Thoughts on Producing Animation

Producing Animation Splash
Frederik Villumsen profile picture

By Frederik Villumsen

CEO of Nørlum & Co-founder of Craft

Producing

It is such an endeavour to be producing animation. Bring a thought to become an idea and to nourish that idea into a finished creation. If you read this, you probably know.

Taste and quality are important factors, but I always try to first think of the immense effort it has been to create the thing I am looking at.
Maybe I enjoyed it, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I liked the style, maybe I didn’t. Highest likely I think I would have done this and that differently. But first and foremost I try my best to appreciate and honor the fact that someone created this. Someone poured sweat, tears and passion into it and that is worth more than a swift judgement based on taste and quality.

Below are my thoughts at this moment in time on producing animation.

Ownership

Something I find incredibly hard to balance well is the ownership relation of a project and its artwork to its creating artists, the producers and the company.

The studio and the original creator will usually own the rights for the project between them or at least have a written understanding of who is allowed to do what with the idea, story or concept. So the legal ownership lies with them.

But a lot of artists, who create the artwork and bring the story to life, feel ownership of that artwork, and rightfully so. Maybe not in a legal sense, but from the passion and discipline it took to see their work through to the end it is their creation also. Is the salary reward enough in itself? Is it OK that no material can be shared until after the release of the film – sometimes later or not at all? Or is the role of the company and the financial risk it takes greater than the need to reward the artists and production team with more? Is the black-box until premiere really the best way for distribution to help a film do the best it can?

Ownership is a delicate matter because ideas can suddenly seem like they are worth a whole lot before they are even a single drawing. This is why new models and standards are important to experiment with, but more on that further down.

Bridging between creative and production

I graduated as a character animator in early 2010 from The Animation Workshop. I co-founded the animation company, Nørlum, one month later. I’ve been producing animation since then and one of the things I am most grateful for is to have the a foot on each side – creative and production.

I am no production manager. I am no producer and I am not an animator either. I’ve learned that. My strength is coming up with new ideas on how to produce animation. On how to, as an animation company, best possible create synergies between creative and production. That synergy can be clashes, where production pushes creative to hurry and creative pushes production for more time or better framework to strike the best possible quality. All within the boundaries of the project. I think this can work well, but only if there is a shared passion and understanding of why this project is being made. Is it for profit? Is it for passion? Does it try to strike that balance of wanting both and if so does it reward both creative and production/company equally in that effort?

We’ve had both good and bad experiences with how we’ve run projects in Nørlum. But it is almost impossible to improve without failing, which is why it is that more important that we keep trying new ways. How would you know that best practice is what it said in that book before you try to it three other ways? Usually the books are right or have a strong point based on the failures and attempts of others, but I think it is so important to adapt any model to the people applying it. And this is where experimentation is important – even with some of the most basics things that we think we know the answers to.

I like that I usually know what I ask of an artist and that I ask that artist out of respect of their advice and opinion and to take it into consideration in whatever part of the production it might happen.

I’ve leaned away from producing over the past few years and I am mostly concerned with the business development of the company. This has taken me further apart from creative so I am looking for opportunities in each project to make that bridge between creative and production from where I am now. And it usually comes down to hiring the right talent and having a clear one line statement for why we are doing this project. We think this project is cool and we have a budget that match the creative ambition – can be simple as that. We have this cool idea, but very little money to get it off the ground, want to join? Is a classic, but as long as you are honest, transparent, about it, it can work. And it interests me this one. It’s why Kickstarter is so great, Patreon, Artella and other crowd-funding/sourcing platforms are great, and it’s also one of the reasons why we started itsoncraft.com. I have a cool idea, help me make it or support me so I can do what I do best.

I think it comes down to transparency for me. That everyone on a team feels included and have a sense of purpose on the project. That is feels like a team effort all around. It is a very hard balance to strike. Money, artistry, time. It is impressive that it even happens really 🙂

Running a company is hard work. Producing a project is hard work. And I don’t think most artists or people who haven’t tried to run a company or get a project off the ground realise how difficult it is. How immense an effort it takes to create just a single job. And probably people shouldn’t know. There is a reason why a lot of people don’t start their own company and project, so why burden them with the weight of it? 

I do think, though, that there is a lack of understanding in creative towards the effort and risk involved in growing an idea and financing that idea. How much labour it takes when there is no budget and no crew. Most times this is driven by that same passion for the project and vision that the artists bring, and not profit.
And like I think all producers and company owners, production people and artists, should appreciate and honour the effort it took to create something through production, I think that it is equally important to respect the risk and effort it took to bring it all there.

I hope this comes off as a wish for the most homogeneous collaboration possibly. That we all, wherever we are in this process, remember to stop and think about why we are doing this and what could be done better and how.

The future of producing

I hope to play a part in innovating how we can produce animated content. Not so much from an artistic or technical perspective, but from a company and producer’s perspective. Here are a few of my thoughts on the future within the areas I’ve mentioned above.

OWNERSHIP
I think a big step will be to include artists in the legal ownership of the projects. Similar to a startup company where you reward early commitments and employees become micro-owners with a stake in the fate of the company. I’m almost sure that someone are already experimenting with a model like this, but I haven’t heard about it in animation yet. If you have any examples on this or similar, I’d love to know about it 🙂

ARTWORK
I think that artists should have higher control of the artwork they create through production and that both the company and the distributor should see this as a fantastic resource for publicity, exposure and audience building even early in the process. Who can be a better ambassador for a project than someone who poured their passion into it and also created parts of it!

Through our work with itsoncraft.com we’ve seen tremendous willingness to share artwork and insights about the creative process from both production companies, artists and distributors. It seems to me that there is room for these improvements as most businesses in the industry are interested in exploring new business models or initiatives, but need someone outside their core business to come lead the way.
Knowing of this willingness, I think it is very important that if you have a company or a project that you dare ask what you would like the most of your potential partners whether they are in creative, production, financing, distribution etc – worst you can get is a ‘no’ if present your wish/idea politely and professionally.

TRANSPARENCY
I think that transparency should be an integral part of any project. It’s not full blown democracy, but enough to remove that sense of doubt of why and how this project is moving forward.
Production management tools and producers tools should increasingly bring transparency and reasoning in easy and well laid out terms. I believe that an artist can work better if they have the option to understand, in short, why they are being asked to change something in their work and/or behaviour.

TALENT AND THE CIRCLE OF CREATIVE LIFE
I think if we can begin to work with the above ideas as companies and project initiators, then we will see a healthier ecosystem in animation.
If there are benefits to balance the risk of early involvement and low pay, maybe it would be more attractive to work in the industry.
If the work you create is yours to use for the benefit of the project, it might be more fun to create it.

If there is more openness about the process of how we create these beautiful and crazy works of art, then maybe new talent would learn faster, be inspired more often and more clearly see what it is they are about to enter into.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but hey, how else would anything change 🙂

Thank you for reading and don’t hold back on sharing your own thoughts on the this.