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When Less Time Can Mean Better Problem-Solving

By Adam Savage

I’m working on an Alien costume. I’ve got the suit. It was built for me, and it’s gorgeous. But I’m making the head myself, and it’s kicking my butt. The problem: I have too much time.

I’m working on an Alien costume. I’ve got the suit. It was built for me, and it’s gorgeous. But I’m making the head myself, and it’s kicking my butt. The problem: I have too much time.

I’ve learned over decades of building that a deadline is a potent tool for problem-solving. This is counterintuitive, because complaining about deadlines is a near-universal pastime. When I worked with the amazing sculptor Ira Keeler on the space shuttle for Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, Keeler was always proclaiming, “With a couple more weeks, this could be a nice model.” We’re conditioned to believe that the deadline is working against us. But I’m not so sure.

I’d like the head I’m building to be animatronic. The lips would curl back and the jaws would open and snap out, just like in the movie. I’d also like all of these to be controlled by the wearer’s facial movements. I know how each of these actions should work individually, but I keep getting stumped when it comes to choreographing them all to operate together. And when I’m stumped without a deadline, I tend to let things go. So the head has pretty much sat on my bench for seven months.

Any cursory perusal of a fan/maker forum on the web reveals two distinct kinds of projects: the long, meandering, inconsistently updated but impressively detailed effort and the hell-bent-for-leather, tearing-toward-a-deadline build. Solutions to problems of the first type are often methodical and obvious. Solutions for the second type are much more likely to be innovative, elegant, and shockingly simple.

Invariably, the second type of project is propelled by an upcoming event: Comic-Con, Halloween, or even just a visit to a children’s hospital with the 501st Legion (a loosely knit group of Star Warscostumers). Deadlines refine the mind. They remove variables like exotic materials and processes that take too long. The closer the deadline, the more likely you’ll start thinking waaay outside the box.

Meanwhile, my alien head sits there, taunting me, awaiting its resurrection.

(This post originally ran on Wired.com in February 2013)