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.

Zipf’s Law and long tails

Zipf’s law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.:

Wikipedia

I was just reading an article about Patreon and how most of the people on Patreon don’t earn very much money. This is also true about Youtube, that most videos uploaded to youtube get almost no views. That most things sold on Amazon sell very few units. From what I understand this is partly Zipf’s law or something like it.

I can’t see away out of this. We can try and make these platforms more accessible and equal, and we should. But it might be the case by making them more accessible new people will join and the bottom will fill up again.

Patreon is enterprise and business software for artists and creators. It’s not a utopia, it’s not a rebellion. It’s still an amazing idea that will give money to people who never would have got that money before. But in their own words it’s software for artists. The hard part of being an artist is still building an audience and making consistent work. Patreon, Youtube, Amazon, and what ever are just tools to get in front of that audience and monetize it.

Writing everyday

This month is NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). NANOWRIMO is a great excuse to start writing. It’s great because it shows you that with a little effort you too can write a novel. All you have to do is write something every day. In the spirit of NONOWRIMO I wanted to challenge myself, for the month of November I’m writing a blog post every day from Monday to Friday. Here are some of the posts from this past week.

  1. We think of marketing starts when you’re finished when really marketing starts at the beginning
  1. Be kind to your past self and share the work you’ve done
  2. – I shared an idea for Live broadcast method to indie distribution
  3. And and I wrote about the Netflix animation division

It’s been an interesting experience switching from weekly to daily blogging. Let me know what you think on Twitter


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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.

Marketing starts at the beginning

There’s an idea that marketing is a process that begins after you’ve made your thing. That there are a group of people who make advertisements and sell to the audience. If a good film fails it’s because of bad marketing. That the marketing department didn’t understand the film/show.

Marketing isn’t done at the end, it’s done from the beginning. Marketing plainly is telling the people, who want what you’re making and where to get it. It’s not about convincing the masses that you’ve made the best show. It’s about finding the right people and making something for them. Marketing starts with the decision to make something in the first place.

This gets to the interesting problem of who’s waiting for the kind of show you’re trying to make. What other shows do they watch? Where do they hang out? What do they care about? What are their values? Then what’s something specific and special that you can make for them?


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iPads Pro’s What’s Next for Animation

This Tuesday Apple announced the new iPad Pro. To be honest, I’m an Apple fanboy, but this thing is awesome. What Apple is doing with these devices is really cool. For artists the pen performance is top of the line. There is new innovative software on the platform. People do amazing and professional work on these devices. I’m dying to get one.

I think the iPad Pro is the portable studio for most artists. So I want to make animation on it. While it’s possible, with some software like Rough Animator, or even Clip Studio Paint, it’s not an animation production machine just yet. There’s nothing currently I would call professional grade software. I’m not looking for Flash or Toon Boom to come to the iPad. I’m looking for something new.

Procreate is probably one of the most popular art apps. It’s simple and intuitive, it’s stripped down interface is a far cry from Photoshop. There are a lot of artists that like that. They just want something simple. Animation interfaces are complicated. Full of menus, toolbars and windows. The same workflow won’t translate to a single monitor, multi touch device. I’m hoping what happened with Procreate happens with an animation app. That the new device creates a new workflow that is stripped down and intuitive.

The iPad is going to be a bigger thing to the art industry. These devices are priced competitively. They work great. There are generations of computing. Animation used to only happen on giant render farms, and high end workstations. It was a revelation when some artists started making films on their home computers. Now it will be a revelation when the first studio has their team using iPads.

All I can say is I’m excited.


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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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VGC Animation: indie animation software

Last spring I got a chance to sit down with Boris Dalstein. Boris was building a new kind of animation software. This was big for me, I’ve been researching new animation software for awhile. Boris was the first person who actually knew what he was talking about. The software is called VGC it’s two vector graphics tools VGC Illustration for design and painting, and VGC Animation, for 2D hand drawn animation.

When I’m bored I search different animation keywords on Google Scholar, that’s where I found Boris’s research. He created the proof of concept VPaint that you can download and test right now.

I’ve been trying to write a post about animation software for Indie Animators since I started this blog. I’ve struggled to write something because I’m not totally happy with the available tools. I had the realization that most animators have built workstations so they can work and create art at home. Most of us don’t have animation software at home. Often the software we use at work is prohibitively expensive. The dedicated might use the animation tools inside drawing software like Photoshop or Clip Studio Paint, or learn a whole new software package.

There’s very little animation software for artists. Most animation software is built to be production efficient. To solve the studio problems, and make animation more streamlined. This is different than a tool that is easy to use, that allows you to explore, and create. I know a lot of animators who just want to draw again.

I was happy to find out that I’m not the only one who feels like this. There are much smarter people than me who are working on building the next kind of animation tool. Boris is funding development of VGC through Patreon. It’s a chance for artists to get involved and support the kind of tools we need.

It’s early in development, planned release in 2020. There’s no guarantee that it’ll work. But it’s a good shot. What I like about Boris is that he’s much like an artist. Software is creative and technical just in a different way. Boris chose an independent path. If you can spare a few bucks a month and are interested in animation software it’s worth the contribution.

VGC Patreon


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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.

Hyper-collaboration

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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