Tag Archives: Concept

The Future of 3D: Mixing CGI with Auditory Illusions?

3D technology has become more common in the entertainment industry. Movies and television shows are produced in 3D, with the audience being given special glasses to view the effects. Developers have even found a way to create 3D effects in sound, creating a realistic experience for the listener. With the two advancement of the two technologies, it is conceivable that movies, television, games, or videos could be created with both 3D visual and sound effects, creating a total 3D experience that replicates a realistic experience as closely as technology will allow. Here’s how it works:

Auditory Illusions

Advances have been made in creating so-called “auditory illusions” in which sound appears to be coming from different locations independent of the speakers. One such example includes the “virtual barber shop” from Q Sound Labs:

The technology produces a sound that imitates real actions. As the barber in this clip moves to cut hair at different spots around the head, the sound moves in those directions. If the barber is meant to be at your right ear, you hear the scissors clipping by your right ear. The technology can also be used to create the illusion of sound in different spaces, such as a large room, a hallway, or a cave.

Possibilities for the Future

The technology exists for 3D visual effects and auditory illusions, but the two have rarely been combined on the big screen. While surround sound has been able to replicate the “3D” experience to some extent, it hasn’t been as effective as the technology seen in the type of auditory illusions created in the “virtual barber shop.” It’s possible that future movie-going experiences could include the use of 3D glasses for the visual effects and personal headphones for the sound effects.

Limitations

Of course, creating personal sound ports for individual movie goers has practical and cost limitations. Doing so would require re-outfitting most movie theaters, or giving audience members personal, portable sound devices, such as a small radio on a limited frequency. The technology also has limits for personal viewing. While individuals could watch programming on a laptop and use personal headphones for the sound effects, the same experience could not be replicated by watching on a television set, which would include a larger picture for a more enjoyable viewing experience. As 3D technology grows and is embraced by larger audiences, the technology to view and enjoy will have to change with it.

Already, 3D technology is growing for movie-goers, with more 3D screens available and up to 40 percent of ticket sales coming from 3D films this year. Breakout films like Avatar have shown the possibilities for 3D visual technology and audience demand for the technology when it is done well. Combining this type of innovation in visual technology with innovation in sound technology can create a unique movie experience that could change the way films and television are created.

Recommended Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

If you haven’t already, go and read the first part of this mini-series on Deliberate Practice and Continuous Learning.

Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Over the past week I’ve been looking at job openings for VFX artists, mainly in America, Canada, and the UK but I wasn’t very location picky. Here are the assumptions I’ve made based on the criteria they claim to desire.

They tend to split into two broad categories; Software and Techniques, and Personal traits. Because both categories seem to be integral I’m going to cover each in turn.

Software and Techniques Wish List

For any of these subjects deliberate practice is easy to define (relatively). You can start out on each topic by picking up a good textbook or course and once you know enough of the basics you can set up a plan to practice those daily while you experiment with new things on the other side. There are hundreds of tutorials for each (or at least a few) and plenty of resources available.

Because its less of a challenge to figure out how to get started I’m going to keep this part fairly simple. Here’s a list of techniques and pieces of software that came up during my research.

Software:

  • Maya
  • 3D Studio Max
  • After Effects
  • Nuke
  • Photoshop
  • Python (scripting)
  • Unreal Engine (mostly with games)
  • Shake
  • Cascade
  • Mental Ray
  • Houdini
  • Mel (more scripting)

Techniques:

  • Particle Effects
  • Composite Layers
  • Rendering Optimisation
  • Light Rigs
  • Roto Mattes
  • Blue/Green Screening
  • 2D Painting Skills for Mark-ups
  • Compositing
  • Integrating live action with miniatures or CGI
  • Use textures and 3D meshes in effects
  • Performance and Resource Management (games again)
  • Fluid Dynamic Particle Effects
  • Graphic Shaders
  • Procedural Modelling
  • Real Time Particle Systems
  • Scripting
  • Stylized lighting and Mood Lighting
  • Traditional Art Skills
  • Photography
  • Digital Image Manipulation
  • Stereoscopic 3D

Quite a list! I’m going to go through most of the techniques on this blog in the next few years, and probably some of the different pieces of software.

Traits of a Perfect Employee

These are, in general, much harder to practice and develop. Personally, I think this is because defining them is tricky; how do you cultivate being proactive, for example?

Hand on heart, I don’t know if any of this will actually work. Yet. I’ve only tried out deliberate practice on a couple of them and even on those I’ve tried the progress is slow (though noticeable). I’ll list my translation of the traits I found (you’re welcome!) and then I’ll go into depth on one for an example. If you’ve been practicing already, or you’re really good at some of these, drop me a comment and let me know how it went for you.

  • Understanding of Light, Colour and Composition
  • Demonstrate you’re a team player and can get along with multiple disciplines and backgrounds (I’d recommend building connections for this part)
  • Be able to talk about different types of art, your preferences, and why you like one style vs. another
  • Build change into your workflow and try not to flip out when things change last minute
  • Show you’ve improved your skills over time (*cough*Continuous Learning*cough*)
  • Be proactive and take initiative
  • Take direction from peers and supervisors with grace
  • Keep to schedule and deadlines
  • Create quality work
  • Perform well under high stress (or, presumably, manage the stress so that it never reaches ‘high’)
  • Communicate well within the team
  • Problem Solving
  • Spend time consuming projects from your industry (Different types of games for games, TV programs for television, etc)

Keep to Schedule and Deadlines (my example)

Anyone that knows me, knows I struggle with this one. Not because of bad time-keeping but because I have this habit of taking on far more than I can achieve within a specified time frame.

In fact, and I’m not proud of this, I don’t think I finished a single practical project in my degree year. Fortunately my ideas and paperwork were good enough that I passed anyway – that didn’t make it feel much better to me. After a month or so of not doing anything at all (ok, maybe two months) when the course finished I finally dusted myself off and decided to do something about that.

I found a project management solution that allowed me to time myself doing tasks, create milestones, multiple projects, and anything else I needed. I also went through the Personal Effectiveness Program book; some chapters were more helpful than others but I’d recommend giving it a read and following through as much as possible.

Armed with those tools I set up projects, learned quickly that everything creative was taking longer than I’d estimated and a lot of the other tasks were taking far less time to complete. The next time I scheduled a task similar to one I’d completed, I looked at the difference between estimated time and actual time and adjusted it accordingly.

I learned that I wasn’t nearly as productive as I’d thought initially and scaled back on the work I scheduled for each day, prioritising the tasks as I went.

This was my form of continuous improvement; I’m still not very good at it but I’m more accurate than I was and I’ve gone from 1-2 hours of solid ‘real’ work a day to 2-3 (sometimes more) on average. Since I can see just how ambitious every idea I come up with is now I can allocate enough time to work on them (one of the benefits of setting your own deadlines for your own ideas) and the failing to learn process is much simpler.

To summarize the steps in a general way, here’s what I did:

  • Identified a problem in my skill set
  • Set up a method to track why there was a problem
  • Using the information gathered from tracking, determine what my ‘basics’ were (For this example those were estimating accurately, allocating work coherently, and paring back non-essential tasks)
  • Practice those basics every day and track improvements

Once I reach a point where I can successfully take a project from start to finish without extending the deadline then I can start to be more adventurous in how I practice. Yes I’m aware that sounds terrible (this would be a good time to point out that I can work on other people’s projects to schedule easily enough).

Your Next Steps

Have a look at that huge list and decide which part is most relevant to you. Then comment below saying which one it is, and I’ll respond with how I would start to work on it were I in your shoes.

That way, we can start together. Get the ball rolling with your comment just now (I dare you).

Continuous Learning and Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Why should I care about Continuous Learning?

Continuous learning is one of those things we hear a lot while we’re in school or college, usually within the first week of the year and as some magical thing that will help us throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, that’s usually all that’s said on the subject. If you’re lucky you get a bit more about why you should be doing it, or even a couple of pointers for things to practice that will be ‘useful in the industry’.

Continuous learning or Deliberate Practice, however, is one of the most important skills you can cultivate. Not just in this industry (though my research over the past week suggests that its a desirable trait), but in life in general.

It allows you to take skills you’ve learned, multiply them (over time) and if followed through it can make you a true expert in your areas of interest. I could go on, but I learned most of what I know from these folks;

 Let’s Define Deliberate Practice

For the purposes of this post I’m going to define deliberate practice as follows;

“The continual act of regularly taking a skill you have and practicing both the basics and pushing your understanding.”

  • Continual = you don’t stop.
  • Regular = Daily, Weekly, Fortnightly (I wouldn’t recommend monthly, but it could happen).
  • Skill = Measurable activity or set of actions. Think modelling with low polys, texturing to a certain resolution, and so on.
  • The basics = The very foundation of your skill. What you’re taught first when approaching the topic – the basic tenants of your craft.
  • Pushing your understanding = Going further than you ever have before. Possibly even than anyone has gone (I’m resisting a star trek quote here, but you get the idea).

It’s hard work, on a regular basis, over a long period of time. This isn’t a magical bullet solution (and because of that I fully expect most of you to ignore this!), you won’t become amazing over night and it’ll be more boring than anyone really wants to think too closely about.

Your friends, family and significant other won’t get it. Guaranteed.

It will give you both increased skill in your ‘area of expertise’ (for want of a better phrase) and a framework which you can use to learn just about anything with a little creativity.

In the visual effects industry in particular it’s vital; technology and techniques move far too quickly to approach learning them with anything less than a creatively made, flexible, framework. Our bread and butter as 3D artists changes every year or so (looking at Autodesk here) and we have to get used to software features appearing and disappearing all the time. Going beyond that, technological advances mean new techniques, new pieces of hardware, new software, and new requirements at our heart.

Assuming 2012 doesn’t herald the end of all we know, here’s how I’d recommend approaching these challenges for a visual effects artist. At least to begin with – you’ll come up with your own ideas and tailor it to your own plans eventually.

First, Make Time For It

Finding time is the first major hurdle when you approach anything outside of your normal routine. It’s not like we have time where we’re doing literally nothing – every single one of us can effectively fill our 24 hours a day.

Working on the assumption that no one can alter time or be in more than one place at once, we’re going to have to make sacrifices to fit all this in. I’d recommend an hour a day as being fairly manageable though you’ll know how much time you can spare. I’m not about to guilt you or point fingers at some of the things we fill our time with, but here are some points to keep in mind:

  1. It’s been mentioned multiple times that it takes 10,000 hours of continuous practice to become an expert.
  2. Focusing is not easy. After a bunch of practice and really watching where my time goes I’ve discovered that I can pay attention and work hard for approximately 2-3 hours a day. (Note: I work longer than that, but never very effectively)
  3. Exercise can usually roust you from sleepy inactivity, especially after work. I recommend dancing.

Next Time on ‘Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists’

Yes, it’s a bit of a tease but my ultra long post just wasn’t focused enough to cut the mustard (though why anyone would want to, I’ve no idea).

This will continue tomorrow with specific techniques and traits that my research into job postings has uncovered and how to use Deliberate Practice to improve your own skills. As well as a fascinating example from yours truly. Well, ‘somethin-ating’ anyway.

In the mean time, your next step is to make some room. You know where. Commit to some deliberate practice, mark out a time on your calendar daily (I like google calendar for this), and prepare yourself.

Also, comment and let me know what you’re taking time from to do this instead.

 

Happy New Year – World Domination Just Round The Corner…

Happy New Year!

Glad 2011 is over? There’s something magical about a clean slate that, while it can inspire gut-clenching dread, is so pretty and inspirational.

For the last few months I’ve been running around like a headless chicken trying to complete a Showreel (not done yet, but I’ll keep you posted), buy presents (all on time and accounted for!), set up a business or two and work at my day job. Am I likely to be any less busy this year? Doubt it. However I’ll be hanging out regularly on my own blog; I get points for that, right?

What this blog is and the point of it all

This blog will be about making believable effects and 3D. What this means is they can be as outlandish or ‘realistic’ as wanted but they have to be believable.

Tutorials will show how to make specific effects and how to give effects you have more gravity.  Longer topics could be about adding believability to your scripts and scenes – what elements should be there and what shouldn’t.

The point is to enable everyone (me included) to create better effects; ones that add gravity and an extra something to the scenes they’re a part of.

Who is this really for?

I’m really trying to appeal to two different and distinct audiences with this site now. This is for you if;

1. You’re a student, recent graduate or trying to break into the film, TV or games industries.  You’ll probably want to know how to improve your skills, get hired, and make cooler stuff than you currently are. Not quite beginner level, but just creeping into intermediate and feeling your way.

2. You’re already out there creating movies and/or games.  Maybe you’re trying to make a particular scene look more real but there’s something not quite right with your current effects, or maybe the effect just doesn’t seem to fit with the story and you want to find some other way of accomplishing the same result – but better. You’ve been around the block a bit and are just looking for solutions, or a way to improve your workflow in the future.

Why am I bothering?

I’m writing so that I can learn and improve both my writing and 3D effects skills.

That’s all. No money to be made from this yet, learning and building relationships are the main points of this current site from now on. That way if I decide to offer affiliates or advertising later to cover costs I can (and probably will) but its not the main issue.

Why should you read?

Quality content on a real issue that people across the board have; how to make effects more believable within our scenes, shorts and movies. From the writing to completion I’ll be looking at exactly how to do this and anyone reading can use and apply that knowledge to become better and make more awesome things.

Also, it’ll save you time figuring out what the problem is after a while using my methodologies, reduce stress associated, and bring re-known to projects where you’ve added a bit of pizzaz.

When

After the initial ‘January Scramble’ time frame quiets down you can expect one post a week (on Friday, about 4.30pm GMT) falling loosely into these for topics.

  • In depth theoretical post
  • Review of something useful, fun or interesting
  • Video tutorial on a practical tip, trick, or effect made by yours truly
  • The fun post.

Before the eye rolling (or possibly after) – the fun post will have giveaways, reader competitions, answer readers questions, or even just have an interview with someone awesome.

Open to suggestion there – if there’s someone you’d like me to get in touch with, or some training tool that you’re drooling over give me a shout and I’ll do my utmost.

In addition to all that, the newsletter is going to have its own set of updates and some unique content so if you’re not already subscribed I’d mosey on over before you miss out!

Where can you find me in 2012?

Here for a start! I’m going to be around on my blog and through my regular contacts page whenever for obvious reasons. But in addition to all that I’ll be focusing on these social networks:

I’m likely to completely ignore:

  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Other 3D Forums (I may change my mind on this later)

They’re all linked to my profile on each active account for your convenience, feel free to add me to any (or all) of them and say hi if you do!

Two Types of Purpose

In the first post we talked about why having a purpose behind your work is important.  I also mentioned briefly that there are two types of purpose we can use in creative projects, this post shows how to create both of them.

In order to succeed, wildly, you’ll need:

In order for your project to ‘work’ to the best of its ability you need two different types of purpose.  Rather than belabouring the point at this stage, lets dive in and take a look at how to make them.

Creative Type Definition

Creative purpose gives life and soul to your projects; it deals with the higher meaning, why you want to do it, and what change you’re trying to make in the world (or whatever social group you’re comfortable with).  Without this, even if you have an amazing business purpose the idea itself will be a shell, possibly uninspired and definitely lack spark.

Creating the Creative Purpose

Look at your life and what matters to you.  Think about what you believe, feel the things that tug on your heart, and start from there.  The creative purpose is the most personal part of any project; I couldn’t and probably wouldn’t tell you how to find it.

There aren’t any road maps to defining what’s right or what you want to say and it’s different for every person.  In my opinion this is why we’re able to have so many different art forms and artists; not one of us thinks in exactly the same way as another, and we all have different messages and things we want to talk about.  This part can take a long time to find, and to get ‘right’.  You’ll know it when you have, sometimes you have to start work before it’s fully formed (that’s another issue entirely) however I’d urge you to wait until you have at least a rough idea before beginning.

Creative Purpose is your cornerstone after all, it’s worth taking the time to do this part properly.

Structuring your Creative Purpose

The beauty of the creative purpose is that there’s no iron-clad structure.  Often a simple statement is enough.

That is, as long as the statement conveys the following points to you (and those you work with!) whenever you read it:

  • The change you want to make
  • The circumstance you want to improve
  • The emotion you want others to feel
  • The message you want to send
  • It has an emotional connection with you; you should feel it in your gut

Example: Creative Purpose for July’s Themed Posts

My creative purpose for this month’s feature series reads something like this:

Provide clarity to creators so we can see more awesomely cool stuff.

Ulterior motives aside, that works for me.  My logic follows that we can’t make our absolute best projects without having a reason for doing so, and sometimes we can start with one and lose it along the way (or without one, which is scary but we’ve all done it).  By defining both types of purpose there’s a clear direction for us to travel in, since I believe this is really important and I want to be around to see some really well written games, animations, scenes, stories, etc… This theme was born.

Business Type Definition

On the other hand the business purpose gives structure to the idea.  What you’re making, what targets you’re trying to reach, who will use the finished product, and so on through all the more practical concerns.  This determines how successful your project will be at getting the message out and/or making money.

Building your Business Purpose

Before you can write your business purpose you’ll need to make three main choices.  First you’ll have to decide what you’re making; can’t go far wrong here and your creative purpose might point you in the right direction.

Second, what you’re trying to achieve.  This is a little trickier and speaks to your motives more than anything else.  Maybe you have a product and you’re trying to generate more sales.  Or you have a website / blog and you’d like more visits and views.  Possibly you want to win a competition, or get your message out to the greatest amount of people possible.  Aim high, but not cripplingly so here, and be specific.  Instead of saying something like ‘I want more people to visit my site’, go for something like ‘I want 50 people to visit my site per day by 1st January 2011’.  Constrain your goal.  Make it achievable, but not too easy.  Really go for it!

The third and potentially most important decision is about who you’re trying to reach.  Do you have a specific target audience (if not, why not?)?  Who would you most like to connect with?  How do they spend their time?  Are they students, working, not working, within your industry, in a specific age range, location, gender… There are a lot of questions you could be asking here.  As with your ‘goal’, your target audience has to be specific.

Structuring your Business Purpose

Unlike the creative purpose your business purpose has a generally accepted format.  It takes the form of a short sentence covering each of the three areas we just discussed.  You can almost copy/paste each section into the structure below:

A [what you’re making] for [target audience] in order to [business target/goal].

Example: Business Purpose for July’s Themed Posts

Continuing our example from before, the business purpose for this month’s themed features looks a bit like this:

Create a series of blog posts for creative professionals looking to make their own, successful, projects in order to revive my blog and bring visitors per day up to 45 by August 15th 2011.

Since it’s a blog project I’m running my first section was a given (I actually cheated and had the form before my creative purpose because I had a specific slot to fill per week).  My target audience was defined in a fairly broad sense because this particular set of blog posts can be applied by multiple disciplines, since I have a few creative avenues myself it makes no sense to over specify at this stage.

However, I did pin-point it to creative professionals (people working within creative industries, or wish to, with the skills required) and a mindset (looking to make their own, successful, projects).  The mindset it key at this point because it focuses the direction of each post back to an ultimate goal – partially defined in my creative purpose.

As for my target – I’m a blog owner that’s had a semi-dead blog for the last year due to time constraints.  I needed to come back out with a bang though traffic doesn’t grow overnight.  45 people seemed a fair goal, and by placing the deadline half way through next month each post should have time to gather a little momentum.

Next Time

This week we’ve gone through the process of creating our own creative and business purposes in order to define our projects and give ourselves definite goals.  In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at finding these purposes in existing projects; both client defined and personal.

Right now though I’d like you to choose one of your projects (or things you do) and come up with both a creative purpose and a business one.  Comment below and let me know how you got on.

Purpose Introduction

Why do we create what we create?  What is our purpose?

July Monthly Feature: Purpose

No one likes to stumble around, not quite realising what it is they really want to do with what they’re creating, or how a client really wants to see a brief fulfilled.  By being able to create, identify, and use purposes we can eliminate some of that confusion and make every project from here on out much simpler to understand and more effective in execution.

Because it’s such an important concept we’re going to be exploring it as our feature throughout July.  This post kicks it all off by talking about purpose, what it is, and why we should bother and then over the next couple of weeks we look at creating purposes, identifying them in existing projects, the two main types of purpose, and how to use them.

What is Purpose?

According to Uncle Google, a purpose is:

The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

As a broad definition that’s perfect, and exactly what we’re looking for.  The reason behind what you do, and create, or why something exists.  We can take this definition and apply it to just about everything, from a kid building a sandcastle to one company buying another.

Taking it into our industry though there are two levels of purpose that I want to explore within this series.  The first is business purpose.  Examples of that include making business cards to generate more leads, designing an e-commerce site to increase sales, starting a t-shirt line to increase brand awareness.  Anything that relates in some way to money, visitors, and power can come under the ‘business’ purpose.

The second purpose, and probably the more fun one, is the ‘creative’ purpose.  This deals with the less tangible meanings, like educating someone, causing a tear with your story, encouraging laughter, changing a behaviour, awareness of an issue.

I propose that in everything we do as creative professionals, we should be defining both of those purposes.

Why bother with Purpose?

    1.  Stay on message

If you know exactly what you’re trying to say and why it’s much easier to build that into whatever you’re doing.  Design and functionality choices become more focused because they’re there to enhance rather than define.

2.  Measurable results

When there’s an end goal, you can test and track your product/project to see how well it’s progressing towards that goal.  And make tweaks where you need them.

3.  Clarity in Execution.

Ever reached the point in a project where you’re not absolutely certain what you need to do next to improve it, take it to the next level, or complete it?  By knowing what you’re trying to do you’re in a better position for planning, and deciding when it’s done.

What happens without one?

We do our best.  And guess.  Some of us are exceptional guessers and can get work done for clients and themselves really quickly and effectively (personally I think these people are subconsciously determining the reason first), others not so much.

Can’t answer for anyone else, but I’d much rather work on something while knowing exactly why I’m doing it and what the outcome is.  Wouldn’t you?

Next week we’ll be looking at how to create both types of purpose statements.  But before you go; what is the most poorly defined project you’ve taken part in?

Concept; The Impact of a One Sentence Purpose

I love the beginning of a new project.

You’re given a set of parameters to adhere to (or very rarely a clean slate), you have a specific amount of time and usually some form of budget or lack of one.  With those parameters and limitations you’re then set loose to come up with an idea.  Blank slates excluded, it’s usual to have some form of a goal defined for you and a set of targets to reach.

Increase sales, redefine brand x as being for people y, launch a product, make one person say ‘wow’, educate, entertain – there are a lot of reasons for what we do, sometimes on a day to day basis.  The important thing is to know which one of these goals is the most important for any given project; which one matters above all else and, if delivered, would count the project a success.  Setting your main goal, defining its purpose and scope, and wrapping it up into one neat, concise sentence can make the difference between a tight design and a sloppy one.

Golden Goal Rule (Not ‘the one who has the goals makes the rules’ though I was tempted)

All goals should answer one simple question in order to be effective; ‘What’s the point?’

Let me explain.  If your example goal is something like ‘Increase number of clients by summer’ it’s easy to get diverted.  There’s no reward built in and there’s no definite point at which you can cross it off your list as complete.  Not very motivating and if you ever venture into the land of late nights/early mornings for this sort of goal you’re likely to start wondering if you can just forget about it instead!

At least, I would.  Raw stubbornness can only take you so far.

Goal++

Let’s go back to the point at the start of the project where we’re all happily bubbling away over new ideas and dancing around gleefully at the thought of having something fun to do (maybe that last part was just me, but you get the picture).  Right then you may know perfectly well what you want to accomplish and why, or at least you’re in the best place to figure it out.  While you’re enthusiastically yet diligently writing out your initial plan (right?) it’s worth taking a moment to write this sentence:

[Action] [Object] to [Goal] for [target audience] (by [timescale]).

Let me wash the mud off the window:

  1. Action:  Create, Redesign, Realign, Launch, Increase, Decrease
  2. Object: Tutorial interface, website, logo, ebook, sales, bounce rate
  3. Goal: Make sharing easier, to reflect the new branding scheme, for a more professional look, to teach people how to skip, from 5% to 10%, to 60%
  4. Target Audience: students between the ages of 16-25 studying 3D, adults working in offices full time, sophistocated young investors, children 6-10 years old, teenage girls with an interest in drawing, visitors from USA.

Formatting the first example so we can see it properly:  Create a tutorial interface to make sharing easier for students between the ages of 16-25 studying 3D.

Why bother?

Someone asks you what you’re doing? You can tell them your statement.

Get stuck or muddled part way through the project? It’s right there to remind you of where you’re going.

Focusing too much on an unimportant area of the project? That statement brooks no excuses.

Of every piece of planning I’ve ever done for a project this is the quickest part, and also the part that provides the most benefit (says the planning addict that usually has at least 10 pages of stuff).  It’s also the part that’ll make you want to throw the most objects our your window, but that’s another story.

Project Management for Creative Perfectionists

Are you a planning fanatic or do you prefer to just dive in?

Since this post is based on a tweak to project management and how to use it to sidestep one of the most irritating design problems you can come across (in my opinion) it’s probably going to appeal more to the fanatics among you. If you do just dive in, it’s still worth reading – there’s something for everyone to take away.

For the duration of this post we’re going to define ‘projects’ as on-going, unique tasks that require you to be creative, and have a deadline of some description. This isn’t the only sort of project the concept applies to; it’s just the one I have experience with. Feel free to adapt, prod, poke, and squeeze it into your own situation as we go through.

Introducing today’s example

Our example refers to an Infomercial I have to create this semester in order to pass two (or more) of my classes. Up until now I’ve been horribly over-ambitious with every project I’ve undertaken, and this one is no exception. To pass it must have film footage, interactive elements, and be based on selling an existing product to a target audience.

The Famous Triangle

Step into any Project Management class and one of the first things you’ll be introduced to is the ‘Project Triangle’. While there have been some murmers of it becoming outdated, a lot of working project managers agree that it’s still a good way of viewing work and priorities.

Like all triangles it has three corners; Time, Budget, and Quality. The idea is that you can choose two of those corners to be fixed, and the last is where you’ll make sacrifices should they become necessary. For example, if you have to complete your project by a certain date then it’d be your main priority, and you could choose whether to sacrifice Quality and keep within budget, or sacrifice the Budget and keep within quality.

In another example you may choose to keep the Quality at all costs; then you can decide whether the budget or time is more important to the overall success of the project.

Whenever you keep the two corners you chose at the start of the project within bounds, even if the last corner gets blown out of proportion you can still consider the project itself a success. In theory this means that if your priorities are time and budget and the quality turns out to be very poor the project itself was still successful, though it’s possible others outwith the project may not agree.

Time and Quality

Continuing with our example I choose the two corners that most college students would; Time and Quality. Especially since I’m in my final year the Quality is important (that was a no-brainer decision) and with deadlines being more concrete Time had to be the overriding consideration.

However, there’s no wiggle room in the budget (unless I choose to spend out of my own pocket) because for college projects budgets don’t exist. Considering Time is our immutable corner, that leaves Quality as the only area in which I can cut back if necessary. Obviously this is flawed, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between Time and Quality. Deadlines often mean that Time can’t move, or the project has failed. Everyone wants to do their best work to get the best grade possible. How many of us have, at some point, designed a project that was far too ambitious given the time available then had to scramble at the last minute to make it fit?

At that point, are we happy with the sacrifices we’ve made to get it done on time? If you’re anything like me, I doubt it. Sure, you’re happy you got it done on time and therefore haven’t failed – but it looked so much better when you imagined it! Oh, and if you’d had just a little more time, say a week, then it would have looked so much better!

Yet, when you have more time, you choose a more ambitious project. Same results, but a little better than before in technical capability (because you’ve learned a few shortcuts).

The problem there is that you always feel you could have done better, and never truly show your best work. Using whatever your piece was in your portfolio actually makes you a little sad, and you just know that no one else is going to see what you’re capable of based on that… right?

Let’s reframe!

Recognising that cutting Quality rarely left anyone feeling good about a project is probably what led to the modification of the triangle to what you see above. Quality has been moved to the centre as an ideal or goal, and Scope has taken its place as the third corner.

In real terms, this means that when you have constraints of Time and Scope, and you really need to cut Scope – you can remove features and maintain the Quality of the rest. For a student, that means you can cut out the ‘awesome’ extra parts and deliver your best on the main core of your product. When it comes time to add it to your portfolio, you don’t have to worry about how much better any particular area could have been with more time, and anyone looking at it can get a better idea of where your skills currently are.

Shifting Quality to an ideal or goal also gives focus to your triangle – the questions move from ‘How do I do x within y amount of time?’ or ‘How can I cut costs so that z will work?’ to something like ‘What’s the best way to get the right level of quality within x time/budget?’.

In short you move it from a passive ‘I’ll just do what I can’ to an active ‘How do I make this better?’ with regards to the level of work you’re producing. Emphasis moves from what you’re doing to how well you do it, and so far I see no downsides there.

What this also means is that the scope of your project is considered properly at the planning stage. If you know you only have a few months to create something, there’s no way it’s going to be the same scope as something you’ll have a few years to create. When you bring it into the discussion you can fine-tune your ideas into something manageable for the time or budget available. And you can do it without pulling all-nighters towards the end. Maybe.

As you go through a project it’s really tempting to add more and more features; small things that won’t take much time to implement but that could look really cool. Again, by bringing Scope into the discussion you have a way of analyzing these small additions and deciding (even if it’s further down the line) whether to drop them.

(For the record, this ranks very high on my ‘I wish I’d known before…’ list)

Getting to the point; How do we use this?

None of those concepts are new, in fact a google search for ‘Project Management’ will have you tripping over them before you can say ‘Search done’. If I’d really wanted, I could have just pointed you to various other websites and articles, wished you luck, and called it a day. Those parts were just the introduction; this next part is the bit that makes the difference.

Knowing about the updated triangle and the addition of Scope is great, but knowing how to apply it in the real world is better. I found resources on how to practically apply it to creative projects a bit thin on the ground when I was buzzing around like a headless wasp looking for answers. Having struggled with this for years (despite being organized with my projects to the point of obsession) I finally hit a realisation last week, the day before deadline (storyboard, not project – still a big deal).

With the infomercial I’m working on I’ve done more market research than in previous years; I got to know my intended audience, the product, the current audience, and method of communication. I looked at other advertising campaigns to see what worked and what didn’t, and I immersed myself in brand style.

Then I happily skipped off to draw up the first plan for the introductory video. Pitch one rolled around a few weeks ago, the first idea didn’t stick. That was ok, because it was horribly technical and anyway the new idea was much better.

The second pitch happened the day before the storyboards were due in (of course by this stage they’d all been drawn out). Attention was drawn to how ambitious all areas of the project were, how little time I had, and that the story itself didn’t quite gel properly.

Honestly? It was depressing. And demoralising. And with the deadline the next day I had a choice to make; try and fix it, or ignore an obvious flaw in the plan and carry on regardless.

The next morning I drew up a plan that I believe is actually possible and works better than the other two combined. The revised storyboard was submitted on time and I didn’t have to draw as many frames either. The only thing that changed was I suddenly started looking at time and taking it into account when designing.

Again, How?

Because I’d worked on projects involving 3D and Filmed footage before I had a pretty good idea of how long each part would take. Before while I was planning I’d plotted it all into a tighter schedule than I would have liked, telling myself that so long as I stuck to the plan I’d get through it.

When I looked at it that night when time was already critical I finally sat down and looked at how I could eliminate or scale back the more time-consuming elements. In this case it was the animation. I also re-worked the story and script, but how that works is the subject for another post.

Switching mindsets from creative designer to project team let me make massive time cuts and brought my enthusiasm back too (added side bonus).

More than enough about what I did though! Let’s break it down so you can use it too.

Step One – Define your timescale

It’s a good idea to work out how much time you have for each stage of your project before you start planning how to use it. Write down all the parts of your project (planning, design, parts of the product you need to create, etc) and your final deadline. Add any other deadlines you have before the final deadline as well; this will help when you have to schedule everything.

Working back from your deadline, write down each section and how long you can afford for it to take and still be finished on time. If it helps to have a rough idea of a project at this stage then work with that too, but at this stage the sections are more important than what you’re going to do with them. Once you’ve worked that out, see if there’s any wiggle room (in my project if I want a more complex video I have to make the game less complex) between sections and make a note of that too.

Step Two – Brainstorm

Sit and scribble for a while. See where you might want to take your project, write it all down, and hold nothing back. This is by far the most fun bit – have fun!

Important Note – Message

The most important piece of advice I can give you here though is to decide what the point of your project is before you go anywhere near the design stage. The point is to deliver the message, not always to create flashy, beautiful pieces of work (unless that is your message of course).

Step Three – Refine your Idea

Once you know what you want to do and how long you have to do it, take your idea and figure out how. This means (for me at least) writing down what tasks you’d have to do for your idea as it is, working out how long those would take, then seeing where you can make changes in the idea to use less time and keep the message.

Since all projects are different, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut and what to focus on. If you know your project and your message well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with this stage; the point is to know that you have to go through it before you start work.

Parting thoughts

Simply following these steps won’t magically make your project a success, but it should help you free up the time you need to make it shine (rather than spending the duration scrambling to fix all the features you’ve added!). Practice. See if it works for you. Or better yet, if you have a method of your own share it in the comments.

It’s time to step up and make the things we could make ‘if we had more time’ with the time we already have. We can do it; and I get to say ‘I told you so’ when we rule the world.

Further Reading and References

Project Management PDF by Marion E Haynes
Project Management Basic Principles – Project Smart

Scope Creep Management – Project Perfect

Traue – Let’s grow your Business (first image was from here)

Graphing the Triple Constraints of IT Failure – ZDNet (second image)