Copy, Transform, and Combine: ‘Everything is a Remix’

Everything is a Remix (2010-2012) is Kirby Ferguson’s short video series about remixing and why it is integral to creativity. To summarize his perspective, he recently delivered this presentation at TEDGlobal 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland:

Ferguson’s maxim of the basic elements of creativity — Copy, Transform, and Combine — distills the process that artists, writers, engineers, programmers, musicians, and filmmakers throughout history have repeated in order to learn their craft and eventually produce new products and media. We all “stand on the shoulders of giants” by copying the works of others and modifying or combining existing designs and concepts on the path to creation. As an allusion to the sciences, this could be called a “general theory of creativity.”

Following the example of the musical remix, fanediting in the cinema also connects with the larger creative tradition described by Ferguson. If we recognize that remixing is integral to progress in the arts and industries, we should consider that the Hollywood filmmakers of tomorrow might be honing their skills as faneditors today.

To supplement Ferguson’s talk, the TED Blog published “14 brilliant quotes on remixing,” illustrating the tradition of copy, transform, and combine addressed by various creative people. The article provides sources for most of the quotations but also notes when some statements have been transformed over time and attributed to different people in various contexts. Here are some selections:

“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable.” — Henry Ford

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination …  Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it.” — Jim Jarmusch

“All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources. We are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own.” — Mark Twain

“Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” — attributed to Franklin P. Jones, or Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Edison, depending on who you ask.

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” — attributed to Jean-Luc Godard

And here is the complete Everything is a Remix series by Kirby Ferguson, which expands on the ideas in his TED talk:

When I first encountered Everything is a Remix I recalled Nate Harrison’s Can I Get An Amen? (2004), which chronicles the evolution of a single audio sample in contemporary music. Although not as aesthetically dynamic as Kirby Ferguson’s documentary series, Harrison explores a remarkable phenomenon where an act of remixing inspired subsequent remixing, which continued to spread exponentially like a virus or the reproduction of an organism. The “Amen, Brother” sample that Harrison examines is the ancestor to so many songs that it might be impossible to completely retrace all of its usage and thus it has become essentially absorbed into our cultural DNA, both ubiquitous and invisible.

[Direct link to Harrison’s original video.]

Similar cases in sound design for the cinema could be the “Wilhelm scream” and “castle thunder” sound effects which have long pedigrees of reuse and recontextualization in several film genres. Recently, an intrepid YouTube user sought to overturn the “Wilhelm scream” with a new (comical) permutation. Watch as the following video revisits and remixes some classic “Wilhelm” cues with “The New Wilhelm Scream.”