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.

Pay people enough to take money off the table

Paying animators per frame is not only a little unfair and unethical  but might be bad business. The assumption about paying animators per frame is that the frame is the most useful unit of splitting up a film. I’ve been involved with these deals, and there are times that it looks like it makes sense. There might even be some scenarios where it is the best method. But I’d like to talk about how it doesn’t work, how it undermines what we’re really trying to do: make great animation.

The problem with paying an animator by the frame is that it assumes that every frame is nearly equal. This is never the case. One section of animation might take an entire day to figure out. While a simple camera move might take only a few minutes. It’s not uncommon for a simple camera move to develop a problem and end up taking twice or three times as long, for no good reason. Paying by the footage would make sense if animation was a mechanical task. Sadly animation is not. Animation takes skill, planning, and thought. Every department in animation requires making choices and thinking.

By putting a price on footage you’d think we incentivize animators into animating faster, and taking on more footage. Dan Pink, in his talk about motivation, talks about the nature of monetary incentives and work.

“They do the test. They have these incentives here’s what they found out. One as long as the tasks involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected. The higher the pay the better their performance okay that makes sense. But, here’s what happens but once the tasks call for even rudimentary cognitive skill. A larger reward led to poorer performance now this is strange right a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

The research shows that these types of incentives only work for very menial tasks, and animation isn’t one of these. While this system looks like it intends to stretch the productivity of every single artist, it instead backfires. It creates a burnt out workforce that on top of their deadlines have to deal with the stress of whether or not they’re making a living wage in the end.

So what can be done about it? What’s the best way to pay the artists and production staff who work in animation? Again Dan Pink may have an answer to that.

“Money is a motivator at work but in a slightly strange way. If you don’t pay people enough they won’t be motivated. What’s curious about there’s another paradox here which is that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work”

Pay people enough to take money off the table. This way artists have the privilege to worry about their work rather than their rent. This is what most artists want to do. We love worrying about making good art. Studios, instead of thinking in quotas, should think in benchmarks. What is an industry standard rate for production? If a production is behind is that a sign of lazy animators, or sign the pipeline isn’t working? We can reimagine how we run animation productions.

I’ve been in the place of trying to wrestle with rates for animators. You want the most you can get for the budget you have. What we are learning about business is that efficiency isn’t enough. Creativity, and dedication pay off. The way we structure our productions often wastes the creativity of the team. Animation productions in the future might have smaller teams, but with better technology and clear communication we can still produce great animation. We can do all that while making animation better for every stakeholder, including animators and artists.

RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us


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Building an audience and Crowdfunding

The other day I heard a creator ask if crowdfunding was a good way to develop your project. I’ve been avoiding talking about Kickstarter or Patreon, mostly because I don’t have any experience with the platforms. I’m not expert, and part of me didn’t get it. Don’t the rewards seem frivolous? Is it worth the work it demands? I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone. Crowdfunding is a great way to gain support from your audience with zero dilution, while also marketing your creative product. What I think needs to be clarified is that it is not a guaranteed solution. It is not easier or better than traditional investment and funding opportunities. Crowdfunding is business through and through.

The misconception around crowdfunding is that if you have something worthy of funding it will get funded. If the project doesn’t get funded it is likely because it was launched too early. Crowdfunding works is when you already have an audience who wants what you make. If you’ve put in the time to build trust with that audience they will be happy to fund, to pay and to participate in what you’re making. While it might seem like it’s about the rewards or the incentives, it’s really about trust.  When a person gives money towards your project they trust you to make it. Trust is built by contributing consistently. Creating something surprisingly special for a specific group of people, over and over again.

I think a lot of creators believe crowdfunding will support them through the creation of their art. We struggle with the fact that with no money, progress on our ideas is slow. Sadly this is just a struggle of making things. When you begin there is no one waiting for what you’ve made. We want the funding to come first, we’ll show up once someone pays us. That’s something different, that’s a job. To create new things we have to show up first. Once we can prove that we’re consistent will it be easier to make a living?

I think for many people the idea about the funding actually gets in the way of actually starting. By starting without resources you learn to be resourceful. In business there’s a term Bootstrapping, it means a business that is started without outside investment. Most businesses are bootstrapped, and most shows are developed by creators putting in their own money or resources. The work you put in at the beginning is your investment. When you don’t have capital but you have an idea and a skill, start with those.

I think crowdfunding is a fantastic opportunity. It gives people access to capital outside the mainstream. Creators get investment without dilution, meaning their vision stays untainted. Crowdfunding has been really important for people who are underserved by media. This is actually part of how it works well. When you have something special for a specific group of people who want it, there shouldn’t be a problem getting that funding. The first step isn’t about building the campaign, it’s about making something for the community you want to connect with.

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Why you should develop your show in public


I’m no expert about the television development process. If someone knows better let me know. From what I understand it goes something like this;

The traditional way to make a show is to pitch to a distributor. If it goes well you’ll start developing your show. You’ll spend a long time working with the distributors, and other funders working and developing the idea. You’ll spend years in development. It’s not uncommon to hear 5, 6, 7 years in development. There’s a lot of competition if your idea doesn’t fit what they’re looking for then the project might get cancelled.

The reason the system works like that is because broadcasting used to be scarce. It used to be hard to distribute a show across a country. They also needed shows that appealed to the largest possible audience. The broadcasters developed systems and bureaucracy to do just that. The film and television business doesn’t take creative risks easily. They carefully develop shows to work for the bottom line.

The thing is, television networks aren’t the only way to get your show in front of people.

Develop your show in public

Here’s another way. Take your story, make a version of your story that you can produce quickly and cheaply on your own. Release it online, and keep on showing up. Make things consistently. There’s no secret to building an audience (I’ve checked), just make good stuff, consistently. Then bit by bit you’ll build an audience. You’ll know when something is working because people will share it. People will talk about it and it will spread. If you don’t get the reaction, go back and make something better. It will take a long time. If you keep at it for 3 – 4 years you’ll probably have something. That might sound a long time, but look at the alternative. You could spend 7 years developing a show that doesn’t get made. The concept can get diluted, you could work with the wrong people. Without it ever getting the chance to find that audience. Going indie isn’t any easier, it’s just hard in its own way. What you get is control, what you get is to make decisions on your own terms, and maintain what’s important to you.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.