Thursday, July 2, 2009

#0005 The Essential Tasks of the CG Supervisor

Employment ads are often the closest a CG supervisor ever gets to seeing a written job description. What's really interesting, in my experience, is that there are many kinds of CG supervisors. More importantly, co-workers often have very different expectations of what a supervisor's job should be.

#1 The CG Supervisor is the Technologist
This role is often the key role of focus in want ads and the minds of co-workers. Employers often want someone who is the key expert on the tools in use. Staff looks to the
Technologist to provide them mentoring and guidance in the use of the tools.

Naturally, one cannot be an expert in every tool used; one could be
knowledgeable in the core technologies and be familiar or become familiar with the others. (see blog #0002, Tools of the Trade, for tips on how to separate your supervision function from the expert user function.) The best way to prepare yourself to be the Technologist is to be strong in a couple of core technologies and then spend a little time learning something about the other technologies in use.

#2 The CG Supervisor is the Fixer
Often combined with number 1, the Fixer is the go-to-guy to solve any problem. The difference is the fixer may not be an expert in using every tool, but he knows how to solve problems and get things fixed efficiently.

The ability to diagnose and work a technical problem is a very unique and important skill. (I address this in blog #0002,
Tools of the Trade, and will visit this again in blog #0006, The CG Supervisor's Trick Card: Understanding The Software Paradigm.) A degree of knowledge is necessary, a degree of logical thinking, and a whole lot of intuition. One has to get inside the head of the artist with the problem and the programmer who wrote the code. I don't believe this is a skill that comes naturally to some people and I've never seen anyone try to teach it (other than myself) to artists, but if you know this and can teach it to others, you are going to find your job gets much easier.

#3 The CG Supervisor is the Designer
Often the supervisor is looked to by management and crew to give visual direction. Depending on the shop, this function may be the province of the
VFX Supervisor or the Art Director. Even so the CG Supervisor often has tremendous clout when it comes to giving visual direction. Still, giving visual or artistic direction usually plays a back seat to being the Technologist and the Fixer, roles the VFX Supervisor and the Art Director are less likely to fill.

Preparing yourself to give visual or artistic direction can be
accomplished through art or film school, watching and analyzing lots of movies (or if you work in TV, titles, advertising you watch those things), constantly looking and observing. If you're doing photo-real work or natural work you want to spend a lot of time observing the kinds of subjects you will be depicting. This is where the acquisition of visual references early in the process is vital and why the internet and a good researcher are invaluable allies. Motion graphics CG supervisors will want to spend time looking at art books, art magazines and pop media. because motion graphics is a fashion industry.

Of course, one other skill you should cultivate is the ability to draw storyboards. You should be able to draw quick thumbnails during a meeting, and when needed, do more detailed boards.

#4 The CG Supervisor is the Production Planner
Because you know what tools and artists you have available or can obtain, as CG Supervisor you'll be looked at as the go-to guy for analyzing a shot list and planning the CG work. Sometimes your "shot list" will only be a reel or clip showing the rough edit, and sometimes you'll get a text document or spreadsheet listing the shots and, if you're lucky, a little guidance on what the director or
vfx supervisor would like to see happen. Another way some productions work is you will sit with the director or vfx supervisor and go through the material and together determine what should be seen.

Whatever way it comes to the CG Supervisor, he has to be able to breakdown a show and analyze what the shot calls for visually and determine what tools and people are needed (and consider
availability and alternatives). Then the fun starts, because the next step is to quantify the work and the cost, and determine how to get it done on time and on budget (allowing a HUGE margin of error).

In some operations, the CG Supervisor may stop at quantifying the breakdown in terms of labor needs. Then the producer or production manager will take this and convert it into costs and budgets.

To prepare for this job function the CG Supervisor needs to learn how to use
spreadsheets (at a minimum). Everything else comes from experience. But remember, as we discussed in Blog #2, Tools of the Trade, the CG Supervisor needs to develop experts he (or she) can consult when breaking down a job.

#5 The The CG Supervisor is the Crew Boss
When I was tapped to CG Supervise visual effects at R.
Greenberg & Associates for the feature Mortal Kombat, I recall discussing with the VFX Supervisor Stuart Robertson what he expected me to do. He drew up the analogy of himself as captain of the ship, determining direction and objectives and standards and deadlines. The CG Supervisor, he explained, is the first officer, who actually runs the ship, managing the crew, setting schedules, guiding the crew in the execution of their assignments, and so forth. Another way to look at it, the vfx supervisor (and/or director and/or producer and/or Art Director) establish WHAT needs to be done and WHEN it is needed (and from time to time WHY and WHERE). The CG Supervisor is more likely to decide HOW and WHO will do it, decisions that influence WHEN it gets done.

Management and the crew should usually see you as the crew boss, unless your a
VFX-CG supervisor wearing more other hats. In that case the crew bosses might be the 3d and Comp supervisors, or other unit-level supervisors. For example, when I was CGFX Department head at Flight 33, my job title as hired was "CG Supervisor". But the scope of the job left me little time to be the crew boss, so I delegated this to unit leaders with reduced scope. I was managing ALL shows and ALL shots and ALL units, whereas the unit supervisors were responsible for a portion of shows, shots and had a unit focus.

Some operations put a producer or production manager in the role of Crew Boss. However your company operates, you should, if you're responsible for meeting deadlines, have some authority about assignments and time off.

The best
preparation for being a good Crew Boss: work for one. Alternative: Read "The Art of Supervision." (Yes, this is a blatant plug!)

#6 The CG Supervisor is the Scheduler
Once, I was working as a Compositor/Shot Lead on a film and towards the end of production, someone criticized the Producer for not drawing up a schedule for the crew. I responded that it wasn't his job, it's the job of the CG Supervisor. (Of course, this was also the only production I ever saw that had no CG supervisor.)

Some will argue that the producer should draw up the schedule. I will say no, and here is why: the producer is managing commitments of final deliveries, the budget, outsourcing, traffic and so many other issues. Yes, the producer needs to supply the big picture schedule. But unless the producer is also the crew boss, the CG supervisor needs to be doing it. Even if the crew bosses are unit supervisors, as I had at Flight 33, the CG supervisor cannot delegate this down to them because they do not manage at the level of the entire project. For example, a 3d supervisor could manage the schedule (and should) for us team, but cannot schedule for workers in other units. So the CG supervisor needs to do this.

Now, as I said, there are exceptions. I actually worked at another company on another film and was surprised that the producer was the crew boss. The CG supervisor in this case was The Technologist and The Fixer and helped with Production Planning, but the producer ran the crew and supervised. At other companies, I understand this function may be handled by a Production Manager.

However it's done, scheduling is tied in with the role of Crew Boss at the project level. At levels below this CG supervisors who carry the titles of 3d supervisor, comp supervisor, animation supervisor, and so forth can only manage schedules within their unit.

To prepare to be a good scheduler, one needs to have a good understanding of how long things will take, human nature, vagaries of production and so forth. As I've said in blog #2, a good scheduler consults his (or her--this is tedious, ok if I stop?) experts as well. Software tools that are used for basic scheduling are calendars and spreadsheets. More expert scheduling is done with project management software. We will examine this in another blog.

#7 The CG Supervisor is the Whip
A "Whip" is the person who gets things done, the organizer and motivator. His job is to move the crew toward the goal. Another aspect of being the "whip" is the actual assignment of tasks and
responsibilities. (Now before you say, isn't that what a Crew Boss does, let me just say, "usually." However, it is an important part of CG Supervision, so I choose to break it out for separate discussion.)

Assignment of tasks is not a simple, "I need you to do this...", although it often looks that way.
Good delegation is a skill, and it needs to be learned. (Yes, a future blog topic.) Likewise, motivation is a skill.

Related to this function of the CG Supervisor, is the
coordination of activities between artists and developers and other crew members. Often this is managed by a person called a coordinator, but not always. Coordinators are various persons who don't have command and control authority (please call them supervisors if they do) and supplement supervisors by performing the administrative part of a job function. Many coordinators are involved with helping the CG supervisor (or producer) with whipping the project through the production workflow pipeline, the approval pipeline, the materials pipeline.

Software tools a CG Supervisor needs to learn to help with command and control, delegation and follow-up, include various
collaboration tools on the market. Many large studios develop their own. There are many of these tools available, few are cheap, and we will discuss these options in the future.

#8 The CG Supervisor is the Servant
I'm sure that I have forgotten something --it will come to me about the time my head hits the pillow. More or less, these six items cover the range or responsibilities of the typical CG Supervisor. Some will do all these things, some will have a subset, depending in part in what scope of CG supervisor they are (a comp supervisor is a CG supervisor with limited scope). Another factor, as we've discussed, is what other personnel are available who may take on some of these functions.

One function the CG Supervisor cannot ever get away from is this last one, the CG Supervisor is the Servant.

Your job, as a CG Supervisor, your most vital and crucial job, is to be the enabler. You function to serve the entire crew, to meet their needs at all times. You may answer to a VFX supervisor, a producer, a director, a company executive. But always remember your bosses are the talented people you supervise. If you do not meet their needs they will stop work. Repeat. If you do not meet their needs they will stop work. You may run the ship, but the ship runs you my friend. This is an absolute truth.

  1. You must meet their need for the Technologist, the guru of the arcane mysteries of software and hardware.
  2. You must meet their need for the Fixer, the master troubleshooter, Mr. Scotty.
  3. You must meet their need for the Designer, the visionary, the goal setter.
  4. You must meet their need for the Production Planner, the one who will guide them through impossible expectations.
  5. You must meet their need for the Crew Boss, the one who holds it all together.
  6. You must meet their need for the Scheduler, that they will know how long to tinker.
  7. You must meet their need for the Whip, that they will know what to do, and get it done.
You may not personally be any of these seven things, but always and in all ways you must be the one who meets their needs.


Mario Fuchs said...

Nice post. Keep it up!

Looking forward to your view on project management tools/software.

Ali Asad ( said...

This is a great read. Thanks for sharing something that isn't widely known. You should definitly write a book on the subject or have you done that already?