“Creativity isn’t magic.” – Everything Is a Remix, Part 3
Spanning the light bulb, Led Zeppelin, Apple’s first computer and Star Wars, Kirby Ferguson’s sweeping, four-part documentary series asserts that all creative work is a recombination and transformation of existing elements. Full of juicy examples from pop culture over the decades, the series traces the evolution of remix culture through music, cinema, and technology. The point is not to discredit George Lucas, Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs, however, but to reexamine how we define creativity.
You can watch the first three parts here on TheAtlantic.com, and stay tuned for part four, which comes out this fall. Below, Ferguson talks us through the genesis of the project, why he hasn't taken a political position on copyright, and how you can help him finish the series.
The Atlantic: Everything Is a Remix is as much a philosophical odyssey as a documentary series, exploring notions of creativity and authorship across music, film, and technology. It’s also a labor of love — you’ve produced and funded the series yourself, with some support from viewers. What was your motivation to take on this quest?
Kirby Ferguson: Philosophical odyssey, I like that. I'll have to use that in my self-promo.
I wanted to address the hypocrisy of property-centric views of creativity. Corporations -- and even many authors -- want monopoly rights that are as broad and enduring as possible, but the gaping hole in that approach is that all creations contain chunks of other creations. It's a blurry boundary between where one work ends and another begins. We all copy, we all transform, we all combine. And initially it seemed like a good side-project while I was working a day job. It didn't require me to shoot footage so I thought it'd be relatively easy, but it turned out to be outrageously time-consuming.
Has your own definition of originality shifted in the course of researching and creating Everything Is a Remix?
It's made my reasoning richer and more diverse, but no, I have the same view I started with. My basic premise is pretty obvious, really. The fun is in fleshing it out.
The film seems to avoid taking a political stance on copyright — was this a conscious strategy?
Yeah, it was. There will be a distinct editorial viewpoint in Part 4, but I'm more interested in social norms than politics or legislation. I'm not a fan of the documentary format that includes a list of suggested actions. I'm trying to contribute to the conversation, but viewers can take it from there.
The series itself includes a staggering number of samples/excerpts/quotes from various creative works. Even though fair use should cover all of these references, have you had to deal with any legal hurdles in the making of the film?
Nope, nothing. If you produce a remix and don't sell it, it seems corporations will now look the other way. This may indicate that sanity has prevailed at least in the non-commercial realm.
Episode 2 really hits home with side-by-side comparisons of Star Wars and Kill Bill with dozens of films with nearly identical scenes. How did you go about finding and compiling all these clips?
It actually wasn't that hard. Both those filmmakers have large and active communities on the web. The Star Wars material mostly came from Star Wars Origins and the Kill Bill stuff mostly came from The Quentin Tarantino Archives. The real challenge was making those comparisons play on-screen; that part was surprisingly difficult.
One of the great things that Everything Is a Remix does is that it illustrates how remixes are not a new phenomenon at all, although remixing has proliferated across media thanks to new technologies. How do you see remixes evolving, as digital technology keeps advancing and reshaping every aspect of creative work?
There's now a very young generation that considers remix an essential medium and I'm really interested in what those kids will do later. They may internalize the art in a way that no generation has yet. In the near future we'll start seeing remixing in 3D printing -- designs will get traded, mixed, matched, transformed. A little further out, remixing genes (it's already being done now) will present wild and controversial possibilities.
What are you focusing on now, as you research and write the fourth and final episode? How can viewers support the series?
I'm focusing mostly on the history of copyright. I'm trying to absorb as much history as possible so I can discern a shape to the narrative and tell that story in a way it hasn't been told before. I just discovered John Tehranian's new book, Infringement Nation, and it's a goldmine.
Those who'd like to support Everything Is a Remix as well as my future projects can visit the Donate page of the site. I'll also have some merchandise in the near future.
For more Everything Is a Remix videos and background research, see http://www.everythingisaremix.info/.