As our production has begun, I’ve been talking to our animators about my goals in running the animation department for the show. It’s been an interesting process, one in which I’ve learned a lot about myself, my values, and how I feel our department can be most sucessful.

I’m not going to get into specific tricks and techniques for what we’re going to do (this is a public blog, after all), but I thought others might find it interesting at least to hear what I feel are the 3 areas of focus that are important to having a creative, successful, and happy team dynamic. I think that these values probably apply to almost any team dynamic.

You’ll notice that I’ve labeled each area A, B, and C, not 1, 2, 3, because I don’t think there is a hierarchy as to which area should be considered first.  Each area is of equal importance, and while not every decision one makes can have each area “win”, I believe if each area is considered while making decisions, in the long run you can achieve growth and success in all of them.

Area A: The Best Quality Product

This area of focus is on making the best quality product (whatever it is you’re creating.  In my case, the best animation and acting we can produce).  Here, all of your decisions should be focused on the good of the product.  This include things like – who do you have working on the most key components of your product?  Have you done your research?  What is the end goal?  What tools do you need to reach that goal?  What are the possible pitfalls that can get in the way?   When I started on this show I pictured the end result of what we would need to have a successful show.  What would our rigs need to do?  What specific tools would we need?  Who knowledge would I have needed to have?

Picturing the end result allowed me to work backwards and ask important questions about the features we needed.  If the rigs had to support “x”-feature, then what do I need to do to ensure that could happen?  How much planning do we need to have?  Are the tools even available to support this feature?  Who do I know that can create it?  How much time would it take?

By asking these things at the head of the show, I could build a path and plan on how to ensure we would be ready once the show started.  Knowing that it’s impossible to foresee every eventual hurdle and hiccup, we also created a plan for how to handle problems we don’t know about yet.  It’s important to realize that something will happen that will try and keep you from reaching this goal.  Instead of being surprised and reacting to it, create a plan ahead of time so when it occurs, you have a method for dealing with it that keeps everyone sane and “happy”.

Area B: The Happiest and Most Productive Team

Of course it’s impossible to create a great product without a great team behind it.  This second area of focus is all about your team and how it works together.  You have to think about what THEY need to achieve this goal.  What can you do to help the team morale (always an issue when people are working hard and putting their hearts on the line every day in dailies).  How can you help them grow together, learn to trust each other, and work in harmony?  How can you remove any of the political back-stabbing that can happen in group dynamics and help them nurture each other instead?  How can you ensure that perception of your team is one of compassion, cooperation, and inspiration?

Area C: The Individual

Of course, each team is made up of unique individuals, and if every person isn’t feeling satisfied and creative, then it’s difficult to have the team work successfully.  And if the team isn’t working, then there’s no way you’re going to achieve the best product you can.

I like to think broader than that, though.  I’m not just trying to help animators be great so this particular film is great.  I want the animators to be happy, creative, successful, fulfilled, empowered, and passionate because that’s the kind of environment that I feel is a great place to work.  I want every animator to feel like they’re growing, that there is a future for them, and that they “control” that future.  I know that I always work my best when I feel like I have a personal stake in the results of what I’m doing.  I want every animator to have goals that are greater than their current abilities, and know that they’ve got a team of people supporting and encouraging them to achieve those goals.  Knowing that it’s okay for them to reach and fall, because we’re there to help pick them up and allow them to reach again.  If your team doesn’t feel safe reaching and failing, then they’ll never reach and achieve.

Growth.. personal and professional are important to me.   That’s why we’ve asked each animator to create a list of goals for themselves.. for the show, for their careers, for their personal lives.  They can share it with me or not, but I want them to at least think about it.  Then, they should think about what the next physical action they should take that would help them achieve the goal.  This is actually something I did a few years ago when I was animating on Shrek the Third.  I had a goal to become a supervising animator, but I felt like I didn’t quite have the acting chops to achieve it.  So I thought about what I needed to reach this goal.  I wrote to my Head of Character Animation and my Department Supervisor and said that I had an eventual goal to be a supervisor, but felt like I was lacking in subtle acting ability.  In order to achieve my goal, I wanted to focus more of my animation time on subtle shots so I could learn and grow.  I wrote about what things I would be doing personally to become better in this area, and then asked for their support and the opportunity to try these more challenging shots.   Sure enough, I was given more subtle shots and was pushed beyond my comfort level.  I knew I had their support to grow, and felt okay failing because they were behind me.  It was hard, but I worked at it, and I soon became a supervising animator (and now a Head of Character Animation).

Making Decisions..

As I mentioned earlier, not every decision we make can support each area of focus.  Sometimes we have to give certain shots to animators we know can achieve the level required in the short time we have.   Sometimes we can’t afford a training class for the entire department even though it would be incredibly useful and in the long run would help everyone become stronger.  Sometimes an individual animator’s goal on a particular shot or sequence will not work with our current schedule and we can’t accommodate them.  However, we are always thinking of each area of focus with every decision.  We try hard when there are conflicting goals to find a way to still achieve a desired result by looking at things over the course of time.

Maybe this particular shot can’t go to this particular animator, but we can give that animator two simpler shots, and then on the next sequence we’ll give them the shot that will really push them, and in order to support them in their growth, we’ll make sure the supervisor has extra time put aside to help them and work with them so they’re supported and not just left dangling in the wind.

Maybe once in a while we’d have to work saturdays during crunch in order to get the show done on time, and maybe that means that parents won’t get to see their families as much.. but what if everyone in the department took a few bucks every day and put it in a pot, and then we took some money from the department morale budget and set up a family picnic one saturday every month with food and drinks and games for the kids to play?  And what if we personally thanked all the family members for their understanding and patience?

Maybe we have to make hard decisions that make some people unhappy, or it may take longer to achieve their goals.. but I firmly believe that by focusing on these three areas with every decision, and letting the teams know that we’re actively doing this, we can really help create a creative, supported, artistic, professional, forward-thinking, engaged, successful team that will produce the most amazing work possible.

At least, that’s my thought.

I’d love to hear yours! :)

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14 Responses to On running a successful and creative team..

  1. bill(y) says:

    wow jason. you’re timing is perfect. this very useful blog comes at a time when i’m ramping up to run the animation side of things at studio in seattle.

    your blog is very confirming to me, as i respect your work greatly and hearing that there’s a great deal of things in sync with how i’m approaching…it gives me a little more confidence.

    thanks for sharing!

  2. perfect note!..hopefully I am finding the way to will form a workteam with the level to put in practice this excellents advices and recomendations, is not easy in my country at all… Save the note to my archives, very useful! Thank you very much Jason, as usual. :)

  3. sketchseven says:

    Hey Jason – interesting thoughts. I always think that if you’re working on something that is intrinsically creative (such as film, art projects, etc.) you would hope that everyone within your team is going to be doing the best job they possible can, not because they’re being paid, but because no one strives to be mediocre. So I would think A – while it’s important – isn’t going to be the biggest of your issues. I like the planning approach that you’re talking about, working backwards, is that a GTD approach?

    B and C then are likely to be your biggest issues, but I think if you can cultivate that kind of environment when it’s ok to make mistakes, to fail once in a while, that’ll really be the key. This is something that I discovered recently reading an article where Lee Unkrich was quoted as saying it’s ok to make mistakes, in fact make lots of them, but just try to make them fast and make them early on in the process – and ultimately, be making it ok to make mistakes, you’ll free yourself up to find the strongest material you can. I thought that was good advice.

    C I think you’re on to an excellent idea with the goals – some people might denounce it as crap, but some people might get behind it and I think you’ll see a lot of growth in them.

    You may be interested in a recent TED video that Dan Pink did – I won’t spam you with a link, but you can find it on YouTube I’m sure, and certainly in iTunes – there was a lot of really intriguing stuff about how the standard business approach of carrot-and-stick simply doesn’t work for the higher level creative (i.e. making an animated feature) stuff that most white collar workers will be doing in years to come. It’s worth perusing if you have time.

    • jason says:

      sketchseven – thanks for the Ted note! I’ll check it out! The important thing about part A is to make sure everyone realizes that it’s a valid goal, and that the BEST ideas should come to the top, wherever they come from. I don’t know if the planning approach of going backwards is a GTD thing.. it’s something I’ve done for a while when preparing for presentations. I always think “Okay, what is the take-away from this talk. What do I want people to leave with?” Then I think “What are they STARTING with?” Once you have a starting point and an ending point, then it’s much easier to map backwards and develop a path for execution.
      As for people thinking C is crap.. well, I hope they don’t. The only control I have over that is for them to see the progress of people who really go for it.. then maybe they’ll realize that I’m genuine in my desire to grow the team.

      • sketchseven says:

        I wonder if that way of thinking – get an end point, and a start point – comes from working on films a lot? It occurs to me that’s how most people describe working on stories, that you should know how it ends before you begin. Coming from a writing background it seems that having some idea of how your story should end is one of the most important things to have when you’re creating something. Not that finding it can’t be an act of discovery in itself though.

        I apologise if you thought I was suggesting that C was crap – I am British, and have therefore inherited rather more than a healthy dose of cynicism. I tried setting out my goals as part of the Bridge program within Animation Mentor this term and I hope it’s something I can keep taking forward. I certainly think it’s useful – you can’t really progress to your full potential unless you know where you’re going.

        Good luck with your efforts and (admittedly through the veil of confidentiality issues) I hope you’ll be able to let us know how it goes.

        Oh by the way, your Smeagol impression is spot on. Cracked me up to no end when I saw the video lecture you did for AM.

        • jason says:

          thanks sketchseven!

          Don’t worry, I wasn’t or anything by your saying part C was crap.. in fact, I agree, i’m sure some people WILL think it is, or not believe that I mean it, or whatever. I just hope that my efforts will prove them wrong. :)

          Great note about going from B to A coming from film.. I wonder if that’s where I got it? I think it probably came a bit from film, but also a bit from having rough deadlines & thinking “okay, what do I NEED to do to be successful here? What will define success for this project?” Then once you know that, it’s much easier to make smart decisions about what you need to do.

  4. John Gross says:

    Thanks for some solid and sensible advice, Jason. The timing is good for me too, as I will soon be putting a new team together. Different domain, but the same principles apply!

    • jason says:

      John, it really means a lot to me to hear this from you! I love what you’re doing with your new passion & career path, and I’ve always been inspired by your ability to lead & develop products and people! Thank you!

  5. Thank you very much for this post Jason. I too am in the process of dissecting leadership as a position and mindset and working through details in terms of organization and motivation to create an environment that “wants” to succeed and work together for that goal. Your ideas really put words to a lot of the things I have been thinking about. You are an inspiration to me and I thank you for constantly taking a humble role and sharing your experiences and ideas with all of us. You are a class act my friend. This posting is already making a difference for me.

    Thanks again!

    • jason says:

      Wow.. thanks brad! I’m looking forward to hearing what you discover as you get going.. I love sharing these ideas and seeings what others are figuring out as well!

  6. Mendel Reis says:

    its impressive how simple and impressive was those words! some atitudes can change a lot!
    thanks for the text

  7. Ander Bergstrom says:

    Jason,
    I find myself incredibly inspired by you…thank you.

    Ander

  8. jason says:

    wow.. thanks ander!

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