Another valuable workshop I attended at CTNx was the CAO (Chief Artist Officers) Workshop. Running a studio while being a “hands on creative” is not easy at times and it was refreshing to hear how these wildly successful studio heads balanced creativity, business acumen, shaping studio culture, forecasting, and navigating the pitfalls inherent to the animation industry.
CAO Workshop (From CTNx’s Website)
Artist-Driven Companies that are beating the odds, and finding new ways to innovate. With a general concept and stronghold supporting the long lived misconception that artists can not create or run a business CTN welcomes the CAO’s (Chief Artist Officers) of successful studios, brands and companies.
One common topic discussed by all of the studio heads, was the economy. The economy hit Timbuktoons hard in early 2009 and it was interesting to hear the similarities in how these studios dealt with the economy and how it reshaped aspects of their business and creative workflow.
Below is an overview of each company and a list of key statements that I took away from the discussion. As with other CTNx posts (Andreas Deja, Marcelo Vignali), much more was said, but these are things that resonated with me personally or that I found worth noting. They are not exact quotes in all cases but an overview of what was said.
DUNCAN STUDIO: CAO KEN DUNCAN
From CTNx’s Website:
In a remarkable career spanning more than 25 years, visionary animator Ken Duncan has thrived with each new phase of artistic and technological development. After earning three nominations for the outstanding character performances he created at Walt Disney and DreamWorks, Ken opened Duncan Studio in 2007. With the flexibility to work traditionally or in CGI, Duncan Studio is the go-to animation studio for DreamWorks, Disney, Playtone, Focus Features, and other luminous names in the entertainment industry.
Duncan Studio first got on my radar when I saw the Legend of the BoneKnapper short (on DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon DVD release). I loved the art direction, timing, character posing, and humor and had to find out what studio created it. So when I found out Duncan was at this workshop I had to go. Here are some statements from his talk:
- We focus on quality work and have a character animation focus.
- Many studios were started by animators or other creatives.
- You need to give clients clear bids.
- 2008 was tough and the economic crash forced us to let people go after having just started the company 1 year before. It forced us to restructure to spend money wisely in a new climate.
THE THIRD FLOOR: CAO CHRIS EDWARDS
From CTNx’s Website:
In 2002, Chris Edwards joined a team of digital artists at Lucasfilm, that were tasked with previsualizing Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Afterwards, Edwards spearheaded the creation of THE THIRD FLOOR, an independent previsualization company in Los Angeles, in 2004.
I didn’t know much about Chris or The Third Floor since Timbuktoons is primarily a 2D character animation studio, but I really tracked with Chris’ thoughts about leadership, studio culture, and customer service. Chris Edwards and the other 5 founders all worked on the 3rd floor at Skywalker Ranch (hence the name) and wanted to build a company that had an employee friendly culture. It has now grown to 120 employees and their main clients have been Marvel and Disney. Here are some statements from his talk:
- We use mocap to mock it up in previz then go thru several iterations before finalizing our previz spots.
- Many scenes are barely touched once the assets are handed over and tweaked for final output.
- You have to build your clients on a personal level.
- You have to focus on high quality.
- Previz is fast paced. You have to be flexible and customer friendly.
- Budgets are built based on day rates per employee. That lets it be flexible/scaleable since there are so many unknowns going into a previz spot.
- We wanted to create a studio environment that was employee friendly, that wouldn’t burn them out even though it’s a fast paced industry.
- Communication is key to employee and customer relations. Over communicate. Stay Close.