Scope Creep- and other reason projects take forever

Right now Isaiah and I are in the hard part of our current comic. That point in a project when you’re maybe halfway through, and the project has already taken longer than you think. You start questioning whether to stick with it or move on. It’s been making me think about production management. There’s a whole world of project management, studying how things get done. The hard part is none of it is specific to animation but there are many principles that are useful. Here are some of the project management maxims that have helped me.

Scope Creep

Scope creep is when the length or complexity of the project increases continually over the course of development or production. Once you become enthralled in an idea it’s easy to rationalize why things have to be a certain way. The danger is with personal projects there’s no limit and no deadline. You can easily convince yourself that this project is worth the 5, 7 or 10 years that it will take to make. Comic artists Lars Martinson has an excellent video about how his comic Tonoharu took 13 years to complete.

“I was 25 years old when I started Tonoharu and didn’t wrap it up until the age of 38. If I were to continue, at the same glacial pace, for future projects I could finish two or maybe three more things before I died or was too old to work.” Lars Martinson

Lars makes the point that it was decisions early on about the scope of the project that commited him to taking so long to complete the project. The only way to avoid scope creep is to keep an eye on it. Define the scope clearly and early on. Then during production check in with that definition. Adjust and keep moving.

Hofstadter’s law

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

— Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Every project does take longer than I expect. Hofstadter’s Law is really about the variables you didn’t account for or didn’t know about. New projects always take longer because you have to spend time figuring out what you’re doing. You often start with the beginning of a good idea, not knowing how to make a real thing. Hofstadter’s law is impossible to avoid. It’s at this point that you make a choice keep going till it’s done, change the project so you can finish it. In the end it’s your call to make.

Parkinson’s Law

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Parkinson’s Law is sort of funny, but seems to be true. Sometimes when pressed with a pressing deadline you can produce your work in record time. Or how in the final hours you get 90% of the work done. One idea behind Parkinson’s law is that we should allot the shortest amount of time to a project to waste as little as possible. For indie creators I think it’s more important to make any schedule. If you never make a schedule you could end up creating a project that expands to fit all your time.

When I read these adages, it reminds me that this stuff is hard. I’m not the first person to face these problems. Those problems have been solved by many people. Part of building a project is figuring out how it’s managed. Most of what we know about project management comes from business. In the 20th century it was driven by the auto industry and assembly line. Now it’s being influenced by tech and the open office plan. In the end the best project management for animation will come from us. You too can solve these problems and how they uniquely occur in animation and art.

PS. Yesterday morning  after finishing this post about Scope Creep, I went to draw the illustration at the top of the page. I had this idea for this isometric drawing of a factory. I thought, “My drawing program has an isometric guide this will be easy.” I was wrong. Halfway through I was like, this drawing really needs characters. Then I really needed to clean up the drawing. There were many layers. Even when you know the perfect adage, it doesn’t protect you from it.


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The problem with 4 quadrant films

This last week I watched Coco. (I know well overdue, and don’t worry no spoilers) The film is Pixar at its best, making something so enjoyable but hits you hard. Pixar does everything at such a high level that it’s almost taken for granted. Watching the film made me think about animated features in general.

Big budget animated features fall into a category sometimes called four quadrant films. Four quadrant as I’ve heard it refers to: Old/Young , Boys/Girls.

four quadrant film demographics

The idea being that these big budget films should appeal to the widest possible audience. When Pixar started making films they ended up creating a template for these wildly successful films. These films appealed to old/ young, boys/girls. They are funny, exciting, and at the core heartfelt. This became the new template for animated features.

When we try to tell rich stories what we do is add more stuff. If we need something exciting we add a storyline that’s exciting. If we want something funny we add funny characters. If we want something emotional we add a relationship. The piling on of storylines is happening across modern filmmaking. Disney is becoming an empire of four quadrant films. Marvel and Star Wars universes also fit into this wide market model. There’s a high demand for all these films to be a little bit of everything. Exciting, funny and emotional, and the easiest way to do this is to add more stuff. To add more storylines, characters, locations and events. It’s no wonder that films keep getting longer.

That brings me to Coco. What stands out about this film is how contained it is. The film is able to stay very small, and personal. At its core it’s a film about a young boy and his family. Sure there’s a big outside world, but it surprisingly focused. He doesn’t have friends, he doesn’t have a school bully. They makes small stories feel big. Pixar acts like a different kind of movie studio. Still they make critically acclaimed, financially successful, four quadrant films.

Why this is important for us indies, is that our stories/series/films are small by nature. There’s all the pressure in the world to make four quadrant films. That’s not the point of indie. The point of indie is to make something specific, and special. So the hard part is about finding what’s specific and focusing like crazy on it. It’s about finding the people looking for something special. This might mean simplifying your idea. That doesn’t mean your work has to have less meaning or importance. This is the hard part, the thing to work for.

Big impact in a small way.

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Your job and your art work

I talk to a lot of animators and what they talk about is not being “fulfilled”. We might need to think differently about what purpose our work serves. This video from Liz Gilbert explains this very well.

What Liz talks about is the difference between having a Hobby, a Job, a Career and a Vocation. How those are not always the same thing. What it really gets to is that your work and your art work don’t have to be the same thing. They likely will not be. You will probably always find yourself working a job to make a living. Then making art because you’re compelled to say something.

Derek Sivers also wrote about this. When people ask him, “How do I make a living from my art?”

“…I prescribe the lifestyle of the happiest people I know:

  1. Have a well-paying job
  2. Seriously pursue your art for love, not money”

The hard part about this is that we might have chosen the wrong work. By working in a creative and demanding field we have little left when we get home. We’re not only not fulfilled but empty. Very few people get to make their living from their artwork. The more important things is that it might be better to not make a living from arout art. Derek Sivers goes on to talk about the benefits of separating your job from your art.

“You don’t need to worry if it doesn’t sell. You don’t need to please the marketplace. No need to compromise your art, or value it based on others’ opinions.”

Animation is not a bad job. I want to make animation. I want to work in animation forever. You work with amazing people to make amazing things. And good cartoons are worth making.

The point I’m trying to make, is that working in animation is a choice. Being frustrated with the work is a choice. Maybe if we expect less of the job and see it more for what it is, it might get a little easier. Maybe the fulfilment of work is just doing good work. There’s no magic either. It doesn’t get better the more well known or successful you get. You’re still going to need a job. You’re art will be there for you when you need it.

The choice between indie and established

I missed a few weeks of writing, and I feel a little bad about that. In the scheme of things it’s not a big deal. It’s still important, because for the last year I’ve tried to build trust. I’ve tried to say, “Every Friday. I’ll be here.” Thinking if I show up consistently with something to say, others might show up too.

In a small way that’s happened, and it keeps me going. I work very hard not to fall into traps, not worrying about metrics that will distract from what I’m trying to do. I was just listening to an interview with Srinivas Rao, he talked about how being an artist on social media comparing followers, views and likes, creates a status anxiety that in the end gets in the way of making creative work rather than entice it. So I try to focus on writing for a very small audience. If one person is waiting to read the blog or newsletter, that’s enough.

Making something creative is hard. Building an audience is hard. How hard it is has shaken the confidence in the premise of this blog. You too can make a series on your own. You know what, it’s still a good option. The real point is that it’s an option that didn’t use to be on the table. Not long ago it would have been nearly impossible to make animation without a studio, a distributor, and a lot of money. While all those things are still useful, you don’t need them as much.

The point I missed was that it would be somehow easier than the traditional method. Or intrinsically better. I think the truth is it’s just hard in a different way. Reaching an audience who cares about what you make will always be hard. Having distribution might help but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The point I want to keep making, is that you have a choice. If you want to make something, and you are willing to go through the hard parts (for a long time). You can just start making the thing. You can show up in front of an audience and show off what you’re making. We have the tools to make the work, tools to distribute it, and tools to make it a business. On the other hand, if you go the traditional route know that there’s an option, an alternative. That way you’re not blinded by being asked to make something. Do not make average work to please people.

With more options, with opportunity, it asks what you really want out of your work. If we know it’s going to be hard, and it might not work. Will we keep going?

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