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.

The Compound Audience

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This past week my writing partner Isaiah and I were having this big discussion about our strategy. We’re making a bunch of short comics, but it’s going slowly, and we don’t know if it’s connecting how we want it to. What always comes up in these conversations is how we don’t have the audience or platform to promote what we make. So if you are someone who feels like they don’t have enough followers, fans or audience, I know exactly how you feel.

How do you build an audience from nothing?

I am obviously speaking as someone who is figuring this out, so help yourself to the grains of salt. Building an audience is a powerful thing. That’s why we want to do it, because if you have an audience, even a small one you get to make things for that audience. To make the things you want you need the audience to show up. The thing is you can wait, hope or pray the audience will show up but it probably won’t unless you start building your platform now so when you do have something to share you’ll have a few people to share it with.

Building an audience can be a little like saving for retirement. Putting in a little bit of money over a long enough time and you’ll have enough to retire on. The more money you put in the more interest is earned. Compound interest is an amazing thing. I’m not here to tell you to save for retirement (but you really should). I’m want to talk about the compound audience.

Your audience will start small. Everything starts small. That’s okay and it’s no reason to give up. Just know that it’s going to be small for awhile. Early on when things are compounding the look almost linear but it will grow with time. The first people who will follow you will be your friends and acquaintances. They like your work not because it’s good but because it’s yours. The important part is that we need to start contributing. It will start with your immediate network then grow from there.

Contributing to your audience by sharing your work, work in progress, learning, and ideas. Posting your work can be uncomfortable and vulnerable. It feels like a lot to ask people to look at your work. When you release your work it becomes real, and that is frightening. This is something I could be better at. I always feel like the work could be better. I need to remind myself that sharing work the benefits outway the risk. Nothing truly bad will happen. Nothing we cannot handle.

The hardest part about contributing to your audience will probably be consistency. This is hard because it takes discipline. It’s easy to post something for a week then disappear for a month. Constantly contributing early on will pay dividends later on. Including making sharing part of your routine and a habit you can rely on. I’m not the best at consistency. One area where I’ve been good is with this blog. Every Friday I release a post and my newsletter goes out. I trust that by showing up every week people will start to notice.

You might not think your ready, but you are. You don’t need to be ready because right now the stakes are low. Start building slowly, one person at a time. Then when you are ready you do have something to promote, the audience you’ve put work into will be there. What you post doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect. It’s probably best if it isn’t, choose something that’s easy to follow through on. Start early and contribute often and your little nest egg of an audience will grow.

PS. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is a great resource for learning how to share your work.

Other posts about audiences

Where did the general audience go?

The two fears of audiences

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Why I was wrong about short films

I was going to write a post about why I don’t like making short films. As I was writing I realized my reasons were kind of garbage. I had all of these misconceptions about short film production that weren’t true. I haven’t been thinking about short films in the right way. Here are the reasons I thought short films weren’t worth the effort they take.

“Short films are too short for my stories.”

Animation takes so long to produce it’s often in the best interest to make the film as short as possible. I thought that short films had to be so short, you couldn’t fit a full narrative. I want to tell stories that are long and deep. This isn’t a good reason to not make a short film. There’s no reason you can’t take your bigger idea and simplify it to fit the format. I used to think that short films work better when they were funny, and you couldn’t do epics. I think this was fear, each time I tried to make a short film I tried to game the system. I’d make something that I thought would work. In the end I always ended up with something that wasn’t honest to what I wanted to say. This was my lesson from those films. I tried to hard to make a good short film, instead of trying to make my own short film.

I convinced myself that self contained short films were better. I didn’t like the idea of making trailers, or a short that was clearly a pitch for a series. I thought it was more pure to make a film that could stand on it’s own two legs. This is silly, if you’ve put all the work into designing the characters and building the world why not tell more stories. Why not make a long story told in installments. I had this idealized version of what an animated short film was and it prevented me from making the kind of films I wanted to make.

“Short films take forever to make”

Many of us only made short films during school. In school the way you make a film is you start in September and you (hopefully) finish in April. I was lucky in that I started working on my first short film at the end of my second year of animation school. I got funding and worked on it on top of doing coursework. After I graduated and finished my thesis film I had to return to animating this film. The process was excruciating, this is where I get my negative feelings around short films. It took me two and half years to finish it. From that experience I thought animated films took forever to make. At least a year of hard work, for maybe a minute of animation. You can make a short film in however much time you like. When you make the film on your own, you can set the schedule, and the deliverables. I’m probably not going to spend a year on a film again. I’ll manage the scope differently so I don’t have to spend another 2 years on one film.

“Short films are lonely experience.”

The two films I made I animated entirely on my own. Animated filmmaking is unique because you can make a film by yourself. I don’t endorse this, for my money, animation is the best when it is collaborative and a team sport. When working on your own project its common to use yourself, you are the cheapest person you know. Everyone else costs money. I think there are interesting ways that you can raise money or call in favours. Making animation with other people is one of the great benefits of making cartoons.

“Short films have no market.”

I was under the assumption that nobody watches short films. That there wasn’t much success outside of film festivals, and I don’t really get film festivals. What I realized is the struggle of getting people to see your work is hard no matter what your selling. Getting people to watch a short film is as hard as getting someone to read a blog post, see your drawing, read your comic or buy your product. This is a marketing problem and the medium isn’t what’s holding you back. It’s true that there is a very small group of people who are looking for animated short films. They are probably not your audience. What you really need to do is to make something that is for a specific group of people who are looking for what your making. You want to find a group of people who like to share what’s interesting to them. It doesn’t have to reach everybody it just has to reach the right people.

I wrote this post to try and explain why short films are a waste of time. I don’t think that any more. I’m actually kind of excited, I want to start making one. It’s a whole new perspective. I think we all have an idea of what a short film is supposed to be. Often we make it to hard on ourselves. This gets to the point of Indie Animated. You choose the terms of what you want to make. Question your assumptions about the proper way to do things. Don’t wait for someone to approve your idea, or funding to come through, or the perfect story. If you see an audience waiting for a certain kind of story, and you want to make it, start making it. Get it out in whatever crude version you can. It might not work, but try to have the bravery to make something better next time.

When you finally have the time to work on your project

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Last week I caught a cold, I was at home for five days and I didn’t get much done except catch up on a lot of TV. A lot of the time was resting, or going to the clinic and pharmacy. I couldn’t get myself to do 20 minutes of writing, or an hour of drawing. I think it has something to do with routine and structure. We can sometimes be more productive when we’re busier because we have to be. When you have to squeeze in your personal work in the few hours before and after work you find that time. When you have ample free time, you wait for the right time when you feel like working. We almost never feel like working. You can have week off, or a holiday weekend and still struggle to get things on your to-do list checked off.

Now that I know this, I think I can plan for my day off or free weekend. One option is to schedule your personal work. If you have a free week and you want to work on your project treat it like work. Have a start and end time, and at the end of the day put the work down and relax. Another alternative is to recognize that this is a break. Allow yourself to relax fully, don’t worry about getting work done and absolve yourself of guilt.

I think to myself about all the things I’d get done if only I had the time. Often that’s not the case, even when I get the time I can’t sit down and do the work. The truth is we have the time now. There’s no use waiting because there’s never the right time. If you have a project you are dying to make start chipping away at it. Evenings, weekends, any time, you can afford to start doing it now.

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It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to get done

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There are better artists than me, and I wish I were better at writing. I know I’m not the hardest working or most organized. I worry about these things and it can paralyze me. I get the creeping doubt; do I have what it takes to make meaningful work? Do you have that special something, the secret sauce, that makes great work stand out from everything else?

What I turn to is that great work doesn’t come from nowhere. Great artists aren’t born with anything special. I read and listen to a lot of stuff about the creative process. Probably a bit too much. I can tell you there are no secrets, almost everyone is the same. Everyone starts out making bad work, then they get better and start making good work. The lesson is that no one waits. You have to move forward and create things now. It’s worth more to finish something imperfect that to never get started.

You probably draw better than most people, and you definitely draw good enough to start making stuff now. You might not be the best writer, but you’re probably good enough for now. What’s important is that you can learn. You will develop those skills best by making finishing things. Making finished things takes patience and resilience. Become relentless in your drive to finish new projects. You will have to make work that falls short of your vision, this will hone your voice. Take what you learn from each project and apply it to the next one, and keep going. You will be faced with doubt and you will have to remind yourself it doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to get done.

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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 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 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 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.

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

Feeling Like a Slow Artist

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Almost every artist believes they are the slow one. That while everyone else is able to fly through their work, for us it’s effort, we slog through it. We expect work to be easy when it’s not. That can prevent us from putting in the quality time with our work. Making good work takes time. Some of us might need to be reminded to take it slow and enjoy the process. Our personal work is where we should work at our own pace. Maybe instead of thinking of personal work, as work that’s just for you, we can think of it that work that suits you. That accentuates all that your good at, and pushes you where you want to grow.

There’s a social pressure to be fast. When we see people post art online we don’t get the sense of time. The piles of rough sketches and unfinished pieces that led to this piece. I like this tutorial by Chris Sanders, what I like about it is you get the sense of time spent. Hours drawing and redrawing. In our world of commercial art, speed is important. The reason that speed is important is that almost every project is behind, so a fast artist is useful for catching up. In animation it’s not speed that we need it’s an attitude of finishing and shipping work. It’s developing a habit of getting things done. Often the way you get things done is putting the time in. So when you work on your personal work, you don’t have to be frustrated by the pace. Enjoy the process, linger in how long it takes. No matter how it feels, it’s not a race.

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