Thursday, October 15, 2009

#0028 More on Twitter for Collaboration


I proposed using Twitter for collaboration in my last post, #0027, "Using Social Networking".  After writing the blog, I jumped onto LinkedIn groups and asked for feedback.   This is one of the ways I was suggesting we can use social networking tools: to get and give information.

Results were quick.  LinkedIn VES group member (and former colleague and friend) Torey Alvarez called our attention to Twitter's beta test new business oriented service, CoTweet.

This service has a rich feature set to help business users.  These would also make its use as a collaboration tool within a VFX company even more powerful.  I'm not going to do their marketing job for them, but I suggest you can follow them@cotweet or visit the homepage at

I'm not yet using this service, but I will give it a thorough check out.  
In the meantime, please drop me a Tweet to tell me you're reading 
--and what cool stuff you're working on now. 

Also, check this out:

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

#0027 Using Social Networking


Social Networking:
A Management Tool

Lately I've been interested in social networking tools, both for getting (and keeping) a job, and as a potential tool for pulling together work teams and speeding up feedback loops.  I've come to see that CG supervisors and producers need to embrace these tools for both reasons.  By embrace, I mean use and master.

My journey into these tools began long ago, because I'm going to expand my definition to embrace not only tools like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Spacebook and so forth, but also tools like Google Docs, Calendars, Basecamp and other applications that foster communication and collaboration.

Email is perhaps the most familiar and most ancient of the tools available.  Overtime, email users have developed some cultural guidelines for how to use email effectively.  However, I believe that how and when we use email will radically shift as more people begin to rely on the new social networking tools.

Now, by new, I mean the tools that have been emerging over the last few years.  Today I want to talk about the tool I think has the most power and potential for us: Twitter.  You may ask, why Twitter and not Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

Twitter differs from the other applications in a significant way: it is essentially a super-group-chat, and the primary use of Twitter is to hold conversations within a community of users.  

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

Facebook  and MySpace are excellent, general purpose, social networking apps.  I haven't jumped into MySpace, but  Facebook's terms of service restrict it's use to non-commercial networking, so it's a place to connect with friends and family.  However, Facebook gives professionals and businesses a "page", with most of the features of a Facebook account, including a wall.  I use one to separate my personal and professional networks: Isa A Alsup, but the way I use it is redundant to my Twitter site.  I just want to reach my professional contacts that haven't jumped into Twitter or LinkedIn.

Image representing LinkedIn as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

Sites like LinkedIn and VFXConnection aim at building professional networks.  LinkedIn is very restrictive about attempting to link in people you don't know, while VFXConnection seems to have no restrictions.  On the other hand, LinkedIn seems vast with members and groups, while VFXConnection is less so.  But VFXConnection has more services, including a job board and resume posting, so it's sort of a hybrid social networking and job site.   Both offer groups, and this is a good way to extend your professional contact list.

You may think networking is just about finding a job, but it's much more than that.  But let's start there.  If you're not sure about the importance of professional or career networking, I suggest you finish this article, thenimmediately go to the blog of The Career Coach, Pamela Kleibrink Thompson published on the Animation World Network,   Pamela points up the foolishness of "Working Without a Net(work)" and provides valuable guidance in her column.  Sooner or later you will need a new job, and 80% of jobs, she points out, are never advertised.

Almost 80% of jobs are never advertised
--Cornell University Career Services,
attributed by Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

Using network tools to find a job are outside the scope of this blog, which is why I refer you to Pamela. also has great articles, but Pamela is the Master of Masters when it comes to coaching careers.  The important point here is to build your network now and work it now.  Follow Pamela's advice about how to network without becoming a leech or nuisance by using your network to contribute to helping others.  As the movie title goes, Pay It Forward.

Helping others and getting help are the way you can and will use your network most of the time.  Joel Comm, in his book "Twitter Power", reminds us that the most important part of the word "network" is the "work".  It's not enough to click a few links and collect a bunch of connections.  You need to work to give value to the connections, by answering questions and being supportive.  On LinkedIn, don't wait to be asked for recommendations, give them.  When asked, give.  Give, give, give.  The act of giving and receiving in a social network requires a conversation to occur.  In fact, sometimes the gift is the conversation: for example, when you offer support, praise or answer a question.  An inexpensive but valuable gift.

And this is why I believe that our best tool for social networking isn't email, or blogging, or building connections, it's having conversations.   Enter Twitter, which fosters and enables conversations.  Sure, you can use Facebook or LinkedIn or even email, but nothing is as simple and as effective as Twitter.

Get out there and build a social network, get in the conversation, and help one another.  Join professional groups in LinkedIn and start using Twitter to build and maintain connections within the CG and VFX community.  Certainly tell us what you're doing now, and add what you're thinking about, feeling, reading, inspired by, and would like to do.  Ask questions and give answers.  Be a friend.  Give help, and ask for help.  You'll thank me later.


Twitter bird logo icon illustration 
Use Twitter At Work


You spend a huge part of your day having conversations as a CG Supervisor or producer.  Most of these will be with subordinates and a few with superiors and if you are very lucky, a tiny fraction with peers.

Recently, I managed a CG department with 36 employees.  One day my boss called me and asked me to come across the street to his office.  I immediately stopped what I was doing and headed for the door.  Between the phone and the door, three floors down, I had no less than seven conversations in the next few minutes --all about ongoing projects.  By the time I walked half a block to the crossing, crossed and made it to the other building I had another conversation with a worker who came with me (to continue the conversation) and another on my cell phone. The entire day was one conversation after another.

What are we talking about?  Everything.    Status on shots.  Notes I need addressed.  Status on source materials.  Vacation request.  An artist is again asking for Photoshop.  Someone missed a deadline.  Materials for next week's episode are late.  Scheduling a meeting.  Network issues. A shader problem.  Do I like the lighting?  Lunch.  Hiring.  Someone leaving.  A camera move.  Are these waves OK? Look at this cool stereographic image I made using projection mapping.  Is the model approved.....  On and on and on.

This was my day, exhausting and stimulating.  I managed a crew of 36 at peak, most of the time closer to 20.  Three subordinate supervisors and two coordinators carried a heavy load, so I did not have to handle everything.  Imagine a bigger crew, perhaps even scattered on many floors (I only had two floors to deal with) or several buildings or more than one city?  Email may be a good way to stay in touch, and there are other tools we will look at like Basecamp, Shotgun, Google Apps, and the like, but for many communications, Twitter (or a tool like it) may be the answer.

In a nutshell, you need to set up a Twitter account separate from your personal account.  It could be for your CG company, division or department or team.  It could be for one or more projects.  The fun thing, is you get to decide.

Say your company is producing at any given time four films, and your crew is mostly assigned to one film, although a few rare specialists may be assigned to two films.  The CG Supervisor or Producer or Coordinator for the film sets up a protected Twitter account, where only approved people may follow the tweet timeline.  This is vital to meet any non-disclosure agreements your company is obliged to follow.   Then users would set-up a separate work Twitter account and follow the project.

And there you are.  All your status reports from all team members are flying around where whoever needs the information has it.  Coordinators can see it.  You can ask so and so to follow up.  A question about a shader.  A comment on a camera move.  Information is moving.  You're conversing.  And further, you're able to record the conversations.

Other tools exist to organize the conversation, and we will look at these in the context of how they will support the approval and material pipeline.  But for your everyday, simple to use and easy to setup tool, Twitter is the tool for your Production Pipeline.

A few caveats: it may be a protected conversation, but in the workplace, not every conversation is for all ears!  Vacation requests and anything personal should be handled in a private channel, either a private chat or better an email or whatever form your company policy dictates.  Some conversations should not be written, and others must always be written or somehow recorded.  Very sensitive matters, like employee discipline, should be witnessed by another supervisor.  All this is outside the realm of Twitter.


not every conversation is for all ears! 

In the workplace, use Twitter to praise.  Have a private conversation to rebuke.  Use it to guide individuals and build the team.  Promote some casual talk, but don't let it become a chat and gossip pool.  Build morale and team spirit.  Use it to make group announcemen, remind people about deadlines.  Use it to communicate all those things that email is just not efficient at.

A final word: Twitter is a social networking tool.  Like any tool, you need to learn to use it and learn to use it well.  Get a good book, I recommend Joel Comm's Twitter Power, but there are others for Twitter and for other tools.  (I'm currently reading LinkedWorking by Frank Agin and Frank Howes).

I strongly recommend adding Twitter to your internal communications network and to your personal professional network. If you do use it at work, please follow me and let me know how it goes.

I wish I had been using it on my last job and will use it in the future.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#0026 Better Pipelines with Pros

A complex fractal image, generated in PASCAL.

Since my last post, life has been full of adventure and chaos,
most of it unrelated to CG Supervision. My daughter started college, our family was forced to find new housing when our landlord lost his house to the bank, looking for work, and a million other distractions. Through it all, I have been thinking long and hard about the future directions that CG Supervision is taking, and how I can help readers understand the changes that are happening and I believe will be coming so we can shape a future good for the CG industry and good for ourselves.

My intention has been to continue the CG pipeline series, and in post #0024 "Just a quick update..." I outlined the series direction. That intention remains, but it is a major undertaking that requires a good deal of focused time. Most of my thinking lately has been on the way VFX companies recruit and hire, probable directions of the CG industry and its import to myself and my readers, and new technologies and methods for command and control of the CG pipeline.

Hollywood Sign 
I believe that the worldwide economic condition is effecting CG workers globally, with large effect on U.S. visual effects CG workers, due to the outsourcing of jobs worldwide.  Outsourcing has been on the rise for over 15 years now, and today the effect can be seen looking at job boards like CreativeHeads, where the majority of ads placed are for jobs in England, Canada, and Australia. The U.S. market is still strong in games production, judging by CreativeHeads ads, but ads for non-U.S. jobs now dominate by 2:1 or greater. And that's a job site with HQ in Los Angeles, the historical heart of film making. The job board Smoothdevil caters almost exclusively to the European market and is quite full of offerings.

For single workers with Bachelors degrees under age 30, opportunities abound to work abroad on what are called work-vacation visas. To get one in many countries, you need to declare an intent to vacation in the country where you will work, and the visa you apply for allows you to work to pay for your vacation. Neat legal opportunity to see the world and work abroad, if you are single and 18-30.

After age 30 through 49, you can still get a work visa in many countries. For example, to work in Canada, you need to score 67 points on their qualification test. A Bachelor's degree is worth 20 point, and so on. After age 50, points are subtracted for your age.

Age discrimination is packaged subtly in the U.S. market as well. When an ad suggests "3-5 years experience", you need to understand that 5 years is considered a maximum. Showing more experience will most likely result in your resume being tossed. Employers in this way are limiting the job pool to workers more or less fresh out of college and those with less than five years experience: effectively cutting out most workers over 30.

Students working on class assignment in comput...
How does hiring 
less experienced workers

effect the CG supervisor? 

First, it means that increasingly, you are working with people who barely will know how to get a shot made. Your crew will comprise relatively green workers with relatively narrow work skills --specialists. Oddly, a specialist used to mean someone who spent years in a craft as a generalist who gradually developed a specialty, for example, in Lighting. Today, it's the opposite: a specialist is someone who after graduation, fell into an entry level job, did mainly lighting, and now does that fairly well, but cannot animate a camera to save his life.

Your CG crew will include a few people who have been around a while, providing some depth of experience, but after a few years these people may be cycled out of the company for younger, lower-paid workers, easy to do as each film wraps. A percentage of experienced workers are retained and paid very well, but in most cases the staff comprises specialists who repetitively do the same sort of shots for months at a time. Some will graduate into "supervision", which means a technical leader to most companies, and the rest will be let go.

The upshot for the CG supervisor is that your pipeline can become less and less flexible if your staff is less and less versatile.

Now a large VFX production company can handle that, but smaller companies need versatile pipelines. Hence the long-term prospects for employment in the VFX business for workers who fall out of the large production houses, is going to be smaller companies and starting their own small companies. Some will freelance for a few years, but if you leave VFX film making for a few years to pursue other interests or opportunities, your reel becomes stale and your skills are questioned. You may be better than before: faster, nimble, experienced, but the VFX world is looking for cheap.

This is odd, because often VFX large houses pay more than the small houses for less qualified workers. When I was hiring for a small CG production department, I was able to find workers with broader skill sets and hire them for less than workers who were specialists. I was able to hire good people at rates below those commonly paid by large studios because I was working with mostly generalists.  I hired roughly a third senior people and a third juniors, with a solid core of experienced generalists in the center.  A few of our exceptional people had both general and specialized skills, which helped us meet occasional special needs.

Let's face it, older workers are less likely to pull an all nighter and more likely to want time with their families.  But we as supervisors should not view these as negatives; after all, the point in working is to support life, so why complain when people want to live it?  We should expect a fair return for wages and can ask workers to be there for the big crunch, but we don't own them.

I find the situation sad, in part because it shuts out workers beyond a certain age (who leave the business in frustration), in part because it limits job opportunities for experienced workers (including CG supervisors), and in part because the inefficiencies of using poorly trained and inexperienced workers will eventually manifest themselves in an inflexible and less effective pipeline.

Further, the world population, especially in the U.S. and other "western" countries, is aging.  Bill Bennett writes about the problem of age discrimination toward knowledge based workers in "The madness that is age discrimination"

Sure, human brains slow down as we age, but they also amass experience and wisdom. Older workers have a lot to offer. It may be true that they can’t work through the night as frequently as youngsters or go on so many of those macho programming ‘death marches’. On the other hand, older workers tend to be more reliable and stable.

Perhaps the silliest aspect of age discrimination is that while the skills shortage may not be pressing right now, it hasn’t gone away. Many knowledge based industries are finding it hard to recruit enough youngsters, as older people drift away many won’t be capable of making a return if industry wakes up and decides it needs them any way.

The loss of efficiency in pipelines due to replacing experienced workers with specialized novices will put more pressure on producers and supervisors to use cheap (inexperienced) labor. Further, the loss of an experienced labor pool will eventually become an issue if not enough generalists and experienced older workers are retained.  The abandonment and loss of experience in local markets will drive more and more outsourcing.  Good for my non-U.S. readers, bad for the rest.

Or is it good for the non-U.S. vfx workers? Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a feature article about visual effects outsourcing to international vendors. The article reported that once vfx was established in a country for a few years, wage and efficiency pressures made outsourcing there less attractive, and the outsourcing was shifted to a country with a lower standard of living. Eventually, your company's new facility in India will exhibit the same inefficiencies as the one in Los Angeles, and management will start looking at China or Nigeria or Kamchatka.

Eventually we will run out of poorer nations, but that will not happen for a long, long time. The message to everyone working in this industry, whether you are in Los Angeles, Melbourne, London, Vancouver, Casablanca, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai.... your company can outsource your job, and will, unless it sees working with you is worth their money.

I believe the problem of VFX production costs cannot be solved by continually shopping for an outsource vendor in a cheaper nation. The problem is that we need to embrace experienced workers for the efficiencies they can bring to an operation. Not all older workers will meet the criteria of efficiency I'm talking about, because age does not guarantee experience and skill. But as I have long observed, the challenges in CG-VFX are often how well and how quickly we can solve technical and artistic problems.

An assembly-line mentality is not geared to solving problems- it works by avoiding problems. There are two groups of people who are good at solving problems: young, energized artists with new ideas AND enthusiastic, experienced artists who know how things work. The best is the skillful worker, with youthful energy and years of experience, who keeps his mind and ideas fresh and knows his tools well enough to animate with his eyes shut. I'm saying that to build better pipelines, stop looking for the cheap laborer who can follow a template tutorial: hire the generalist who is specialized. Build better pipelines with pros.

Finding and recruiting experienced workers is one of our key responsibilities as CG Supervisors. Looking for better people and putting them to work is what we need to do to make our pipelines more efficient. It's not easy, and it begins with ourselves. As the saying goes, "wake up and smell the coffee!"

  * Description: Coffee cortado (An latte...
Are we staying up with new technologies? Are we keeping abreast of changes in our field? Are we stimulating our imaginations? Are we letting management know we are relevant and important?

Are we technologists who happen to supervise, or are we supervisors who love the technology and the art? A CG supervisor is one who works with people to get the job done, gives them training and tools, and provides and promotes effective policies and work procedures.

Have fun on your job!          

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