Guiding vs Micromanaging

This is a tough balance for any Director. You want to communicate your vision and give your team firm direction as they go along, but if you tell them how to do their job down to the finest detail there’s nothing for them to get any satisfaction from. They’ll quickly realize there’s no point in using their creativity, and problem solving skills, and they’ll lose their personal investment in the task. Then all you have is a clock punching drone, waiting to go home. But that’s in the work place. On a volunteer based film production it can mean you lose their interest entirely, and you lose a team member.
Since ‘Devils, Angels and Dating’ was produced entirely online I can’t even be sure when that happened to my team mates. I’m positive it must have occurred on some level for some people, as we had plenty of turnover with team members, like any volunteer based project. But without dealing with them in person it’s hard to figure out where that line is with each team member. Usually in person you can tell. Body language, mood and tone of voice are going to tell you a lot about how someone is taking your notes, but online it can often be too late before you realise its happening. That’s one major flaw with a virtual studio. It can be reduced by doing two things: 1) use people you know, as you’re much more likely to know their limits; 2) shoot video critiques occasionally so that they can tell which notes are important based on your body language; and 3) be very, very, cautious. Since the vast majority of people that volunteered on Devil’s weren’t people I knew, I was as cautious as I could be most of the time. The down side to this is that you constantly set a tone where you’re perhaps not the authority figure you should be to really follow through with a strong vision. Then things can get watered down and that definitely happened with Devils.
A great example of a shot injected with the animators own unique ideas, from Ryan Hagen.
I made up for it to some degree by plugging the gaps myself when things fell short; polishing shots, adjusting lighting, comps, rigging, effects, etc… But that brings us back to my earlier point; you’re taking ownership of the final product away from the artist, which in the long term means they don’t feel they can trust me (the Director) to deliver their small piece of the creative pie to the screen. Since that’s the primary reason most artists join a volunteer project that’s a problem.
I can comment on how these issues played out on a zero budget short film because there is no client, or studio to offend… essentially I was the client and the team was the studio. But this stuff is universal and applies to the everyday working world in almost every industry. A programmer is creatively solving problems all day, so they don’t want to lose much of their creative slice of the pie. A teacher may have problems with a student but it’s up to them to figure out how to best help the student… take that away and you’re taking their job satisfaction away. Some professions are more tolerant of this and it comes with the industry culture, but animation is inherently creative and a huge percentage of positions in the industry are expected to require some level of creativity. So Directors, Supervisors, Producers, etc… all have to be very careful to keep an eye on how they walk the line between guiding and micromanaging. The ones that succeed give just enough encouragement and direction to allow their team members to shine, which leads to personal investment in the product, enthusiasm and… yes… (the golden goose to employers) faster work and potentially longer hours put in to get it done!
I have also faced a different spin on this issue on several occasions. I’ll use my experiences on Devils as an example. As we had so many less experienced artists and animators working with us, I found that many of them hadn’t really worked in such isolation without a supervisor or teacher telling them every single step they needed to make. They could have amazing reels, but you realise that they did it with a lot of guidance (or effectively micromanaging). In this case it’s a heavy hand they actually wanted, perhaps it was school where every creative choice they made was monitored very closely and guided to the final product. At this point they’re not necessarily ready to do it alone yet, but that’s when I’ve found them volunteering on Devils for the experience (and the shots). It’s not new to me, mentoring lesser experienced animators, but it is considerably more time consuming and when you’re typing most of the feedback it can be very slow. We had up to 30 or 40 people coming to me for feedback at the project’s peek. Mix in too many people that need that level of feedback and suddenly I don’t have enough time to get to other tasks, and I might as well be doing it myself. So I’d often find myself in a position where I was recognising that I was micromanaging them too much to be efficient. At this point I occasionally experimented with holding back my notes enough to let them either succeed or fail on their own terms. Better, from my perspective, to let them fail and start the shot again with someone else, than to spend too much time on the first animator letting the rest of the film suffer (then the results still aren’t as strong as they could be). It’s a tough decision but as the Director, sometimes you have to make it. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll realise they have more scope to inject their own ideas and it’ll come out great, but usually if I’ve gotten to this point with someone, it would just become a waiting game until it was clear the shot needed to be approached again by someone else. This is one of the darkest moments you’ll have directing a team of volunteers. You don’t like to waste their time or yours, considering no-one is getting paid for it. Of course in a normal day job, when money is being spent, you don’t often have the luxury of letting someone fail, so it can be that much harder on the decision makers to decide when to cut your loses.
The other problem is that if you’re micromanaging they aren’t putting something of their own ideas and creativity into it, again watering down the potential strength of the film. I’m going to admit it… some of the very best animated shots in Devils were done by really good animators I could leave largely to their own devices and they would do things that I would never have considered. That’s exactly what you want. As long as they have a very clear idea what’s needed for the overall story, and that’s all a Director should need to convey (that includes style, character, continuity, pacing, etc…).
A great shot created with minimal supervision by talented animator, Marcus Tee Jin Liang
The best Directors surround themselves with talent that can bring something creative to the table, often even better than the Director’s own ideas. They give them everything they need to know and a touch of encouragement and guidance, but not so much as to take away from the talent’s own piece of the creative pie.
This is an important lesson I’ve been learning throughout my career, particularly as I found myself in a lead role so early on. I’d love to hear anyone else’s experiences on walking the line between guiding and micromanaging (if you’re able to talk about it without offending anyone).
About the Author:
Michael Cawood is a multi-award winning British Animated Filmmaker with a broad skill set. Having worked in animation since 1994, he's created Films, Commercials, Games, Short Films and Animated Series.

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