Sunday, March 22, 2009

Against Outsourcing

"And 44 percent of the time (there are commercial airline crashes), the two pilots have never flown together before, so they're not comfortable with each other."
-Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

"A palpable energy is released when inspiration and dedication come together in a creative art. The energy is transformative in an individual who is innovative, but it is transcendent when manifested by a group. There are no words for the dynamic thrill of participating in a mutual mosaic of creativity."

— Wynton Marsalis
My father worked for over 60 years as a machinist. His job was to take a blueprint supplied by a client and figure out how to make the machine part using the tools and crew at his disposal. Often, my father had only the vaguest sense of what the piece would be used for; he rarely saw his piece assembled with any other pieces.

The system worked because of the nature of blueprints. I grew up listening to my father talk about the challenges of making certain parts. The allowable tolerances, meaning the amount that the part could deviate from the blueprint without being rejected, was often as small as four ten-thousandths of an inch. As a child, working with a ruler whose closest marks were one thirty-second of an inch apart, I was amazed that anything could be made so exactly.

It works for machine parts; it doesn't work for entertainment.

The theory behind outsourcing is straightforward. If you can buy something for less money than it costs to build yourself, it makes sense to buy it. If a dentist needs a stapler, it's far more cost-effective to buy one than to order raw materials and tools to make a single stapler. Even when a dentist needs a crown for a patient, it's more cost effective to buy the crown from a specialty company than to make it in-house.

Problems arise when entertainment is treated like something that can be built to a blueprint. The relationship between client and supplier is very different than that of collaborators. Both client and supplier need the instructions to be as specific as possible (down to four ten-thousandths of an inch if possible). The client needs this so that the resulting work will fit his or her needs; the supplier needs this as he or she is being paid piece-work, and poor instructions inevitably mean rejects, which cut into profits and threaten the existence of the business.

It's clearly a master-servant relationship. The master has a need; the servant wants to meet that need with as little fuss as possible. While this sounds like a symbiotic relationship, where both parties benefit from each others existence, it often becomes an adversarial relationship. The master doesn't always know what he or she really wants. The servant has to satisfy the master in order to get paid, but has a limit as to how much effort can be expended before taking a loss. The master rarely takes this into consideration, thinking that payment allows for unlimited revisions. The goals of the master and the servant are different and the financial relationship they enter into makes this inevitable.

Collaborators share the same goals. They may disagree as to the particulars or how to reach the goals, but they agree in principle or they would abandon each other as collaborators. What happens in a good collaboration is something called a positive feedback loop. One collaborator does something which presents opportunities for another collaborator to elaborate on. If the elaboration is any good, it often stimulates additional improvements. The feedback between collaborators pushes the idea or product farther than one simply giving directions to the other.

In many cases, animation is now thought of as a service to be outsourced. It requires that pre-production be far more detailed than in the past. Storyboard artists (especially for TV) are being asked to draw tightly and on model, as their work serves as the basis for the creation of the animation. In other words, the boards are thought of as the blueprints. But there is no way that a storyboard can contain as much information as a blueprint, and so inevitably there are mistakes and retakes. More money is spent on pre-production to take advantage of the economics of outsourcing, but due to the nature of entertainment, there are more retakes required to fix the mistakes. More money is being spent up front and at the end in order to justify saving the money in the middle.

Furthermore, this process eliminates the possibility of a positive feedback loop. There's no financial incentive for servants to try and outperform their masters' expectations. It only makes life more difficult when masters are already asking for too much for the money. Masters don't see their servants as collaborators; servants are merely "the help." My father never knew how a part was to be used, so it was impossible for him to suggest design changes that might have made a part work more efficiently.

What outsourcing does in entertainment is to increase costs in certain parts of production and to wall off any supplier innovation from the rest of the production.

You can't put a dollar figure on collaboration, because until it happens, you don't know what will result. Eliminating collaboration is a false efficiency. In entertainment, it may reduce cost, but it also reduces quality. As the marketplace becomes more crowded and as the internet drives the cost of everything towards zero, the cost of entertainment is going to become less important than its quality.


Unknown said...

Outstanding post. Best articulation of this issue I've heard.

David said...

This is a superb essay on the issue , Mark.

The quote from Wynton sets the tone:

"A palpable energy is released when inspiration and dedication come together in a creative art. The energy is transformative in an individual who is innovative, but it is transcendent when manifested by a group. There are no words for the dynamic thrill of participating in a mutual mosaic of creativity."

and you have put into words the raw feelings that I usually end up expressing in sputtering, angry rants instead of the thoughtful, careful way you've expressed it here. (sorry , but this issue really gets me going) .

Brubaker said...

Great post. That's the gist of it.

Joe Murray, creator of "Rocko's Modern Life", wrote about outsourcing in his blog some time back:

Murray writes in his book that, with digital ink and paint now being used, timing mistakes that the overseas studios made can now be corrected without sending it back, by deleting/re-arranging frames. That was the case with "Camp Lazlo", though not with "Rocko", which was painted on cels and filmed.

warren said...

Great articulation of a problem. But the answer...? It's inferred.

Start of a thread, perhaps? I hope so.

Michael Sporn said...

Brilliantly stated piece, Mark. This was all obvious back when H&B started the ink and paint outsourcing to Asia. Oftnetimes, the Asian companies outsource their work to other comapanies, as well, all in the name of profit.

Is there any small correlation to cg mass production when the animator deals only with a skeleton, someone else adds a skin, another adds lighting et al?

Anonymous said...

Terrific, thoughtful essay, Mark. Nothing to add except, "Thanks."

David B. Levy said...

Lots of food for thought here. I can offer a unique perspective because of having worked almost 8 years in a row on Blue's Clues, a completely in-house production.

I saw first hand how a crew, all working under one roof, can collaborate in a way not possible when outsourcing the middle part of a production.

However, the digital (we-can-change-it-any-time -we-want) age also brought with it a lack of discipline in craft and in decision-making.

I found Cartoon Pizza to be very smart in how they produced season one of their first in-house flash series, Pinky Dinky Doo, of which I was an episode director.

Since Cartoon Pizza was used to outsourcing, they understood the importance of careful storyboards and timely decisions. And the digital animation crew working in-house was able to take advantages of collaboration in an efficient atmosphere.

There have been lots of great and important TV animation that has been outsourced successfully. A strong creator's vision is needed at the top for it to work. In an-house crew working on a committee bulls-hit project will not be able to make a miracle happen.

roconnor said...

Interesting Mr. Mayerson, as my father was also a machinist and I enjoyed similar experiences as a child.

I will point out that 56% of airline crashes happen when the crew has worked together...

The economics of outsourcing animation only make sense, in my experience, if you are planning on doing a bad job. If you expect half-assed, uninspired work that needs constant revision. As you've written -unusual investment in pre and post production.

That aside, the true economic difficulty of large productions is overhead. You can budget the salaries of 4 directors and 20 animators and 40 production artists for a year -but the space for them to work and the equipment for them to work on will always topple a budget. That's why Nick Digital could produce 8 years of Blues Clues -Viacom absorbed a large number of costs (keeping the equally huge number of "producers" and merchandising profits aside).

The big companies who can afford it, are the same one's who put the bottom line at the top -and the smaller one's can't bear the load.

Mark Mayerson said...

Michael, I think that animation production is too fragmented, regardless of whether work is outsourced or not. However, I don't think that cgi done in house is any more of a problem than drawn animation. So long as people are in close proximity and can communicate their needs easily, the problems are solved more easily than when any kind of animation is outsourced.

Steve Segal said...

I'll echo what everyone else has said "brilliant". I was fortunate to work at Pixar where they refuse to outsource. There is so much give and take in their creative process. The directors are extremely busy, yet they will always take time to listen to ideas from any source, some of the best gags and story situations came spontaneously from that process. John Lasseter was a student of Walt Disney's process, he loved the cross pollination from different artists and the inspiration that flowed from those exchanges.

I think it is easy to save money by outsourcing if you plan to make an inferior product.

pappy d said...

It seems to me the same business model is at work on this side of the Pacific. Producers have demanded that freelance story artists draw tighter & tighter boards over the years to the point that they are tiny layouts, sometimes with levels diagrammed in the margins. This way they have a fixed price for the "blueprint" & a fixed price for the labor.

The fundamental problem is that we're making entertainment for kids. Owing to intrusive federal child labor laws, the disposible income of American kids is negligible. Their lack of little green ballots means they don't get a 'vote' in the economy. They're lucky to have whatever they get & we're lucky to have the work at all.

It would be wrong to say that kids' TV is a race to the bottom. It's been a slow, steady wearing away of standards. Since "good" & "bad" can't be quantified in the same way as profit & loss, they don't constitute a legal or economic argument. Yet, people being people, no one wants to be accused of contempt for children, but as rational actors in a free-market economy, we certainly do.

There's still plenty of room for growth at the bottom.

Nancy said...

Unfortunately many of these producers do not even regard animators and artists as servants. We are more like interchangeable parts that can be replaced with other parts as needed. That mentality, if it can be called one, is not unique to animation.

Brubaker said...

I don't like that animation production are being sent overseas, but I wouldn't go as far to say that these overseas studios are "low quality". While there are crummy service studios, some such as Rough Draft Studios do a pretty good job.

Saerom, Digital eMation, and, back in the 90s, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, are also pretty good.