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.

ETC 4th Semester

Looks like it’s already my fourth and last semester at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center.  This semester I’m out at the ETC’s Silicon Valley campus in Redwood City, CA.  The fun things to talk about this semester will be:

A) Being a Producer on my ETC Project, Bravura, about creating an app that makes people ages 8+ realize that creating music is easy and fun.

B) My mandatory class, Current Issues in Entertainment Technology and Design, in which I will be doing two things:

1) Researching and reflecting on various company visits and guests speakers.

2) Doing an independent study on Producers in film versus Producers in gaming.

C) My elective class, Entrepreneurship in Entertainment Technology, where me and a team of peers will learn the ins/outs about starting our own hypothetical startup company.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Something interesting happened on my project today, which both took me by surprise and completely made sense to me, and that was the coming to light of cross-cultural communication issues on my project team, particularly between the American students and the Chinese students.  It turned out that the Chinese students were not speaking up about things they did not understand during meetings and had to look them up later, thus falling behind during meetings themselves, and this became something that another teammate was very interested in remedying.

On the one hand, I actually completely understand what is happening.  Having spent the past few years overcoming my own upbringing in a Chinese family, I know exactly what the Chinese students are feeling.  Half of it is respect:  Too much respect for someone who knows more than you and the fear of interrupting them.  The other half is ego:  The Chinese have a strong cultural respect for appearances, and just as you want to not interrupt someone else’s time to change, you want to “save your own face;” you don’t want to appear uniformed or embarrass yourself by asking questions about things that everyone else seems to already know.

On the other hand, this phenomenon on my project team took me completely by surprise.  While I know many of the international Chinese students, and sympathize with the awkwardness of adjusting to American culture, I’ve never worked with any of them during my two previous project experiences at the ETC.  And thus, in the context of how I expect a project to go, I didn’t even anticipate this problem.  I guess I had already compartmentalized what I expected out of different contexts.

Ok, so enough about my reaction.  What do I recommend?  For anyone who is dealing with this problem, I will give my personal opinion of what would have helped me when I was on the other side of this cultural divide.  I doubt all Chinese students are feeling exactly the same way that I did, but my conversations so far imply that a good number of them are.

So, when I was a very shy and respectful but also self-conscious culturally Chinese young man, back even recently in undergrad, what would have helped?  Well, the first thing that stopped me from speaking up was feeling inferior to the other person and not wanting to waste their time.  However, I sure talked a lot about ALL of my concerns to friends one-on-one.  Those two factors really helped me open up, and I feel that international students often do the same when I approach them under similar circumstances.  So my first recommendation for helping culturally Chinese students speak up is to approach them one-on-one as a friend.  Now, this isn’t a solution to the speaking up in a group problem, but I’ll admit that even I haven’t completely overcome that myself; that just requires that person to build up a rapport with everyone in the group and that takes time.  That brings me to the second thing, which was the self-consciousness of being afraid of asking a stupid question.  People can say that there are “no stupid questions” but that alone is not going to convince anyone to stop judging their own questions.  My second recommendation for this is actually to let it play itself out.  Being self-conscious for me was my ego’s way of protecting itself in light of all the things that I wasn’t good at, but it was still ego.  Eventually, I realized that not asking questions because my ego was afraid of getting hurt was still hurting me and my productivity and that internal realization is the best catalyst for change.

I guess these recommendations might not seem very helpful because I’m saying to treat the issue with respect and let it sort itself out most of the time, but that’s because that’s how it worked for me.  People don’t change their personality just because an external force is pushing them; if anything that makes them resist more sometimes.  What really causes change is an internal realization / force and that process itself is also very gradual.