‘Advice I’ve Found Useful’ – 2019 Edition

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Here’s some unsanctioned life / animation industry advice I’ve found useful – some of it I’ve learned from others, some of it I’ve learned through experience. Maybe it’s self-evident, maybe it’s noise:

  • If you’re serious about your job, don’t use pirated software. A lot of people (including myself) started out using pirated Adobe software, but after earning from it, I bought Photoshop CS3 when I could afford it, and didn’t feel guilty charging clients for work as I was LEGIT BREH YO. Now all my stuff’s legal (including music), and the good digital juju has helped. Pirated software leads to bad digital juju. You don’t want that bad juju. It’ll get you when you least want it.
  • Don’t do big overhauls on earlier 2D animation, otherwise you’ll never finish. As you work on your project, your later stuff with invariably look better than the earlier stuff. Leave it be (ok, maybe tweak a bit) but rather move on to the next project instead of getting caught up in an endless loop or redoing. Keep moving.
  • The myth of ‘Working With Nice People’. This mantra makes sense, I’ve heard it before and I used to say it all the time, until I worked with people that were very nice and proficient in some areas but clueless in other areas which related to the project. It was difficult, and sometimes proficiency is more important than politeness. If someone can’t do the job, doesn’t matter how nice they are. Think carefully about partnerships. (Bonus if the person is both very nice and very able at that particular job, makes working life hecka easier.)
  • Integrity of a project – it’s not nice when the integrity of a project is pitted against the integrity of colleagues, and a person is constantly being asked to choose between the two. Might need to choose between your project, or your friends / colleagues.
  • Forget about the mantras ‘story is king’ and ‘character-driven stories’ if they don’t mean anything to you yet, they often obscure the thing you’re trying to get to, or you might be doing it naturally anyway.
  • Network Partner – they’re not someone you’re trying to trick, or to ‘get one past the goalie’. Gone are the days of trying to get subversive or dirty stuff into a kids show and thinking it’s ‘cool’. You’re making a kids show for a particular audience – don’t try to lowball a network, they’re paying you good money to produce a quality product.  We can make entertaining content for kids that is fun in its own right, removing subversive stuff doesn’t make it feel stale or clinical, it can still be hecka fun, but really – keeping the intended audience strongly in mind is a win. I try imagine watching a show I’m making with my imaginary kid, and if I’d be comfortable watching the show. Pushing the envelope in lewdness / rudeness isn’t cool anymore. Pushing the envelope in other ways, like character or story, is much cooler, and fun for both kids and adults. Lewd stuff is easy, stale and boring.
  • Usually, quality is the best business plan – just keep making cool things. You’re only as good as your last work / project. Either it’s in an upward trajectory, plateauing, or downward trajectory, and ‘get rich quick’ things usually don’t work.
  • A good script writer and producer are worth their weight in gold. Generally, script writing in animation seem to be one of the areas we skimp over in South Africa. There are, of course, excellent individuals that excel in the field, and they deserve hero’s praise. When script is neglected and not working, good animation is almost never is enough to cover it up. Don’t skimp on script – it’ll show like a bad stain later on. A good producer can be the glue to hold a project together, do numerous things behind the scenes that you might not even be aware of to get the project finished, and save you headaches – not give you more headaches. If they are good at what they do, they can make a project 100x easier.
  • Don’t underestimate anyone. Career trajectory can happen super fast in South Africa, someone can very quickly go from ‘nothing’ to advancing particularly fast, especially if they have just a modicum of self-motivation. These people are to be celebrated and supported. Don’t keep anyone down – why would you wish that anyway? Let their skills and talent rise to the top, and try and give people opportunities to do what they like to do. Celebrate what people are good at and support them. There’s a wealth of new talent coming through, and luckily (at least in South Africa) it seems the cream rises to the top one way or another.
  • It’s easy to be a buzzkill for projects. Don’t do that. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met that have told me what I’m trying to do is impossible, and then I do it anyway. It only reflects badly on the person who is self-limited that they try and stop others from succeeding.
  • Don’t edit while you’re creating. Sometimes it helps to just lay down a bunch of stuff without getting too precious about it just yet. Just lay it all out and you can start polishing once you’ve had a chance to see the jumble you’re working with. Sometimes a golden thread starts emerging and the path is clear. Get ahead before retracing your steps, otherwise a person might always be in this tight spot of editing what they’ve just created, doesn’t give them much to work with. They might be editing out good stuff too that’s already working. Keep going forward for a while before looking back, you’ll likely thank yourself later.  The creative process can seem messy, but don’t judge yourself – it sometimes be like that fam.
  • Sometimes you do actually know – everyone likes the agreeable person but if you’ve made pitfalls before and someone else higher ranked wants to make an important pitfall that experience tells you is wrong, there’s always a tension of wanting to be surprised (maybe it’ll work out this time even though I think there’s a better solution), and wanting to avoid the pitfall. It’s frustrating being steered into bad waters when you know it’s the wrong move but are being kept under the thumb of company protocol that’s using tired and useless rhetoric. I’ve learned that if I’ve clearly voiced my concerns and still no-one listens, it might be better to walk away. When that spider-sense is going crazy, it’s really worth listening. In one situation I could clearly see the pitfalls, pointed them out, they were ignored, we all suffered, was told patronisingly ‘animation is hard, we’ll learn from these lessons and do better next time.’ Kind of agonising.
  • There’s opportunity cost of going into something that you know is a dead horse – you could be doing other cool stuff that has a better chance at working out, and time is incredibly valuable.
  • With that said, I always try to be prepared to be surprised. We all have blind spots, myself included. If someone has a better way of doing things, or has a strong hunch, or is more skilled, that’s of huge value. Many people are excellent at what they do, many of them far better than what I can do, and I can trust them to do their thing because they always ‘plus up’ a project better than I can. These are the people I like to work with. Instead of making things needlessly complicated or worse, they’re making it better. What an absolute pleasure. Keep working with those people.
  • Every job is up to you how awesome or boring you make it. The job itself is a blank canvas – you can make it interesting, learn new stuff, give it your best. It’s the best way to advance career if you’re a freelancer, each job leads in to the next, if you’re doing a good job on each gig things naturally open up. Each job is the meat of what you’re doing. It’s easy to think ‘ugh, this job’ but really, that’s self-limitation. The job could be turned into one of the most inspiring and fresh gigs you’ve ever done.
  • Flow like water around setbacks. You can never blame a situation or audience or anyone for being unsuccessful. There will always be setbacks – whether they’re internal or external. There’s always a way. Where there’s resistance from one gatekeeper, another way invariably presents itself – almost always the case.
  • There’ll usually be tensions within a project – sometimes the forces of financial, creative, self-expression, client happiness, expectation, colleagues etc. all seem to be pulling against each other. When that tension can be held without things falling apart, the result is often magic. Try hold the tension and get on with the job.
  • If a client trusts you to do your own thing, that’s a rare thing; do the best damn job you can. A brief that says ‘we like what you do, get creative’ is like manna from heaven. Do not abuse this trust; it’s both a test and an opportunity to turn on the inner ‘genius’ (that we all have). Such a job can add energy to everyday life and invigorate, instead of depleting it. If you’re being given free reign, someone’s essentially paying you to make an advert for your next job, so make it count.
  • If you don’t back yourself or your project, it’s very difficult for someone else to believe in you or your project.
  • Finances. It’s one thing creatives rarely talk about, because the focus generally is on the creative (and also NDAs about not discussing money). As a result, we creatives are sometimes lacking in financial education. After listening to a bunch of audio books, if there’s one piece of advice I can pass on: pay yourself first before you pay any bills / sundries etc… by putting away at least 15% of everything you earn into a separate account (I use a 32-day notice account). That money is for you and you alone, it’s ‘money to clink’ and not to be spent on anything, but you’ll see how quickly it grows. Money attracts money. Remember – don’t touch that loot. Just keep adding to it.
  • We don’t live in the time of kings and queens, the days of the ‘kingmaker’ is over. Don’t overly place your trust in anyone that says they’ll ‘recommend you’ or ‘not recommend you’ for xyz job to try get you under their thumb. You don’t want to give anyone the power to squander your future.
  • Be grateful to anyone that helped you get where you are and was kind enough to take a chance on you, but no single person will make or break your career – they may give you opportunities, but you make your own long-term success on your own steam.
  • Show me the soul. A project with no soul – even if its budget is in the millions – is generally no good long-term. A project with no budget and soul usually trumps it. This is a debatable point, as soul might be able to be manufactured, even insincerely, though it might still be effective. Point being – if nobody is invested in a project, it’s likely to fall into the pit of forgotten things.
  • Good to understand the methods and creative processes and ‘rules’ (they’re not rules) for making something, but don’t feel beholden to them. Sometimes you know pieces 4,5 and 6 before you know 1,2 and 3. That’s ok. Work from there. As Pixar says ‘protect your ugly babies’ as they might grow up to be beautiful adults, and it’s  often just a matter of spending time and energy on a particular project. I believe almost anything can work if you give it enough TLC. It’s good to get an outside eye for perspective, but not all advice is equal.
  • If you don’t know something, that’s fine. There’s probably someone who does know, and can suggest a better way. I try and be honest when I’m not sure of the right path, and almost always someone else is stronger at that moment and takes the lead. This is the benefit of working in teams – when it works well, it’s amazing.
  • If someone gives you a boilerplate contract, they sometimes don’t even know what the legalese means if you ask questions about it. If anything, it can irritate the person handing out the contract if you ask ‘what does this mean?’ My feeling is – if you expect me to sign something and you don’t even understand it, what’s the point? Sometimes I have no qualms about going over things in-depth, other times if I feel the work relationship is one where a lot of trust is coming from both sides and if the contract doesn’t look too nebulous, it’s generally good to go. I haven’t been badly burned in the past.
  • Theory is no substitute for ‘doing’ and creative intuition. It can help to know the rules, but a paint-by-numbers approach isn’t likely to yield anything super fantastic. Your creative intuition already knows the best way, so don’t let theory get in the way. If anything, knowing ‘the rules’ or the way people have done things in the past can help to know how to ‘break them properly’.
  • Sometimes it’s riskier to play it too dumb and safe than to take a fresh creative approach.
  • When someone pulls the plug on a project (it happens) you keep going. People can promise things that fall through, things can seem unfair, but you just keep going.
  • You can never blame the audience. The audience isn’t going to drastically change their paradigm to accommodate your animated project. You can’t say “It’s because nobody gets it.” It’s an entitled approach that won’t go far. Take responsibility for your output, definitely don’t blame the audience – the audience is perfect; they’re perfect experts in viewing. They will be the final arbiter.
  • ‘Person who chases two rabbits catches neither.’ You have a certain amount of creativity per day. Be wary of spreading yourself too thin as all projects might suffer as a result. I go for sustainability and can’t pull all-nighters like I used to. I usually try passing on short intense projects if I can rather get work that’s a couple months in length, and hopefully I can afford to work on only job – eat and breathe it, really get into it. Otherwise, I’m burning the candles at both ends and it’s not sustainable. All-nighters usually end up with major exhaustion, irritability and suffering relationships.
  • Clients are not enemies. They also want a good result. Help each other find a way to get there.
  • Putting the health and sanity of employees above the project is a good idea, and will ultimately benefit the project.
  • Keep your side of the road clean even if your neighbour across the road is making his side messy. Be responsible to you and mind your own business.
Well, that’s it. Thanks for reading. In a somewhat related post, here’s ‘Bru & Boegie’s Guide to Pitching to an Animated Show to a Network‘ I put up in 2017.

3 Responses to ‘Advice I’ve Found Useful’ – 2019 Edition

  1. Susan January 8, 2019 at 4:11 pm #

    Thanks very excellent reading

  2. Savyra Meyer-Lippold January 8, 2019 at 5:05 pm #

    Yes, brilliant. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Mike.

  3. Wayne January 11, 2019 at 5:42 am #

    Amen. 😄