One of the things I’m working on in my position as Head of Character Animation is learning how to straddle the roles of being a “Coach” and a “Player”. You see, as an animator, my role was to be the best animator I possibly could be. To learn, to grow, to develop as an artist. Sure I would try and help out others as they needed, but mostly I was judged on one thing – my shots. The better I did as an animator, the better I was seen at work. This is pretty common in pretty much every job.. you do your job well, you succeed.
When I got promoted to being a supervisor, I understood that my role had changed, that now I was being judged not just on how I was doing as an animator (since I still had to animate), but also on how my team was performing. If I was kicking-ass and doing great shots but my team was struggling, then I wasn’t doing my job well. I had to learn how to manage and develop my team, help them grow as artists, and help them achieve the results the studio required of them. This meant developing more management skills. An incredibly helpful man told me that a manager’s job is to basically identify and remove the roadblocks and problems that are inhibiting your team from getting their jobs done.
This is the roal of the “coach”. The one on the sidelines doing everything in their power to help their team be the best they can possibly be.
The problem here is of course that it’s difficult for artists to make this transition. When you’ve worked your entire life to become a skilled artist, to feel success when you create a meaningful performance it can be hard to suddenly change your view of success to be that of your team creating great work. It doesn’t sound difficult.. it sounds like what you would expect any manager to do. But it is difficult.. subconsciously you will look at their work and even though you can be proud and satisfied when they do well, there’s a tiny part of you that goes “oh man, I wish I could have done that shot..”.
You won’t be thinking this because you think you could do it better, or because the person didn’t do a good job. You’re thinking it because you miss animating. You miss being able to put 100% of yourself into a shot and get mired in the gritty details.
I’ve seen people respond to this in a number of ways. One way is to completely stop animating and just become a manager. To focus only on supporting your team. To just be a coach.
Some people try and animate through their team. They will give note after note that reflects not necessarily what their animators are trying to achieve, but what they want.
I have found that both of these solutions cause problems. If you’re just a coach, you’re not really supervising and leading your team. Part of being a good supervisor is understanding what it takes to get a shot to a certain level. You have to stay in the game to do this, you need to be animating to keep up your skills. You must be able to give a detailed note of “this finger needs to be delayed by 2 frames, and push the arm here to get this silhouette.”
If you try and animate through your team, you’ve got another big problem.. you’re not letting your animators bring anything to the table. You’re treating them all like assistants. This can work for a little while, but it’s important to remember that your animators are artists. Your goal as their supervisor is two-fold. One, to make the best possible movie ever, and two, to help them grow and achieve their dreams as animators. If you’re just pushing your ideas through they will grow weary, loose interest, and never learn to develop ideas on their own.
The best solution is to be both a “coach” and a “player”. You need to be a “player” (animator) so you can keep up your chops. You need to be able to create animation yourself to be personally artistically satisfied. You also need to be a “coach” (manager) and help your team deliver top quality animation that makes them satisfied. They need to feel supported by you, that you’re helping them achieve their goals and reach their vision. You need to talk to them about what they want to achieve, and then work with them on a long-term plan to reach that goal.
You also must be able to take pride in the work that they achieve that has nothing to do with you. I don’t mean you should take ownership, I mean that you should be satisfied and happy when people on your team perform well. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be able to present the work of a member of your team to your director and say (for example) “Here’s a shot that Bryce has been working on. He and Carlos were talking about how the character would react in this situation, and they came up with this idea. I think they’ve got something exciting going here, what do you think?” and have the director say “That’s GREAT!”.
You may have had nothing to do with this specific shot that bryce and carlos are working on, but by being a supportive and collaborative supervisor, you’ve given them the space to be the best possible artists they can be.
And THAT is something you can definitely be proud of.
Oh, and as for the book listed at the top of the post.. this has been one of the best books I’ve ever read and has really helped me develop as a supervisor and manager. I highly recommend it to anybody who works with other people. 🙂