Search form

Everyday Producing: Money into Pixels

One Animation’s John McKenna shares how tension between maintaining quality and staying within budget can lead to good creative decision-making and great project success.

"Art is never finished, only abandoned,” Leonardo da Vinci famously said (presumably after an unfeeling producer had ripped a drawing out of his hands while muttering that it was all taking too long).

Those words are perhaps even more cruelly true in animation production than the great genius might have foreseen, particularly when working within the tight schedules and budgets that seemingly every studio, broadcaster and financier demands.

The economics of animation – quality and cost

The economics of animation, coupled with rising audience expectations, pretty much guarantees tension between the need to get it done and the need to clear an ever-higher quality bar.

If you’re a producer inclined towards the get-it-done part, at some point on almost every project you'll be on the receiving end of a conversation that concludes with a terse: "I care about quality but you only seem to care about money!"

This most often comes as you’re gently reminding a colleague that if a certain element is not finished by the date you typed into a schedule nine months earlier, it will have dire consequences on the rest of production and possibly all of your collective careers.

But it’s a serious question, and one we, as producers, constantly grapple with:

“Which is more important in animation production, quality or cost?”

Let’s look at what we’re ultimately trying to achieve. Animation production is never about the best work we can possibly create -- it is about the best work we can possibly create within the time and resources available to us.

Setting it down in black and white like that risks making it sound prosaic, as if even by acknowledging the concept we condemn ourselves to settling for mediocrity because, hey, “What you gonna do?’ there’s a deadline to meet.

Nothing should be further from the truth. The key to success in animation is finding a way for that best possible work to be far better than the budget has any right to expect. And the way to get the absolute ‘best possible’ is through the careful and disciplined management of that very same budget that’s constraining you.

Quality is definitely more important.  Isn’t it?

So, my first answer to the question is: hands down, no question, quality is more important.

Quality is king.  Without it, you’ve got nothing, and every dollar you saved wrestling shots out of artists’ hands might just as well have been used to light a bonfire of your production reports.

So, that should make it easy, right? You just have to wait until whatever is being worked on is ready, because the last thing you want is to compromise the quality. Well, actually that would be heaven. In fact, on every project, there is someone who believes that’s happening right now in some distant studio.  And what’s more, they’re going to work there one day.

Sometimes, late at night, that person is me.

But of course, in reality, “It’ll be ready when it’s ready” can’t work as a production model, because as producers, we are entrusted with other people’s money, and we promise them that we will deliver their project at a certain cost.

That creates our dilemma: in delivering to a budget, we can’t compromise our other, more important commitment, to also deliver quality.

It’s what makes animation different from many other types of art -- despite the unpredictability of the creative process, it is inextricably bound to unbreakable timelines.

So actually, maybe it’s cost

This is where the budget can become your friend.

It provides a blueprint of what the overall scope of the project needs to be, the container you must tailor your work to fit into. And it forces hard, creative choices about what is really important to the audience.

As the designated Philistine in dailies, I’m usually the one suggesting letting go some detail that “could be better,” opining airily that the audience won’t study, say, the butterfly in the background so carefully that another animation retake will enhance their enjoyment of the scene.

And at least half the time I’m wrong. But I urge a re-think not because I don’t care about the quality, or because I’m trying to “save money” for its own sake, but because those savings could go to some other part of the show.  And, if it’s a part where the audience’s enjoyment can be enhanced, that might even help raise the overall quality of the end result.

In production, I often think of the budget as “the suitcase” we’ve been given for the journey, just as, when we go on vacation, we have a luggage allowance, and a bunch of stuff we have to take, but we know we can’t take everything.

Three pairs of shoes would be nice, an extra evening suit might come in useful, also a hat, some books... but when we find they don’t all fit in the suitcase, we’re left to figure out which of those are really essential to a great holiday. 

It’s the same for production, and as a producer, that’s my everyday mission: how do we fit everything we really need into the suitcase?

There’s an answer in there somewhere

If I return to the question, “Which is more important, quality or cost?” my real-world answer is they’re both the same thing.

Money buys quality, budget discipline buys more quality.

And, crucially, a shortage of money provokes creative solutions to achieving what we need with what we’ve got.

John Boorman, the celebrated director of Deliverance, Excalibur and many others, titled his book on filmmaking Money Into Light.

That’s actually wonderful simplicity from a great filmmaker.

In CG animation, we might say we turn money into pixels. And the more carefully we allocate the budget to what’s important on the screen, the better each of those pixels can be.

Everyone in animation quickly learns there’s “never enough time, never enough money,” regardless of the size of the budget. And consequently, producers can sometimes be accused of caring only about how long something is taking.

Under pressure, it’s an easy trap to slip into, and certainly one I’m guilty of on a fairly regular basis. So, note to self…constantly remind yourself before dailies, preferably out loud to the bathroom mirror: “Someone has put their soul into this work, and they’re laying it out naked, for judgment, before all their peers, even though they suspect they didn’t have time to fully do it justice. Be sure you acknowledge that achievement, before asking why it wasn’t finished last Friday.  Dick.”

An artist who senses their work is valued can help you overcome a lot of budget challenges.


One Animation’s studio head, John McKenna, has been producing animation for over 25 years in studios around the world, including in Los Angeles, London, and Mumbai, for some of the major names in feature film and TV animation, including the Walt Disney company, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.  His film and TV production credits include Disney's Tale Spin, Darkwing Duck, Duck Tales - The Treasure of the Lost Lamp, Planes, Planes - Fire & Rescue, the TinkerBell DVD series, Warner Bros' Space Jam, Fox's Titan AE, and several independent feature films.