Japanese Manufacturing Techniques?

I’ve taught various aspects of filmmaking on and off for nearly ten years, and in this time I’ve seen a number of student filmmakers excitedly adopt a nearly Fordist model of production when it comes time to make their “big student film.” Where they once wrote, directed, edited, and shot, now one person writes, another directs, another shoots, etc.

Naturally, sometimes this produces a better film since, as students, they are able to focus their developing skills in the areas where each student is most experienced. But I’m troubled when the approach seems to be adopted for no other reason than because the filmmakers think it’s the way “real films” are made.

This is, of course, completely absurd. Movies like Tarnation or Primer, for example, aren’t less “real” because they were cut on iMovie or lit by their writer-director-actor-editor.

And even if these students equate “real” movies with studio films they’re not seeing the whole picture. While it’s undoubtedly true that large, task-specific crews and creative personnel were used to make Hollywood films during the Classic era, times have changed. Even making films for a studio today doesn’t mean that, by definition, a filmmaker can’t exercise principles of self-reliance. Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez, for example, shoot and edit their own films. Are they the exception? Sure. But the fact that there are exceptions at all says something.

If these students were making cars instead of movies would they consider Japanese manufacturing techniques any less legitimate than Detroit’s way of doing things? This summer in the library I ran across Richard Schonberger’s Japanese Manufacturing Techniques: Nine Hidden Lessons in Simplicity. Not being someone who’s studied logistics and transportation most of the book was over my head. Still, reading about Kanban and Just-in-Time was fascinating.

One thing that caught my eye was a breakdown of production line techniques, which I photocopied before returning the book. Here’s an excerpt:

Western Japanese
Top priority: Line Balance Top priority: Flexibility
Strategy: Stability – long production runs so that the need to rebalance seldom occurs. Strategy: Flexibility – expect to rebalance often to match output to changing demand.
Assume fixed labor assignments. Flexible labor: Move to the problems or to where the current workload is.
Need sophisticated analysis to evaluate and cull many options. Need human ingenuity to provide flexibility and ways around bottlenecks.
Planned by staff. Foreman may lead design effort and will adjust plan as needed.
Plan to run at fixed rate; send quality problems off line. Slow for quality problems; speed up when quality is right.
Conveyoritized material involvement is desireable. Put stations close together and avoid conveyors.
Buy “supermachines” and keep them busy. Make (or buy) small machines; add more as needed.
Run mixed models where labor content is similar from model to model. Strive for mixed-model production, even in subassembly and fabrication.

Obviously the metaphor isn’t perfect. Both the Japanese and Western models are trying to produce identical versions of automobiles (i.e., what’s under the hood of one 2006 Camry should be pretty much like the next) while, on the other hand, even the most “Fordist” studio approach still tries to produce different films (even if they’re only nominally different, like Miss Congeniality and Miss Congeniality 2).
Still, looking at it again, I think the Japanese approach has some relevance to the project of this blog: Ingenuity, a “foreman” that also leads the design effort, reliance on small machines. These are hallmarks of self-reliant filmmaking.
Finally, in spite of all the above I’ve written, I should mention that I like some of Ford’s ideas. After all, he’s the guy that believed that factory workers should be paid enough to be able to purchase the good they were producing. That’s one idea that, sadly, in this age of global “outsourcing”, again sounds quaint and unconventional.

One Response to “Japanese Manufacturing Techniques?”

  1. Alan Gratz Says:

    How can you refer to Miss Congeniality and Miss Congeniality 2 as only “nominally” different? In the first movie, Miss Bullock is merely armed. In Miss Congeniality 2, she is “armed and fabulous!”