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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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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The problem with 4 quadrant films

This last week I watched Coco. (I know well overdue, and don’t worry no spoilers) The film is Pixar at its best, making something so enjoyable but hits you hard. Pixar does everything at such a high level that it’s almost taken for granted. Watching the film made me think about animated features in general.

Big budget animated features fall into a category sometimes called four quadrant films. Four quadrant as I’ve heard it refers to: Old/Young , Boys/Girls.

four quadrant film demographics

The idea being that these big budget films should appeal to the widest possible audience. When Pixar started making films they ended up creating a template for these wildly successful films. These films appealed to old/ young, boys/girls. They are funny, exciting, and at the core heartfelt. This became the new template for animated features.

When we try to tell rich stories what we do is add more stuff. If we need something exciting we add a storyline that’s exciting. If we want something funny we add funny characters. If we want something emotional we add a relationship. The piling on of storylines is happening across modern filmmaking. Disney is becoming an empire of four quadrant films. Marvel and Star Wars universes also fit into this wide market model. There’s a high demand for all these films to be a little bit of everything. Exciting, funny and emotional, and the easiest way to do this is to add more stuff. To add more storylines, characters, locations and events. It’s no wonder that films keep getting longer.

That brings me to Coco. What stands out about this film is how contained it is. The film is able to stay very small, and personal. At its core it’s a film about a young boy and his family. Sure there’s a big outside world, but it surprisingly focused. He doesn’t have friends, he doesn’t have a school bully. They makes small stories feel big. Pixar acts like a different kind of movie studio. Still they make critically acclaimed, financially successful, four quadrant films.

Why this is important for us indies, is that our stories/series/films are small by nature. There’s all the pressure in the world to make four quadrant films. That’s not the point of indie. The point of indie is to make something specific, and special. So the hard part is about finding what’s specific and focusing like crazy on it. It’s about finding the people looking for something special. This might mean simplifying your idea. That doesn’t mean your work has to have less meaning or importance. This is the hard part, the thing to work for.

Big impact in a small way.

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Your job and your art work

I talk to a lot of animators and what they talk about is not being “fulfilled”. We might need to think differently about what purpose our work serves. This video from Liz Gilbert explains this very well.

What Liz talks about is the difference between having a Hobby, a Job, a Career and a Vocation. How those are not always the same thing. What it really gets to is that your work and your art work don’t have to be the same thing. They likely will not be. You will probably always find yourself working a job to make a living. Then making art because you’re compelled to say something.

Derek Sivers also wrote about this. When people ask him, “How do I make a living from my art?”

“…I prescribe the lifestyle of the happiest people I know:

  1. Have a well-paying job
  2. Seriously pursue your art for love, not money”

The hard part about this is that we might have chosen the wrong work. By working in a creative and demanding field we have little left when we get home. We’re not only not fulfilled but empty. Very few people get to make their living from their artwork. The more important things is that it might be better to not make a living from arout art. Derek Sivers goes on to talk about the benefits of separating your job from your art.

“You don’t need to worry if it doesn’t sell. You don’t need to please the marketplace. No need to compromise your art, or value it based on others’ opinions.”

Animation is not a bad job. I want to make animation. I want to work in animation forever. You work with amazing people to make amazing things. And good cartoons are worth making.

The point I’m trying to make, is that working in animation is a choice. Being frustrated with the work is a choice. Maybe if we expect less of the job and see it more for what it is, it might get a little easier. Maybe the fulfilment of work is just doing good work. There’s no magic either. It doesn’t get better the more well known or successful you get. You’re still going to need a job. You’re art will be there for you when you need it.

The choice between indie and established

I missed a few weeks of writing, and I feel a little bad about that. In the scheme of things it’s not a big deal. It’s still important, because for the last year I’ve tried to build trust. I’ve tried to say, “Every Friday. I’ll be here.” Thinking if I show up consistently with something to say, others might show up too.

In a small way that’s happened, and it keeps me going. I work very hard not to fall into traps, not worrying about metrics that will distract from what I’m trying to do. I was just listening to an interview with Srinivas Rao, he talked about how being an artist on social media comparing followers, views and likes, creates a status anxiety that in the end gets in the way of making creative work rather than entice it. So I try to focus on writing for a very small audience. If one person is waiting to read the blog or newsletter, that’s enough.

Making something creative is hard. Building an audience is hard. How hard it is has shaken the confidence in the premise of this blog. You too can make a series on your own. You know what, it’s still a good option. The real point is that it’s an option that didn’t use to be on the table. Not long ago it would have been nearly impossible to make animation without a studio, a distributor, and a lot of money. While all those things are still useful, you don’t need them as much.

The point I missed was that it would be somehow easier than the traditional method. Or intrinsically better. I think the truth is it’s just hard in a different way. Reaching an audience who cares about what you make will always be hard. Having distribution might help but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The point I want to keep making, is that you have a choice. If you want to make something, and you are willing to go through the hard parts (for a long time). You can just start making the thing. You can show up in front of an audience and show off what you’re making. We have the tools to make the work, tools to distribute it, and tools to make it a business. On the other hand, if you go the traditional route know that there’s an option, an alternative. That way you’re not blinded by being asked to make something. Do not make average work to please people.

With more options, with opportunity, it asks what you really want out of your work. If we know it’s going to be hard, and it might not work. Will we keep going?

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Film Crit Hulk and why shorts are meant for learning

I liked this Twitter thread from Film Crit Hulk about short films. Despite his name, Film Crit Hulk is one of the very best places to read film criticism and learn about storytelling and filmmaking. That’s why this thread is so good.

The thread made me think of is the place shorts have in our culture. Short fiction in any medium. Short stories, short comics, short films. The truth is people don’t seek out this work. The industry is too busy to seek them out. They might go a film festival. I don’t think audiences seek them out either. Yet, at the same time beginners are encouraged to make shorts. This gets to Hulk’s final point.

The purpose of most short films is to learn. Short projects are where you cut your teeth and learn. I encountered this situation earlier this week. Isaiah and I are in the middle of production our next short comic. It’s going slowly, we’re undermotivated so we had a call. We wanted to take a cold hard look at the project. What we came to is that we’re either making things to build an audience or we’re trying to make something good. It would easy to say that we’re trying to do both. When you’re trying to figure out your goals, stick to one. Having too many goals will split you in different directions. It became clear is that if we were interested in growing our audience we’d be working differently. One might make more content share more often. What we were focused on was making something good. More specifically it was about learning how to make something good. Getting better at storytelling, and finding a story we’re excited about. After we finish this project, learn from it and move to the next one.

Start with short fiction because it’s a great training ground. It’s a great training ground because you will falter and fail. The iteration, the feedback will make you better at what you do. It might seem ideal to start a big project now. Working on short projects gives you a taste of how much energy any project takes. When you have the experience of making many things, you can stare down a big project with a bit more confidence. Knowing you can see it through the other side.

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