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The Animated Scene: Managing the Cartoon Factory…

In the first edition of the new monthly column, The Animated Scene, Joseph Gilland talks about balancing the eclectic mix of personalities on an animated project to create a successful team.

Joseph Gilland.

Anyone who has walked through an animation studio has seen what an eclectic group of people it takes to make an animated film project come to life. Whether it is a big budget or small budget, 2D, 2.5D, 3D, feature film, independent film, animated television commercial, rock video, videogame, cartoon series you name it animation is a labor intensive, collaborative team effort that entails a great deal of communication with a wide variety of artistic characters. The job of integrating and creatively managing a group like this is a unique challenge that takes a great deal of skill, dedication and human insight. Simply knowing how to balance a checkbook, or to make an animated film, is not nearly enough if you want your team to work together with efficiency, synchronicity and creative integrity.

There is magic in what a truly skilled animation manager/director/supervisor needs to do to keep the level of productivity high, while keeping the level of creativity high as well. Many horror stories have come out of animation studios around the world, describing the long grueling hours, the thankless, tedious, repetitive, and dehumanizing tasks that it takes to make animated films, and the brutal, high strung slave drivers that make it happen. The artist/management relationships are often described as troublesome and wrought with melodrama and painful miscommunications.

We have all heard these stories, but lets think about it like this: If we are part of the animation industry, and we love it, and we want to stay in it, then we are all responsible for nurturing these relationships, and instilling our workplace and each other with positive energy. Lets not forget, we are making cartoons! It should be fun, and it should be fulfilling somehow. If it isnt, then we are getting away from the reason we got into the animation business in the first place.

Oh, I know, I know. Some people actually just get interested in animation because, Theres money to be made in them there car-toons! Well, even if thats the case with you, read on. There is a lot to be said for delicately nurturing a positive environment for creative people to thrive in, and techniques for doing just that arent necessarily found in the corporate HR handbook.

Those of us who have been in the animation business for a decade or three, have surely worked with wonderful bosses and horrible bosses. And we have seen how greatly the product suffers when the boss is horrible. Well, which one will it be? What is the legacy we want to leave behind in the animation industry? Lets think about that, shall we?

Often in an animation studio, there are men and women, young and old, from all over the world, of varied ethnic backgrounds, speaking different languages, practicing different religions and, often, embodying very different cultural values as well. Straight, gay, male, female, young, old, liberal, conservative, eastern, western, etc., you name it, you can find it in a modern day animation studio whether it is in America, Canada, Europe, Australia, Asia or anywhere else.

Of course this can be said of many businesses in the world today, but few as much as in an animation studio, and making such a studio work efficiently and hit its production goals, poses some truly unique challenges to producers, managers and creative leads of all kinds in an animation environment. Even if everyone on your crew is of the same race, or nationality or culture, you still have a wide variety of personality types, with vastly different needs when it comes to casting work to them and keeping them busy, productive and happy.

I personally have had very mixed successes in my experiences managing large groups of animation artists. We sure as hell cant make everybody happy all the time. Even keeping some people happy some of the time is quite an accomplishment. And being a manager often makes you a target. When people are under a lot of stress and pressure, the boss (even if you consider yourself a sensitive artist type) is usually the most convenient point toward which to vent off steam. But through the years that I have supervised and directed, or been supervised or directed by someone else, I have discovered ways to keep folks smiling and productive most of the time.

I will do my best here not to sound like a New Age, self-help book on how to influence people and make friends, but there is a certain amount of touchy-feely stuff that I think really needs to be addressed if we want to effectively appeal to our crews sensibilities, and get the best work possible out of them. The very best film projects I have ever worked on, you know, the ones with heart that really rise above the average animated film, (and Ive had the honor to work on a few) have something in common. A fantastic work environment with managers, directors and supervisors who nurture and empower their crew to rise to the very pinnacle of their craft. Greatness does not emerge from a dysfunctional studio plagued by egomaniacs, miscommunication, and corporate greed. No siree! Greatness is nurtured and carefully cultivated with love, humility and respect!

So let us consider some of the way we can encourage and empower our animation crew to greatness, shall we?

Allow Yourself to Get to Know Your Crew Members

Corporate management and HR have often preached that its important not to get too personal with your personnel. Well, that model is changing, and it needs to change, especially at the corporate level where being cold and impersonal has long been considered an important management skill. Artists are probably the most sensitive of all human beings, and while I know some business management people would rather stick pins in their eyes than coddle an artist, well, artists need coddling sometimes, especially if we want them to produce fantastic work.

Coddling aside though (Ill get back to that later), getting to know individual artists personalities and particular skill sets can help you to avoid the one size fits all approach to supervising/managing. One size does not fit all! No way! While some of your crew may do fine with a certain style of input and support, different folks need different strokes. This is extremely important to be aware of, when we, as supervisors, need to cast hundreds of scenes to hundreds of artists.

Knowing which artist should get which scene is really a fine art and an immeasurably important aspect of getting a big animation project done. And convincing each artist that he/she is working on the scenes that he/she should be working on is another one! Really knowing your artists sensibilities, lifes goals and particular propensities is key here. In some cases these specializations will leap out at you and it will be obvious. There are always certain artists whose skill sets are glaring and plain for all to see. But many an introverted artist will suffer silently while the scenes they should be working on are cast to the brash, pushy, charismatic, but not necessarily more talented artists.

The only way to avoid this is to know your crew intimately. Working on the surface, and making the obvious choices when casting animation scenes, will sometimes not uncover the gems that are concealed deep below the surface! Should we encourage these meeker individuals to stand up for themselves, and help them to develop a spine? Of course we should. Speaking up and being heard are learnable skills. But artists are artists, and some square pegs will simply never fit into the round hole. We need to keep our eye out for these unpolished gems, far beneath the surface of our animation crew. Spend time around your artists first thing in the morning, during breaks, at lunchtime or after work when people are socializing, and observe how they interact. Listen carefully to individual stories, questions and concerns, and make mental notes on what makes them tick.

Of course, in a supervisors role allowing ones self to get closer to the crew can be difficult, absolutely, especially when it becomes time to let people go, of course. Nobody really likes that job (although Ive met some chilly characters that almost looked like they did brrrr-r-r!). But look, lets get real. Everything within reason. There is a time and a place to keep an objective distance too, but the best managers/supervisors know how to walk the tightrope and always be honest, real and a true friend to their crewmembers.

Downplay the Hierarchy

I know, this goes against the grain of almost every corporate management handbook, which will generally emphasize the importance of maintaining the hierarchy, but this too is changing in modern corporate culture, as more and more bosses discover how harmful it is to alienate the worker bees. Laziness, lethargy, negative gossip, work stoppages and ugly uprisings are inevitable when the folks doing all the grunt work are being relegated to irrelevant slave status and disrespected by their upper management.

The best animation directors I have ever worked with (myself included) understand that even the lowliest production assistants opinion can be as valuable as anyone elses. Like the old story of the mail clerk down in the bowels of the massive corporation giving the ceo the idea or inspiration to change the world and make billions in the process. Asking a lowly animation assistant what he or she thinks about how a scene is going, will elevate his/her spirits immeasurably, and can therefore be highly beneficial whether his/her input is relevant or not! But often, their insight is truly valuable and worth listening to.

The more that management distances itself hierarchically from its underlings, the more dispirited and grumpy those underlings will inevitably become. And when you are trying to produce a positive, creative, effervescent product that sparkles with life, dispirited and grumbling just doesnt work! Warm up to the lowly workers who are in the trenches doing the grunt work. If you know whats really best for overall productivity, the days of playing King of the Castle are over. Let your crew know that you are boss, but also let them know that you are one of them, and be a real friend. Dont be afraid to roll up your sleeves and do some of the grunt work with them from time to time also. They will appreciate you more, and be a lot more willing to go the extra mile if they know you are too.

Keep Your Artistic Crew in the Loop

Artists are inquisitive, sensitive creatures. They hate having the feeling that they dont know whats going on around them. If too much time passes without sharing some facts about the production with your crew, they will develop a feeling that things are going on behind their backs, and are far beyond their control. To some degree, this is true, and needs to be true. Management cant share every little detail of the production, and, out of necessity, may even need to conceal some things. If youve been in that position, you know what I mean. If you havent, take my word for it!

In any case, the idea is to share enough that the crew feels like they are informed, and a part of the inside of the production. They feel privileged and empowered to know a little bit about the budget, the clients, the schedule, and especially having an accurate overview of how the production is really rolling along. I have found that the more your crew knows about the inner workings of the production, the more pride they take in it, and the more likely they are to make that extra effort when the deadlines looms closer, the going gets rougher and you need everything your artists can give you. So it is a really great idea to have some sort of regular weekly or at least bi-weekly production updates, along with screenings of work in progress whenever possible.

This may sound really obvious, but it is amazing how many studios will plod along for months and months without screenings or production updates, only to be shocked and surprised to find out that their crew is feeling alienated and disenfranchised. This is a huge part of the art of communication within an animation studio, and it dovetails neatly into my next suggestion, if we consider sweetening up the production updates with a little human touch.

Cultivate a Feeling of Togetherness Whenever Possible

This is where I get back to the coddling of artists. A few snacks and drinks, an extra few minutes to hang out together and bond without any stress over rushing back to work can go a really long way to boosting moral and therefore productivity. I think a lot of managers underestimate this powerful tool. Artists, in particular, respond extremely well to a bit of R&R, of course, within reason. This can be organized around your weekly update or screening of the work in progress, an impromptu surprise gathering, or it can be a breakfast treat now and then. The possibilities are endless. It might be a great idea to get a pool table, or a ping pong table around which the crew can socialize. Some studios have weekly social evenings complete with live music, which are an enormous part of creating an atmosphere of creative warmth and connectivity.

It is no accident that the great studios out there often practice these principles effortlessly. It is a smart way to do business. Animation artists are not steelworkers (and steelworkers are not animals either, in case any steel working foremen are reading this). Animation artists are unique characters.

Learn How to Listen

This is truly a fine art, and much easier said than done. I have worked through some workshops, which focused on listening, and it is staggering how bad we are at really listening to people when they talk to us. (I am still working on it, believe me!) It is one thing to stand or sit there pretending to listen while someone brings up issues they are having with work, and quite another to truly listen to that individual, and let them know that you are listening. Whether or not you can do something to help them or change the situation, they have a sounding board, an ally they can count on. They feel good! It works!

It is important to note, that it doesnt take a big budget to accomplish what I am talking about here. The big studios like DreamWorks, Disney, Pixar, Sony, etc. can well afford to offer their employees wonderful perks, social events, workshops, screenings, free food and drinks from time to time all that wonderful teambuilding stuff. But even if you are running a much smaller studio, the same ideas can be applied, just on a much smaller, financially feasible scale. This is a really, really important idea to embrace.

In all my years working in animation studios, I have too often found myself surrounded by artists who feel disenfranchised and used. There is often an overriding, general feeling of dis-ease and discontent, and a culture of incessant complaining evolves, even in a great studio that is working on a great show. But I have seen a great director, a compassionate supervisor or producer, completely change that culture around in no time at all with a little creative management, which can empower the creative spirit to emerge and wipe out the negativity.

If you have risen up through the ranks through the years, remember back when you were struggling, and think about what would have made you feel better day to day, in the work place. Animation is a grueling chore, and there are a lot of countless hours of drudgery that need to be counter-acted. There are exceptions to any rule, and we have seen great films come out studios where the director was widely considered to be an egomaniacal brute but is that how we want to be remembered? And is that what working on cartoons should be like?

If there is any one thing I could change in the animation studio world as we know it today, it would be to give every single unsung hero of the animation industry a reason to smile and be proud of what he or she is doing every day, rather than have them toiling in painful obscurity.

I like to remember that everything I really need to know, I learned back in kindergarten, and the most important of those things was, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you! Lets all pitch in and make this animation industry sparkle with life!

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph has worked with studios as diverse Walt Disney Feature Animation, and the National Film Board of Canada. Joe has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is currently writing a passionate book about the art of animation.