What are quota’s for?

The output for most animators is measured in frames/second/feet of animation. When I started in this business I was a little dubious about quota. It seemed to me to put a lot of pressure on the artists. It also is a rather blunt tool. Not every frame is the same amount of work. On the first productions I led we had no quota. On the productions I run now we barely have a quota. The problem with the quota for most studios or productions is that it doesn’t answer the question, “what is it for?”

The reason that animators need to make a certain amount of animation is to stay on schedule. The schedules are based on assumptions like, 12 animators animating 30 seconds/week, the episode will be done in 2 weeks. This all makes sense, except when an animator can’t make 30 seconds/week. Again not all frames are equal.

While I don’t use quota in my productions. I still follow this reasoning. I make my schedules based on this rate of production. Instead of using it as a quota we use it as a benchmark. We track our rate of production to this benchmark. We track it on an episode basis. It looks something like this.

graph of estimated frames per week and actual frames per week

We like this because it gives us context. It tells us when we’re behind and when we’re ahead. We can adjust accordingly and hit the deadline. It takes the pressure off the individual and spreads it across the team. I hope other people try out this method too.

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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3 constraints on production

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I do a lot a of reading about project management. I hope to learn more, and make my projects better. One great series of videos is from the people at Basecamp. They go into how they structure their work. Basecamp is an interesting company because of how opinionated they are about what they prioritize. This got me thinking about what we prioritize in animation productions. What’s most important? What would it look like if we created culture based on these values?

I’ve figured that there are at least three constraints on production. These are the areas where we put our time and our budget. These are also the areas that cause our projects to become late and over budget. These constraints are like levers. Each production has to prioritize what’s most important, what the focus is, and what is least important. These three constraints are Schedule, Scope, and Execution.

Schedule

Schedule is the first constraint because at some point every project needs to get done. Schedule represents budget, because your budget is mostly how large of a crew you can have for a certain amount of time. While it is possible to raise more money, it is much harder to find extra time. Schedule is what can we get done in this fixed amount of time.

Scope

Scope is the creative constraint. How big will this project become? Scope is not just about deciding is this an epic or an indie drama. Scope can come down to every single shot of a film or show. Scope is about find is there “some version” of what we’re trying to do that fits the other constraints.

Execution

Execution is the craft and the quality we bring to the work. Like all the constraints it is dependent on the other two. Execution isn’t just about making something of the highest quality, because there’s no objective measure of that. It’s about finding the right quality for the project at hand.

All these constraints are dependent on each other. You have to decide what the priorities are.These elements are so interrelated that you can’t have all three. You have to rank them from most important to least important. For instance one production might value Scope, Execution, and Schedule. That kind of project might be a series of fantasy novels. They might be epic, and amazingly planned and well written, but you might die before you finish them.

For example a high budget feature film execution is high on the list. Pixar can’t dip below Pixar standard for it’s next feature. So where execution is the focus they modulate everything to that. They make a big schedule that gives them plenty of time. They make sure that the scope fits what they can do best. They might have a high level of scope but Pixar releases about one film a year. They don’t make three part films, they don’t make 4 hour films. They know the scope of their films. What they care about is telling a great heartfelt story, above all else.

The projects that I work on couldn’t be more different. When you work low budget everything is about schedule. If making the schedule is important than you need to be willing to sacrifice the execution and scope to make that schedule. We are lucky in that we’re working on our own stories. We can make choices to reduce the scope of an episode or scene in order to finish on time. That might be taking out an extra character or location. Having a complicated action take place off camera. These are all tools for reducing the scope. Then it comes to the execution or quality. The way I view quality is that we get the best we can get. I make sure there are no obvious mistakes, but for the large part I leave it to each artist to bring their best work. We lean toward things that are simple but animated well. Everything we do is made with consideration to the schedule.

In animation these kind of things get compartmentalized, it becomes someone else’s job. Managing constraints isn’t just the domain of the leadership. It isn’t up to the directors and producers that make these decisions. Choosing what you value, and what important creates a culture. Culture means that everyone is on the same page, everyone knows what to value. When culture isn’t built deliberately it grows on its own. Getting a team on the same page connects the team. When the team is connected they can focus on the work, and the work gets better. Indie animation isn’t going to be about individual vision, it’s going to be about the team you build, and what everyone brings to the table.


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My ideal production set up

How we make animation hasn’t changed much in the nearly 100 years of animation production. The rough structure has been refined and while the tools are now different, for decades, animation production looked more or less the same. We had the same department system and assembly line mentality. That approach was important when maintaining quality was of the highest order. The only way to produce full colour cartoons was with a lot of very talented artists.

Things are different now. Industrialism is slowing down, and quality comes cheap. We often bemoan the state of animation. When you watch modern television animation the production value is astounding. The technology will continue to make animation more, and more efficient. I think this means that we can create new systems to make animation.

My ideal system would not look like the big department system. It would be made up of units. Each unit would work from storyboard to final. A small team of multidisciplinary artists working to make the best episode possible. The team would be small between 5-9 people. The team would include:

  • Director – Is in charge of the storyboard and animatic, as well as leading the team
  • Storyboard Artist – Helps the director write and storyboard the episode
  • Layout Artist – Draws the various background and props
  • BG painter – Paints the backgrounds
  • And Animators – Animate the characters and effects

I like the idea of a small team working to a clear, defined goal. One things that’s missing from television production is context and collaboration. I try to structure my team so there is context and communication between artists. It’s not even necessary that each position be held by one person. My current production is a team of 5. It’s a Harmony show and is structured like this.

  • Director/Storyboard (My Position)
  • Layout/Animator
  • Background Painter
  • Rigger/Animator
  • Animator

It’s a small team but we’re able to produce a lot of work. With a small team communication is fluid. You don’t have to talk to through someone to get to someone else. If you need a quick answer you get it fast. It’s collaborative you get to work with people, and help reach a common goal. Animation production doesn’t have to look like one thing. It can be reimagined and refined. Technology will continue to shape and change the way we make animation. The whole structure of animation studios in the past was based on cel animation. Things that were impossible or time consuming then, are easy now. So now that tools are changing, why not try to adapt the system?


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