From Other Perspectives: The Assistant Director

I recently stumbled across a film blog written by an Assistant Director in Austin, Texas.  She has a rather passionately written entry about why a 1st Assistant Director should not also try to be the Producer on a crew:

http://goingforpicture.tumblr.com/post/9458613970/dontproduce

While this is not the comparison that I am specifically looking at, I found that the comparison did help me to understand the Producer’s role more in relation to the film team:

1. Mobility

A Producer’s role is more mobile and less tied to the set.  They “need to have the ability to leave set at will to negotiate, put out fires, scout, meet, etc.”  Also, “Assistant Directors are useless off set.”

2. Financials

A Producer needs to be “privy to and an expert in financial wheelings and dealings.”  The Assistant Director does not, but this isn’t to say that no one else in the production hierarchy helps with budgeting.

3. Politics

“You sometimes have to be someone completely different from who you actually are in order to appease the industry folks that you wheel and deal with.”  There is camaraderie amongst the production crew as technical experts in their respective crafts, and it’s easy for them to joke about the politics going on above them, but producers are in the thick of that politics.

4. Tasks

She lists out specific responsibilities as well:

“As a Producer, I have to be locking in locations, building contracts and crew/cast deal memos, making sure that paperwork gets signed, arguing with agents, building and keeping tabs on the budget, hiring crew, renting equipment, securing insurance, making sure we have parking/bathrooms/holding areas, renting production vehicles, negotiating backend deals, keeping the director motivated, keeping the director’s vision from bloating to impossible to achieve proportions, making sure department heads aren’t steamrolling their first hands, playing babysitter and therapist all at the same time. And that’s before I even get to dealing with the assistant directors.”

On the other hand, the assistant director actually deals with the script, the set, rehearsals, etc.  Film is such a big affair that project management tasks have to get broken up across many different roles.

5. Personality

She makes this interesting distinction:

“Producers and ADs are very often very different creatures. I’m very mechanical as an AD. I run set and make sure everyone has what they need to do their jobs well and efficiently. I am thrilled to set marks for background and call the roll. But the things I desire as an AD are not always what I desire as a producer. As AD, I feel you’ve gotten the shot in those 15 takes and it’s absolutely time to move on (considering there’s no overtime if we go over 12 hours). As a producer, I want you to keep going until you have every single fucking frame of that shot a brilliant masterpiece or else the investors are going to pull out and the whole thing’s gonna fall apart. As a Producer, truthfully, the shot sucks and we should spend another 45 minutes resetting and getting it right.”

This really resonates with me because my experience as a producer at the ETC has moved between both these personality types.  Because we are on such small teams on our semester-long projects, a Producer needs to embody many if not all of the different aspects of producing:  On the one hand, being the administrator that makes sure everyone is being efficient and therefore being able to do simple mechanical work yourself that allows everyone else maximize their talents; on the other hand, being the manager that  needs the shepherd the vision and negotiate with everyone about compromise.

6. Scope of Time

Another wonderful subtle distinction between Assistant Directors and Producers:  “One of the DGA 1st ADs I really admire once said that the 1st AD represents the present, the set, the actual on the day filming… the 2nd AD represents the future, the next day of filming and prep work, and the 2nd 2nd AD represents the past, what happened on the day and statistics. A producer is all three at once; he/she is vigilant of past, present, and the future.”

I really like this one because it’s so elegant and easy to understand.  I wonder if other aspects of producing could be described by such properties – temporally, spatially, etc.

7. Responsibility

“As a producer, I am supposed to be overseeing the creative and making sure the director is making wise creative decisions with the budget he/she has. As an AD, I am not responsible for the overall creative feel of the movie.”

As mentioned in #5 above, the producer’s role is a lot more involved than their distance away in the hierarchy might imply.  Despite the delegation of so many tasks, they are ultimately responsible.

Conversation #1

On January 25, 2013, I had the pleasure of speaking with Nadia Labeikovsky, an ETC 2010 alumna who is currently working at Electronic Arts as an Assistant Producer.   Her current team is responsible for web development for a game and not on the game itself.  I asked her about her experiences in producing and she gave me a lot of great food for thought.

She left these pieces of advice:

  • Producing is “problem-solving.”

I’ve heard others say this before as well, and I really like how powerfully short it is.  I think it really captures the reactionary responsibilities of a producer, though I admit it leaves out the more proactive/inspirational aspects.

  • And if you yourself have problems, you cannot keep it to yourself.

This suggestion resonated with me.  I do have a bit of pride/ego about what things I should be able to figure out by myself, and figuring those out arguably consumes valuable time.  I’m working on it, but sometimes it’s hard to ask the “dumb” questions.

  • Moreover, “never be afraid of grunt-work.”

This line resonated with me too, but for the opposite reason.  I really like doing this.  Being the person who cleans up after everyone else is done eating or who will put all the wires/equipment away not only helps the team stay on the big picture, and not only makes them respect you, but perversely enough, when you spend so much time triaging and weighing high-level decisions, it’s nice to do something simple and physical.

Specifics-wise:

  • 15 minute daily check-ins are a must.

I agree.  Dailies are the best way to keep people from feeling like strangers, and a way to get people thinking about each other’s problems with the different mindsets that make a team so versatile.

  • As well as bug triage at the end of a week.

I imagine that ideally this would happen actively, but when work is busy and complex, that’s not always possible.  A week is always a good unit of time to measure progress against.

Leadership

Leadership, the trait that I know that I am weaker at as a producer.  I’ve got the administrative, organizational stuff down pretty well, but being the motivated figurehead and even the captain visually and verbally is something I’m still working on.

Here’s an interesting article that was passed on to me by Shirley Saldamarco, a faculty member at the ETC:

http://abcdgestao.blogspot.com/2013/01/leadership-lessons-from-royal-navy.html?goback=%2Egde_98701_member_209002538

The article talks about effective leadership in the British Royal Navy and cites two specific things:

1. Cheerfulness

2. Informal communication

I’ve been working a lot on #1 specifically.  I have a very objective and reserved personality, which is steadying but not inspiring.  #2 is intriguing because within my circle of friends, I feel very connected to the informal body of knowledge of ETC students past and present, though I am aware of students that are not / form assumptions together with a circle of friends from only their current class.

Job Descriptions

Today, I’m going to compare two chapters:

From “The Game Producer’s Handbook,” “Chapter 2: Producer Job Descriptions and Qualifications’ and from “The Complete Film Production Handbook,” “Chapter 1: The Production Team and Who Does What”

I’ve learned plenty of different things that producers do in each industry, but also which roles are actually somewhat analogous:

Dan Irish simplifies the gaming production hierarchy down to Executive Producers, Producers, Assistant Producers, and then PAs / Interns.  However, he admits that the titles and divisions vary by company.  He also makes the distinction between producers that work with internal development teams and external development teams (especially if they are at a publishing company).  Internal production is, of course, a bit more hands-on and has more creative control, while external production requires more negotiation and perception-management.  As to the hierarchy, executive producers are the ones who understand the whole company’s brand/vision and manages projects with that in mind, while producers are responsible for managing projects  by their individual vision.  By extension, the Assistant Producers make decisions in the sub-project realm.

In film, Eve Honthaner describes a more complex hierarchy with Executive Producers, Producers, Line Producers, Unit Production Manager, First and Second Assistant Directors, Production Coordinators.  She mentions many other “nebulous” titles as well such as Co-Producers and Producers – again, like in gaming, these often mean different things depending on how the credits were being assigned.  And along that note, Executive Producer, means the highest level supervisor / fund-raiser, but can very often be used to credit somebody’s whose name helped the production’s visibility.  Producers, again, are responsible for the project in its entirety; Eve notes them as the “one who  initiates, coordinates, supervises, controls all creative, financial, technological, administrative aspects.”  Line Producers are more “nuts and bolts” and the day-to-day operations.  Unit Production Managers deal with scheduling, budget, and external communication.  First and Second Assistant Directors are in charge of the set and casting.  Production Coordinators deal with the production office and all administrative things and paperwork.

So it seems that as suspected, there are a lot more divisions of work on the film side by the nature of how much infrastructure must come together for a shoot.  However, production management and communication are similar themes, whether at the top level or at the ground level.

Humor and Team Dynamics

While speaking with a good friend of mine over dinner, we began discussing our past and current projects at the Entertainment Technology Center.  I realized something that I believe might be surprisingly important to a strong team and that thing is having similar senses of humor.

Sure, a team can have team activities – meals, games, gatherings, etc. – but the most important time that the team will be spending together is at work, and how do you keep the mood light during work?  Humor!  Therefore, it is really helpful for a team to have similar senses of humor because that is how you will interact with each other when you begin getting bored.

My friend and I came to this conclusion because last semester, he was on a team with other students who had dry, sarcastic, and often hyperbolic types of humor like him, and this really made the whole semester and being in the room with the others feel like play.  This semester though, it is clear that his teammates’ personalities and senses of humor are less in line with his.  His default jokes don’t seem to get the fully desires responses, and his relationship to others therefore reaches a limit of “on-the-same-brainwave”-ness.

Solutions?  I don’t know here.  This seems more like a fundamental limit to a team dynamic.  If you can’t joke together in your most natural and preferred ways, it’s very difficult to change your sense of humor in the near future.

Senses of humor are distinctive for everyone, and seem quite important for a team to be able to enjoy themselves while together, especially under stressful circumstances.  If you are looking for a team to have a stellar team dynamic that will hopefully translate to product quality, having similar senses of humor probably helps a lot.

Research Materials

So I was looking at some of my classmates’ blogs about their own research topics this semester and someone did something I really liked:  They talked about the author of the book they were researching.  I think it’s wonderful to be able to know the context of the material one is looking at, especially when it comes to the background of writers.  So here’s a bit about the authors of my two books:

“The Game Producer’s Handbook” was written by Dan Irish.  Dan is currently the CEO of Threewave Software, Inc. and has worked most notably on as on Executive Producer at Relic on Homeworld and a Producer on the Myst franchise.  He has worked his way up since being an Administrative Assistant at Spectrum Holobyte, and has worked at and even consulted for many companies along the way.

“The Complete Film Production Handbook” was written by Eve Light Honthaner.  Eve was a production coordinator on “Titanic” as well as “Tropic Thunder,” and has worked her way up through many different shows and features.  As is the way with television and film, it’s not clear what she is working on at the moment.  She teaches a summer course at USC and in addition to the Handbook, she has also written a book titled “HOLLYWOOD DRIVE:  What it Takes to Break in, Hang in & Make it in the Entertainment Industry.”

Both of them have had long careers –  Dan’s been at it for approximately 20 years, and Eve for at least 30 – and I’m sure that is way their books are both so well-received.

Pre-Evaluation

Something that’s also important is to reflect on what I already know and what my understanding of a topic is before I begin to learn more about it.  In the end, I can look back and see what I did or didn’t learn – what thoughts changed and which stayed the same.

What do I know about producing in gaming versus in film then?

I have been under the impression that there are a decent number of technical differences between the two:

Producing in films is a longer established discipline and because of that, the responsibilities can be very delineated.

Producing in gaming on the other hand must adapt to changing teams and projects so the responsibilities can vary greatly.

I have felt that producers in film therefore spend a lot more time on administrative schedules and forms while producers in gaming can have more creative control.  I suspect that these impressions may be biased by my having heard a lot more about large film production companies and being more familiar with people in smaller game companies; moreover, I may find that organizational hierarchies are just different between games and film companies.  These are all factors that I plan to ameliorate as I gather more information for the purpose of this independent study.

To What Point and Purpose?

So I think the first thing I ought to explain to everyone is why I am looking at this topic and what I hope to gain from studying it this for a semester.  These reasons will underlie the types of information I will focus on during my research and in my blog posts, and it is better that they are clear to me and the reader.

At a practical level, I am investigating career possibilities and determining which industry excites me more.  As I approach graduation at the end of this semester, this is just something that I can’t remove from my mind.

However, on a fundamental level, I am trying to answer the question of “What is Producing?”  Producing is by its essence just vague enough for there not to be a satisfactory answer to such a direct question.  It is like being lost in the wilderness without a compass.  The question doesn’t give you anything to latch on to; it has taken a complex experience and boiled it down to a three-word question, but how could you answer it with just as few?  You might latch on to an arbitrary direction, the first thought that crosses your mind, but it’s hard to justify that direction meaningfully.

What I hope to do with my specific topic, then, is to find a moving body of water to follow.   I can’t know that I’ll end up where I want, but there’s very likely civilization along the way.  Moreover, this stream/river will give me a point of reference to understand the forest around me, how the valley was carved, and where life gathers.  It’s easier to talk about producing in a specific industry than just producing in general, and specificity will get me farther along.  More so, having two things to compare/contrast means that I will have a tangible list of similarities and differences by which to describe the key parts of producing.

Overall, I am trying to answer a very hard question for myself – “what is producing” -, and I’m trying to attack that question by using a different one “what is producing in gaming versus in film” find out.  If this other question proves to be helpful or just as difficult awaits to be seen.

Producers in Entertainment Technology

In the next 15 weeks, I will be investigating producers in entertainment technology.  In particular, I am interested in the industries of film and gaming.  There are many other areas of entertainment technology such as theme parks, location-based entertainment, et cetera, but I figured I’d start small.

I will be updating this blog with things I’ve learned from reading both “The Game Producer’s Handbook” by Dan Irish as well as “The Complete Film Production Handbook” by Eve Light Honthaner.

Moreover, I’ll be looking to interview producers at various positions in these industries, either alumni of the ETC or friends of friends.