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Do You Want Your Animation & Visual Effects Business to Thrive?

1. Don’t buy into the culture of crisis.

The culture of animation and visual effects today embraces the concept that the production line must be in constant crisis which forces us to work insane hours to do impossible things. It repeats again and again that there is nothing we can do about it because “That’s just how the business is”.

This is total crap.

Crises do happen, of course. They happen in all businesses, but not all day every day as they do in many animation and visual effects studios. The only reason we run in constant crisis is because we choose to make it this way and/or permit it to be this way. It is absolutely not necessary to run production in a constant state of crisis, nor is it advisable. It burns people out, it dramatically increases the cost of VFX and it reduces the final quality of the work. Everybody, absolutely everybody loses in this scenario.

Now we all know the story of the producer who said “A CG Artist is like a light bulb. When it burns out, I replace it.” Sadly, this producer will never get high performance out of his team and never see the nice, fat profits that can be made by protecting the team from burnout. They know he has no loyalty to them so they have no loyalty to him. He gets to constantly retrain new people to fill the gaps and deal with disgruntled team members who are not motivated to make him successful.

Most businesses in the world permit their employees to have lives. Most do not demand their crew sacrifice health, family and enjoyment of life to make their products. Those businesses all do just fine. There’s an entire article on The Culture of Crisis HERE if you would like to understand more.

2. Ban overtime.

When you look at your finances and wonder why your company isn’t making any money, look at how much money is spent addressing the culture of crisis. When your crew works long hours they get paid much, much more and they become so fatigued that they do much, much less work. Overtime is supposed to be a short-term emergency measure that is used once in a while to fix an unanticipated problem. You would think after all these years of constantly paying out absurd quantities of their profit margin, animation and vfx businesses would realize there’s a serious management/scheduling problem if there are constantly unanticipated problems that cause overtime.

Some animation & VFX houses are starting to treat overtime the same way “normal” businesses treat it; by scheduling appropriately to the contract and by saying “Hell no!” to overtime unless it’s a critical emergency. It should be little surprise that the companies who adopt this policy are thriving. Insane overtime is a reaction to a problem that could and should have been anticipated. Running overtime regularly simply means your managers are not anticipating obvious problems.

You can read more about “The Trouble with Overtime” HERE.

3. Do not promote senior artists to management positions until they have management training, experience and an available management mentor.

To an adept, competent manager , this should be a truism. Just because she is a brilliant senior-level artist or TD does NOT mean she will be a brilliant manager. Management is an entirely separate, trainable skillset comprised of expertise in leadership, communication, team management, strategy, problem solving, decision-making, project management, time management, stress management, creativity techniques, skills development techniques and crisis management among many others. Can you look at any of your senior or intermediate managers and say confidently that each of them is trained and skilled in each of these areas? If not, you are bleeding money and should already be googling management training services to upgrade your team. A competent management team will automatically prevent and/or limit the necessity for overtime, your chief money hole.

4. Prevent artists and TDs from spending all your money by over-engineering.

The nature of most people in visual effects and animation is that they are creative and love to make stuff. They will keep making stuff until you tell them to stop. The consequence of this is that they will often overdevelop tools or assets far beyond the needs of the current task. On the face of it, this might sound like a good thing. We want our crew to shoot for the stars, to strive for excellence and to create work so great that it will cause repeat business. Unfortunately, when an artist spends an extra two days texturing the tiniest branches of a tree that are ultimately completely obscured by the foliage because they “might” be seen, the result is that the thousand dollars the artist cost for those two days comes directly out of your profit. In a cost/benefit analysis, this is huge cost for no benefit.
But what if the tiny branches ARE seen in some shots? Well then you address it if/when that happens. Do not build for every possible eventuality. Build only for what you KNOW you need right now, and then add/improve as the necessity arrives. This is a major area for increasing cost-effectiveness.

This principle applies to TDs as well. You say you want a gasoline explosion. They build you a tool that will do gasoline explosions…and any other kind of explosion you might want. Sounds great…but since you only budgeted the four weeks to make the gasoline explosion and had to pay an additional thirty weeks for the tool you didn’t ask for, your profit has dropped by $75,000. That is painful. This happened because the middle managers are not there to prevent your creative teams from going down a rabbit hole that nobody asked for.  So how do you prevent artists and TDs from over-engineering? Put managers in place who understand the tools & tasks, who can effectively manage teams and who understand that being a commercial artist doesn’t just mean getting paid, it means being cost-effective.

For more on Over Engineering in the CG Department, you can read THIS.

5. Recognize that your team members are not employee numbers. Each one holds the potential for greater success…in the right environment.

It is always sad to see the spectacular potential of a talented team squandered and wasted by a leadership who believes all digital artists and TDs are the same, in general, and that running a project involves getting a certain number of workstations with certain software tools and putting a certain number of warm butts in the chairs for a certain number of days. This is the least creative and most expensive method of developing animation and visual effects.

Every individual in your team is loaded with untapped potential. As a manager, it is in your interest to seek out an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, interests and goals of every individual in your team. Once you have this information, you can put together a much more coherent team, or hire the right people to fill the skill gaps or implement task assignments that play to the strengths of those individuals. Knowing your team presents an embarrassment of riches in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness opportunities.
Ironically, once you get to know your team, you’ll care more about them, provided you’re not a sociopath, and will be less likely to burn them out and replace them.

6. Forget software fanboy-ism

There is a strong tendency in most studios to use one software tool and whine about how awful the others are. The reason for this is readily apparent. Our crew members have trained and worked for years usually with one tool and can wield it reasonably well. If the company uses a different tool instead, they are afraid they may become obsolete, or worse they may have to learn another tool and become a newbie again for a while. Thus, software fanboy-ism is born. It’s a form of protectionism; bad economic advice in most situations. Of course the crew will not express concerns of their own potential obsolescence to you. They may not even be consciously aware. They will couch it in different terms, pointing out all the despicable flaws with this tool or that and pointing out all the wondrous things their current tool already does. They’ll rarely point out the flaws in their beloved tool and almost never point out advantages in another tool. It’s understandable. They don’t want to be out of work. But this is a political attitude. In other words, it is incomplete information that is being presented to you with a slant so you can’t make a good decision. Who do you trust? It is hard to know. This is why you need good team managers who understand the tools, the techniques and the business of commercial art.
The simple fact is that there are quite a few software tools out there that may do the job. In terms of 3D software, each of them has strengths and weaknesses. If one tool has a critical weakness, another tool with strength in that area should be brought in to fill the gap. It makes so much sense it is practically a truism. But artists tend to freak out when you make the suggestion. Studios tend to buy nonsense logic like “But everybody uses xxxx” or “You can’t find anybody who uses xxxx” or “We don’t need anything new. Xxxx has always worked for us in the past”.

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Watch industry trends and developments. If you can find or train the talent to use a different tool and it has strengths that will improve your pipeline efficiency, it’s a no-brainer. Stop listening to the fanboys. And remember this. EVERY tool has weaknesses that can be shored up with superior tools.

7. Train your crew to understand what it is to be a commercial artist.

Ah artists. I love working in a room full of smart, creative people. You can almost feel the tingle of synapse. But most artists have never been trained to understand the “commercial” part of being a commercial artist. Most think it means getting paid to do their work. Sure, that’s a piece of it, but there is much more to the matter. Being a commercial artist, for example, means you need to understand something about business; about how you want to provide for your clients at lowest possible cost. In a VFX or animation studio, your client is your boss. You should want to provide whatever your boss has asked for as cheaply as possible. When you do this, your boss will be very happy with you compared to the person next to you who just keeps overbuilding until someone forces them to stop.
There are a couple of good strategies to being a good commercial artist. First of all, learn to work fast. This means you need to develop all sorts of efficiency systems and techniques for yourself. Keep good, orderly notes. Make sure there is a logical order to the way you execute your tasks. Ensure you always have all the information you need to proceed. If a question pops into your mind, go and get it answered. Work collaboratively. Watch what others do around you and let them watch what you do. Ask questions when you need and answer them when you can. But most of all know what really needs to be done and what doesn’t. Knowing what NOT to do is equally as important as knowing what to do. Being fast is equally as important as being good.

8. Help artists and TDs focus on developing fast, efficient workflows

Fast, efficient workflows begin with obvious things like learning all the hotkeys. Hotkeys really speed up the workflow. Artists should always plan before beginning work. They should try to see all the way to the end; to the finished product. This will help avoid many dead-ends. Artists should pay attention to the techniques of others. As a manager you need to create a collaborative environment which encourages cross communication. Some studios don’t like their crew to talk to each other. They like them to sit there with headphones on and get their damn work done. This is a ludicrous waste of an opportunity to improve your entire team’s efficiency. Wearing a headset all the time guarantees that crew members will miss important bits of information that are floating all around him in casual conversation. Cross communication is essential to developing really efficient technique. This takes time, but is completely worth it in terms of improved output and reduced error.

9. Know what not to do.

Knowing what NOT to do is equally as important as knowing what to do. This applies to artists, TDs, team leaders, managers…everybody, actually. Every single task on every single shot or asset on every single project has technical and aesthetic requirements. It needs to do THIS and THIS. It needs to look like THIS. Anything, absolutely anything, which does not contribute directly to those specific requirements is a complete waste of your precious profit. Take, for example, the modeling artist who, when asked to build an Model T Ford for a background shot in a period piece, built the entire interior and exterior of the vehicle, including the engine, undercarriage, exhaust system, carpets, driver controls…everything. It was a spectacular modeling job, to be sure. But it cost about five times as much as it would have if the modeller had simply done what was needed for the shots and nothing more. “But it can go in the library and then we have a beautiful Model T Ford for all the future projects when we might need one.” The key word here is “might”. Do you really want to increase costs that much for something that might happen in the future on a different budget? Hopefully the answer is no. Now imagine that all the models are built to this level. Sure, the artist gets to feel proud of the work. Your company gets to spend 500% of what it budgeted on building models and then feel depressed when looking at the accounting ledgers. So now, when the models go to the texturing department, do the texture artists paint everything? If so, they also cost 500% of what they should. If the Model T Ford came into one of my dailies sessions, I’d have everything ripped out of it that wasn’t needed for the shot just to be sure nobody else down-line would spend any time on it. Then I’d have a word with the modeling sup.

10. Remember that it’s entertainment, not heart surgery.

It’s your business. That is important. Your business provides a good service and has or is growing a reputation for reliability and excellence. That is also important. One day, your company, if it has not already, may grow to a size that permits a genuine and positive effect on the world. These are all things to take seriously. But don’t ever forget that, while you’re making superheroes fly, there are people sick, starving and dying from war, poverty and disease. Millions fight every day just to survive.

Life and death struggles are real.

Entertainment is advertising content.