Producing Animation: An Introduction
First Hand Experience
We first met each other on an ill-fated production in 1991. We were both hired as troubleshooters in the last 10 months of production for an animated feature film. In a short time, we discovered that there was actually closer to 20 months of work remaining to be done. With the story still in development, much of the production money was already spent. A completion bond company had moved into the production offices. The company was there to make sure that all production deadlines were met without failure so there would be no additional costs incurred. Their presence was a source of constant irritation for the producing team in Los Angeles.
The project was structured such that the pre-production and some of the production was completed in the L.A. studio. Due to the lack of available talent and budgetary and time restrictions, the work was then divided up and subcontracted to studios all over the world. Sections of the film were sent to Canada, Denmark, Spain, Australia and Argentina. Every scene ultimately ended up going through a studio in Asia for cleanup and ink and paint. Because each studio's availability and capabilities differed, the scenes had progressed to different stages of animation. Once scenes were finished in cleanup, they were sent to L.A. for key effects and then back to Asia. The Asians were the "catch-all" studio, completing any artwork that was not finished.
Because the project was being outsourced to so many different studios, it was unclear where the approximately 1,350 scenes had been shipped, and how far along the production pipeline they had progressed. To top it off, the anemic tracking system in place proved to be completely out of date. It was our job to figure it all out and get the film completed by the fixed delivery date. Zahra was based in L.A. while Catherine was at a subcontracting studio in Asia.
Once we got started, we quickly discovered that the project had been prematurely greenlit for production. (We should add that this is unfortunately a very common problem with animated projects.) None of the many changes taking place seemed to be able to fix its inherent story problems and only confused and complicated the production. At the home-base studio in L.A., the script was continuously changing. Character and location designs were being completely re-done. Scenes were being added and taken out as fast as they were being completed. The final deadline, however, remained firmly intact. It was impossible to feel like we were making any headway. As a result, the production crew was quickly losing their enthusiasm for the project.
Given the number of studios working on the project, the cultural challenges were enormous. Receiving work from numerous animation studios, all communicating in different languages, made it extremely difficult for the American and Asian crews. Many of the artistic revisions had not made it all the way down the lines of communication to each studio around the world. Consequently, scenes that had already been fully animated had to be redrawn. Since it was often difficult to pinpoint exactly whose responsibility it was to make these changes, the burden rested on the Asian team to handle this additional work.
Naturally, the L.A. studio had the highest expectations and made demands that were impossible to fulfill under the circumstances. Working six to seven days a week to try and catch up left the Asian crew feeling unappreciated and unable to put their best efforts forward. As time was short and they were being pressured, they had to make artistic compromises in order to get the scenes completed. Unfortunately, these creative shortcuts led to further frustrations by the L.A. team and resulted in even more revisions. The Asian crew was expected to produce top-rate animation, but there was no time for this in the schedule, so both teams often locked horns. Part of the problem was that the subcontractors were producing a feature film thousands of miles away from the creative decision-makers. The quality control checkpoints were impossible to implement without some artistic compromise. In short, we had our work cut out for us with the two main crews feeling frustrated, unhappy and burned out.
An important consideration that should always be taken into account when running an international production is cultural traditions and holidays, both in the U.S. and abroad. With the clock ticking away, no one had planned for the Chinese New Year, which stopped production in the Asian studio for an entire week. At the same time, the L.A. crew had to contend with their own unexpected problem: the L.A. riots. It was not safe to be out on the streets, and the crew rightfully feared traveling to and from work. An angry driver had actually chased the head of the background department along the pavement of an L.A. street. In addition, all artwork shipments to and from the subcontracting studios were halted since the L.A. airport was very close to the hotbed of the riots.
First Hand Experience