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Everyday Producing: Work for Hire

One Animation Studio Head John McKenna continues his series exploring the inner workings of the animation industry with a look at the tension between in-house and external productions.

John McKenna, studio head at global award-winning studio One Animation, continues his series exploring the inner workings of the animation industry. In this article, he takes a look at the tension between in-house and external production.

Creating original IP is fun and fulfilling, but service work on someone else’s project is a chore.

That’s the accepted wisdom, isn’t it?

But why? Producing animation should be exactly the same, you’d expect, whether the creators happen to be employed by the same company as you, or a different company.

After working in both, I can unequivocally confirm that they are exactly the same - and completely different.

Everyone is working towards the same goal – top quality production

The same because in both, you agree in the style, target quality, and a hundred other details; you immerse yourself in the director’s vision, and you all work together, without any dividing line between creative and production, to deliver the very best show you can within the agreed parameters.

And different because when the production starts falling behind, or costing more, or falling short of the quality bar (at least two of which happen on every project), with your own IP you figure it out amongst yourselves, and on service work, that dividing line starts to ‘fade in.’ Who’s to blame and who will pay for the shortfall becomes, at best, a difference of opinion, and at worst an ugly stand-off over money.

Making a production work when you have no idea what lies ahead

Because none of us can read the future, this is potentially an issue on every project. Budgets are not real costs, and quotas are not real deliveries; they’re estimates based on our experience of other, different, productions. Because every project is a prototype, what worked before can’t be copied indiscriminately. If you’ve produced a hundred projects in the past, and you apply all that learning to planning your next project, once you get into production you will still need things you never anticipated.

By that point, you find yourself in the middle of that unseeable future, with the unexpected trampling all over your carefully-laid plans.

You have to react quickly and shrewdly to stay on track. And the way you react may differ depending on whether you think it’s your problem or someone else’s.

Could you imagine, on your own IP, a conversation in dailies in which the director says, “Sorry team, but now that the shot’s in color, I realize we’re going to need more rocks to fill that space screen right.” And the CG Supervisor responds, “We didn’t plan on that; so as soon as we get an overage of $800 approved we’ll get right on it.”

Doesn’t happen, right? With IP, the creative team and the CG team know that demands like this will inevitably arise, however much they plan to avoid them, and they face the challenge together, combing through the rest of the show for clever ways to get what the director wants, and stay within a budget that didn’t foresee those pesky rocks.

But that same conversation is easy to imagine in a service studio - because it happens all the time. “You want more rocks? Here’s the change order. Please approve.”

Accounting and accountability

You might ask why that is. The challenges with work-for-hire projects and original IP are identical, and they beg for the same collaborative solutions, not an invoice.

And, of course, collaboration like that does happen when the client-studio relationship is working well; but when budgets start running dry, the temptation on both sides to avoid accountability can rear its stubborn head. This is what leads to the stand-off.  At those times, the teams are no longer seeing it as a shared challenge; they’re each concluding it’s the other party that needs to do something. They themselves are just sticking to what was agreed.

That’s not collaboration, and it’s not productive. But it is perfectly understandable - because of the two lenses.

Work-for-hire studios exist to sell services, and if the client requires more services that’s good for business. That’s the lens they’re seeing things through. They committed to a very specific project brief and price. You want more, it costs more. If you told a shoe shop, say, that you couldn’t decide on which pair, so you’ve decided to take both, they wouldn’t feel moved to suggest that maybe you didn’t need both. They’d tell you the total price. They’re selling more shoes! That’s what they do.

While this is rational, it is also the source of a common complaint from client studios: when they’re faced with a creative challenge they didn’t anticipate, the service studio’s response is not to collaborate in the search for solutions, as they would on their own IP, but to simply give notice of an overage. They take the position, not unreasonably, that this is the client’s movie, and the client needs to figure it out; otherwise, here’s the price.

But many times the IP studio doesn’t know what solutions might be available. They’d really prefer advice and options from those who do, rather than more shoes.

Then there’s the client’s lens. They have a vision for a great show, often greater than the budget allows. Aiming for more than you can afford is standard, and probably even desirable in animation. To achieve their vision, they often end up needing things they didn’t budget for, and the main place to look for answers is the service studio. This can unconsciously create an urge to get “work for nothing”. We don’t think of it that way when we’re asking for it, but any time we say we need something we didn’t anticipate, but that we can’t change the budget, we’re asking the service studio to pay for it.

Trust makes the difference

OK, you say, there are different business perspectives, that’s common in every industry. But what then makes the service relationship work sometimes and not others?

Trust between the partners.

Trust that the service studio will deliver the very best they can, that they’re not reducing teams to increase their margin, that they aren’t delivering unfinished shots to fill delivery quotas, that they aren’t hiding underages while charging for overages. And trust that the client studio will manage the creative iterations within the scope, will be decisive and creatively consistent, will recognise when the extras push the project beyond the agreed scope, and will treat the service studio fairly. And both studios must have a complete understanding and respect for the part of the process being handled by the other studio. If you can do this, both sides will win.

But it doesn’t work if one side is paying lip service to collaboration while secretly playing a game of advantage. It can certainly make you feel cleverer, but ultimately you both will lose.

Having different lenses is not all bad. As producers, we should try them both on for size, because we can learn a lot from service studios: the practice of meticulously defining, counting and pricing every element and every task in advance, the discipline of timely delivery, and awareness of the cost, in both money and quality, of inaction when production strays from the course.

From IP studios we can learn that creative changes are not a failure of the process, they are the process, as well as the art of working with those changes, creatively tailoring our project to allow for them, and learning to accommodate them when they sneak up and ambush us.

So what are the key lessons from this?

Clients - there’s no such thing as work for nothing! If you’re not paying for it the service studio is.

Studios - you have the expertise to help the Client achieve their creative demands without it costing more. After all, that’s what the animation business is: delivering more audience satisfaction per dollar than the next studio can.

Clients - service studios desperately want the same as you want from them: to deliver top-quality work that will enhance their reputation for good work, attach their name to successful projects and bring more work in through “word of mouth”.

Studios - be sure that last one is true.  Don’t make a liar out of me.

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