Monday, 14 April 2014

Steve Burch Reveals the Mysteries of Producing Animation

Animation Producer Steve Burch
Animation Producer Steve Burch visited Bucks recently to talk to our students about the business of producing animation. It was an excellent talk, well structured and clear, and offered an insight into the challenges of successfully bidding on, winning - and delivering - freelance animation jobs.

Many universities talk about employability; here at Bucks we are trying to deliver on that promise by preparing our students not just to be employees but also entrepreneurs, working from home and in small groups on their own projects, and perhaps - who knows - even building the next big animation studio in the UK.

After all, Blue Zoo was founded by a group of animation graduates fresh from university - why shouldn't our students do the same?

Steve Burch and Jack Strood
Steve started off by talking about the business of getting hired as digital artist or animator. He posed the question: Who or what do producers and directors like to hire?  To answer that question, he focused on three areas:
  1. Skill/Talent
  2. Speed
  3. Helpfulness, being easy to work with
Ideally he said, a graduate should have all three of these qualities, and someone who does have all three will not find themselves out of work for long. At a push, you can have two qualities out of the three. But one out of three is not enough - you simply won't get hired.

Animation production - just like a football team?
To get into the subject of how a film production, even a small one, works, Steve asked this question: How does a Football team work?

In particular, who are the players? And what do they all do? After all, on a football team, everyone does their own job. A goalkeeper does not try to score goals, nor does a striker try to defend goal. No one player tries to do everything. A production works in a similar way - everyone on the team has their own job that they do.

What do producers have to deal with?
Steve then set the first exercise for us to deal with: What are the key issues that Producers must deal with? 

He divided the students into two groups, in front of the white board, and asked them to jot down ideas on the board. Each group came up with a list of what they thought the key issues might be. He then went through the lists with each group, emphasising along the way that there are no right or wrong answers - these are simply lists of things to think about and consider. Every production is different and unique.

Some of the issues that the students identified were:
  • who to hire?
  • how much will the job cost?
  • Where will the work be done?
  • What are the rights issues?
  • What hardware will be needed?
  • What software licenses will be needed?

The second exercise Steve posed the students was to come up with a new list: What Questions do you ask the client?
What Questions do you ask the client?
Again, he divided the students into two groups, in front of the white board, jotting down ideas on the board.

Among the questions that the students came up with were these:
  • What/who is the film for? Who is the audience?
  • How much time do we have? 
  • How much money is there - what is the budget?
  • How long should it be?
  • Who will be making the decisions?
  • What style is it in? Is it 2D or 3D animation? Does the client understand the difference?
  • Is it for the web? Is it a movie? TV? 
  • What resolution will it be? What is the final output?
The third exercise was the toughest; this one focused on the schedule and the budget

The brief he gave each group was as follows:
The students were to take notes and individually work out the cost of producing some animation over the summer holidays. If they did not themselves have the skills for a particular job, they would have to hire someone else. The rate for talent was assumed to be around £500 per day. So…an artists’ day rate at this level is budgeted at £100 per day.

What do the students need to think about, to produce a short film? Some of the items on the list are:
  • Design
  • Storyboards
  • Modeling
  • Texturing
  • Animation
  • Rental of a studio, gas and electric. (Assume utilities at £500 per week)
  • Some cash for publicity
  • A profit margin. 10%? 20%? 30%? What should a profit margin be?
The details of the job were as follows:
  1. 2 x human characters
  2. 1 x alien four-legged character to move like a lizard or a dog
  3. A desert landscape with rocks
  4. 20 x still images
  5. 2 x 2 second cycles for each character
  6. facial rigging/animation required
Once again, Steve divided the students into teams, this time four instead of two. He divided the white boards into four, so each group had their own patch to work out their budget.

Each group had to come up with a schedule, and work out a budget, ie the total cost of the job. Again, there is no right answer to the question: how much will the job cost?  Bid too high, and you won't get the job. Bid too low, and you may not be able to deliver. This is the dilemma that faces freelancers and small businesses (and even large businesses) every day of the week.

The answers that our students came up with differed wildly, from very low to very high. But the important thing that everyone took away from the session was an understanding of the process of estimating the cost of a production and bidding on it. After all, every job has to begin with an estimate of cost before the creative work can begin.


(Editor's Note: For more on finding work in the animation industry, see our post on finding your first job. Also, see what studios look for in a great demo reel, hear what London's Blue Zoo has to say about finding work, and take a look at this video about demo reels by Sony Pictures Animation. You can also watch Alex's ten minute video on creating a great reel, and read this post on the perfect demo reel. Also, check out our guide to animation careers here, and also take a look at this map of digital studios - a great place to start your search for work in the business. Learn the nuts and bolts of freelance life by reading our post on starting your own animation business,  read our freelancer's survival guide, and see our guide to invoicing clients. For an insight into managing your taxes as a freelancer, see this post, and read our guide to putting together a great CV. Also see our rules for success when dealing with clients, and find out what goes into a portfolio career.)

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