My name is Gwénaëlle Dupré, I worked in cartoon TV show production for more than 13 years, I get through all the positions: from Second Director Assistant director to Head of Production, but also as Technical Director. Because of this extensive experience, when studios face complex situations, the first person they think about is me! I like that, it always leads me to interesting productions. But the counterpart is that I have to be creative all the time.
A few years ago, I worked on a production that was very ambitious with a lot of funding. Unfortunately, one of the investors, a toy dealer decided to leave the project. It resulted in an underfunded project. To deal with that, they changed the contractor animation studio. The new studio had a lower price but did not have the skill set to meet the deadlines or the quality expected. As you guess, quickly problems occurred and things went really wrong.
Halfway through the first season, the production was almost a year behind schedule. Worst, the quality was way below expectations. This is when they decided to call me. They knew that I love challenges and that I will probably accept their mission. And they were right. But this time I put one condition: I have total control on how we are going to work and how the money will be spent. After a few discussions, they accepted and the deal was done!
Now, let’s go back to the state of the production. It was the first time I saw a broadcaster refusing an episode due to its low quality. At the animation stage, 80% of the shots were sent back in retakes. Reasons were mainly technical: missing head, pop of color, wrong lighting on the background, extra arms on the characters, etc. Obviously, we had to work a lot to ship the first season. It was very exhausting and there was no way to keep doing things the same way. That’s why, for the second season, everyone agreed to change the workflow (producer and contractor). But one question remained: change it for what?
I did some research, trying to find the magical management methodology that would make everything great. There was no obvious way to improve our situation. Until one night, I had a drink with some friends who work as software engineers in another industry. I explained to them my situation. They smiled, it reminded them so much their job. This is where I heard for the first time about the Agile methodology.
Agile methodology: fundamentals
Because I didn’t know the main principles of agile methodologies, I did like everyone else: I typed Agile Methodology in a search engine. There were tons of results: it was like I discovered a whole new word. I spent the night reading articles on the web and especially on Wikipedia.
This is what I found: Agile methodologies are based on an iterative, incremental and adaptive development cycle. They must respect four fundamental values expressed in twelve principles.
The 4 core values are described in the official agile Manifesto:
- Individuals and their interactions over processes and tools. It reminded me that the relationship between all the peers and especially between the animators and the director is essential.
- Operational software rather than exhaustive documentation. It makes me think about the fact that the image in the frame must be fine. What happens outside the frame doesn’t matter.
- Collaboration with customers more than contractual negotiation. We work closely with our customers. And when issues occur, we work with customers to look for a solution rather than looking for a lawyer.
- Adapting to change more than following a plan. Artistic retakes, Director changes or shot simplification are not deterministic.
So, all the main principles are applicable to the animation. I introduce my peers to them. Everyone felt we were on the right track.
Once I learned the agile principles, I realized that there were several types of practical methodologies. I was looking for a “cooking recipe” to apply. Once again, Wikipedia helped a lot.
I chose the most popular methodology named SCRUM. Which is based on three main concepts:
SCRUM emphasizes having a common language between the team and management. This common language should allow any observer to quickly get a good understanding of the project. It says too that everyone should be informed of the progress and the main decisions.
→ We set up a common vocabulary and made extra efforts to be more explicit when sending retake requests. We made retake information accessible to everyone.
At regular intervals, SCRUM proposes to take stock of the different artifacts produced, in order to detect any undesirable variation.
→ We were already doing this inspection work on the producer side while getting the delivery. What was missing is that no-one checked the work on the contractor side! We set up quality check on the contractor side.
If drift is noticed during the inspection, the process must be adapted.
→ We identified the recurring retakes and find ways to not have them anymore.
We thought, on the producer side, we had something that could work. We had a strong common ground, and it was more about a change of habits than about reinventing the wheel!
Convince the Contractor
It was obviously necessary to convince the studio contractor. What made things easier is that SCRUM is based on iterative and incremental progress. It’s similar to our animation process (layout T1, T2 …, Anim T1, T2, etc). So we had a good start.
But, finally, we convince them by emphasizing the facts that it will not only benefit the quality of the animation, but also the quality of life. At this time the turnover at the animation studio was a huge issue! One week to another you weren’t sure to talk to the same people, artist or production staff. So, the risk to get things worst by changing the way we work was small. And the outcome could be high.
Main phases of SCRUM implementation
There were 4 important things that we wanted to put in place:
- Splitting the step teams (layout, animation…) into smaller teams of 4/5 people, called the SCRUM Teams (S-Teams). Every team had its own representative.
- Doing preparation meetings before each sprint.
- Running daily meetings within the Scrum teams.
- Perform review meetings at the end of each stage.
We wrote custom guides for all positions. For the customer, for the production managers, for the supervisors of each step. Everyone had a common language and common processes.
Setting up the SCRUM Teams (S-Team)
The first step was to split large teams into smaller teams. The goal was to have seniors, mids and juniors in the same team, to improve the global level of everyone and prevent juniors from being left behind. Then, for each team, we selected a representative. The supervisor of the artist floor would mainly talk with the representative (instead of everyone) which would give him more time to check the final delivery.
To apply those changes, we had to build trust. So, when I was in the animation studio, I spent a lot of time explaining to the teams who am I, what was I doing here, and what was the purpose of all of these. There were about 40 to 70 peoples per stage, and the meeting room was not that big.
I had to do the same presentation for several batches of people. I remember I made jokes during my speech to make them more comfortable. For the first group, it went good, people were laughing, they asked questions. It was the same with the second group. When I spoke in front of the third group, people stared at me. They kept silent: no laugh and no question. Same thing with the 4th group. I was worried, but finally, things went back to normal with the 5th group. Still, there was something bugging me.
Then, I spent had face-to-face discussion with CG artists. Asking a question in front of a lot of people can be scary, I wanted to give them the opportunity to talk to me directly, in a safe environment. Quickly, I realized that artists have different native languages: Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, … And that they didn’t all understand English! I understood why I had no reaction during some of my meetings. Some of them understood nothing. Worst, they were isolated when they work. This was the main reason behind the insane turnover of the production. So, I added another constraint to my S-Teams: each of them should have at least one English speaker able to translate it to all other team members!
Rethink the way we deal with retakes
Now we had a new team organization. The most important thing to fix was the number retakes. Having between 70 and 90% retake in T1 leads to a vicious circle. It means that the time allowed for the next episode is reduced by the time of the retakes. It was like the teams had 2 episodes to do at the same time. The quality went down. Therefore, we kept a high rate of retake.
So, the first step was to reduce quickly the number of retakes running. We decided to dedicate a S-Team to the retakes while others would focus on the new shots from the next episode. But, when a CG artist was assigned to this position it was often seen as a punishment. The motivation of the retake team went down quickly. To avoid that problem, we decided that each week it would be a different team that would be responsible for the retakes.
This time, it was a success, the number of running retakes reduced quickly.
Once the vicious circle was broken, we had fewer retakes per episode to handle. We were able to bring the amount of retakes back to normal. So, we dispatched retakes to all S-Teams, there was no more a team dedicated to them.
When a team took retakes, we made sure that they were handled by the whole team. Prior to that, it was the animator who did the shot who handled the retakes for that shot.
The first benefit was that it allowed to have a fresh look from other animators, which improved the overall quality. The second benefit was that juniors (who obviously had more retakes) were able to not spend too much time on their shots. The seniors and the mids were able to fix their retakes faster. Better they were able to tell the juniors what they did wrong. Juniors acquired skills faster.
Setting up agile sprints
With SCRUM, you define meetings (named rituals) on a regular basis. The time frame between the main rituals is named a sprint. We decided to go for one week sprint. It means that at the beginning we defined a todo-list for one week (sprint planning) and at the end of the week we discussed the result (retrospective).
At each sprint, the S-Teams chose themselves which sequences would be made. Most of the time, the sequence needed several sprints to be done.
The immediate benefit was that the initial brief was kept fresh in mind and was not forgotten after weeks of work. Prior to that, the production was working on a cycle of 6 weeks, which was too long. It was hard to remember the Director brief. Shortening the shipping cycle led to more accurate shots.
The second benefit was to improve shots hook up. The teams worked on shots that followed each other, it was easier for them to exchange posings or animations and to check the hook up between the shots.
The point that was difficult to put in place was the daily scrum. The goal was for the artists to show what they did the day before to the other artist of their S-Team, and make sure that everyone gives his opinion. Shyness was hard to break, but once it was acquired and accepted by everyone, the number of technical retakes dropped quickly. With 5 couples of eyes on a shot, the slightest pop of color, or extra arm was quickly spotted and corrected.
The overall animation improved. A junior could show his work and a senior gave him advice. By making things systematic, we managed to remove the “shame” factor of having to ask for help.
Each S-Team wrote their name and the name of the sequence they choose to work on a card. All the cards were put on a task board. We stored shots by states of progress: To Do, In Progress, To Check, Question. Each day after the daily scrum, the representative of each S-Team updated the task board.
The supervisor could, therefore, focus on the shots to check or look at the shots that had questions. He didn’t waste time anymore to collect the information. He had only to go around the studio to see where his teams were. He knew exactly on what he should work.
The other advantage was also for the production team. They didn’t have to go and check artist per artist what they were doing. They just have to look at the board and know immediately the progress of the show. It saved a lot of time. We were able to focus on the planning for the future, instead of checking for the past.
Sprint review and retrospective
Sprints reviews and retrospectives were the least successful. The goal was for the whole studio to get together to watch the episode at the end of a sprint. For instance, the animation could give its opinion on the layout and help to avoid future retakes.
But it took too long to move everyone and watch an episode (26 minutes x 3 steps layout, animation, and compositing). In the end, there were only the supervisors who were watching the previous stage to give their feedback. In some way, we found a solution but it didn’t involve everyone as we wanted at the beginning.
How we made sure that our new methodologies were applied
To make thing happened quicker we sent an Animation Supervisor and a Layout Supervisor on site, to ensure that the methodologies were properly applied, to correct the technical problems and also to improve the overall quality.
Overall it was a big success. We delivered the season 2 on time with a much better quality. All of these, without exceeding the initial budget.
We went down from 70% retake in T1 to 30%. CG Artists were happier, the turnover was close to zero at the end of the production.
By adapting SCRUM methodology to our production we improved the communication among peers. It allowed us to fix the biggest issues (language problems and lack of skills of juniors). Then, we were able to avoid retakes and shorten the feedback loop. Finally, everyone was more motivated and the overall quality increased a lot.
When dealing with production management, there is no silver bullet. Nevertheless, we encourage you to try new things and fine-tune already existing methodologies to adapt it to your needs. The SCRUM agile methodology worked great for us. You should give it a try. Results can go much beyond expectations!
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