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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Making the first version

I was reading this post by Derek Sivers That’s version ∞. First launch version 0.1. I was thinking about software development, but I think these concepts can apply to most projects. It’s about how many business plans are too complex they focus on every little feature they want to have.

“I have to say, “OK. You know software version numbers? Mac OS version 10.4? 10.5? What you just described is version infinity. That’s everything it will ever do in the future. First focus on launching version 0.1.”’

We need to start with the first version, the simplest, stripped down version. Too many projects get bogged down in the details of what they want to become.

“What’s the one crucial part of that giant plan? What’s the one killer feature that nobody else is doing? Get it launched with just that. Then add the rest later.”

If you think back to when you were a student and studying animation. You wanted to be good at everything. When we were making our thesis films we tried to make everything as good as it can be. Everyone wants a film that has a good story, great animation, cool designs and beautiful art direction. As animators we’re obsessed with craft.

When starting out we can’t make everything perfect. We have to make choices about what where to cut corners. What’s often more important is where your strengths are, what you can uniquely bring to the project.

“The book “Good to Great” studied hundreds of companies that started out as good, then at some point in their history became great.

They found that all of these companies had the “Hedgehog Concept.” They focused on the one thing they do best, and let go of the rest.”

If you have a complex story idea, or series pitch, break it down into something simple. Into the shortfilm or storybook version. Figure out what’s important or cool about your big ideas and figure out a way to highlight those. What you focus on will be what makes your work special amongst the other work that’s out there.

The Out Sourced Method

Every once in awhile I get an interesting idea for an experiment. Since I don’t have the time to try it out I thought I would share them and see if anyone gets inspired.

This method was based on the ideas from the book the 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss. One of the ideas from that book is that outsourcing and delegation are available to many more people than ever before. Here’s the rough sketch of how this could work for say a short film. Let’s say you have a cool idea for a short film. But you don’t have a lot of time, but you have a little bit of money. Using sites like Freelancer.com or something similar you should be able to post a job and find talented animators, inbetweeners, or audio engineers from around the world. So spend a few weeks doing your end of the work. Make a good animatic or other preproduction. You can hire a bunch of freelancers to help make a short film in probably a very short amount of time.

The reason most people won’t do this is this isn’t what they signed up for. They want to make animation. We also have a low opinion of their own value. We will always pick the person who will work the cheapest, and most of the time that’s us. There is a sticky question about how the same work in different locations is a different rate. If you feel strongly about this, this method isn’t for you. Not that this isn’t an important topic.

This process is by no means easy. It requires different skills. You need to figure out how to organize freelancers. You’re work needs to be clear, and expectations have to be laid out. Communication will be very important. And things will likely go wrong. You’ll find a freelancer who isn’t able to get the work done. Or they misrepresented what they were capable of.

Here it is anyway. It’s an interesting experiment for anyone who wants to make something.

Be kind to yourself

We are makers. We like to build things, tell stories, and draw pictures. To many of us the idea of selling the thing is foreign. As soon as we’re done the project we move onto the next thing. The problem with this is that someone needs to sell your show. Imagine that your past self is a good friend who’s made something incredible. When your friends make something it’s easy to talk about. We want to help them and share their work. We know how hard they worked. Be kind to your past self who did all that hard work.

Small experiments

It can be helpful to think of your work like experiments.

“Everything usually feels so serious — like if you make one mistake, it’ll all end in disaster. But really everything you do is just a test: an experiment to see what happens.” Derek Sivers

The technology industry has taught us the fastest way to make good products is to build>test>learn>build>test>learn. Improvement through iteration. Building things to see what will happen.

What I’ve noticed is that most indie successes tend to be tests. Simon’s Cat or Lucas the Spider to my knowledge weren’t designed to be hits. The idea was, “this might be fun to try.”

So why not test something out, just to see what happens.

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.

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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