Thursday, March 25, 2010

#0031 The Fourth Dimension of CG Pipelines

I've described previously the three dimensions of digital fx production pipelines: personnel, tools and procedure.  In recent weeks I've come to realize that my description is missing a crucial dimension, a dimension vital to us as supervisors and vital to the entire process.  Let me begin now to rectify that with a quick review:

When we speak of pipelines, there is a great deal of confusion because the term means so many things to many different people.  My objective in writing this blog has been to help clarify the discussion.

Schematic relationship of three classes of pipelines.  Large dots and ovals represent workers or automated tasks.  Diagram illustrates that each pipeline has it's own project lifespan separate from others and own personnel.  Yet personnel and automata in each pipeline may from time to time interact with the other pipelines' personnel and information.  Diagram does not reflect the sale cycle, but rather assumes production begins with receipt of materials and initial direction and ends with delivery of materials.  Note that the Approval Pipeline's functional property of being an information firewall between externally received direction and staff is also not illustrated.  Pipeline interaction  timing and frequency is merely suggestive. 
(c) 2010 Isa A. Alsup

I see three classes of pipelines used in production management: 
production pipelines, meaning the sequential movement of a shot through the hands of artists and technicians who produce elements and refinements leading to a finished product;
the materials pipeline that provides a mechanism for the flow of data in and out of the production pipeline, the flow of data between  artists and technicians and the archival and retrieval of reusable assets;
and the  approval pipeline, that provides interfaces, a historical record and regulates the process of giving direction, clarifying direction and securing approval for the work done in the production pipeline.  While some may see these as one pipeline, I see them as different because an organization is free to develop each class of pipeline more or less fully depending on needs.  Looked at generically, this description would suit equally well for a tomato canning company as a visual effects company, where data is exchanged for tomatoes.  This simplicity makes it possible for us to draw from the experience of production managers outside visual effects and computer graphics where appropriate.

For each of these three pipelines, I've described three dimensions: 
Three Dimensions of Pipelines
(c) 2010 Isa A. Alsup
personnel , which comprises the artists and technicians and their skills and personalities; 
tools , which comprises the computer hardware, film recorders, scanners, and other devices together with the software needed to operate them and any other workplace tools, equipment and furniture and facilities --automation and "robots" are tools;
procedure , which comprises the workplace policies, procedures, methods, proprietary techniques, and so forth and embraces the company's corporate culture.

While each of the three classes, production, materials and approvals will involve personnel, tools and procedure, what makes them essentially separate pipelines is that while they may share some common personnel, tools and procedures, these sharings are merely points of contact.  The materials pipeline, for example, will often employ workers, software and procedures totally unique to itself and totally within itself.  Artists in the production pipeline will come in contact with the materials pipeline regularly, so their work procedures will provide the proper guidelines for them to check-in and check-out materials so the materials pipeline works smoothly and the production pipeline gets what it needs when it needs it.  The supervisor works to establish, explain, support, regulate and as necessary modify these procedures.

Likewise, artists and technicians should be coming in contact with the approvals pipeline on a daily basis.  In doing so, in a well-regulated environment, they will have access to the directions they need and the information they need.  But they should not normally see every comment or note given by the client --that information should be interpreted by a supervisor who understands the company's needs and goals.  For example, if a client has access to your approval system, and his remarks can be seen by artists without any moderation, then problems could occur if the artist undertakes to satisfy the client requests without consultation with a supervisor, who may know a better way to satisfy the client request.  In some cases a client request may get rejected; what a shame if some artist invests a day chasing that request not knowing that management plans to discuss and modify the request with the client.  For this reason, the approvals pipeline is an information firewall with supervisors and other managers and perhaps a few coordinators functioning as moderators and loggers of information.

Within the production pipeline, which is structured based on the experience and guidance of the supervisors, artists and technicians will need guidance and support.  This again comes from the supervisors.  Many people see the supervisor as the master technologist,  which may be true, but really the role of the supervisor is to be the facilitator.  The producer can be thought of as the facilitator of the facilitators.  The CG Supervisor's main job is to make sure that every person in the production pipeline has the best available tools and training and knows and observes the essential procedures.  The CG Supervisor may also assist the VFX Supervisor in communicating direction and vision and help the artists achieve those goals.

Academy Award winning VFX supervisor Stuart Robertson, who I worked with on several films where he was the VFX Supervisor and I the CG Supervisor, once likened the role of the VFX Supervisor to that of a captain of a vessel.  The captain is responsible for the vision of where the ship should go and when it should get there and usually sets the course from here to there.  The CG Supervisor, as first mate, runs the ship itself to meet these goals, working through the junior officers and as necessary directly with the crew to achieve results.  (The Producer could be likened to either the Port Admiral perhaps, setting broad goals and interfacing with other agencies.)  The supervisors facilitate and provide leadership to the crew; the crew works with the ship and its tools and standard procedures to reach the destination. 

4 Dimensional pipeline pyramid
(c) 2010 Isa A. Alsup
Every pipeline has four dimensions: personnel, tools, procedure AND leadership Leadership is the quality of being able to assemble qualified personnel, equip them with essential tools, provide them effective procedures and show them where to go and how to get there.  Leadership is the ability to facilitate the efficient completion of the task.  Leadership is the ability to get the job done; and to get the job done in such a way that the team stays together for the next task.  Leadership is the fourth dimension of the pipeline.  It is what takes the three dimensions, which are static, and adds the fourth dimension, which is dynamic.  Leadership provides forward motion.

This blog has been dancing around this issue more or less from the beginning.  Let's refocus ourselves as CG Supervisors, VFX Supervisors and C G Producers to realize that our job is to provide leadership; to empower and facilitate our personnel to get the job done.  We're not here to be slavemasters, overlords or bosses.  It's not about egos.  It's about what we do.

Often, the leader is selected for superior technical knowledge. While there is often merit in that, because the one with the technical knowledge who leads is in a good position to meet the needs of his or her team.  Leaders of artists and technologists need to excel in their art and technology.  But if you're in a position to select a team leader, you need to remember, that leadership is a separate dimension,  a separate quality.

Select your supervisors with good qualities of  leadership: ability to communicate, patience, compassion, ability to prioritize, focus on the mission, ability to teach and share knowledge --these are some of the attributes needed in a good CG Supervisor.  Select the best and remember, it's your job to help your leaders grow.  Facilitate their leadership.

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