How Production can enable your teams to do better, more creative work.
It was 4 A.M. on a Saturday morning. “Let’s try one more version with a bit more smoke.” Our VFX supervisor gave the note causing everyone to mentally groan. It was delivery day for our project, a 60 second commercial for the newest Star Wars film, Rogue One. By that time, most of the crew had gone home, and we just had one shot left to ship. We’d been at this for hours. Still we continued on, a VFX artist, the shot’s compositor, the project’s creative supe, my production assistant, and I. We all settled in to wait another half hour while the compositor worked to get another version with more smoke added ready to look at.
I had worked with this particular VFX supervisor (or, “supe”) a few times before on a couple of other projects. He was one of the younger supes – an exceptional artist who had moved quickly up the ladder by doing phenomenal work. We had spent most of the summer working on a couple different commercial projects and I felt that we had developed a rapport. I could have, at that point, insisted that we call the shot “good enough” and ship the final shot off to our client, and send my crew, who were passing into double time, home. (Which I’m sure is the call my producer wanted me to make.) I didn’t. We ended up doing two or three more versions, and I finally got home and crawled into bed around 7:00 AM, twenty-three hours after I had gone to work the previous morning.
I had gotten into production management because I liked the kind of problem solving that you get to do. It’s very rare to get to do creative work without some form of constraint. Whether it’s time, budget, resources, talent – there’s always something that you have to figure out how to make it work. After spending a few years in the trenches, I had an epiphany – there’s a big gap between production management and the creative people that actually get the work done. As a result, sometimes there’s a lot of animosity between the two sides, the artists vs. management. I’ve always felt that I’m in this awkward position, straddling the divide, so to speak; trying to keep the schedule and budget intact, but chasing that elusive perfect creative shot, image, or moment.
I had gone to art school because, like everybody else in my year, I thought I wanted to direct films. I quickly realized that not only was I ill-suited for that career, I found the types of problems producers solve to be much more interesting. I didn’t think much of my BFA at the time, knowing that a lot of my producing peers had gone the business school route. What my formal artistic training had given me was a great gift – the ability to talk about Art. I don’t know many production managers who had to take painting, sculpture or life drawing classes as part of their degree. I did. And I was terrible at it. I still am.
More important than being able to draw or paint, I had gained some empathy. I knew what it was like to spend all night working on a drawing, only to have it ripped apart in critique the next day. I knew what it felt like to go thru a slump, where everything you touch seems to explode. Suddenly I understood that the creative process is more than just a phrase – it’s a process. You can’t sit artists in a room and tell them to push the creative button and expect to get results. That never seems to stop people from trying though.
A few months later I was changing jobs and I was asked to put together a training regimen for newly hired production staff. It was the first opportunity in my career to share some of the skills, knowledge and methodology that I had been honing over the years. I set to work and I found a few repeating themes:
Those are more or less the general principles and ethos for working with large scale creative teams, as I understand them. I didn’t invent any of these ideas, they’ve been around in various formats for years. I’ve just figured out my own unique way of applying them.
So what’s the role of a Production Manager in all of this process? My job is to put myself in a position of trust for not only the lead creatives, but the rank-and-file artists that are working on the project. That involves the ability to learn things. I’ve learned a ton of things about visual effects and filmmaking that have almost no relation to my actual job; except it’s all applicable. Being able to have a conversation with a VFX supe about render engines, compositing or lighting gives you instant credibility. They’re expecting you to know nothing (especially the higher you climb the management ladder), and if you know something, they’ll appreciate working with you even more.
My job isn’t to provide creative input or decision making. My job is to organize all of the information so it’s inherently useful, and to buy them as much time as I possibly can to be creative. I need to keep the lights on and the executives happy so they can do what they do best; be creative. And then the hard part: Own that position of trust, and be able to tell them that it’s time to put the pencils down and move on.
In the end, the late night didn’t blow out our budget. The shot looked better when we delivered it than it did at 4:00 AM when I started feeling the urge to ship it. Our team had worked through the process together, and the end result was better for it. I had trusted our creatives to get it right in the end, and they never let me down.