LOST, Engineering and the Decathlon

Sometime during season five I noticed a pattern in Lost that reminded me of patterns that I see in my profession, Engineering. For those of you that are not familiar with engineering, the purpose of engineering is to take basic theory or physics and create a useful product from it. Science is more interested in understanding why does that happen, but engineering is more interested in ‘how can I use what I know to make a thing.’ My product requires input from a large number of people from different disciplines and the final design configuration is always a compromise.

There have been many times when the final product is complete and someone remarks ‘this thing is totally messed up, how did that happen’, but what they really meant to say was “this thing isn’t all that bad, but it stinks at the one thing that was most important to me”. If you look closely, though, the final solution was a reasonable design that fit all of the requirements, even though it didn’t do any one of them perfectly. One of the best analogies to a successful design is to remember that no one wins all of the events of a Decathlon, but the winner does pretty well in all categories. But it is also unlikely that you will win if you finish last in any event. More on this later.

I think there may be a very similar process that occurs in television production in general, and the last 2 seasons of Lost specifically. So how do writers take their story, and create a television show? The writers obviously have a large input into the content of the show, but there are also directors, budget accountants, actress/actor contract requirements, DVD sales, travel logistics, set design and corporate input such as the desired amount of swearing, sex, action scenes and the ability to lure new viewers as well as hold previous viewers. In the case of Lost, you may also have to add the ability to satisfy the blogging community, yet not give away the ending. (Oh and I almost forgot: Each character must be shot at least twice and beaten until their face looks like lasagna!) That is a lot of people with specific and conflicting incentives and desires. If you add to the fact that the show is written and produced over a time period when all of these inputs can change, it is surprising that any television show is worth a crap. In most cases television is not worth a crap (bad acting, bad writing, unoriginal plot, canned laughter, no sense of timing…), but that is where LOST was incredibly successful, for the most part. (BTW, Book writers have a much greater control of their final product because they are less time constrained and have fewer inputs into their product. Comparing TV to a book is a very difficult comparison)

If LOST was in the decathlon, they would had won the first 7 events, placed second in 2 and had a commanding lead, but somehow they must have injured a hamstring on the last event. I am still deciding if they won the decathlon after finishing in last place in the “Continuity Event”. Here is my scorecard of important aspects of TV.

Acting Ability: I can’t remember any production that had such excellent acting from a largely unknown cast. There were a few problems with some of the small parts, but all of the main actors and actresses were so good that their characters were believable. Believable, genuine characters are rare, and LOST had many of them.

Chemistry Between Actors/Actresses: I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but the onscreen chemistry was fantastic.

Character Development: This was done pretty well with a few exceptions, mostly in the last season. It was a pleasure to watch James/Sawyer mature, Hurley gain confidence (some), The transformation of Charlie until his death, Sayid’s struggle to change….One painful exception was Sayid’s numb look for most of the last season, that seemed like a waste.

Music Scoring: The music was of the highest quality and scored perfectly to heighten or diminish the mood. This was done better than most movies. The sound effects were also very well done.

Cinematography: The choice of arrangement of characters in the scenes (composition), light quality, contrast control and camera lens selection (depth compression …) was as good as it gets. Again, the producers and camera folks were better than what I see in most movies. The post processing of the raw video was also done very well and gave the TV series that cinema feel. If you want an example, look how much more interesting the LOST scenes look compared to Survivor.

Set Design, shooting locations: When you shoot a movie in one of the world’s favorite vacation spots, you have a great start. You could see repetition in the set locations, but the camera angles and composition of the background was beautiful. The temple, lighthouse, hatches, dharmaville were all first rate stages that gave an authentic feel to the show. Those sets really helped to create the mysterious feel and desire to “explore” the island. These sets were very reminiscent of the computer games Myst and Riven if you have ever played them. However, the set design in the original cave, and the cave of light was very lame. I just have to comment on the Cave of Light. Across the sea had the two most diametrically opposed scene compositions contained in any episode. The scene when crazymum walks to the beach to talk to MIB on the wet log was one of the prettiest scenes ever recorded. The lens choice showing the crashing waves compressed upon the actors, with the setting sun reflected in the wet sand to their right gave it a soft yet powerful feel. Fantastic. Then there was my first glimpse of the Cave of Light. This is my theory on the cave of light. The director shows up to shoot the first cave of light scene about 3 hours early and says “Hey guys, where is the green screen for when we shoot the Cave of light, I heard the CGI guys had a great thing planned.” The set designer’s eyes get really big and exclaims “Didn’t you know the CGI budget was slashed and we have to use live props.” The producer swears and they send some poor stagehand off to the craft store to buy Styrofoam rocks, fake ferns and a hot-glue gun. Tada, the cave of light!

CGI: Compared to movies, the CGI (computer graphics) was crap. But for a TV budget most of it was adequate except the water scenes. All of the sub scenes and water in the wells was very fake, but understandable because water simulation is one of the most difficult (and expensive) tasks for CGI

Suspense and Tempo (short term story arc): I have to know what is in that hatch. What is that thing that moves the trees? Will someone else die in the next episode? Who will she kiss/shoot next? Just like a good book that builds toward the end of the chapter and forces you to read into the next chapter (even though it’s way past your bedtime) LOST was able to keep us wanting more at the end of each show, while still supplying some closure at the end of each show. That is a delicate balance that few shows have ever pulled off.

Writing/Memorable Lines: The fact that you can remember any lines from a TV show is remarkable. This is a testament to the writers choice of words, the good mix of drama and comedic relief and good acting. I won’t give examples, as there are already plenty.

Writing/Continuity (long term story arc): I have been pretty complimentary up to now, but this was a real problem for me (Do you agree Sean?). My engineering background took over here and left me very disappointed. My nature is to observe data, plot the points and predict the future. Smooth curves on graphs make engineers very happy, and random dots flying all over the graphs make us very grumpy. I am not disappointed that all mysteries were not revealed, but the story arc should have at least been consistent. There were major disconnections in the long-term story arc that left me unsatisfied. I won’t go into detail as others have already done so, but sometime during season 5 our decathlete pulled a muscle and slowed down. I was so hopeful that he would be able to pick the pace in the last lap and finish high enough to win the decathlon, but it was obvious that he was way off the pace, and in fact did not even finish the last event, the “continuity event”. Dang.

The LOST team was able to keep it all together for 4 memorable seasons, but it seems that all of the different demands upon the product ended up pulling it in enough directions late in the process.

At least I realized that LOST was not going to end like I wanted, so I lowered my expectations far enough that at least I was not frustrated or angry and could enjoy the very good parts that LOST did have to offer. I have heard that you can’t be satisfied until your expectations meet reality, so down went the expectations, as I had no control over the reality.

I was disappointed with the ending and frustrated, but when I walk past the TV and my daughters are watching re-runs season of season 3, I can’t help but stop for a minute, or two, or 43. You know that hatch was so cool, and all the 1970’s stuff…….I guess the product was successful, even though the most important part to me (long term story arc) was not what I wanted.

It was good while it lasted, now it’s time to turn off the tube and do something productive.

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