Tuesday, July 7, 2009

#0008 CG Supervisor's Shot Breakdown, part 2 - Types of breakdowns

When breaking down a CG project, the CG Supervisor has several types of breakdowns to choose from, including the ballpark estimate, sampled estimate, production budget, and production plan and resource analysis. Preparing the right kind of breakdown for the situation can reflect greatly on your critical judgment and performance as a CG supervisor.

In my last post we examined some approaches to cost estimation: widget counting, difficulty ranking, attribute classification and difficulty ranked attribute classification (#0007). Today we will examine
the types of breakdowns (#0008). In our next post we will look at how to choose what's best (#0009). In Part 4, (#0010), we will conclude with how to format the breakdown presentation.

What kind of breakdown?
A few good choices
As a CG Supervisor you have several basic choices in your breakdown, including the ballpark estimate, which makes a loose commitment of time and money; the sampled estimate, which uses a portion of the shots as a sample and extrapolates costs from that; the production budget, which could look solely at labor but may include other costs; the production plan, which leaves out cost and focuses only on time; and the resource analysis, which subordinates most details to focus on resource needs. These are a few ways to classify the types of breakdowns; the boundaries may be fuzzy or arbitrary, but it allows us to discuss breakdowns in terms of your objectives and audience.

Essentials of any estimate
No matter what kind of breakdown you are preparing, there are certain essentials that must always be present.

  • Job related specifics: who, what, when due, when work must start (to avoid additional fees), and contact information (yours and theirs). Put your name on it. (Prepared by)
  • Validity period: most estimates expire after 30 or 60 days. Give the current date and the expiration date or period.
  • Scope of work description. It is vital to specify and limit the scope of work.

The ballpark estimate

Most supervisors are familiar with the ballpark. In its simplest form, it's a quick review of the available information and a brief oral statement or email with a number. At this level it's usually the least responsible and least reliable of estimates. What we want to consider is the written ballpark, sometimes called the estimate or budget estimate.

The important thing to consider when preparing a ballpark is whether your audience will view it as a ballpark and respect it as such. It does you no good at all if your audience considers it a firm number. Because the tendency for producers and others to do so will be high, you should remember to clearly state on the document itself and in accompanying documents that this is a rough estimate or ballpark and as such not binding.

However, most producers want something a bit binding they can take to their boss, so you might soften it or quantify just how binding it is. For example, you might say that the estimate is "contingent on material review", "contingent on final shot order", "contingent on footage shot", and so forth; the idea is to leave a back door out. Sometimes you may have a contingency amount which is the amount over the bid you can go given certain circumstances.

When preparing the ballpark, time is usually a factor. The widget counting approach is not advisable. The use of difficulty ranking may be sufficient, but you may want the added assurance you get by using difficulty ranked shot attributes to estimate costs.

The sampled estimate
Really large productions, involving hundreds of shots, will initially give a ballpark based on a sample of shots. I became aware of this when I was bidding a small vfx indy film with a list of 28 shots. Thinking they were ready for the big time, the producers took it to a major vfx post production studio, who met with them and dutifully reviewed the shots. At the end of the meeting the studio remarked that the information provided was sufficient for them to estimate costs, they just needed a total shot count to extrapolate the estimate from the sample of 28 shots.

It's an amusing anecdote, but it revealed to me a method of estimation I had never considered. Sampling.

Essentially one needs a few representative samples of shots that need to be done. It could be as few as one of each type, but three or four is probably better, because you want a range of difficulty. You can then employ whatever method you like, even widget counting, to arrive at a typical shot count. Multiply that by the number of shots with each given effect, and there you have it! I can think of no way to estimate the cost on a major vfx project such as an entire feature film or a television series.

I used this myself when estimating visual effects for season 2 of the UNIVERSE at Flight 33. Given a single episode and a brief discussion about the number of new shots and total minutes of new visuals desired per episode, I was able to work up a fairly reliable estimate for building a CGFX studio and producing 13 episodes.

The production budget
A budget is usually considered a bit more firm than an estimate, but to some degree it's just semantics. An estimate might be given to a client whereas a budget might be an internal presentation.

When preparing a production CG budget, you need to find out what other than labor you are expected to include. For example, it may be you will only include hourly personnel, with salaried personnel being handled separately. I think that's a bit unusual, but if you're not responsible for coordinators and other staff, you might not include them because the producer will be adding them. However, your subordinate supervisors and shot leads might be administrative overhead you need to consider.

Other costs you might not think to include are facilities rent and utilities; burden, an accounting term for payroll taxes and benefits, craft services and so forth. Do you need to include new equipment expenses or depreciation?

When preparing a production budget, you would want to work with the production accountant or controller to determine what you need to include, unless you have a producer telling you. It may be you actually need to get hard numbers from these people. However, unless you're responsible for a facility, you are unlikely to need to do a full CG production budget.

The production plan
A stripped down form of the production budget could be called the CG labor budget or production plan. In this you might only be evaluating the breakdown in terms of labor time. You would then send your spreadsheet on to a producer or production accountant who would then apply hourly rates, salaries, studio overhead and whatever else. This is likely to happen if your supervising a portion of a show or even an entire show at a large studio. In this case the studio wants to keep it's cost and compensation data confidential from you. So just provide what they need, a plan or estimate of labor time.

The resource analysis
A resource analysis differs from a budget in a subtle way, it considers both how long things will take to get done and how long you have and allows you to focus on what personnel and software and machines will be needed to get the work done on schedule. Often, this is an important step in budgeting, especially if you think you may need more resources or overtime to get the job done.

A good resource analysis should breakdown labor by job function. You need X number of modelers for X weeks. Or more precisely, between date A and date B. And so forth.

With a resource analysis, you have a tool to go to management with to request more help as needed, avoid layoffs that might cripple your operation, or restructure your staff needs. It's an important decision making tool.

Other resources
Some organizations publish bidding guidelines that producers and directors in these fields rely on. For example see the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) guidelines at http://www.aicp.com/doingbusiness/guidelines.html.

This series of articles should prepare the novice CG supervisor to make good breakdowns and could help an experienced supervisor make better ones. Eventually, much depends on your general experience in shot construction and specific understanding of methods and techniques you will use (or rather, your crew will use) to get the job done. remember to consult your experts when you get the slightest bit outside your comfort zone.

If you want further information on estimates, I'll just point out that the search terms, "how to prepare an estimate" returned nearly 12 million hits. It's a vast subject and their's plenty of help available.