Pay people enough to take money off the table

Paying animators per frame is not only a little unfair and unethical  but might be bad business. The assumption about paying animators per frame is that the frame is the most useful unit of splitting up a film. I’ve been involved with these deals, and there are times that it looks like it makes sense. There might even be some scenarios where it is the best method. But I’d like to talk about how it doesn’t work, how it undermines what we’re really trying to do: make great animation.

The problem with paying an animator by the frame is that it assumes that every frame is nearly equal. This is never the case. One section of animation might take an entire day to figure out. While a simple camera move might take only a few minutes. It’s not uncommon for a simple camera move to develop a problem and end up taking twice or three times as long, for no good reason. Paying by the footage would make sense if animation was a mechanical task. Sadly animation is not. Animation takes skill, planning, and thought. Every department in animation requires making choices and thinking.

By putting a price on footage you’d think we incentivize animators into animating faster, and taking on more footage. Dan Pink, in his talk about motivation, talks about the nature of monetary incentives and work.

“They do the test. They have these incentives here’s what they found out. One as long as the tasks involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected. The higher the pay the better their performance okay that makes sense. But, here’s what happens but once the tasks call for even rudimentary cognitive skill. A larger reward led to poorer performance now this is strange right a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

The research shows that these types of incentives only work for very menial tasks, and animation isn’t one of these. While this system looks like it intends to stretch the productivity of every single artist, it instead backfires. It creates a burnt out workforce that on top of their deadlines have to deal with the stress of whether or not they’re making a living wage in the end.

So what can be done about it? What’s the best way to pay the artists and production staff who work in animation? Again Dan Pink may have an answer to that.

“Money is a motivator at work but in a slightly strange way. If you don’t pay people enough they won’t be motivated. What’s curious about there’s another paradox here which is that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work”

Pay people enough to take money off the table. This way artists have the privilege to worry about their work rather than their rent. This is what most artists want to do. We love worrying about making good art. Studios, instead of thinking in quotas, should think in benchmarks. What is an industry standard rate for production? If a production is behind is that a sign of lazy animators, or sign the pipeline isn’t working? We can reimagine how we run animation productions.

I’ve been in the place of trying to wrestle with rates for animators. You want the most you can get for the budget you have. What we are learning about business is that efficiency isn’t enough. Creativity, and dedication pay off. The way we structure our productions often wastes the creativity of the team. Animation productions in the future might have smaller teams, but with better technology and clear communication we can still produce great animation. We can do all that while making animation better for every stakeholder, including animators and artists.

RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us


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How to make more personal art

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I know I’ve struggled with making personal art, a lot of people do. With social media there is a precedent to make lots of personal art. You can feel bogged down by the pressure to create. I also think we want to make this kind of art. You might be unfulfilled or unchallenged at work. You might want to make the work that is personal, important and vulnerable. This is also the hardest work to make.

Our brain works against us and fear prevents us from making this work. There’s a useful book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The struggle of the artist isn’t between making bad and good art, it’s about overcoming the resistance to make art all together. The hard part about making personal art is getting off the couch, turning off Netflix, and sitting at the desk. It’s so much easier not to do the work you want to do, we fight ourselves every step of the way. Not that it isn’t important to relax and take time off. It’s that making art is important, making your own art is important. If you want to make personal art, or art outside of work you need to overcome this resistance.

The artists that you admire, who seem to create endless amounts of ‘personal’ work, really have overcome the resistance. They have good habits that they rely on to make art consistently. For most of us when we get the chance to draw, the work we create doesn’t match what we expected. It can ruin the good intentions we had. We find ourselves convinced we were better off watching more TV. This is of course untrue, we are better off making art. If that is what we set out to do. You must lower your expectations and realize how much strength it takes to make something in the first place. Set up simple and easy to achieve goals, like making one bad drawing. Often making the bad drawing is what’s required to get to the good drawing. We could all do to deliberately make more bad drawings. If all you have in you is a bad drawing, say to yourself, “Good enough” pack up your stuff and try again tomorrow. The important part is to come back again and again.

The problem with personal art is that it’s often us talking to ourselves. The danger of making work for the internet is that it can feel like making work for everyone. Art that we make speaks to what we’re thinking or how we’re feeling. When we talk with ourselves it rarely works that well. Austin Kleon has a talk about the habits for making things. My favourite point is “Making Gifts”. It’s the idea that most art and craft starts as an honest and earnest gift. Something we give to someone, not expecting anything in return. I think our art would probably get a lot better with a little selflessness.

Here’s my idea: Find a friend that you trust, make a pact with them to trade art back and forth (maybe everyday, or once a week) then instead of making personal art just for you, make personal art for them. This is useful because there’s the tiny bit of social pressure, this will help you get off the couch. You also make art for a specific audience of one. Your friend likes your work not because it’s good but because it’s yours. They will also give you feedback because they want to see you grow. I like this idea because it is personal and generous. The process is learning how to enjoy the process of making your art, so you can apply it to all the work you make.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.

Where did the general audience go?

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Animation takes a long time and is expensive. So for a long time, animation has lived in “general audience”. To justify the cost, the work must appeal towards the widest audience possible. Slowly things are changing, tastes are diverging. We are faced with the truth there is no general audience anymore. People used to go to the movies one or more times a week. They went to the movies not knowing what they’d see. That was a general audience. The business was about who you could convince off the street to see your movie. Then people stopped walking into the movies and starting channel surfing, again people wandering around looking for something to watch. That was another kind of general audience. That audience started splintering, moving to more specific channels.  With the internet, people splintered even further. People might surf the web but they aren’t just looking for something to watch, they are looking for something specific. The reason that Netflix and Youtube are so popular today is because they serve up what you want to watch next. The content you’re most likely to want next. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s learning and they’re investing huge amounts of money to make the content. When ubiquitous attention is going to become more scarce the specific becomes valuable. What works well now is the work that is made really well for a certain group of people. It is work that works to find it’s audience. This is the change we’ve been waiting for in animation. To create cartoons that don’t talk down to it’s audience. To make a series with context, stakes and meaning, there’s work that needs to be done. We need to find the collaborators who will take on some of the risk. We can move first. We can start producing our ideas in public, planting the seeds to try and find an audience. Testing the work in a cheaper medium like comics, podcasts, or novels. Once you have the audience you have a bargaining chip for the series. Attention is so scarce that people will pay for that access.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.

Building an audience and Crowdfunding

The other day I heard a creator ask if crowdfunding was a good way to develop your project. I’ve been avoiding talking about Kickstarter or Patreon, mostly because I don’t have any experience with the platforms. I’m not expert, and part of me didn’t get it. Don’t the rewards seem frivolous? Is it worth the work it demands? I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone. Crowdfunding is a great way to gain support from your audience with zero dilution, while also marketing your creative product. What I think needs to be clarified is that it is not a guaranteed solution. It is not easier or better than traditional investment and funding opportunities. Crowdfunding is business through and through.

The misconception around crowdfunding is that if you have something worthy of funding it will get funded. If the project doesn’t get funded it is likely because it was launched too early. Crowdfunding works is when you already have an audience who wants what you make. If you’ve put in the time to build trust with that audience they will be happy to fund, to pay and to participate in what you’re making. While it might seem like it’s about the rewards or the incentives, it’s really about trust.  When a person gives money towards your project they trust you to make it. Trust is built by contributing consistently. Creating something surprisingly special for a specific group of people, over and over again.

I think a lot of creators believe crowdfunding will support them through the creation of their art. We struggle with the fact that with no money, progress on our ideas is slow. Sadly this is just a struggle of making things. When you begin there is no one waiting for what you’ve made. We want the funding to come first, we’ll show up once someone pays us. That’s something different, that’s a job. To create new things we have to show up first. Once we can prove that we’re consistent will it be easier to make a living?

I think for many people the idea about the funding actually gets in the way of actually starting. By starting without resources you learn to be resourceful. In business there’s a term Bootstrapping, it means a business that is started without outside investment. Most businesses are bootstrapped, and most shows are developed by creators putting in their own money or resources. The work you put in at the beginning is your investment. When you don’t have capital but you have an idea and a skill, start with those.

I think crowdfunding is a fantastic opportunity. It gives people access to capital outside the mainstream. Creators get investment without dilution, meaning their vision stays untainted. Crowdfunding has been really important for people who are underserved by media. This is actually part of how it works well. When you have something special for a specific group of people who want it, there shouldn’t be a problem getting that funding. The first step isn’t about building the campaign, it’s about making something for the community you want to connect with.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.