I have never liked the phrase ‘expect the unexpected’. It’s probably because I have made enough TV shows to know just how dangerous the unexpected can be. The unexpected can cost you a good scene. It can cost you an episode. It can cost you weeks and lots and lots of money. Unexpected frightens me. I don’t like it.
So rather than expecting the unexpected, I prefer to turn the unexpected into the expected and then plan for it. I guess that makes my version of this expression: ‘plan for the expected’. I realise that doesn’t sound anywhere near as fun or mysterious but I can guarantee you that it is better.
Step 1: find out what might be unexpected so it’s now expected. Some of this comes from experience, doing it over and over until you refine your methods. Some of it comes from the experience of others, learning from the stories, the test cases, especially the mistakes. If someone gives you a warning, heed it. A lot of it, however, comes from nothing more than some creative thinking and common sense. Run the process through your head a few times. Where could it possibly go wrong, assuming that something WILL go wrong?
Write it down so you have a list.
Step 2: plan for it. Look at everywhere that problems can happen (if you’ve done it well, that will cover a LOT of areas) and make a plan for each one. For me, what I call a plan really comes down to three things. The first is prevention. Simply having gone through step 1 will drastically reduce your chances of bad things happening because you’ll be aware enough to prevent most of them. The second part is the Plan B – what happens if it does go wrong? Have your backup plan ready to go.
The last part is one of the most important parts: time it. Have in your head some sense of the repercussions. If you’re on episode 4 and just about to put scenes into animation and Godzilla destroys your building, how long will it take to get a new building and get the animators ready to start again? Contingency should be standard in a budget (sometimes it isn’t) but often missed in a schedule. To make matters worse, if you pop in extra weeks into your schedule, guess what will get cut the moment anyone suggests a squeeze? Yep, those extra weeks. How you handle that is up to you but it does need to be handled and you’re better trying to grab more time. It’s easier to have to explain to someone why something is early than explain why it’s late.
So plan for the expected. There must be a more exciting way to say that…
Some time ago, I was having a conversation in which I put forward that we overthink narrative and that the success of YouTube Let’s Play videos offer narrative in a much simpler and wonderfully spontaneous form. A form that those of us in more constructed media are missing (something I have said here before). I questioned the need for anything resembling traditional narrative at all. The very next day, I wrote a post about the need for very traditional and very constructed narrative ideas – how we need to build on the established structures.
You could be reading this and writing all this in your notebook (it’s okay, I know you don’t do that) and be thinking to yourself, well now I don’t know what to believe! Which is fact here? Traditional narrative or not?
Here’s the thing: when you take in every piece of information you get from someone who has made media, had certain successes or failures, has had a long career or whatever appears to make them qualified, you need to think about how that information applies to YOU. To YOUR work.
The one rule I have found over the years is that any time someone says there is a rule, you need to instead write that down as ‘guideline’ or ‘personal piece of advice according to this person’. There really aren’t facts when it comes to this creative stuff. Yes, there are so many things you can learn and should learn but that won’t mean they are always relevant to your work right now. What works for one project in one particular year won’t necessarily work the same for another project in another year. Actually, you can be pretty sure it won’t, hence my rather obvious prediction that the next big successes will come as a surprise to most people.
Many have gone before you. Many have tried different things, done the research, had failures and often understood why. These are things you should learn. There are tools of the trade that we should all have.
But unfortunately this won’t give us a simple set of instructions to follow. So they shouldn’t be taken that way. When your favourite author or creator says something that you remember, don’t file it away as a rule. Because it’s not. Instead, think of it as a tool to be considered. A resource you have that may or may not be applicable in different situations.
The core thing here is that everything you hear and read, the very reason you’re reading this right now, should really be to get you thinking rather than to stop you thinking. To provide an insight that will help you in your own work and, if we’ve done our job, the insight will more likely come from YOU rather than the words you’re reading right now.
For me, my guideline, my personal piece of advice is: be informed. As much as possible, be informed. And then really consider that information. Think about it. Use it. Or don’t use it but make that a decision rather than just something that happened because you didn’t realise you had tools at your disposal. Let every nugget of information prompt more questions. Your work is your own and you will find your own path.
So traditional narrative or not? Well that actually has a very simple answer: maybe…
A large part of successfully working across a production is about cause and effect and predicting the future. If you are just dealing with things on a day to day basis, you are going to miss what’s heading towards you. You must see what is coming. The difficulty is doing this while also dealing with what any particular day is throwing at you.
Here’s how this happens: you might have a delay in a particular area and now you’re behind in one process. You scramble and maybe you have to find someone else to get what you need that day or maybe that week. That’s your short term and it’s important and it can take a lot of your attention to get that sorted. But that attention is only on the now. Maybe even in the now, it doesn’t seem like all that big a deal – you can handle it. You have got it sorted.
But project to a month down the line. The person you got to fill in has taken a while to grasp the style, their output is just that little slower for the first few weeks and now things are just too tight. Someone else throws a spanner in the works, some other process gets delayed, and that’s all it takes to throw the production into full-on crisis.
That’s just one example – there are so many ways that a small challenge now or, more likely, a build up of small challenges now can lead to a major problem later in the production.
So what do you do? The first thing is to always look at what is coming – what you planned for and what has now changed. Where will the next potential jam occur? What happens when new plans meet old systems? What do you have to do now to minimise the problems that could be coming? Examine your schedule and processes for more information. The next thing is to protect every other part of the process. Because the big problems can come from a build up of little problems, once you have identified one problem, lock down everything else – the more you can avoid any other change in the processes, the better your production will be and the more you can focus on just fixing the issue at hand. It is so often when problems collide that they become a big deal. Do what you can to make sure everyone knows that the parameters in other areas must not change.
The important thing is to make sure things don’t build. Never assume things will sort themselves out. Never put off dealing with a challenge. Tackle it now, lock down and protect everything else and, if you can do that, you’ll never have to deal with an actual crisis.
How long is that going to take? No matter what part of a job you’re doing, this is a very hard question to answer. My old producer will no doubt tell tales of me skirting around an answer for days because I don’t like to commit to something and then miss a deadline. Missing deadlines is not cool. But more often than not you are going to have to pick a figure and stick to it.
When you do, you have to factor in the little things. The parts that, to you, aren’t really the job itself. For example, maybe you’re a background artist and you’ve got a background in progress. You have it roughed out and it’s in good shape and, with the colouring and texturing, you might have another day’s work in it.
But how long will it take to do the housekeeping? Naming the layers? Merging layers or removing the ones that are no longer needed? Copying or uploading the file to where it needs to go? That delivery time? And if you have a single crash and have to wait for it to reopen, even that might push you over that day and now you’re delivering late.
With writing, I find that even digging out yesterday’s notes and trying to catch up with where I was at and get back into that mindset can take up a good chunk of time. It’s not writing time but it needs to be factored in every time. And I can’t deliver once I reach the end of my document. After that comes several passes to catch various problems before it’s even close to being ready to send. All those things are so easy to miss when gauging how long things will take.
But people need to know. They need to know when to expect something because every part of the process in our creative field depends on the previous part of the process.
So when someone asks how long something will take, you’ve got to give it your best guess. Remember to factor in all the little things, things that don’t even seem like part of the job. Give yourself the time to actually deliver.