Why studios should train their artists

I recently read two management books. The Hard thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz and High Output Management by Andy Grove. They both touched on a subject I didn’t expect to see in hard core business books. Training. They both talk about how important training your team is for the productivity of the business. It’s made me rethink how learning and teaching should be a part of animation productions.

“People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense.” Ben Horowitz The Hard Thing about Hard Things

There’s been something lost in the process of animation. There used to be a system of apprenticeship or levelling up. In hand drawn animation you could start as an inbetweener and work your way up. You worked off the work and directly with senior animators to improve your craft. Learning was embedded into the process. Beyond that the best studios have always been havens of learning. Disney was the first to hire Don Graham to teach life drawing to his animators. Pixar has courses and classes. Training isn’t just something for big fancy studios. It’s something that every studio and production needs to practice. It’s something that every supervisor and manager should take part in.

Ben Horowitz and Andy Grove are hard core tech entrepreneurs. Ben Horowitz is a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz and Andy Grove is the former CEO of Intel. They make the case that the best tool managers have for increasing their teams output, is training. Training is an essential function of management.

“Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours of preparation for each hour of course time—twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.” High Output Management, Andy Grove

It’s often believed that in small productions that you don’t have time to train. When really you can’t afford not to. Ben Horowitz puts it this way, “Ironically, the biggest obstacle to putting a training program in place is the perception that it will take too much time. Keep in mind that there is no investment that you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company. Therefore, being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.” There’s all sorts of training that people need. We need people to draw, paint and animate in the style of the show. We need to train supervisors how to give feedback. Train production managers how to manage schedules. We need new hires to learn how files and assets are managed. It all takes time, but taking the time  saves so much time in the long run.

“After putting economics aside, I found that there were two primary reasons why people quit:

  •  They hated their manager; generally the employees were appalled by the lack of guidance, career development, and feedback they were receiving.
  •  They weren’t learning anything: The company wasn’t investing resources in helping employees develop new skills.

An outstanding training program can address both issues head-on.” Ben Horowitz The Hard Thing about Hard Things

In order to make better cartoons we need talent. The thing is the talent is out there, untapped. One of the great benefits of training is that the people already working get better. You don’t just find talent, you grow it. When I talk to artists one of the biggest things they talk about is learning. They want work where they can learn and grow. I like the idea of training and learning from the perspective as an artist. What these books show is that training is so much more than that. It’s a function of the business and it managers. There’s no excuse not to train, and there are so many benefits.


I was once showing a few pages of one of Isaiah and I’s comics to a friend of ours. She asked, “Who does what? Do you draw and he inks?” I said, “No, we both do all of it.”

I like to think of what we do as Hyper-collaborate. In the past we tried a more traditional approach, penciling, inking and toning, and we didn’t enjoy it. I was the main artist, and held a majority of the burden. It didn’t feel like we were making a comic together.

First we changed how we wrote. Our process is based on an improv game. First person starts the scene, second person adds the next part. We go back and forth five times till the scene is done. This approach is really fast, but also a lot of fun. Having the other person’s writing gives you ideas for what to write next. We realized that we wanted to work this into our drawing process. For us more collaboration = more fun.

With Small Havens, we wanted to collaborate on the drawings as much as the writing. Coming from animation doesn’t make this that hard. We understand how to draw in different styles. How to use the process to maintain consistency. When we draw a page we go back and forth on the artwork till everything is at an acceptable level. As the ‘main’ artist, I will do a lot of adjustments and notes. Both of us do every part of the process. In the end it’s still more enjoyable and collaborative than the traditional approach.

This process isn’t for everyone, and not for every project. What’s important is iterating and developing a process. The traditional workflow for comics didn’t suit what we wanted to do, and more importantly it wasn’t enjoyable. When it comes to personal projects how enjoyment is important. These projects take a long time. You don’t know for certain if the project will be any good, and you can only do so much about that. The experience is all up to you, and in the end probably more important.


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