"Agile Story Development"

My job immerses me in the world that has helped popularize the concept of “Agile Software Development” among software development teams. The premise of Agile development practices encourages product development teams to think big, but build small. In other words, Agile product development attempts to address the inefficiencies and challenges introduced by the waterfall development model, in which the process exacerbates the desire/need to include more and more features in a release.

The result are releases that bite off more then they can chew to the detriment of your schedule, your budget and/or your user experience. On the other hand, the Agile development methodology encourages teams to develop the discipline of bundling and releasing features in smaller more manageable sizes. This allows the product team to adapt the product more quickly based on the input they receive from the smaller incremental improvements previously released.

This employment of this methodology is what has helped shape archetypal products of Web 2.0™: Flickr, del.icio.us, Jot Spot, Google Maps, Measure Map and more. It is a model I thought only applied to software development. I never even considered how this methodology could be employed in other industries and media. That is until I started listening to the Battlestar Galactica podcast published by the show’s producer Ron Moore.

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In one podcast in particular, Ron Moore recounts the process by which he and the other writers decided how they would reveal the interior of a Cylon Basestar. It is clear he has a complete vision for what this ship and he speaks of his first impulse: the desire to show the ship in great detail, to reveal to the audience his grand, beautiful vision – what the ship looks like, how is it operated, how to do the cylons interact within it.

But he resisted scope creep, the urge to indulge in a huge special effects shot. The final cut ended up with a single establishing shot of the base star, and then cut – you are in a room within the base star. The room has no buttons, no knobs, nothing – just a few lights and walls to make it clear to the viewer where they are.

Contrast this to what George Lucas might have done – a producer who is probably the polar opposite of Moore. Lucas has absolutely no discipline when it comes to scope creep. Just watch his movies – every single establishing shot is utterly gratuitous. Why? Because George could never compromise the vision in his head – even at the expense of his own story. As a result, his audience must endure 3 hour long movies that only contained 2 hours of actual story development (if you are lucky).

One could argue that this is not a fair comparison: Lucas produces movies unconstrained by time and money, while Moore produces a television show constrained by both. But what differentiates these two producers is not their budget, or their medium – it is their process. Ron Moore is always willing to sacrifice his own vision for the sake of the keeping things simple and manageable. He knows that if a story element he introduces resonates well with audiences, then he can always return to it later. Which as an audience member is great because it prolongs the mystery and doesn’t exhaust the character or story too early. It also has the added benefit of leaving the audience wanting more of just about everything they see. Finally, in the example of the basestar, it leaves room for their to be more excitement next time he wants to show us a base star, because each time he will reveal just a little bit more – just enough to suit the story. No more, no less.

I am by no means saying that Moore took a queue from the software industry – not at all. I am just beginning to see the advantages of thinking big and acting small can be applied successfully to almost any industry, job or situation.

1 Comment

Very well said. There is an economy to the visual language of BSG that is probably necessary for budget reasons - but which also seems "just enough" so the show doesn't seem to break it's stride on an special effects shot. You get some incredible eye candy - such as the in-frakkin'-credible 'Adama Maneuver' in Exodus II. But it's in the service of a story that is character driven and moving forward at a good clip.

The whole ‘agile development’ is a little overblown, but yes, it does map to storytelling. In the screenwriting trade they say you need to enter a scene as late as possible – even if the audience has to do a few seconds of mental work to figure out what’s going on. It’s taken a long time to apply that method to stories with effects, but BSG is the first of that wave. And, if you are a real geek about the nuts and bolts – the way Moore talks about script development is highly ‘interative’.

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  • Very well said. There is an economy to the visual language of BSG that is probably necessary for budget reasons - but which also seems "just enough" so the show doesn't seem to break it's stride on an special effects sh...

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