Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brad Bird and Management

I've come to the conclusion that the hardest job to do well is management. Managing your career - figuring out which jobs to take, when to leave a studio, whether to relocate - is difficult and made more difficult if you're in a relationship, have children, etc. These are the decisions that keep people up at night.

Managing a staff is also difficult. In the animation business, the people who end up supervising are good at their craft, but what knowledge do they have about keeping people happy and productive while still hitting the deadline and the budget? In every industry there are managers who have lousy people skills or the wrong priorities and end up with cost overruns, shoddy quality and a high staff turnover as a result. Anyone who has ever had a job knows what I'm talking about.

So here's a really interesting interview with Brad Bird, conducted for McKinsey & Company, a corporate consultant that specializes in innovation. Unfortunately, you're going to have to register to read it (Rick May suggests the username and password 142), but the interview is excellent because it asks Bird about things that other interviewers would never think to ask, such as how Pixar stays innovative and how Bird works with his crew and gets things on the screen.
"When I directed The Iron Giant, I inherited a team that was totally broken—a bunch of miserable people who had just gone through a horrific experience on a previous film that had bombed. When the time came for animators to start showing me their work, I got everybody in a room. This was different from what the previous guy had done; he had reviewed the work in private, generated notes, and sent them to the person.

"For my reviews, I got a video projector and had an animator’s scenes projected onto a dry-erase board. I could freeze a frame and take a marker and show where I thought things should be versus where they were. I said, “Look, this is a young team. As individual animators, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but if we can interconnect all our strengths, we are collectively the greatest animator on earth. So I want you guys to speak up and drop your drawers. We’re going to look at your scenes in front of everybody. Everyone will get humiliated and encouraged together. If there is a solution, I want everyone to hear the solution, so everyone adds it to their tool kit. I’m going to take my shot at what I think will improve a scene, but if you see something different, go ahead and disagree. I don’t know all the answers.”

"So I started in: “I think the elbow needs to come up higher here so that we feel the thrust of this action.” “I’m not seeing the thought process on the character here.” “Does anybody disagree? Come on, speak up.” The room was silent because with the previous director, anyone who dared to say anything got their head chopped off.

"For two months, I pushed and analyzed each person’s work in front of everybody. And they didn’t speak up. One day, I did my thing, and one of the guys sighed. I shouted, “What was that?” And he said, “Nothing man, it’s OK.” And I said, “No, you sighed. Clearly, you disagree with something I did there. Show me what you’re thinking. I might not have it right. You might. Show me.” So he came up, and I handed him the dry-erase marker. He erased what I did. Then he did something different and explained why he thought it ought to be that way. I said, “That’s better than what I did. Great.” Everybody saw that he didn’t get his head chopped off. And our learning curve went straight up. By the end of the film, that animation team was much stronger than at the beginning, because we had all learned from each other’s strengths. But it took two months for people to feel safe enough to speak up."

"In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

"Before I got the chance to make films myself, I worked on a number of badly run productions and learned how not to make a film. I saw directors systematically restricting people’s input and ignoring any effort to bring up problems. As a result, people didn’t feel invested in their work, and their productivity went down. As their productivity fell, the number of hours of overtime would increase, and the film became a money pit."

(I want to thank friend and storyboard artist Jim Caswell for pointing me to this interview. One of the ironies of Jim's life is that he works at home, so he doesn't have to deal with the day-to-day nonsense of office life, yet he reads more books about business and management than any other artist I know.)


Anonymous said...

Great read Mark.

For those that don't want to register:

password: 142


Mitchel Kennedy said...

Thanks Mark! That's really great stuff!

rdms said...

That is a great article! Another example of why Brad is such a great director. Thanks Mark and Jim.

Larry Levine said...

Great article!!!

Along with his artistic talent, Brad knows how to turn teamwork into Oscar gold!

Chris Palmer said...

thanks for pointing this out. really is gold.

Floyd Norman said...

Brad Bird nailed it.

In my fifty years in the animation business, one thing has become clear. Companies fail from the top down.

All too often, the crew takes the blame for a failure. Of course, we know who the bozos are.

Nancy said...

Brad simply revived the Disney 'sweatbox' system, where you saw dailies and had them criticized as a group by Walt Disney.
You know why he did this? Because it works. Animators, and any team workers, learn from each other. The criticism is constructive, aimed at improving the movie, not destroying the artist. I believe that poor managers think that artists will ask for more money if they are praised...and so they make the artists' jobs as unpleasant as possible to keep them scared and afraid for their jobs. Exactly the opposite is true, in practice.
Talk is cheap. Occasional praise is gold. Morale improves when the artist feels they are being treated fairly and receive praise for a job well done. This also improves the film.
What is it about this simple cocept that makes it so difficult for some managers to understand?

Anonymous said...

I worked at two different studios during the past three decades that took the 'keep 'em terrified they'll lose their jobs' tack, never offering words of competent, positive reinforcement. Both shops died ugly business deaths.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! That was a very inspiring passage. There really is no better way to operate in a production environment. You need to have a constant flow of creative ideas.

Diego said...

awesome. thanks for the article. and thanks for the registration deets.

Anonymous said...

That was extremely generous of you, Rick May! Thank you so much, and thank you for initiating, Mark!