The First Law of Mentat:
“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
Okay, so project management may not be exactly the same as training your mind into being a human-computer cognitive hybrid that Frank Herbert wrote about in 1965 (and I do realize that reference will only entertain a handful of people), but he makes a good point. In the creative field, especially as a vendor, jobs will come (if you’re lucky) and they will do so at their own pace, with their own unique timelines and challenges. What they hold in common is that they have to move. A project is not a project if it’s standing still - that would be an idea.
If the Dune reference was too cerebral, let’s use a physical one. If you’ve ever tried stepping onto an already-moving treadmill before, you’ll understand when I say that there’s a moment of split second poise and calculation before your foot touches the belt, but the real trick to not falling on your face, is in that next moment of acceptance. The floor is now moving, and you, your body and your mind, have to move at a balanced pace until equilibrium is met. You find that space of understanding between your pace and the moving belt beneath you. This is how stepping into a project feels. All of those moments, from the assessment, to the decision to interact, to the first contact, to the married pace, are all equally crucial and, let’s face it, exciting! Does it become more natural and second nature over time? Certainly! But the “flow of the process” should always be regarded. To take us back to Frank Hebert, you cannot lose the “understanding.” Do that, and you will surely stumble.
So, what’s the spice melange-like awareness you need to land the best footing? It’s different for every Producer, but I can give you a few tidbits of my own practices when performing that daring and exhilarating act of taking the first step.
Here are five ways to set up your creative project for success from the beginning, foot hovering in air.
Thoroughly Assess the Project
This sounds simple, but knowing every aspect of what a client is asking for is a critical first step. Don’t just gloss over these details, even if you’ve done a similar project before, because no two graphics packages, rebrands or spots were created equally. Do a thorough breakdown of every deliverable and every possible permutation. Do they need a version for broadcast and a version for social? If you are making a video for a non-standard large format screen, will they also need a 16x9 edit? Does the client need bespoke assets created, or will they need an easy toolkit to eventually bring things in-house? Answering all of these questions at the outset helps you create a realistic bid for a project, so there aren’t any surprise changes in scope later on.
Also ask yourself if there’s anything the client isn’t asking for, but would be hugely beneficial to the project’s overall ROI. For example, for the MRI Ascend animation we created, we suggested to the client that we also deliver versions of the character animations with alpha channels so they could easily repurpose them in the future. Our goal is always to deliver as much value as possible, and this is a great way to make sure we are doing that from the beginning of a project. With the right foresight and planning, adding those little “extras” can be as simple as hitting the render button one more time, in exchange for a huge added worth and a deeper trust partnership with your client.
Know Thy Team
Alright, let’s drop the treadmill analogy here and move back into some fantasy nerdom, why? Because my biggest character flaw is mixed metaphor use.
Being a Producer is a bit like managing a party in an RPG. You know your wizard is great with casting ranged attacks, while your barbarian can tank damage from close range. While you don’t need to create a character sheet listing out the stats of everyone who works for your company, you’ll naturally start to understand your teams’ inherent strengths, specialties, and what kind of work makes them excited. Over time, you’ll figure out who is an After Effects enchantress, a scripting sorcerer, or a compositing cleric. Having this knowledge will help you assign the right person for the right task, both making the process run smoother and the end product better.
This will also help when deciding if you need to turn to freelancers for a project, whether it’s because there’s an aspect of the project that requires a specialist, or if your go-to artist for this type of project is already committed to something else.
So much of making a client (or anybody) happy is to set realistic expectations from the beginning. The last thing you want to do is to over-promise and under-deliver. Remember the 3 C’s: clear constant communication. This needs to start from the beginning of your relationship with your client. When talking through the project, make sure that everyone is on the same page as to what will be delivered, what the timeline is, and what the budget will be. If the client is asking for something that just isn’t realistic with the timeline and budget, make that clear from the beginning rather than accepting an impossible task and just trying to figure it out. But also don’t just say no to an impossible request. Try to counter with a creative solution that solves their problem while being feasible to pull off.
If you are honest, upfront and deliver on what you say, that builds trust for this project and, hopefully, any future projects.
Create a Schedule That Expects the Unexpected
A server might go offline for hours. A tree might fall on your building. A once-in-a-generation world event might force you to change the script, re-record the voiceover, and redo the entire edit and mix. Basically, things happen, from commonplace to truly bonkers. So when you’re making your schedule, factor in as much buffer for the unexpected as you can. As with everything, this is about creating a balance, because if you made a schedule that factored in everything that could go wrong, your deadline would be the heat-death of the universe. You’d rather have a little extra buffer and deliver early (it can happen!) than be forced to scramble when the expectedly unexpected happens.
This piece of advice is a little on the “luxury” side. If you can do it, fantastic! If you can’t (and I’m looking at you, broadcast and hard-deadline event projects), then at least prepare your body, mind, team and workflow for the pace required.
Build Time to Storyboard or Test Shoot
I love being on set, but it can also be stressful, because every passing second feels expensive. So when it comes to the day of the shoot, you want to get right to business. Storyboarding, animatics and test shoots are cost-effective ways to demonstrate what a video will look like before anyone steps onto set. It’s a great chance to collaborate with your client, get their feedback and make any changes early to avoid the dreaded “fix it in post” moment. Trust me, your scratch track voice is not as bad as losing precious time on set - test all the timings.
“We faced it and did not resist. The storm passed through us and around us. It's gone, but we remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
I hope these tips help you on your journey. Remember, through all the sweat and concern, this should be an exhilarating process. Our company motto “Outdare Gravity” extends to more than just the end product. It’s a mantra for the flow. Creating an environment and a process that is rewarding to participate in, constantly improving and encouraging your own growth. Having a career in a creative field is hard work, but it’s also a perk. Keep moving.