Surviving Effectively

For me, I’ve reached the most important pairing of chapters out of “The Game Producer’s Handbook” and “The Complete Film Production Handbook.”  That is “3:  Habits of Highly Effective Producers” from the former and “32: Industry Survival Tips” from the latter.  It seems that one book addresses important traits early on, and the other ends on them; nonetheless, I am very interested in which essential skills are similar or different.

There were six things that were mentioned in both books:

1. Passion – belief and motivation

2. Having a Positive Attitude – being pleasant to be around, having a sense of humor, being a foil to stress and challenge

3. Having a Purpose / a Plan – knowing the goal as well as how to get there (subject to change, but should always exist)

4. Being Persistent – not giving up when others might

5. Being Professional – keeping your personal feelings out of it; having a thick skin to the drama

6. Being Known – making sure that your excellence is perceived by others

Honestly, these are general habits of effective people, which could mean a couple of things:  1. The only overlap between producers across these two industries is on the level of being good people.  2. “Producing” is far more elusive than that.  3. The books are actually written differently enough so that looking for superficial overlap was a silly idea.

In fact, it is clear to me from reading these two chapters that they aren’t exactly written with the same intentions.  “Habits of Highly Effective Producers” from the Game Handbook is very specifically directed at producers while “Industry Survival Tips” from the Film Handbook is more about doing well in the film industry in general.  I would like to explore the differences in separate blog posts following this one so that instead of trying to juggle both these large books at the same time and flipping between them, I can look at each as an individual piece and reflect on them without trying to match them together.

Conversation #2

On January 29, 2013, Shirley Saldamarco, who is a faculty member of the ETC, visited the SV campus.  She teaches the “Fundamentals of Producing” course that I took a year ago, and also has an extensive background in television and video production.  While she was stopped by for two days, I was able to talk to her about some questions in regards to my independent study:

Her definition of producing was “guiding the talents of other people to create the best possible product.”  I liked how this definition describes the actions of a producer as well as the target goal of those actions.

Her most interesting insight she had was about the spectrum of producing from film to television to gaming.  Having been around all of these industries, she said that creative control was one of the biggest differences she had seen:  In television, a producer really influences the vision, while in gaming, it is more production management/administration.

At the film end, though is where things get interesting: In film as opposed to television there is less control for the producer because the director gets the final say.  However, there is more money in film, of course.  Moreover, whereas the credits in television tend to be more straightforward, producing titles in a film can often be assigned for a variety of reasons and can sometimes simplify the variety of roles people had.  As Shirley put it, “you never know who did what on a film unless you were there.”

A specific insight she also had was about her experience with scheduling for programmers.  Programmers can have difficulty estimating how long something will take because of compounding factors but a producer really needs an estimate from them for planning purposes.  So Shirley has come up with a system of asking programmers for the “best case.”  It’s not the most accurate but it’s a great way to help a programmer mentally simplify those compounding factors, which are things that the Producer should be helping to ameliorate anyway.

Shirley’s years of experience have given her some great insights, and I am very glad to have had the chance to speak with her especially on this topic.

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.