Humans are not very good at estimating. We think a task will take 10 minutes and find that it’s taken us 40. This goes double for big projects that have many moving pieces. They also ways take longer than you think. The comic Isaiah and I are working on has taken about 10x longer than we expected. We’re committed to finishing it but we know that we’re going to have to change our process for the next project.
Estimating is hard, budgeting is easier. Instead of trying to figure out how long this project will take figure out how long you want it to last. Or even better what’s the maximum time you could bare. When you’re working on a personal project you have infinite time, as much as you need. The constraints are up to you. Figure out the time box that you want to put this project in. Is it a year, 6 months, 40 days. Then commit to that time and fit the project to the time box.
I was reading this post by Derek Sivers That’s version ∞. First launch version 0.1. I was thinking about software development, but I think these concepts can apply to most projects. It’s about how many business plans are too complex they focus on every little feature they want to have.
“I have to say, “OK. You know software version numbers? Mac OS version 10.4? 10.5? What you just described is version infinity. That’s everything it will ever do in the future. First focus on launching version 0.1.”’
We need to start with the first version, the simplest, stripped down version. Too many projects get bogged down in the details of what they want to become.
“What’s the one crucial part of that giant plan? What’s the one killer feature that nobody else is doing? Get it launched with just that. Then add the rest later.”
If you think back to when you were a student and studying animation. You wanted to be good at everything. When we were making our thesis films we tried to make everything as good as it can be. Everyone wants a film that has a good story, great animation, cool designs and beautiful art direction. As animators we’re obsessed with craft.
When starting out we can’t make everything perfect. We have to make choices about what where to cut corners. What’s often more important is where your strengths are, what you can uniquely bring to the project.
“The book “Good to Great” studied hundreds of companies that started out as good, then at some point in their history became great.
They found that all of these companies had the “Hedgehog Concept.” They focused on the one thing they do best, and let go of the rest.”
If you have a complex story idea, or series pitch, break it down into something simple. Into the shortfilm or storybook version. Figure out what’s important or cool about your big ideas and figure out a way to highlight those. What you focus on will be what makes your work special amongst the other work that’s out there.
Every once in awhile I get an interesting idea for an experiment. Since I don’t have the time to try it out I thought I would share them and see if anyone gets inspired.
This method was based on the ideas from the book the 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss. One of the ideas from that book is that outsourcing and delegation are available to many more people than ever before. Here’s the rough sketch of how this could work for say a short film. Let’s say you have a cool idea for a short film. But you don’t have a lot of time, but you have a little bit of money. Using sites like Freelancer.com or something similar you should be able to post a job and find talented animators, inbetweeners, or audio engineers from around the world. So spend a few weeks doing your end of the work. Make a good animatic or other preproduction. You can hire a bunch of freelancers to help make a short film in probably a very short amount of time.
The reason most people won’t do this is this isn’t what they signed up for. They want to make animation. We also have a low opinion of their own value. We will always pick the person who will work the cheapest, and most of the time that’s us. There is a sticky question about how the same work in different locations is a different rate. If you feel strongly about this, this method isn’t for you. Not that this isn’t an important topic.
This process is by no means easy. It requires different skills. You need to figure out how to organize freelancers. You’re work needs to be clear, and expectations have to be laid out. Communication will be very important. And things will likely go wrong. You’ll find a freelancer who isn’t able to get the work done. Or they misrepresented what they were capable of.
Here it is anyway. It’s an interesting experiment for anyone who wants to make something.
We are makers. We like to build things, tell stories, and draw pictures. To many of us the idea of selling the thing is foreign. As soon as we’re done the project we move onto the next thing. The problem with this is that someone needs to sell your show. Imagine that your past self is a good friend who’s made something incredible. When your friends make something it’s easy to talk about. We want to help them and share their work. We know how hard they worked. Be kind to your past self who did all that hard work.
My girlfriend and I go to Starbucks a lot, they make the best decaf coffee either of us have ever had. The joke about Starbucks is that they’re all the same, consistent, but there are still good ones and bad ones. Ones you have brewed decaf and the ones that don’t. Sometimes you get out of a Starbucks and you’re like, “That was a BAD Starbucks.” I made the connection that the difference between a good Starbucks and a bad one often comes down to management and organization. At a good one you might have one person take your order and getting brewed coffee, another person will ring you up, and a barista making the espresso drinks. Everyone has their place. In the Starbucks we were just in, we had one person listen to my girlfriend’s order then run off to get food out of the oven, another person then took her order again, finally, the first person comes back to take my order and moments later they’re the one making our drinks. They were so exhausted they couldn’t get out the five-word name of my girlfriend’s drink (which is fair) but ended our interaction with an irritated “whatever it’s called”.
Just about everyone would like to be more organized. Artists have a tricky relationship with organization. You want to be creative and free. When things feel to constrictive it isn’t fun anymore. When you don’t organize you don’t get things done. Projects stretch into the distance, you get bored, or keep on changing the scope. We want to produce the best work we can, and make it all the way to the finish line. Judd Apatow, in an interview with Brian Koppelman, talks how he gets the most out of his staff.
“…you have to be very clear with your staff what the process is going to be…And then if everyone knows that then you lose the emotional aspect, which is, “I’m so mad at Judd for screwing with my script.” There is a respect to the writer, ‘you’re going to get a lot of runs at this. We’re going to start it really early, we’re not going to assign you a script we going to shoot three weeks later. I’m going to do it months in advance.”
What Judd underscores here is that being clear about the process helps everyone be on the same page. You might think that everyone knows the process but you’d be surprised. You might think you know the process for whatever you are doing, putting it in writing will make it much more clear to you. You’ll start to see the gaps, the bottlenecks, where you deal with unknowns. Management starts with understanding the important thing to be doing. In creative work understanding the process means understanding how many iterations you’ll need before a story is good enough, or a design is refined.
That brings me back to the Starbucks analogy. You want to be the Starbucks that’s orderly, where each person has their job. Those are my favourite ones to go to, not just for the organization but the friendliness of the people that work there because the flow keeps them from getting overwhelmed. There’s a process and the process actually helps us make the best work. There are times that when everything is down to the wire you get the best ideas. There’s a creative energy that can be very enticing. Animation takes so long that consistency is more useful. Putting a little time early on, set up the process, and it will give you the freedom to be more creative. You will also get more done and finish more projects. Being productive is a benefit in itself.
There are better artists than me, and I wish I were better at writing. I know I’m not the hardest working or most organized. I worry about these things and it can paralyze me. I get the creeping doubt; do I have what it takes to make meaningful work? Do you have that special something, the secret sauce, that makes great work stand out from everything else?
What I turn to is that great work doesn’t come from nowhere. Great artists aren’t born with anything special. I read and listen to a lot of stuff about the creative process. Probably a bit too much. I can tell you there are no secrets, almost everyone is the same. Everyone starts out making bad work, then they get better and start making good work. The lesson is that no one waits. You have to move forward and create things now. It’s worth more to finish something imperfect that to never get started.
You probably draw better than most people, and you definitely draw good enough to start making stuff now. You might not be the best writer, but you’re probably good enough for now. What’s important is that you can learn. You will develop those skills best by making finishing things. Making finished things takes patience and resilience. Become relentless in your drive to finish new projects. You will have to make work that falls short of your vision, this will hone your voice. Take what you learn from each project and apply it to the next one, and keep going. You will be faced with doubt and you will have to remind yourself it doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to get done.
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Last week I met up with friend after work. We talked about comics and side projects. Trying to make things successful. The conversation moved toward motivation. It’s good to talk about motivation, because I’m feeling tapped out.
Isaiah has been out of town for CTN. I’ve been working on our comic on my own. Last week was busy with other engagements, this week was tough at work. This is a good week to talk about what motivates you.
Here are the simple tips for motivation for your side project.
Make Time for It: Negotiate reasonable hours at work. Losing sleep is not sustainable in my opinion.
Create Social Accountability: The most effective incentives are negative incentives. I have had success because I feel like I’m going to let someone down if I don’t do my piece. Share your work, find a group of friends. Better yet make a betting pool.
Just do One small thing: The hard part is getting to the desk. Give yourself one small thing to do and quit. Making a little progress is better than none. After one little thing, maybe a little more won’t hurt as much.
These are the things that might get you back in the chair. Motivation is also what excites you about the project. Watch this video with Dan Pink. He talks about the factors that affect motivation. He knows a lot more about motivation than I do. The factors are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
Autonomy — In control of what you’re doing — change your schedule, maybe your feel to beholden to what past you planned.
Mastery — Work on your craft — spend some time learning about writing, drawing, or animating, do some studies, you may be backed up because you’re at the limit of your ability.
Purpose — Why are you making what you’re making? What do you want to get out of it? We desire to feel like we’re part of something bigger.
Side projects run on motivation. Figure out what works for you. If something is really painful that might be a good sign. Ask yourself if you really want to work on this. It only gets harder. Pick something that you believe in.
All the best
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This post is a warning, keep your distance from the passion project.
You might be thinking, passion project aren’t that bad. Isn’t this what its all about finding a project that fuels your desire to make something great. Passion is fine, and it will help you. Passion alone is not enough to make your project successful. There’s a dark side to your passion project. Passion will blind you from making the best project you can make.
Once you’re tied up in your project it begins to consume you. Takes you over. Two years ago Isaiah and i started our first comic. We developed the story, we did research and world building. We didn’t know that we would be working on the same comic for almost two years. We kept on reworking it refining it. Half way through we completely restarted the first episode. We also kept it to ourselves. I barely even explained the story to my girlfriend. We had big plans. We would strategize and fantasize about the comic. It was all consuming. When finally after nearly two years of development and work we were ready for people to read it. The first time my girlfriend read it wad when we had finished. The response was tepid. Still we were blind. We thought could rework the dialogue, and fix it.
It wasn’t till I met with a professor for coffee that I realised what we had done. I talked to him about making indie animation. His suggestion was simple, make a series of short 30 second cartoons. Short enough that you can make them in your free time. Then release them consistently for 10 years and you’ll have business. Solid advice. His next line was what hit home. He said you don’t want to choose something too big that you’ll work for a year without releasing it.
We had been working on our comic for two years That night I talked to my my girlfriend, Ali. I asked her about the comic. She went into it. Confirmed all my fears. We had waited too long. We had gotten in our heads and made something for nobody. It didn’t even work as a solid short story. I remember groaning on the bed feeling like I had wasted two years. Worse yet I had to tell Isaiah that he had also wasted two years.
The next day I called Isaiah. We talked about the comic and I let him know what had happened. We agreed that the it was better to start over. Start from scratch. We were too close to this project and we needed to cut our losses.
So my word of warning. Passion projects are dangerous beasts. Take them on at your own risk.
Here are three strategies to test your project and not make the mistakes we did.
Debate about your project/Pro and Con list
This is fun, take the opposite side and try and argue why your idea is a bad idea. Figure out why its derivative, how it’s too niche, why its unaccessible, or too complex. Make it fun and light hearted. In proper debate figure out why it’s good too. If after this exercise you still come back to the idea, that’s a good sign. The good shit sticks.
Burn out the project
This is effective if a new idea comes up that distracts from other projects. (This happens to me all the time) Take a week and rush through developing and writing the project. Every project has a point where it stops being fun and just becomes a lot of work. Rush through the fun stuff like world building, design, writing funny scenes. Trust me after a week of fast paced work the fire will die down. It’ll be easy to get back to your other work.
Start Sharing it
The most potent way to test a project is to get it in front of an audience. Then it gets out of your head and into the world. You start caring less about what it matters to you and how it matters to them. It’ll give you urgency. Or no one will notice. That’s fine too. That means you can retool and keep going. Figure out how to make something that connects.
We all want to create stuff that matters. Most of the time we have to get out of our own way. Just show up and release the work.
All the best
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For the past few months I’ve been freezing up. I’ve been sitting in front of my computer sweating about what to write for this newsletter. I think to myself, “What am I doing? I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to talk about, where to start. Who am I to give these people advice!”. I feel so much pressure to start off on the right foot. To share something instantly relatable and useful.
Then today I realized that I’ve fallen into the trap that so many personal projects fall into. I’ve psyched myself out. I’ve told myself that I have to make something perfect. When I know that it’s enough just to start.
When we start a creative project. We create pressure around the project. I can easily waste time planning and preparing and in the end never make something worth sharing. I’ve made countless comics that never got off the ground. Stories that never got fleshed out. There are 117 notes in my Evernote notebook for blogposts (I also have a giant pile of sketchbooks filled with drawings waiting to be posted). I have all this material. But I’m obsessed by trying to improve and perfect it all.
At the start the pressure is imaginary. It get’s in the way and it makes us hide. We freeze up and figure out it’s safer to just not say anything. Or we toil away in secret. Secrets rarely help anyone, especially those keeping them. There’s no real pressure to live up to, just the pressure we create.
Sometimes the work isn’t ready. You don’t want to jump the gun and release something prematurely. We all want to develop our skills, and create great work. I think the sad truth is, is that releasing art is always vulnerable. It’s always easier to keep working than to share. For 2 years my writing partner Isaiah and I worked on a comic project. When we were finally ready to share it with close friends and family, we only got a tepid response. In the end we abandoned the project. There were flaws in the concept that we couldn’t ignore. So we started again. This time trying hard to make something and get feedback often.
I know a lot of people feel stuck. They don’t know where to start. I sure didn’t. What’s changed is that starting isn’t the hard part anymore. It’s just the beginning. All the pressure, all the nerves, it’s just stage fright. I don’t know if this will be relatable or helpful. It’s not really the point. I’m writing this to get started.
All the best Luke
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