The Out Sourced Method

Every once in awhile I get an interesting idea for an experiment. Since I don’t have the time to try it out I thought I would share them and see if anyone gets inspired.

This method was based on the ideas from the book the 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss. One of the ideas from that book is that outsourcing and delegation are available to many more people than ever before. Here’s the rough sketch of how this could work for say a short film. Let’s say you have a cool idea for a short film. But you don’t have a lot of time, but you have a little bit of money. Using sites like Freelancer.com or something similar you should be able to post a job and find talented animators, inbetweeners, or audio engineers from around the world. So spend a few weeks doing your end of the work. Make a good animatic or other preproduction. You can hire a bunch of freelancers to help make a short film in probably a very short amount of time.

The reason most people won’t do this is this isn’t what they signed up for. They want to make animation. We also have a low opinion of their own value. We will always pick the person who will work the cheapest, and most of the time that’s us. There is a sticky question about how the same work in different locations is a different rate. If you feel strongly about this, this method isn’t for you. Not that this isn’t an important topic.

This process is by no means easy. It requires different skills. You need to figure out how to organize freelancers. You’re work needs to be clear, and expectations have to be laid out. Communication will be very important. And things will likely go wrong. You’ll find a freelancer who isn’t able to get the work done. Or they misrepresented what they were capable of.

Here it is anyway. It’s an interesting experiment for anyone who wants to make something.

How Netflix bought animation

I’m a little floored by the recent Netflix announcement. I’m surprised because I didn’t think they would do it. I didn’t think what they were doing was all that interesting. They weren’t doing what they did with dramas as they were with animation. They didn’t have the creative or the team to compete with Cartoon Network or Disney.

Then Netflix came out with Hilda. Their first show that was really great. Amazing animation and unique storytelling style. Then Netflix did what only a company like Netflix can do. They built the animation team. They offered something that has been missing from animation in a long time. They found the creators and gave them the best deal. This is Netflix’s strong suit. They don’t operate like Hollywood execs they operate like Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The distinction is that they look for good projects from good creators. Then they put the trust in the creator to pull that off.

It took McCracken five years to get “The Powerpuff Girls” on cable. At Netflix, he came in with a pitch for “Kid Cosmic,” and in less than a week he had a 10-episode commitment.

 – Netflix Wants to Take Over Family Entertainment – Variety

It’s no wonder that they’ve been able to get an incredible cohort of talent. To say the least I’m excited to see what happens.

Live Broadcast Method

Every once in awhile I get an interesting idea for an experiment. Since I don’t have the time to try it out I thought I would share them and see if anyone gets inspired.

Say your making an animated series I have this idea for a business model. Once a week livestream new episode – all day. Then make the archive available to paying subscribers. This way you lower the bar to entry letting people discover the show. But you also have monetization. It’s essentially a freemium model. Where everyone can have access for free. But if you want more the customer can pay. This could all be built with existing tools like YouTube live, Twitch, and Vimeo.

The hard part is finding the audience and finding the fans. It also brings up the question what kind of show do you have to make to get people to pay to watch it? Do you sell advertising during the live-stream? With the right show and the right audience it could work well.


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TCAF, and why being thoughtful counts

On a recent episode of Canadaland, guest hosted by comic artist and writer Chip Zdarsky, was interview with Chris Butcher. They talk a lot about the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. Chris is the cofounder and organizer of the TCAF. It’s a little tangential to indie animation, but it’s an interesting story. It’s about having principles and values that help you create something truly important.

“We came up with this idea that was a little bit more European Influenced. A little bit more thoughtful. Which sounds really pretentious, but we really thought about why we wanted to do the show, and what the show was supposed to be about.”

When I was in college and went to my first TCAF I fell in love. TCAF wasn’t like any other convention I had ever been to. It’s held at the Toronto Public Reference Library. It’s packed with comic book creators and publishers from across the world and every niche in the art form.  TCAF has become a world renowned show for comics.

What TCAF has really known from the beginning is who it’s for. Butcher explains that TCAF was made for creators. “I had an idea about a comic show in Toronto. With local talent, that puts the spotlight on them.” Their devotion to creators has made interesting choices. The biggest being not charging admission. “The reason we kept making it free, even after we could close doors. Was the idea if we’re taking $20 or $30 at the door, or even 5 bucks, that’s money we’re taking out of the pocket of people who are coming in to spend it on creators.” This choice can’t be easy. They could rationalize that now that the show is bigger it’s worth charging. There is every pressure to make this change. And most of the fans would pay that. But they’ve decided on the values they have. As Butcher puts it “The whole point of the show is those creators. The people who are generating the work that allows the whole industry to exist.”

In an attempt to tie this back to animation, the point about TCAF is that being thoughtful counts. There’s an attitude out there to build something or start a business you have to lay your values at the door. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for your values. Maybe you to speak for an underrepresented group. Or you care about how your team is treated, or productions are organized. They could be about how you interact with your fans. Your values might just be the thing that makes what your making great.


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Building Community and Starting a Cohort

Just last weekend my friend Aisha and her organization Car Tune hosted an a cartoon barbecue. Car Tune is working to connect and organize animators, animation artists, and everyone who works in animation to talk about the industry, the work, and future of animation in Toronto. A normal barbeque is fun but this one was special. What’s exciting about events like this barbeque is that we’re starting to build a community. Community is a really powerful thing.

There’s an idea I quite like from musician, Brian Eno. It’s called scenius. It’s the idea that lone geniuses isn’t helpful and isn’t true. Scenius is the idea that genius needs a community and a culture. “let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.” To create interesting work you need a whole scene of artists, critics, fans, and patrons. The feedback loop is what creates great work. “Scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people.”

This creative culture in Hollywood is what makes the place so potent. They have many artists and support people that are feeding the culture. You can also see this in how the network studios are set up. For instance at Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon there is a cohort of creators working in the same building, competing and feeding off each other. Each show develops and fosters new talent that will go on to make the next shows. Out of The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack came Regular Show, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Over the Garden Wall, out of those shoes came Steven Universe, OK KO, Owl House, Ducktails, etc.

By building our community we are creating the environment to create the first cohort. The first group of creators that will bring up the next set of creators. Culture is built from the ground up. It is not one thing or one place, it’s the ecosystem, a scenius. It’s the effort of a lot of people willing to make a change. If we can take hungry animators and artists and combine them with resourceful producers we can make something interesting. Collaborating with amazing people is one of the great benefits of working in animation. Building the community is up to everyone who wants to be part of it. If you want your own projects to succeed, figure out the small ways you can contribute to the scenius.

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Netflix wants it all

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I’ve been thinking about how content creation is changing and what the future of animation will look like. I read this article recently by Matthew Ball about Netflix’s strategy, “The company doesn’t want to be a leader in video, or even the leader in video – it wants to monopolize the consumption of video; to become TV.” And as Eric Calderon puts it, “Netflix wants everyone’s favourite show on Netflix.” They mean everyone around the world despite the genre or demographics their favourite show will be on Netflix. This is potentially great for creators because you have a better chance of reaching your audience on a platform like Netflix.

But sadly it’s not easy. As Eric explains in his video about what Netflix wants for animation pitches, “Every project mentioned had some incredibly large, and or reliable aspect, to it that made it a compelling choice for them to buy. In industry terms this is often called the package” – the necessary profile, team, or tie-in that helps Netflix figure out if it’ll be a success. Essentially, Netflix is a great place to go if you’re an established creator with a great pitch. Remember, Netflix first broke into original programming by buying House of Cards produced by David Fincher with Kevin Spacey as the lead.

I don’t doubt that Netflix will try to monopolize streaming video content. There are other big players that coming directly for Netflix. Amazon and Google (Youtube) already are leveraging content strategies. While Disney and Apple are in the wings developing their own streaming services.

This doesn’t include the possibilities of indies. The barrier to entry is coming down. Right now with Vimeo it is possible to set up your own Over The Top streaming channel, with an app and everything. If you build the audience, and with a bit of smart marketing I think this is a valid option.

I can’t help myself but feel optimistic. Big companies are pouring money into content. Trying to make the most enticing offers and the most creative freedom, to court the best talent. On the other end, if you want to go it alone, the tools are out there. As creators we have a good position. Whether it’s working on these shows or creating content, there are so many options. The big thing about the future of animation is that it’s not set in stone. There is still room to figure this out, and to cut your own path.


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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.