Making your big ideas manageable

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I have tons of big ideas, way too many. What if instead of spending years developing your idea, waiting for the right time, you could start building your audience. When you start something on your own it starts small. That’s part of the deal. You can only make what you have the capacity to do. So you have to start with something little. The alternative is to take a very long time. Years of development, of pitching and reworking. The shame is, that for years you will work without that work seeing an audience. That system doesn’t make the best cartoons. It just makes the best ones that can get through the gauntlet. It chews up and spits out a lot of promising shows, and creators.

That’s why we have to start small. Everyone who knows better, says that the way to get started is with shorts. Young animators rebel against the idea. We don’t want to make little things. Insignificant things. We want to make stuff that matters. I know I did. I wanted to make television, and movies, at a high level. But when I look at it, there’s only one way to start, and that’s to start small.

What if you have a big idea that the world needs to know about. I’ve always wanted to tell big stories. When I was a kid I would start giant comics full of ambition. About seven pages in I would give up. Then in college I kept on thinking that I’d make shorts and move onto longer projects when I was ready. Making something short is as much work as making something long, only you’ll just be finished sooner. Isaiah and I have are trying something new. For this year we are going to work only on developing short comics. After each short we’re going to develop a new one. What we want to see is if any of the shorts catch on. We want the audience to determine which one we keep working on. So if you have a big idea try and find a piece that’s a good small story.

How do you start small enough? I used to think of shorts as insufficient for my ideas. Then I realized that shorts could become bigger things. Shorts are part of a bigger story. There are two ways stories can be broken down. You can create a short that is broad or a short that is narrow. A broad short has little pieces of all the elements. You can think of this like a trailer or a synopsis. A broad short only has time to focus on things at a very shallow level. The other kind of short is very narrow. This is where you take one piece and focus on a small part. You might make a short that’s just one character, or a single scene. That short can feel deep, but on a small subject. Pixar shorts do this beautifully. Don’t underestimate how little you can fit in to a short time. Always cut it down and refine what you want to say.

A story is like a secret. You want to keep it close to you as long as possible. Just dolling out bits and pieces to people. That builds the tension and the intrigue. All stories are built upon smaller stories. So while you’re developing your story by making shorts. That way you can learn what’s working. See what catches, what things the audience brings.

After that short is done, make another one. If you have a big story to tell you’re lucky. You have all the material you need to make the next thing. If you have a big story buckle in. This is dynamic development. Insead of reworking a pitch over and over. You test your ideas on a real audience. If an idea doesn’t work, try it again in a different way. Win over the audience one person at a time. This method isn’t about the easy road. Building an audience is hard every time, that’s why it’s valuable. What you keep is your integrity, your voice. I hope I can inspire you to start working on your next little project.

If you have any questions about breaking down stories subscribe to indie animated then reply to the next email.

Animator and an Artist

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You know it breaks my heart when I hear a from an animator who wants to get out of the business. It’s especially upsetting when my peers, barely starting their careers, are looking for a way out. We went through at least 4 years of school to join an industry that doesn’t excite them any more. Animation (at least in Canada) has a five year attrition rate, meaning after five years most people who entered the industry have left. It breaks my heart because I love animation. I plan to work in animation for the rest of my life. This is made me realize something I hadn’t admitted to myself throughout college.

I don’t just want to work in animation, I want to be an artist.

I want to be a full throated, red blooded artist. My medium is animation, and I want to say something. I want to express something. That changed how I thought about my career and even led me to this newsletter. I’m focused on making a career of making things that matter.

We have to be honest the industry doesn’t treat it’s animators like artists. Animators, producers, designers, riggers, lighters, production managers, are all cogs in a machine. The system is set up to produce animation. It’s not set up to make creatively fulfilling work.

We can change the system. Art follows different economics than straight up content. Art is about impact. If you make something that a group of people love. You’re in a good position to make a living. Great art lasts a long time. It works outside today’s narrow attention span. The starving artist is a myth. Some artists may starve but others are successful.

There’s a road laid for animation graduates. You find your first gig, then you move up a little. Then you find your next gig. If you’re lucky you move to LA and you work on your favourite show or, feature film. This doesn’t have to be your path. How many artists at these Disney, Cartoon Network, Dreamworks leave to start their own thing? Take to heart that finding work that’s engaging is up to us. We have to work for it.


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How not to compete

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I’ve been thinking a lot about competition in animation. A while back people were sharing their animation school stories on Twitter. A thread that came up in my feed was the competition at schools. It’s made me think about my own experience. Some people thrive in that environment, others can get crushed by the pressure. I don’t think I’m either, I’m not a very competitive person.
Animation is both an artform and a business. I think this is where competition comes from. Art is rarely competitive, business is. In business it’s important to beat back the competition and get ahead. Art doesn’t work that way, art is collaborative. Art is better when we come together and create something. This is how negative competition can ruin productions and studios. When artists start competing with each other it undermines the work being done. Without collaboration ideas cannot grow projects stagnate.
I think there’s a different form of competition that can serve both the artistic and business needs of animation. It’s a powerful business strategy and fulfilling life practice.

Don’t Compete.

Successful artists and businesses don’t compete directly. They look for gaps in the market and where they can be successful. In the book the Blue Ocean Strategy the authors, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, detail how successful companies manage to find gaps in the market. Instead of going to the highly contested red oceans they find a new category where they are able to dominate unopposed. Just because competition exists doesn’t mean you have to join.

This can apply for your career as well. Most artists spend their time trying to get the few very competitive jobs at high status studios and agencies. When really successful artists become a category of one. When Disney or Dreamworks needs Peter de Sève to do designs there’s only one Peter de Sève. That’s why he’s been a designer on probably every major animated film for more than a decade. Finding that niche isn’t easy. Early in your career it makes sense to take any job you can. Always try to find who you are, what you can contribute. This way you fullfill both what you want from your art and what the business needs.

Not competing works for stories, pitches and series. The Film and Television business might think it wants more of the same, the big successes are often the new frontier. The most remarkable works are genre defining. Lord of the Rings defined fantasy for the next 60 plus years. Star Wars didn’t just copy space opera, it became the de facto space opera. Finding a category or genre to exploit is where the big successes are.

If everyone is fighting over there. It might be the time to look elsewhere.


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How to Build an Animation Team

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I’m in the process of adding more people to my team at work. The teams I build are very small and we have limited resources. With these constraints we manage to make good work, on time, with limited overtime.

Build One Artist at a Time
The first thing I did was I built my team one artist at a time. I try to bring people up to speed on the production as quickly as possible. The process of bringing on new employees, takes time. I don’t expect animators to be at full productivity in the first weeks. What you learn in those first few weeks is how they are to work with.

Hire Multi-Faceted Animators
I hire animators. Animation is the hardest most time consuming part of production. So I look for animators who have other secondary skills in layout, storyboarding, rigging etc. People that can move around are invaluable.

Small Teams Work Smoothly
I keep the teams small. With 3-5 people communication is seamless. In production, communication is everything. I look for artists that are self managers. We talk broadly about the goals of the project. They can take it from there a break down the sub tasks.

Single Piece Flow
We tend to work on one episode/short at a time. I’ve found keeping the team working together on shorter term goals makes everything go smoother. It’s based on an idea called Single Piece flow. It’s the fact that smaller batch sizes can be faster than larger batch sizes. So far it’s worked well. And I’ve noticed we’ve gotten into problems when we stop thinking in small batches.

Now this system isn’t easily scalable. I wouldn’t know what to do with 20 or 100 people all at once. What I would try is splitting those people into autonomous teams. Again the benefit with small teams is seamless communication. Animation is a collaborative medium. I think it works best when everyone is able to contribute. I think this is the advantage that small teams have. Small teams have to capacity to listen to all their members.

All the best
Luke