Rethinking development, so you don’t waste time

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Our tendency is to work on something until it’s perfect. Clean up the drawings, rewrite the drafts. Then release it when it’s “ready”. Making great work takes time and effort, and development has its place.

“The Internet and technology have changed everything about engaging with an audience – content development, content marketing, content distribution, and content monetization.  Hey, traditionalists! This means you need to re-think essentially everything about your media business.” – Peter Csathy, New Media Advisor and Chairman of CreaTV Media.

The media world is changing, and our approach has to change with it. This is one of the big reasons I started Indie Animated, technology has changed everything about development, yet most development in animation hasn’t changed. For a lot of shows the process is still years of development behind closed doors. If you’re lucky, you get greenlit and your show broadcasts to the audience. You hope you get a good time slot, and the marketing catches viewers’ attention. Hopefully the show finds it’s audience. This obviously works for a lot of people and I’m being a little unfair because I know the people who do this work, work very hard. This process works for people who can afford to take this long. This process doesn’t work well if you want to work on something that works early on.

In business there is a big trend in validating your ideas before committing to building the product or service. This is because it is painful to fail, no one wants to make a product nobody wants. Validating a business means doing tests to figure out who your customers are and selling them some version of the product early, maybe even before it’s made. This is the one of the real economic principles that makes Kickstarter work. If you can get a few thousand people to pitch in money to the production, you’ve de-risked going to market. The idea behind validating business idea is to not waste time creating things that don’t work.

Validating media will be different than a consumer product or a service business. We can still learn from the approach. We can still try to build an audience while developing the product. Or at least test our assumptions to make sure we’re on the right path.

Isaiah and I have been trying to figure out how to create projects that are short enough to test our ideas. It hasn’t been easy and we haven’t found quite the right thing. We still spend months developing stories and don’t know if they’re going to work. Often getting stuck in the planning waiting for the project to be ready to show. As Ryan Holiday, writer of The Perennial Seller, has said, “There’s no question planning is important, but it’s seductive to get lost in that planning.” Still, spending a few months on the side making a project is shorter than a year. Testing is a habit. We’re coming close to our second project of the year and it will be a chance to learn. Whether to persevere and continue with the idea we have, or pivot to a new plan, approach or idea. If we want to see development change, to see more diversity and new kinds of animated content we’re going to have to take the first steps. Create new ways of making animation and building audiences.

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Organization is underrated

My girlfriend and I go to Starbucks a lot, they make the best decaf coffee either of us have ever had. The joke about Starbucks is that they’re all the same, consistent, but there are still good ones and bad ones. Ones you have brewed decaf and the ones that don’t. Sometimes you get out of a Starbucks and you’re like, “That was a BAD Starbucks.” I made the connection that the difference between a good Starbucks and a bad one often comes down to management and organization. At a good one you might have one person take your order and getting brewed coffee, another person will ring you up, and a barista making the espresso drinks. Everyone has their place. In the Starbucks we were just in, we had one person listen to my girlfriend’s order then run off to get food out of the oven, another person then took her order again, finally, the first person comes back to take my order and moments later they’re the one making our drinks. They were so exhausted they couldn’t get out the five-word name of my girlfriend’s drink (which is fair) but ended our interaction with an irritated “whatever it’s called”.

Just about everyone would like to be more organized. Artists have a tricky relationship with organization. You want to be creative and free. When things feel to constrictive it isn’t fun anymore. When you don’t organize you don’t get things done. Projects stretch into the distance, you get bored, or keep on changing the scope. We want to produce the best work we can, and make it all the way to the finish line. Judd Apatow, in an interview with Brian Koppelman, talks how he gets the most out of his staff.

“…you have to be very clear with your staff what the process is going to be…And then if everyone knows that then you lose the emotional aspect, which is, “I’m so mad at Judd for screwing with my script.” There is a respect to the writer, ‘you’re going to get a lot of runs at this. We’re going to start it really early, we’re not going to assign you a script we going to shoot three weeks later. I’m going to do it months in advance.”

What Judd underscores here is that being clear about the process helps everyone be on the same page. You might think that everyone knows the process but you’d be surprised. You might think you know the process for whatever you are doing, putting it in writing will make it much more clear to you. You’ll start to see the gaps, the bottlenecks, where you deal with unknowns. Management starts with understanding the important thing to be doing. In creative work understanding the process means understanding how many iterations you’ll need before a story is good enough, or a design is refined.

That brings me back to the Starbucks analogy. You want to be the Starbucks that’s orderly, where each person has their job. Those are my favourite ones to go to, not just for the organization but the friendliness of the people that work there because the flow keeps them from getting overwhelmed. There’s a process and the process actually helps us make the best work. There are times that when everything is down to the wire you get the best ideas. There’s a creative energy that can be very enticing. Animation takes so long that consistency is more useful. Putting a little time early on, set up the process, and it will give you the freedom to be  more creative. You will also get more done and finish more projects. Being productive is a benefit in itself.

The Compound Audience

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This past week my writing partner Isaiah and I were having this big discussion about our strategy. We’re making a bunch of short comics, but it’s going slowly, and we don’t know if it’s connecting how we want it to. What always comes up in these conversations is how we don’t have the audience or platform to promote what we make. So if you are someone who feels like they don’t have enough followers, fans or audience, I know exactly how you feel.

How do you build an audience from nothing?

I am obviously speaking as someone who is figuring this out, so help yourself to the grains of salt. Building an audience is a powerful thing. That’s why we want to do it, because if you have an audience, even a small one you get to make things for that audience. To make the things you want you need the audience to show up. The thing is you can wait, hope or pray the audience will show up but it probably won’t unless you start building your platform now so when you do have something to share you’ll have a few people to share it with.

Building an audience can be a little like saving for retirement. Putting in a little bit of money over a long enough time and you’ll have enough to retire on. The more money you put in the more interest is earned. Compound interest is an amazing thing. I’m not here to tell you to save for retirement (but you really should). I’m want to talk about the compound audience.

Your audience will start small. Everything starts small. That’s okay and it’s no reason to give up. Just know that it’s going to be small for awhile. Early on when things are compounding the look almost linear but it will grow with time. The first people who will follow you will be your friends and acquaintances. They like your work not because it’s good but because it’s yours. The important part is that we need to start contributing. It will start with your immediate network then grow from there.

Contributing to your audience by sharing your work, work in progress, learning, and ideas. Posting your work can be uncomfortable and vulnerable. It feels like a lot to ask people to look at your work. When you release your work it becomes real, and that is frightening. This is something I could be better at. I always feel like the work could be better. I need to remind myself that sharing work the benefits outway the risk. Nothing truly bad will happen. Nothing we cannot handle.

The hardest part about contributing to your audience will probably be consistency. This is hard because it takes discipline. It’s easy to post something for a week then disappear for a month. Constantly contributing early on will pay dividends later on. Including making sharing part of your routine and a habit you can rely on. I’m not the best at consistency. One area where I’ve been good is with this blog. Every Friday I release a post and my newsletter goes out. I trust that by showing up every week people will start to notice.

You might not think your ready, but you are. You don’t need to be ready because right now the stakes are low. Start building slowly, one person at a time. Then when you are ready you do have something to promote, the audience you’ve put work into will be there. What you post doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect. It’s probably best if it isn’t, choose something that’s easy to follow through on. Start early and contribute often and your little nest egg of an audience will grow.

PS. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is a great resource for learning how to share your work.

Other posts about audiences

Where did the general audience go?

The two fears of audiences

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Why I was wrong about short films

I was going to write a post about why I don’t like making short films. As I was writing I realized my reasons were kind of garbage. I had all of these misconceptions about short film production that weren’t true. I haven’t been thinking about short films in the right way. Here are the reasons I thought short films weren’t worth the effort they take.

“Short films are too short for my stories.”

Animation takes so long to produce it’s often in the best interest to make the film as short as possible. I thought that short films had to be so short, you couldn’t fit a full narrative. I want to tell stories that are long and deep. This isn’t a good reason to not make a short film. There’s no reason you can’t take your bigger idea and simplify it to fit the format. I used to think that short films work better when they were funny, and you couldn’t do epics. I think this was fear, each time I tried to make a short film I tried to game the system. I’d make something that I thought would work. In the end I always ended up with something that wasn’t honest to what I wanted to say. This was my lesson from those films. I tried to hard to make a good short film, instead of trying to make my own short film.

I convinced myself that self contained short films were better. I didn’t like the idea of making trailers, or a short that was clearly a pitch for a series. I thought it was more pure to make a film that could stand on it’s own two legs. This is silly, if you’ve put all the work into designing the characters and building the world why not tell more stories. Why not make a long story told in installments. I had this idealized version of what an animated short film was and it prevented me from making the kind of films I wanted to make.

“Short films take forever to make”

Many of us only made short films during school. In school the way you make a film is you start in September and you (hopefully) finish in April. I was lucky in that I started working on my first short film at the end of my second year of animation school. I got funding and worked on it on top of doing coursework. After I graduated and finished my thesis film I had to return to animating this film. The process was excruciating, this is where I get my negative feelings around short films. It took me two and half years to finish it. From that experience I thought animated films took forever to make. At least a year of hard work, for maybe a minute of animation. You can make a short film in however much time you like. When you make the film on your own, you can set the schedule, and the deliverables. I’m probably not going to spend a year on a film again. I’ll manage the scope differently so I don’t have to spend another 2 years on one film.

“Short films are lonely experience.”

The two films I made I animated entirely on my own. Animated filmmaking is unique because you can make a film by yourself. I don’t endorse this, for my money, animation is the best when it is collaborative and a team sport. When working on your own project its common to use yourself, you are the cheapest person you know. Everyone else costs money. I think there are interesting ways that you can raise money or call in favours. Making animation with other people is one of the great benefits of making cartoons.

“Short films have no market.”

I was under the assumption that nobody watches short films. That there wasn’t much success outside of film festivals, and I don’t really get film festivals. What I realized is the struggle of getting people to see your work is hard no matter what your selling. Getting people to watch a short film is as hard as getting someone to read a blog post, see your drawing, read your comic or buy your product. This is a marketing problem and the medium isn’t what’s holding you back. It’s true that there is a very small group of people who are looking for animated short films. They are probably not your audience. What you really need to do is to make something that is for a specific group of people who are looking for what your making. You want to find a group of people who like to share what’s interesting to them. It doesn’t have to reach everybody it just has to reach the right people.

I wrote this post to try and explain why short films are a waste of time. I don’t think that any more. I’m actually kind of excited, I want to start making one. It’s a whole new perspective. I think we all have an idea of what a short film is supposed to be. Often we make it to hard on ourselves. This gets to the point of Indie Animated. You choose the terms of what you want to make. Question your assumptions about the proper way to do things. Don’t wait for someone to approve your idea, or funding to come through, or the perfect story. If you see an audience waiting for a certain kind of story, and you want to make it, start making it. Get it out in whatever crude version you can. It might not work, but try to have the bravery to make something better next time.

When you finally have the time to work on your project

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Last week I caught a cold, I was at home for five days and I didn’t get much done except catch up on a lot of TV. A lot of the time was resting, or going to the clinic and pharmacy. I couldn’t get myself to do 20 minutes of writing, or an hour of drawing. I think it has something to do with routine and structure. We can sometimes be more productive when we’re busier because we have to be. When you have to squeeze in your personal work in the few hours before and after work you find that time. When you have ample free time, you wait for the right time when you feel like working. We almost never feel like working. You can have week off, or a holiday weekend and still struggle to get things on your to-do list checked off.

Now that I know this, I think I can plan for my day off or free weekend. One option is to schedule your personal work. If you have a free week and you want to work on your project treat it like work. Have a start and end time, and at the end of the day put the work down and relax. Another alternative is to recognize that this is a break. Allow yourself to relax fully, don’t worry about getting work done and absolve yourself of guilt.

I think to myself about all the things I’d get done if only I had the time. Often that’s not the case, even when I get the time I can’t sit down and do the work. The truth is we have the time now. There’s no use waiting because there’s never the right time. If you have a project you are dying to make start chipping away at it. Evenings, weekends, any time, you can afford to start doing it now.

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