brain and what I could do with my hands. When I made stuff, the world made sense to me. It felt like my superpower.
Foremost among my passions for making stuff has been cosplay. Cosplay is at its most basic the practice of dressing up as favorite characters from movies, fiction, and especially anime, but it’s about so much more than just putting on a character’s costume. Cosplay encompasses stepping into the character him- or her- or itself. I’ve come to understand it as more of a participatory community theater than a solo practice. I have a deep abiding passion for cosplay. It has been a constant source of thrills, and an endless fount of ideas for stuff to make as a result. Many of my favorite projects are a product of this interest. I am unabashed and unequivocal in my love for it. Now, at least. But it has not always been so simple. See, the thing about cosplay, or most any deep interest that produces these secret thrills, is that while it IS fun, it can also be complicated, because (and here might be a source for some of the secret shame around our enthusiasm) the things we love tend to make us quite vulnerable.
The seeds for my cosplay obsession germinated in high school—well before the word was even invented—when I started to fall in love with film as a form. The multisensory storytelling and layered world building blew my mind. This was the early ’80s, an incredible time for a teenager interested in sci-fi adventures, space operas, and fantasy epics. They inspired me to create my own versions of costumes to bring their dream worlds closer to reality, to put myself into those narratives—in the privacy of my own home, of course. I would only let that secret joy out for public consumption on Halloween, when I had a built-in excuse for my creative inspiration. I suspect this is how it starts for a lot of people.
At sixteen, my dad and I built a full suit of armor inspired by John Boorman’s film, Excalibur, and I wore it to school the day of Halloween. We spent weeks researching it and fabricating it from aluminum roof sheeting and what felt like a million pop rivets. I worked on it ceaselessly until it fit like a glove and I felt properly awesome in it. The only structural problem I encountered: I couldn’t sit down. If I wanted to stay in costume AND see what the teacher was writing on the blackboard at the front of the classroom, I had to stand against the wall at the back of the room. It was a trade-off I was more than willing to make, and one that I was getting the better end of as far as I was concerned, right up until about halfway through third period, when I started to overheat, develop tunnel vision, and then slowly slide down the wall with a loud, deliberate scrape, until I passed out in a heap in the middle of a math lecture. It’s more than a little embarrassing to wake up in the nurse’s office covered in sweat, stripped to your underwear, wondering where your homemade armor went.
The following year I went a little lighter on the metal and made a piece of forearm armor as part of a costume inspired by Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. I fashioned a vambrace from aluminum
and added some cool labels and futuristic graffiti. Then I got it to look suitably, post-apocalyptically weathered by scraping it repeatedly on a dirty stone wall in my basement. On Halloween, I wore the whole rig to school with a beat-up leather motorcycle jacket and some heavy-duty Mad Max–like boots. It was what I’d later learn was called an “in-universe” costume—not canon, but within the canon—that felt as badass to wear as it looked. In fact, more so even than the full suit of armor, if that was possible.
My classmate Aaron begged to differ. He ribbed me about my costume, not ruthlessly, but enough to get my hackles up. Ordinarily when something like this would happen, my tendency toward conflict aversion would send me retreating into myself, into the space where my obsessions lived, but not this time. Wearing the costume made me feel powerful (as I would later discover cosplay often does), and imbued with the spirit of a character from a post-apocalyptic universe who had managed to survive through the end-times, I reared up and talked back. In my head—or should I say, in the head of the character I was inhabiting—that should have been the end of it. I had parried Aaron’s thrust, then countered successfully with a thrust of my own. Aaron was vanquished.
Aaron disagreed. “Oh, check out Adam being all powerful with some metal on his arm!” he yelled derisively, much to the delight of our classmates.
With a single sentence, Aaron had pierced my armor. He saw through me so clearly, and he used it against me, exposing the part of me that I had mostly kept private. In that moment, I realized that this thing that had produced such a transformational feeling of empowerment could, if I let it, also be turned against me to make me feel just as vulnerable as it had made me feel strong. It was a lesson that I would relearn many times as I got older.
In 2009, for example, MythBusters set out to tackle a classic movie myth. Throughout film history, heroes and villains alike have made their escapes by leaping from the roofs and windows of tall buildings into the safety of dumpsters in alleys below them, then casually climbing out and running away. But how hard or soft are the contents of the average real-world dumpster? What is the ideal material to encounter when you make the actual jump? And if that ideal material is, in fact, in the dumpster, will it save your life? These were all questions we planned on answering.
When we plotted out the story, it became obvious that Jamie Hyneman and I would need to do the jumping ourselves. This led to one segment of the episode that involved training and a second that would include the actual experimentation. From a visual storytelling perspective, I wanted our outfits for each segment to be different. For the training sequence, the wardrobe team made us tracksuits with the words STUNT TRAINEE pasted on their backs with iron-on transfers. For the experimentation sequence, since I would be our official jumper, I thought a lot about what kind of wardrobe would look good on screen, but in a manner befitting the theme of the episode.
Sitting atop one of the structures at the Treasure Island Fire Training Facility in the middle of San Francisco Bay, where we were filming the episode, I stared out toward the East Bay and my gaze landed upon the now-defunct Alameda Naval Air Station. Alameda NAS was the shooting location for some of our biggest car-related mythbusting as well as a number of sequences in one of my favorite sci-fi franchises of all time: The Matrix with Keanu Reeves as Neo. That was it! Neo was an epic roof and window jumper. I could easily dress up as him, I thought, then make the twenty-foot jump from a rooftop into the dumpster, and it would look awesome. Neo’s iconic long coat, chosen by the
Wachowskis for its cinematic qualities, would be equally cinematic for our show.
So I set about carefully assembling a reasonably accurate Neo costume without really telling anybody on the crew.
Long flowing coat: found on eBay.
Oakley Twenty XX sunglasses: check.
Knee-high motorcycle boots with lots of buckles: a quick trip to Haight Street in San Francisco checked that one off the list.
When it came time to shoot the experimentation sequence the following day, I ran over to my car to change. Pulling on each piece of the Neo costume induced a new thrill, but as I came around from behind my car into the full view of my crew, I could see many of them snickering, suppressing smiles. Here was that complicated moment, again. I was completely exposed. In those younger years, this would have been a slow-motion nightmare. My mind’s eye would have translated the muted church giggles into open mockery, like Carrie at the prom. But there was no cruelty in the actions of the MythBusters crew. I had already worked with most of these people for half a decade, and we were family through and through. They were snickering because they could see so clearly just how into it I was.
Putting on the Neo costume exposed a deeply private part of myself to the crew that few of them had yet seen, a part about which I am always just a little bit embarrassed. But I quickly remembered why I was wearing the costume: I knew that the long Matrix coat would look amazing as it flowed behind me in the high-speed shot of me falling through the air into a dumpster full of foam. And boy howdy, it really did. But I also realized that I was having a conversation between two versions of myself: I was giving a shout-out to
high school me, telling him, “It’s okay to let your freak flag fly”; and I was reminding grown-up me to keep moving toward this thing that I know is a little bit weird, and that I love for reasons I don’t fully understand, because moving toward these things has been the engine of everything I’ve achieved in my life.
This high-speed shot from MythBusters’ “Dumpster Diving” episode is still one of my favorites.
The Neo coat was the first elaborate costume I put together for the show, and it spurred countless other costumes for future MythBusters episodes, which in turn fueled ideas for future builds for Comic-Con and videos for Tested.com
, my website devoted to the process and tools for making in all its myriad forms. What I was doing that day on Treasure Island, in a sense, was giving myself my own green light to follow the obsessions that had defined my youth—to follow the secret thrills they produced all the way to their ends, regardless of what I found there, because sometimes what you find there are the best ideas you’ll ever have.
I am a maker by trade and a storyteller by temperament, but first I see myself as a “permission machine.” In the beginning of his incredible essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” The essay and in particular that phrase hit me hard in the solar plexus when I first heard it at eighteen years old, and it continues to today. The deepest truths about your experience are universal truths that connect each of us to each other, and to the world around us. I have found this truth to be the key that unlocks those shackles of shame and self-doubt. It gives you the elbow room to fly your freak flag, the mental space to pay attention to the things that you’re interested in. For the creator within all of us, this is the pathway to ideas and creation.
PARTICIPATE IN YOUR WORLD
Every single one of us is trying to make sense of the world—our place in it, and how everything fits together. We learn as much about ourselves and our surroundings from the stories we choose to tell, as from the stories others choose to tell us. I’ll admit, sometimes the source of our own stories can be slightly embarrassing. I recognize cosplay is not exactly the most useful and selflessly noble endeavor in the world, and I don’t delude myself into thinking that by doing it I’m necessarily making the world a better place. However, in paying attention to what engages me, and then sharing with others the process and product, what I’m doing is producing things that might spark ideas or inspiration in them, just as others’ work can spark ideas for me. Paying heed to my secret thrills has been the thread that continues to weave together my journey as a maker. Engaging with what interests you shouldn’t feel like crazy advice, but we all know it’s not always the easiest path.
In addition to looking inside of yourself for ideas, I’m a firm believer in, and practitioner of, spontaneous inspiration. Arlo Guthrie, son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie and an incredible songwriter himself, once said that he doesn’t believe that songwriters write songs. “Songs are like fish,” he said. “You just gotta have your line in the water.” If he just sits by a river and casts his line out into the flowing water, every now and then a song might swim by. And if he’s lucky enough, or skillful enough, it will bite at his lure before it passes beyond his reach. Of course, it’s never that simple, which even he recognizes. “It’s a bad idea to fish downstream from Bob Dylan,” Guthrie concluded. Dylan, somehow, has the best line, the best bait and hook, the best net, that Guthrie has ever imagined. It’s a miracle anyone downstream of Bob Dylan has ever even seen a song.
This is a romantic notion for sure, but only to the extent that there is often a spontaneity and serendipity to creation that is humbling. Inspiration can arrive with a suddenness that makes it hard to take credit away from the universe for a seemingly random, weird, awesome thought that turns out to solve a problem that’s been in front of you this entire time. Of course, there’s usually a ton of advance work that goes into letting that kind of thought come into being: practicing the mechanics of one’s craft, paying deep attention to the state of the art, working to confront and to solve ever more difficult problems, and being awake to the world you pass through every day. These are the behaviors common to experts in every field, behaviors that often materialize well before expertise is even a consideration.
I can remember the first time an idea came to me from thin air. I was five years old and I was supposed to be taking a nap (when all the best adventures happen). Instead, I snuck out of my room with my teddy bear Jingle—so named for a bell in his
ear that roughhousing and planned obsolescence had turned into a click rather than a ring—and sneaked unnoticed out to my father’s studio. My father built a wondrous (to the mind of a child) art studio in the garage behind our house in North Tarrytown, New York. It was both his place of business and his sanctum. He was a painter, animator, filmmaker, and illustrator, and the studio was filled to the rafters with books and paper and matte board and canvas—and tubes of paint of all sizes and varieties; boxes of charcoal, pastels, colored pencils, drafting pens; tools, and rulers, and everywhere photos and drawings that inspired him.
It held everything a curious, creative kid could possibly want, and my father had only a few rules for being in there. There was a general understanding that you weren’t to mess around un-supervised, and there was one very specific prohibition that came with no ifs, ands, or buts: DO NOT TOUCH THE SINGLE-EDGED RAZOR BLADES. As a parent, the wisdom of that rule is self-evident. As a child, he may as well have said those blades were made of Halloween candy and Tooth Fairy money, because every time I walked into the studio, they called to me from their box at the back of his big worktable. Still, I kept my distance. I valued my access to this magical space more than whatever mythical powers resided within these little wafers of sharpened adamantium.
But I had a vision for Jingle that came to me while I was trying to fight off sleep (my five-year-old version of sitting by the river) that required using those blades. Jingle was already old, his right eye misshapen by an evening too close to the fireplace, his bell didn’t work, his paw pads had worn off, and I wanted to create a picture of him the way he was when I first got him, so it would be like he was always brand new.
I pulled down a piece of construction paper from a shelf and laid it on my dad’s table. I placed Jingle in the center of the paper, and carefully traced his outline. Then I filled in his facial features. I wanted people to know who it was so I wrote, as best as I could (which was not very well), “Jingle” down one leg and “Savage” down the other. The writing I achieved was the visual equivalent of talking with your mouth full. Next I tattooed pads on the bottom of his paws. I’d actually done this before on the bear himself, several times, but inevitably they always faded away with wear and tear. As I watched the black ink on my drawing dry into a dark paw pad that would never disappear, and I compared it to the last remnants of a pad still barely visible on Jingle’s paw, I must have realized that I could actually make Paper Jingle into anything I wanted.
But what: Fireman Jingle? I don’t know. Action Jackson Jingle with Karate Chop? Maybe.
Here’s the thing about stuffed animal talismans that became obvious once I finally had kids of my own: they are objects that are separate from you, but they also are you. They are both sponge and mirror. They are a projection. The adventures you take them on narratively are your adventures. Onto them you project all the things you want for yourself, that you like about yourself, and what you don’t like about yourself. They are your world.
It turns out, that is exactly how I treated Jingle, because what I added was a nifty blue vest, a snazzy belt with a gold buckle, and a Superman symbol on his chest for good measure. Why? Well, these were clearly the things that I wanted for myself. I wanted to be a superhero. I wanted to . . . I don’t know . . . dress like Meathead from All in the Family? (In my defense it was the early ’70s.)
With each embellishment, Paper Jingle became more real.
More of me. But he remained trapped in that rectangular piece of brown paper, he could only ever be a drawing. If I wanted him to be fully realized—and boy did I—I would need to free him from this paper prison. That is when the siren song of the single-edged razor blades finally reached my ears. All I had to do was pluck one of the blades from its box, peel off its protective cardboard wrapper, and carefully cut along the outline of Jingle’s body, and he would no longer be simply a picture of a teddy bear, he would be a bear-shaped picture of a teddy bear—of my bear, Jingle Savage.
To my five-year-old mind, he would be real. So I gave into temptation, and Paper Jingle Savage was freed.
Paper Jingle Savage, circa 1972.
I ran inside to show him off to my dad, damn the consequences. I guess I was hoping that he’d think I used a pair of scissors, but he could tell immediately from the cuts at the neckline, where Jingle’s head meets his body, that I’d used a razor blade to bring him into the three-dimensional world. As an adult, I must say I’m actually impressed with how well five-year-old me managed the contours I cut with that flat blade. At the time, though, I was mostly just surprised (and relieved) that my dad wasn’t mad. In fact, he was happy enough with my creation that he framed it himself, which is why I still have it to this day.
I think the reason I escaped punishment was that, while I’d violated his primary rule about my using the studio, I’d actually held true to the true purpose of the space: I was in the studio for a reason, and I clearly wasn’t messing around. I had an idea and I executed it. This was the first time that my youthful curiosity had led me to making instead of to mischief. That simple shift was all that my father was really waiting for. When it arrived, the rules relaxed, I gained more trust and access, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, a lifetime of creative exploration began.
I never have a clear sense for when inspiration like this will strike. It’s often quite subtle, but I’ve become attuned to its presence because I’ve worked to remain connected to the world in which I live. This is one of the hardest things to do, for young makers especially. Trust me, I know, I’ve been there. When those interests that produce thrills within you get mocked or dismissed, the instinct is to run away, and to separate yourself from them and thus the world, to be defiant and embrace the alienation, to be a misanthrope. Basically, to be Morrissey. But I don’t believe the river of ideas runs where loneliness lives. Isolation is desolation.
It is barrenness. Spending your creative days only there will leave your inner maker dying of thirst.
YOU’VE GOT TO GO DEEP
Paying attention to the things that thrilled me set me on a path that eventually led to cosplay. Engaging with my environment opened my eyes to the never-ending flow of ideas. But there’s even another way to find inspiration, one that I have leaned on more and more as I’ve gotten older and more experienced: digging right through the bottom of the rabbit hole, by which I mean, going as deep as humanly possible on something you care greatly about, something you can’t stop thinking about. This is how I cultivated my other great creative outlet and obsession: prop replication.
I’ve made no secret of my love for film and cinema as a medium. On my Mount Rushmore of cinematic influences, Stanley Kubrick sits squarely up there next to Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, and Guillermo del Toro. He is one of the directors by whom I am most inspired. The biting social commentary, the deep abiding sense of humor, the love of people with all of their foibles and flaws, that underlies each of his films has always resonated with me.
In 2013, I went to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to see an exhibit about Stanley Kubrick. The exhibit was put together in close cooperation with his family, which, I hoped, meant it would be the kind of immersive, down-the-rabbit-hole experience I look for with a subject for which I have great passion.
I was wrong. It was so much better.
The Kubrick exhibit at LACMA was nothing short of a revelation. It contained a treasure trove of material spanning the director’s entire career. There were pieces of every part of his filmmaking process: scripts with handwritten annotations by Stanley;
card catalogs full of research notes on the life of Napoleon; costumes and props; cameras and lenses; production drawings, miniature sets, and incredible behind-the-scenes footage. For anyone who loves Kubrickiana, it was transformational.
Deceptively simple-looking, Major Kong’s survival pack was incredibly compelling to see in person.
On the day, I got to the museum early to give myself plenty of time to take it all in. I walked slowly and deliberately through the entire exhibit. I made sure to examine every photo, absorb the detail on every miniature, scrutinize every frame of available footage. All of it was thrilling. But one prop—one singular prop—left my inner maker completely stricken. I had just come around the corner from spending way too long ogling a display of Stanley’s personal camera equipment (the lenses from Barry Lyndon!), to spy a large vitrine with a huge amount of paraphernalia from Dr. Strangelove, and right there in the middle was Major Kong’s survival pack—a small, but fascinating prop from this wonderfully absurd film.
What’s in the survival pack? Here’s what Major Kong says when we see it for the first and only time toward the end of the film:
“Survival Kit contents check. In them you will find: one .45 caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four day’s concentrated emergency rations, one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Roo-shan phrase book and Bible, one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings—shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff . . .”
What a list!
The fact was that up until that moment I’d only ever seen Major Kong’s survival pack as a narrative device. Now, sitting in front of me, seeing it as an actual object (with other objects inside it, no less) sent a huge thrill through me, one that I had been familiar with since my late teens and early twenties, when I was living in Brooklyn and spending time around the NYU film school, making sets and props for friends’ student films. Whenever I got this feeling, it compelled me to ask myself: “What if I made one of those?” And the answer was always “If?!?” Once the idea comes to me, I have to make it, even if it takes years to start or to finish.
As I’ll say many times in this book, I enjoy projects with many facets and high levels of complexity. This prop, this Kubrickian gold mine, was exactly my kind of project. Through contacts in Los Angeles, I was given permission to visit the exhibit again a month later, the day after it closed, where the curator allowed me to put on white cotton gloves and examine and make measurements of each part and piece of what remained of Major Kong’s survival pack. And what remained turned out not to be that
much. Maybe only about 20 percent of the listed contents survived. Clearly I had work to do.
What that work required, fundamentally, was to go deeper. The idea to replicate the survival pack had come to me as a product of going deep into the Kubrick exhibit. To actually make the pack would demand that I go deep on the pack itself.
But what does that mean, to go deep? As a maker, it means interrogating your interest in something and deconstructing the thrill it gives you. It means understanding why this thing that has captured your attention has not let go, and what about it keeps bringing you back. It means giving yourself over to your obsession.
I asked the director Guillermo del Toro once, if he thought there was a commonality to all great films, something that linked them to each other. He said you can never know from the inside if a movie is going to be great, but you can be sure that all great movies have at least one champion. Usually the director, but not in every case. A champion who lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes the film into existence, using all their passion, creativity, and obsession.
And yet, as a society we have a very suspicious view of obsession. In youth, as well as in adults, it is often considered a vice, a burden, an affliction. It gets hyphenated and transformed into a disorder by cynical armchair diagnosticians who have no problem casually conflating real, serious conditions like OCD with focused passion and conviction. People who are obsessive about things—about anything, really—are crazy or addicted or out of their minds. We can’t even countenance the idea that someone could be obsessed with something and be of sound mind. That is a shame, because when it comes to creativity, when it comes to making things, when it comes to success at anything, obsession is often the seed of real excellence. It inspires new ideas, it demands they be brought to fruition with exacting care, and it drives them to completion. With 80 percent of Kong’s survival pack vanished to time, only obsession was going to push me to the places I needed to go to get it done at all, let alone get it done right.
Rick Deckard’s PKD Blaster: Version 1 (1987), Version 2 (1996), Version 3 (2008).
My friend Bill Doran knows all about that. Like me, he is a prop maker and a huge cosplayer. He and his wife, Brittany, turned their very personal obsession with props and cosplay into an entire prop-making business, called Punished Props, complete with hugely popular video tutorials on their YouTube channel. For Bill, obsession is as much about inspiration as it is a motivating force against physics-related structural failures and the momentum-killing properties of indecision.
“No matter what you’re making, no matter how good you are, you’re gonna run into a thing that you don’t know how to do or something goes wrong with your materials or you’re running out of time, or whatever. And if you’re not devoted to that thing, if you’re not completely obsessed with that thing, you will stop,” Bill said as we talked about the first big thing he ever made based purely on obsession—the armor for Commander Shepard from the awesome third-person shooter video game, Mass Effect. “But if I’m way into it and I’m super stoked, that thing right there, I won’t be complete until it’s built, nothing can stop me from making it. At all.”
That’s exactly how I felt about Kong’s survival pack. And how I felt about every prop I’ve ever made for myself, beginning with the very first one: Rick Deckard’s blaster from Blade Runner. I spent the better part of thirty years perfecting the fabrication of this prop. In fact, I’ve made three different versions since I first saw Blade Runner in 1985, each one better made and closer to the real thing as I got more experienced in the skills required to make a prop weapon like Deckard’s sidearm.
In those thirty years, I moved from New York to San Francisco, I worked for numerous theater companies as a set builder, I worked on hundreds of commercials as a prop maker for Jamie Hyneman’s and others’ shops, I worked on over a dozen movies as a model maker for Industrial Light & Magic, I got married, I had kids, I made a TV show with Jamie for fourteen years, I got married again, and at no point did any of those events even come close to pushing the Blade Runner blaster out of my mind. In the back of my head, I was never really not working on it. If I wasn’t actually fabricating components, I was rewatching parts of Blade Runner where it featured prominently, or I was researching gun-manufacturing techniques online, or I was reaching out to people who might know people who might know someone who saw or worked with the original prop, who might be willing to tell me which two guns were cobbled together to make this amazing piece of sci-fi weaponry, so that the last version I made was as perfectly identical to the original as I could make it.
This was the brand of obsession that brought me to the survival pack among all the other paraphernalia at the Kubrick exhibit. And it was this brand of obsession that I brought to its replication.
As I delved into the details, a meta-question began to form in my head: Why is the scene with the survival pack in the film in the first place? What does it tell us that was important enough to Kubrick to require its inclusion? For the uninitiated, Dr. Strangelove is an absurdist narrative about a nuclear misunderstanding that brings about the end of the world. A rogue general convinced that the Russians want to steal his precious bodily fluids sets off a chain of events that leads American bombers into Russia to drop our nuclear arsenal. The powers that be scramble to fix this and are able to recall all of the bombers save for one that’s been shot at and damaged, such that it can only fly a couple hundred feet above
the ground—making it conveniently invisible to both American and Russian radar. As our intrepid bomber crew, led by Major “King” Kong, limps steadfastly toward its final destination, the crew executes all of the operations of what will likely be their final mission, one of which is making sure that their survival packs are in order should they have to ditch out of the plane. Major Kong, played by classic Hollywood character actor Slim Pickens, reads out the contents of this survival pack on the radio, over shots of his crew at their stations in the plane following dutifully along. It’s a weird and lovely break in the tense narrative, a refreshing breath that happens toward the end of the film. It’s humorous and also deeply sad at the same time. You’re watching this group of men heading toward their almost certain destruction, counting packs of chewing gum and pantyhose, executing their duty with a calm professionalism that is singular in the film.
I have come to conclude that the fact the bomber crew are the most competent and professional characters in the film is no accident. I think Kubrick wants us to understand that the tragedy of war is that it’s often envisioned by idiots and executed by professionals. He’s also clearly a fan of banal conversations; they exist in some form in nearly every one of his films. They are exchanges that don’t necessarily propel the plot but that give deep insight into the world of the film.
The second question I had was: Why these items? As part of my research, I collected and chronicled many different types of survival packs given to pilots and airmen from World War II up to and past the point at which Dr. Strangelove is supposed to be taking place, and Kubrick’s production team did their job very well. Most all of the items listed by Major Kong would’ve absolutely been included in any survival pack of the time. But things get weird when we get to items like the lipsticks, the prophylactics,
and the nylon stockings, we’re waaaay out away from anything that would have been normally included in the real thing.I
So then the question becomes: What is Kubrick saying by including them? Personally, I think he’s adding a new narrative to the bomber crew’s potential survival. He’s letting us know in the absurdist version of the world he’s created that American airmen, in order to escape, may need to use gold to bribe their way through Russian men, or lipsticks and stockings to bribe their way past Russian women. With just the addition of those few items, Kubrick’s brain is 3-D-printing another layer onto his absurdist vision and another subplot (if they do survive, how will they escape?) deep into our heads.
These questions I asked of myself were not random. They arose from my deep examination of a single, seemingly banal prop at the most minute detail possible. I found answers in the depths of my exploration, answers that also helped inform how I would replicate the pack and its contents, what materials I would use, and why they were necessary. The whole idea of replicating the survival pack emerged from my obsession with fantastical, filmic narratives and a deep interest in understanding them and what they mean to me. By traveling down the path of research and replication, I gained a new, deeper insight into a filmmaker whose work I find endlessly fascinating, endlessly inspiring. So much so, that I would seize upon many more Kubrick replica ideas in the years to come.
EMBRACE YOUR BRAIN
I have always found that to make anything great requires a good idea that is approached with a genuine regard for excellence and honesty. For me, those ideas are most often born from the rigorous
examination of myself, my world, my surroundings, my culture, and my interests. When an encounter with another’s work moves me at a deep level—whether it’s a character in a story or an object in a film—my desire to embody that character or replicate that object is really just an attempt to understand and unpack why it has moved me and then to capture the story of that moment of inspiration in physical form. But I also recognize that that process of inspiration and ideation is unique for everyone and every creative pursuit.
How I have come up with my stories, how I get ideas for what to make, often comes from my love of movies. But your ideas can come from anywhere. They are out there, floating everywhere. It will be your interest and obsession that create the gravity that draws them to you and then makes them yours. If you can feel that draw, that attraction, and then something catches your interest as a result, PAY ATTENTION TO IT. Being attuned to those pings of interest is the duty of a creator, whether you’re a scientist coming up with a hypothesis, or an artist with a blank canvas in front of you, or a troubadour with a quiet guitar in your hands. We all have brains, and the ability to do remarkable things with them, but what we do with them is up to each of us.
Beyond that, there is no magic formula for getting started, I promise. It merely requires that you participate in your world, that you pay attention to what interests you, that you follow the thrills they produce, and that you never be afraid to go deep on them, to obsess over them, to dig through the bottom of the rabbit hole, if necessary, to find that great idea that has been waiting there for you all along. I
. Soldiers were issued condoms, but they weren’t, as far as I could determine, ever included in a survival pack.