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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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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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.