Portrait of an Idyllic Animation Studio
What would the idyllic animation studio look like, and why does it matter?
Such a question usually elicits a response along the lines of Studio Ghibli or the early years of Disney. Both studios, despite being in different eras and countries, and employing differing ethos are looked upon as shining examples of how an animation studio ought to be. No studio is perfect, but if you had to detail what the ideal, perfect, utopian, animation studio would look like, here’s what you might describe.
Large studios, while capable of churning out massively-budgeted films, come at a price. The larger the studio, the more staff it needs, and the more staff that’s needed, the more complex the organisation as a whole must be in order to support it.
They also have a tendency to reduce roles to simple tasks as the overall effort is split amongst more people. In a small studio, there is often a need to wear multiple hats, or at least help in multiple stages of production. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but large studios can easily produce pigeon-holing when it comes to skills and talents.
Small studios also offer the opportunity to witness the entire production process from start to finish, and there is the potential to learn more about parts of the process that would otherwise be impossible in a large studio.
Should an animation studio have total creative freedom? No, but there is a difference between unbridled creative freedom, and channelled artistic freedom. A good studio should permit elements of both with an eye to pushing boundaries and abilities without endangering the viability or financial health of the studio. Artists are capable of immense creativity that can lead to fantastic ideas in previously-unexplored directions. However, artists may require a degree of control, or focus in order to fully realise such ideas.
The ideal studio should be expertly able to decipher between the two, and encourage both when they are needed. Creative freedom breeds a healthy work environment, and fulfils a critical aspect of the artistic mind when it comes to work. Restricting, or otherwise emasculating such freedom may enable management to control production according to their whims, but in doing so, opportunities are lost, never to be recovered.
Did you ever consider that trust might be something the ideal studio should embody? Trust is the bedrock on which the foundation of a great studio is built. All the greats could not have existed and flourished were it not for the degree of trust that existed between various parties. Walt Disney, for all his autocratic control, was more than happy to leave artists alone to get on with the actual work. Leon Schlesinger was famous (infamous?) for caring only that a cartoon was produced, and little for how the animators actually got around to creating it; giving them practically a free reign.
A good studio should have a high degree of trust among all departments. The animators should have to worry about their ideas being shot down by management, management should be able to trust animators not to produce something that is unsuitable for release. Everyone ought to be working towards a common goal, and their willingness to do so collaboratively should ensure a degree of trust that enables the goal to be achieved.
Trust also ensures an amount of sureness, and therefore a reduction of risk. When risk (in any form) is mitigated, it reduces the mental and psychological overhead of employees, enabling them to focus on other, more important things. An animator worrying about whether his storyboards will be warmly received will be more likely to be better focused on actually producing great storyboards. The reverse is true too: management who are comfortable with their artistic team can spend less time keeping tabs on them, and more time focusing on other aspects of the business.
A Singular Vision and Goal
Any animation studio, large or small, good or bad, is constantly working towards a goal. That goal is usually the completed production of a short, or film. As soon as one goal is achieved, a new goal is (hopefully) there to replace it. Studios or parts thereof must have goals in order to effectively function, so the lack of a vision and goal isn’t so much a trait that’s exclusive to the ideal studio.
Nope, where such a studio would excel is twofold: how well each employee is aware of and working towards the goal, and how the ultimate purpose of that goal is envisioned. The latter trait is the tricky one. Goals are easy to define, quantify and plan for, but visions are something else entirely.
When Walt Disney decided to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the goal was obvious: to make an animated feature. The vision though, that was something known almost only to Walt himself. Everyone knew of the challenges, the amount of work and energy that was needed to achieve it, but only Walt could initially see the vision of the film, and the ultimate purpose of doing so (to provide a large source of revenue for the studio.)
Studios in general are OK about defining the goal and achieving it, but few make the effort, or take the time, to define a vision, and imbue it within the organisation. Visions serve as a guiding light to achieving the goal, and while the latter can exist without the former, you’ll never find s studio with a vision that doesn’t also have goals.
The word ‘singular’ is critically important. Employees cannot serve two masters in that regard; there can only be on vision, and all energy must be devoted to achieving it.
The most explicit example of what can happen when this isn’t adhered to can be seen in Pixar. The much-vaunted ‘brain trust’ is supposed to function as a sort of sounding board for ideas with the intent of utilising creative brainstorming to strengthen ideas and stories. Unfortunately the trust is essentially a committee, and committees never produce memorable work for one simple reason: they are incapable of defining a singular vision. Yes, they can collaboratively come up with a ‘vision’, but it is not a singular vision; the output of a unique individual.
The singular vision is the epitome of the driving force behind any production. It is usually a role undertaken by the director, but it can be filled by anyone. The creation, definition, and proliferation of the singular vision is the most effective way to ensure that everyone working on the project is on the same page.
The reason the ‘brain trust’ is a detrimental part of Pixar’s animation studio is because it has shown no hesitation to interfere with the singular vision of numerous directors. Such interference upsets the creative balance, leading to disarray, lost momentum, and a poorer-quality end product.
Change (in a good way) is immensely beneficial. Studios that settle into a ‘house style’ end up finding themselves in a rut, the only way out of which is explosive demolition and reconstruction. An ideal studio should be willing to change things up on a regular basis despite the risks that come with doing to. Such change can be incremental too, it doesn’t necessarily need to be radical. Films and series’ can be incrementally different, or studios can reserve the radical change for particular releases in the cycle.
Early Disney films, while seemingly similar today, were all rather different from each other up until 101 Dalmatians. Such change was naturally imbued within the studio too, thanks to Walt’s disdain for sequels.
The idea studio should incorporate and codify change within its operation, and encourage employees to seek out and embrace change as a means to achieve more. It’s not coincidental that embracing change feeds back into creative freedom, and success.
Architecture is the profession that combines art, psychology, and construction to create buildings that humans inhabit. The design of a building has been connected to how well its occupants function within it since time immortal. An animation studio is no different, and the ideal studio should be designed such that it inspires as well as permits efficient work to be produced. Disney, Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and others have all exploited the beneficial aspects of architecture in their studios.
While cost is naturally a factor to consider, and not every studio is capable of affording a custom building, even regular, rented spaces, can be augmented to create a similar effect.
Why are all these traits important for an animation studio?
Workplace psychology has become a serious profession in its own right, and now more than ever, companies are focusing on what it takes to make employees happy and productive. Google is famous for the perks it offers employees, but perks are not the be all and the end all of getting great work out of people.
Studios in particular function as more of an organism than an organisation. They produce things that are not necessarily standardised, and the process by which they are produced are so dependent on humans demands that it not be.
The concept of the ideal studio will become more prominent in the future. As the demands of creative work increase, and standards are raised in every sector, there will be a need for studios to not only attract the best talent, but to be designed, and function in a way that extracts every drop of those talents. That’s why the traits outlined in this post are noteworthy: they are what it will take to run a successful studio, and they will not be optional.