Special Series: Animation Production Management (Part 2/5)

*This article is the 2nd in a 5 part series on Animation Production Management by Ranjit (Tony) Singh.*

Read part 1 of this article here

Ranjit Singh

Ranjit Singh

AAA: How does one go about ‘Managing’ an Animation Production? Could you briefly outline the process of managing creative projects?

Tony: There are 4 basic steps to the life cycle of any project. These can be simply defined as:

1. Initiation
2. Design
3. Implementation
4. Closure

Step 1 – Initiation

The initiation stage is as the name suggests, a process to start and introduce the project within the system. Yes, contrary to popular belief, there is a definable process to do this. I believe, this is the most critical stage and surprisingly one with the maximum number of oversights. How you bring the project into your working environment determines how it progresses through the pipeline.

Proper initiation of a project does not merely mean assigning tasks to people. There are various factors that have to be given proper attention. These include but are not limited to data handling, documentation, project structuring, verification / classification and confirmation of material received, required and to be sourced, team composition, pipeline adjustments, tracking and monitoring processes –various tweaks and corrections to an existing system may have to be made to cater to the new project.

Each creative production brings its own set of issues, requirements and idiosyncrasies. Assuming that the current environment is fully geared to meet all challenges is very well, but confirming that it actually can, requires a detailed pre-initiation study of the new production to fully assess the delivery capacity of the team for the specific project in hand. The common mistake that people make is to assume that they have handled similar projects in the past, so the next one is not going to be any different.

The start of a new project is an exciting time for everyone especially when teams have been working for extended periods on an existing production. The very thought that something refreshing is on the horizon is rejuvenating. But it is precisely this excitement, the ‘Let’s get it going’ gung-ho attitude, that can be the cause of major angst later on. Excitement is great fodder for creativity but also a catalyst for basic oversights.

The initiation stage involves the preliminary setup required to prep up the existing processes, pipelines, teams, resources and infrastructure to absorb a new production. Multiple projects on the floor are a very common occurrence and therefore only proper project initiation can ensure seamless and stress-free induction of a new production into a working system.

Step 2 – Design

In this stage among other operational tasks, all the formats for documentation, processes to be followed, monitoring systems to be tweaked as per the requirements, data handling and asset management systems, storage formats and structures etc. are planned. Teams are structured based on specific requirements, allocation of talent including when and where it has to be inducted into the project is outlined. Detailed schedules with a working structure for introducing resources in a time-bound manner are created. Communication pipelines are planned with specific point of contact, authority and responsibility assigned to people. Approval and stepped delivery dates are allotted to each specific task.

At this stage all the data that is compiled from the initiation stage is analysed and a working model is discussed and created for the production. Team leads and senior talent is briefed about the working plan and adjustments based on their feedback are incorporated into the design.

Think of this as the blueprint of how the production, including all its ancillary activities and resources etc, will actually unfold through the pipeline. It is very important that there is general consensus and agreement on how the team proposes to handle a project. The worst situation on a production is where teams work to a plan that they see no merit in. It is imperative therefore, that disagreements and suggestions are heard and discussed objectively. If there is no ‘buy-in’, rest assured, the project will run into trouble. Having said that, it is also a fact that everyone respects that there is only one director or captain of every ship. Production management cannot and ideally should not be confused with a democracy.

There is an interesting case study here that I can share. Sometime ago, I was sitting in a pitch meeting with an overseas production house. They were examining studios that could handle the CGI production of their upcoming episodic series. When I enquired as to how they proposed to monitor and manage inputs from multiple studios on the same project, I was surprised when the head of production explained that they had a set format for all work and every supplier would have to redesign their internal working systems to cater to their process. So not only were the suppliers expected to deliver a specific format (which is understandable), they were expected to create the material and also monitor the production as per a prescribed and totally unfamiliar system (which to me sounds totally bizarre). It was akin to reaching into a supplier’s studio and practically teaching him how to do his business all over again. And to top it all, it was made very clear to everyone that there was absolutely no scope for discussion on that end.

At that very instant I somehow knew that the project was doomed. In the interest of a project, it is one thing to be open to adapting dissimilar techniques for project and data handling and quite another to come forth with a sense of arrogance that ‘I / we know best’. Truth be told, exactly 6 months later I attended a session on international collaborations at one of our annual conferences and the very same person was on stage. Guess what! The very first thing they admitted was that the biggest mistake they made on the project was to try and micro-manage operations across the facilities of multiple suppliers.

There were 2 specific takeaways for me from this experience. One –Process design, implementation and monitoring is not something that you lop on to people. It has to be collaborative to the level that people understand and approach it positively. Get them to ‘buy-in’ what ever you are trying to initiate and the rest will follow. Two –learn to empower. Select the right people based on merit, test them as much as you like and till you are satisfied with their capabilities, give them your requirements and specifications, be precise and then step back. Give them space and time to work. Remember why you selected someone for the job, because you believe they can deliver. Don’t try to over supervise inside another person’s house. How they do their internal structuring and execution on a project should not overtly stress you, so long as you are getting what you need, when you need and how you need it – let it be. Give people the opportunity to collaborate / add value and 9 times out of 10, if your assessment of them is correct – they will deliver.

Step 3 – Implementation

Initiation and design over, now comes the actual execution. It is at this stage that all plans are put to practice. Teams on the floor are apprised of specific requirements and allocated work is signed off to them, production supervision is initiated, micro-level documentation ensures constant monitoring and status updates on progress that also ensures compliance to the planned schedules. This is the ‘do’ part of the production. Artists create the art and the production department / personnel monitor the progress.

For smaller units or independent artists, it is quite possible that they have to multi-task and take on the role of project executors as well as supervisors. It is at this stage that communication takes on a vital role. Clear, precise and concise communication with proper documentation and records is extremely important. Too many times, too many projects have suffered because people understood things that were not said and assumed directions that were not given. Effective communication systems with a proactive approach are the key to effective production management on the floor.

Step 4 – Closure

After the project has been delivered, a systematic closure is also important. This involves among other things, signoffs on all deliveries, cleanup of storage structures and file systems, final backup and archival of the latest data and update of knowledge libraries on the production. It is a good practice to follow up with the respective teams and gather information that may help further streamline processes on the floor.

As mentioned earlier, each new project can bring immense learning opportunities to an interested team and these may not be limited to technical issues alone. Production management on creative projects is a dynamic art and very often calls for innovative solutions to situations on the floor. Processes should be constantly updated and improved over time and this can be possible only if proper documentation and records of measures that are taken are maintained for future use.

This is in essence the overview of how animation production management can work. It is of-course far more detailed a process and there are many more aspects amongst each of these 4 stages.

To read the next part (i.e part 3) of this article click here.

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