I do a lot a of reading about project management. I hope to learn more, and make my projects better. One great series of videos is from the people at Basecamp. They go into how they structure their work. Basecamp is an interesting company because of how opinionated they are about what they prioritize. This got me thinking about what we prioritize in animation productions. What’s most important? What would it look like if we created culture based on these values?
I’ve figured that there are at least three constraints on production. These are the areas where we put our time and our budget. These are also the areas that cause our projects to become late and over budget. These constraints are like levers. Each production has to prioritize what’s most important, what the focus is, and what is least important. These three constraints are Schedule, Scope, and Execution.
Schedule is the first constraint because at some point every project needs to get done. Schedule represents budget, because your budget is mostly how large of a crew you can have for a certain amount of time. While it is possible to raise more money, it is much harder to find extra time. Schedule is what can we get done in this fixed amount of time.
Scope is the creative constraint. How big will this project become? Scope is not just about deciding is this an epic or an indie drama. Scope can come down to every single shot of a film or show. Scope is about find is there “some version” of what we’re trying to do that fits the other constraints.
Execution is the craft and the quality we bring to the work. Like all the constraints it is dependent on the other two. Execution isn’t just about making something of the highest quality, because there’s no objective measure of that. It’s about finding the right quality for the project at hand.
All these constraints are dependent on each other. You have to decide what the priorities are.These elements are so interrelated that you can’t have all three. You have to rank them from most important to least important. For instance one production might value Scope, Execution, and Schedule. That kind of project might be a series of fantasy novels. They might be epic, and amazingly planned and well written, but you might die before you finish them.
For example a high budget feature film execution is high on the list. Pixar can’t dip below Pixar standard for it’s next feature. So where execution is the focus they modulate everything to that. They make a big schedule that gives them plenty of time. They make sure that the scope fits what they can do best. They might have a high level of scope but Pixar releases about one film a year. They don’t make three part films, they don’t make 4 hour films. They know the scope of their films. What they care about is telling a great heartfelt story, above all else.
The projects that I work on couldn’t be more different. When you work low budget everything is about schedule. If making the schedule is important than you need to be willing to sacrifice the execution and scope to make that schedule. We are lucky in that we’re working on our own stories. We can make choices to reduce the scope of an episode or scene in order to finish on time. That might be taking out an extra character or location. Having a complicated action take place off camera. These are all tools for reducing the scope. Then it comes to the execution or quality. The way I view quality is that we get the best we can get. I make sure there are no obvious mistakes, but for the large part I leave it to each artist to bring their best work. We lean toward things that are simple but animated well. Everything we do is made with consideration to the schedule.
In animation these kind of things get compartmentalized, it becomes someone else’s job. Managing constraints isn’t just the domain of the leadership. It isn’t up to the directors and producers that make these decisions. Choosing what you value, and what important creates a culture. Culture means that everyone is on the same page, everyone knows what to value. When culture isn’t built deliberately it grows on its own. Getting a team on the same page connects the team. When the team is connected they can focus on the work, and the work gets better. Indie animation isn’t going to be about individual vision, it’s going to be about the team you build, and what everyone brings to the table.