Sunday, January 5, 2014

Bean Bonkers and Life as a Human Resource

Every business has its bean counters.  In the bean business, they have them in spades.  A team of bean counters determines exactly how many beans to place each can to yield the maximum profit for the company.  If a worker at the cannery should strive to create a better can of beans by adding more beans or being more selective of the beans to be canned, that employee would, after a few formal warnings, be canned themselves.

Beans are not art.  Art is not beans.  But sometime way back, the two were crossbred to create an abominable freak worthy of Dr. Moreau; the animation production.  In this business, there are people who try to create art and people who try to count beans.  Together, they fail miserably in their individual tasks, but produce a bi-product called the animated cartoon; neither art nor beans.

I have spent the past 30 years working with bean counters, I have found four general varieties:

1. The Hornet, who hovers over you as they would a warm Pepsi.  Resist urge to swat.

2. The Alligator, who waits quietly out of sight, but can drown you in a death roll at any time.

3. The Chimpanzee, who is a barrel of laughs until they pelt you with their own feces.

4.  The Dog, who is patient, loyal, grateful when fed, and only bites if abused.

Bean counters could use the same allegory to label (or libel) artists.  Their job is a thankless one, trying to fill cans with art at an assembly line pace.  But when has the general public ever said of a great cartoon, "Wow, what an incredible drawing count!"?  But within production ranks,  drawing and footage counts are the standard to judge the worth of an artist.

One of my favorite productions was  The Brave Little Toaster, back in 1985 and '86.  It was also one of my craziest, work intensive experiences.  As a fish out of water working in Taipei, I had to animate 30 feet a week of full character animation - we all did.  Our bean counter was Chuck Richardson.  He gave us our footage count requirement, then left us alone to make the best film we could within that limitation.  I don't recall him ever giving anyone grief about their footage count, because he was right there, in the trenches with us.  He saw we were doing our best, and had more productive things to do than ask us each day, "How's that scene coming?".  Good dog, Chuck.

When I later became a director and producer, I relied heavily on my experiences on that film - Jerry Rees' directing style and Chuck Richardson's producing style.  To me, it's about making the best possible film within the budget and schedule given.  It is as critical for a director to know schedules and budgets as they would know editing.  

When I directed Olive, the Other Reindeer, our crushing TV schedule required the final render of 52 scenes a week.  With that deadline always in mind, I worked with the artists to approve the best 52 scenes they could create.  When we finished production with a little time left, we picked our worst scenes for retakes.  That show is a prime example of working within a limitation.  But still, no one watches it and says, "The footage count was great."

In the last ten years, some studios have added a beauty contest aspect to the mix.  Now, you are not only judged by how many cans you fill, but if they like how you look filling it.  If you don't fit in with the studio clique, you're out.  I've heard stories of Walt Disney grouping artists together who didn't get along in a deliberate attempt to create tension, to creatively fire them up.  That is a scenario for which current studios have zero tolerance, thanks to a department called Human  Resources, or HR.

Human Resources sounds like an ingredient on a bag of Soylent Green, and it is just as insidious.  Their function is to make sure a studio full of artists behaves like accountants.  No more hot creative arguments, no pranks, no spontaneous shenanigans, unless they are pre-approved by HR, rendering them non-spontaneous.  As long as you sit down, keep quiet, and don't question authority, you'll get a sticker at your quarterly review.

You read it right - REVIEW.   It doesn't matter if you have worked in the industry for decades on solid projects, you are brought into a private room and given a verbal report card.  No matter how tactfully it is done, this is flat out belittling.  This is not in 4th grade,  HR is not St.Mary's School, they are not Sr. Anne the psychotic nun, nor are they Fr, McGarvey, the child molesting headmaster.  Or are they?

Who the hell are these people judging us?

Remember the Apple Bonkers from The Yellow Submarine?  In animation, we have Bean Bonkers.  Watch your heads, kids!

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