Producers' Advice for Taming Chaos and Maintaining Momentum
There's a special kind of chaos at the intersection of motion design and post-production. Wildly rewarding at times, the work is also hectic and exhausting, with badass creative often coming at the cost of grueling hours, shifting deadlines and little guidance.
Here, the role of producer becomes vital to success despite rarely being set up to succeed, as those of us who have worn the hat know all too well. We learned to be master shapeshifters in an industry with little-to-no standardization of roles. Trying to keep projects moving, the motion producer is equal parts team leader, master negotiator and even makeshift therapist when tempers flare or hours stretch on.
It's a challenging position made even more challenging in a post-Covid landscape, where many creatives are still working remotely. In the past, motion producers often learned on the job, shadowing those above them. And while not always ideal (especially in small or medium-sized studios), there was at least some training. In a remote environment, what was once shadowing is closer to trial by fire.
And, yet, keeping those skillsets sharp is essential, not only for managing existing projects, but also for leveling up. When motion producers have the tools they need to do their jobs well, studios reap the rewards in the form of increased efficiency, better relationships, smoother processes and happier teams. So how can they arm themselves to thrive in such a climate?
In our 40+ years of combined experience in motion, post and higher education, we have come to identify five best practices that will give producers in this specialized industry an edge, the first of which (believe it or not) involves mixology:
Build your team like you'd build a cocktail.
People, like ingredients, need to blend well, both in terms of what they are made of (or have to offer) and their flavor (or temperament). The cocktail changes depending on the type of project and the resources available. This is about personalities. What you mix depends on what's available and what the client requests. Bartenders know a few things, one being that higher shelf labels are pricier but often worth it; another being that certain flavor combinations work well together and others don't.
Let's take the Aperol spritz, which (according to VinePair) was the top trending cocktail in 2022. Here's the recipe:
- 2 ounces Aperol
- 3 ounces Prosecco
- Club soda to top
- Orange wedge or green olive for garnish (optional)
It works because you've got smooth, sweet Prosecco balancing out the bitters with some club soda that ties everything together. Garnishes can easily be substituted. Yet, if you increase the amount of Aperol, you might drown out the Prosecco or flatten the soda.
Teams are kind of like this. You need to balance them by considering what skillsets are needed, what budget is available AND, importantly, what personalities will be mixed. In production, people often think about skills and budgets. Sure, you need spirits, mixers and garnishes (your various animators, editors, VFX specialists, etc.). You also need to know your shelves. Top-shelf creatives are like top-shelf whiskeys—they cost a lot. If you've got a middle-of-the-road budget, you need to pull bottles from more than one shelf if you plan on using a Pappy Van Winkle-level creative.
However, you can't forget the flavors! You also need to tend to the various personality options out there. Just like having two strong flavors competing with one another can ruin a drink, having two volatile personalities can ruin a team. You want a drink that goes down smooth, not a Molotov.
Getting the balance right for the right price makes for a great afternoon.
To lead your team effectively, take a cue from the arts.
What do great producers and great dancers have in common? Both have clear intentions for each action they undertake, visible to their audience because their bodies and minds are well-grounded and centered.
Artists create an experience. They manipulate their mediums so that others will react a certain way, whether the intent is excitement, sadness, awe, wonder, uncertainty… Producers have an audience too. Sometimes it's a team. Sometimes it's a client. Sometimes it’s a boss. So, if they think of themselves as trying to create an experience rather than just do a job, they can, hopefully, see more clearly what actions will have the effect they are looking for.
When you're calm, cool and collected, it can be contagious. Likewise, if you're anxious, angry or irate, others will feel it. Being calm in the eye of a storm is essential in helping other team members stay grounded. It boosts team confidence and trust.
How do you remain calm amidst chaos? By acknowledging the emotions you're experiencing (anger, frustration, excitement), you can analyze your situation from a higher level. If you allow yourself to get out of your own head for a moment, and recognize how you feel, you can take control, rather than letting it control you. Recognizing that your judgments are coming out of anger, for example, may mean channeling it into banging out tasks that need to get done or recognizing that you need to postpone a meeting until you can grab a bite, breathe and speak calmly.
When sharing creative feedback, follow the 3 Cs—clarify, consolidate, communicate—in that order.
First, clarify a client's feedback by rephrasing what you've heard in your own words. For example, "I heard you say…" "Do you mean…?" or "You want us to XXX, correct?" If it's still unclear, you may also want to send your notes to the client to prevent any misunderstandings.
Once that's clear, consolidate the feedback into something succinct and digestible so your team isn't forced to interpret a rambling stream of consciousness.
Finally, communicate with others by posting it to appropriate locations. Every studio has conventions for how producers should communicate certain things with their team. However, as a general rule, communicating important information over Slack isn't the best idea, unless it's followed up elsewhere. It's too easy for important information to get overlooked or lost if it's simply Slacked.
When given a difficult client request…don't be the ass. Replace "yes, but…" with "yes, and…"
First, you never want to say "no" to a client outright. A good partner provides solutions, not roadblocks, and there's always another way to do something or address a concern.
Second, the words "but" and "and" have the SAME logical function in the English language. However, they have different connotations. "But" can have a negative connotation, whereas "and," more often, does not. For example, consider the following: "changing the VO is possible, but we will need 10 more days" and "changing the VO is possible, and we will need 10 more days." While these sentences have the same implications (10 more days will be required to change the VO), saying "but" signifies that the request is challenging; saying "and" does not.
Reframe your role… and then nurture it.
In a creative studio, it's easy to assume the creative is the center of the universe, but this doesn't capture people's roles or relationships accurately. Consider reframing it like this: The creative is the Earth. It's where life happens. As a producer, you are the sun and everyone else—the team, client, studio—is in your orbit. You flicker out, everyone dies. You shine your light (i.e., make the process clear and visible), and everyone grows.
Continuing to nurture that light is essential. It leads to confidence and competence. Confidence is how you feel. When you are confident, you feel positive and capable of tackling those challenges you might otherwise avoid. Competence is what others see. When you are competent, others cannot help but notice. Like the sun, you will shine light on everything. Your teams will recognize that you are on top of things, that you have your team's back and that you can provide clients with exemplary customer service.