Time boxes

Humans are not very good at estimating. We think a task will take 10 minutes and find that it’s taken us 40. This goes double for big projects that have many moving pieces. They also ways take longer than you think. The comic Isaiah and I are working on has taken about 10x longer than we expected. We’re committed to finishing it but we know that we’re going to have to change our process for the next project.

Estimating is hard, budgeting is easier. Instead of trying to figure out how long this project will take figure out how long you want it to last. Or even better what’s the maximum time you could bare. When you’re working on a personal project you have infinite time, as much as you need. The constraints are up to you. Figure out the time box that you want to put this project in. Is it a year, 6 months, 40 days. Then commit to that time and fit the project to the time box.


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Passion projects and falling for sunk costs

“sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered (also known as retrospective cost).” 

wikipedia – Sunk cost

The idea behind sunk costs is that what you spent yesterday shouldn’t really be considered for today’s decisions. The reason I bring up sunk costs is because it’s so easy to fall into this trap. Our brains are wired to prevent losing something over gaining something new.

A common sunk cost for us is time. When you’ve put a lot of time into a project your willing to put a little more into that project to finish it. If a project isn’t going well and you’re not engaged the reasonable thing might be to move onto something new. It never feels that way in the moment, it feels like if we quit all the work we did in the past is worthless. The money and time that you spent in the past cannot be recovered by future spending.

One way out of sunk cost is planning projects around multiple upsides. Find projects were you benefit even if you fail. Maybe one goal for the short you’re making is to become a well known director. You can also make this an opportunity to learn a new skill like working with collaborators, testing a new business model, experimenting with production structure, pushing an artistic boundary. When it looks like the project isn’t going well you can bail, and you’ll know you’re not losing everything.

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.

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.