Creativity vs. Productivity

Categories Philosophy, Workflow

Of all the people I have met whilst working in the visual effects industry, I have never met another artist who is truly ok calling something “good enough”. It’s a title that is begrudgingly assigned to a shot when they know they don’t have the time to push it any further. In saying that, is there really such a thing as the “perfect shot”? I would argue no, and here’s why.

In a perfect world, we would have as much time as we feel we need to complete a shot. Think about how great you could make your work if you had all the elements you needed from Day 1 of a show, and had 6 months to complete it?! You would have so much time to explore each and every avenue and come out the other side with the mythical “perfect shot”; the right balance of creative finesse and technical perfection.

Except, this isn’t how we work, and I don’t believe a huge amount of extra time would necessarily result in a far better shot. Think of a show you have worked on that lasted only two months, and then one that lasted six or twelve months. No matter how long a project lasts, the last month (give or take) is usually always a crazy rush to the finish line! I believe this exact scenario would happen regardless of if you had 2 minutes or 2 years to complete a single shot. This perfect world can’t even exist hypothetically!

This introduces a need to figure out how to do great work in an efficient manner. Like most visual effects professionals, this is something I learned out of necessity from dealing with crazy schedules & ever-shortening deadlines. Although during some downtime, I really thought about this. What if there was a better way? Well, I have some great news for you — there is!

Have you ever had a member of your team who seems so detail-oriented that they seem to lose sight of the big picture, and digs themself into a deeper and deeper hole whilst doing so? If your answer is no, this person could be you! But never fear, Pareto’s Principle is here to save you!

Pareto’s Principle, more-commonly known as the 80/20 rule, can be applied to many things in life. The idea is that 80% of your results come from 20% of the effort you put in, and similarly, 80% of your time is wasted on getting only 20% of your shot completed. It’s always beneficial to look at this from both sides of the coin. This is the most important productivity tip I’ve learned, and something I can’t imagine working without today.

Let’s dive into this a bit further within the context of visual effects, and completing a shot — the following is biased towards compositors, but I believe this advice applies to other disciplines, and all walks of life.

STEP 1: When starting a shot, don’t dive straight in, actually watch it through a few times… It sounds obvious, but its a small step that a lot of people miss. Taking 5 minutes to watch a shot to truly analyse its intricacies can save so much time in the long run! Figure out the path of least resistance, rather than jumping in the deep end and figuring things out as you go.

STEP 2: Spend 20% of your allotted time to create a first version, which will naturally get you 80% of the way there. This means pulling your keys, adding in your roto, slapping in your DMP background, adding your CG with some basic colour correction, matching black levels, grain and chromatic aberration & making sure everything tracks properly. Assembling a rough first-pass of this puzzle, even on the most complex shots, doesn’t take up a lot of time. But once you see this first render, it informs so much of what needs to be done to get the shot to final!

STEP 3: Chill out. At this point it’s already quite easy to get lost in every tiny detail. Don’t dive into the time-sink that is the back and forth of changing hundreds of elements all at once, over and over again — Don’t let 80% of your time turn into only 20% of your result!

At this point, I find it incredibly useful to make a list of all the things I need to do, with sub-tasks to cross off as I go. This takes no time at all, but helps me quantify how much I need to get done, and also gives me a rush of dopamine (the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers) every time I can cross an item off my list! If you know me, you know how much I love Workflowy to help achieve this. Seriously, check it out, it will improve your work & your life!

STEP 4: As you complete items on your to-do list, you will often start to see a pattern emerging of, “things that make the shot substantially better”, vs. “things that I have to do, but probably won’t make a huge difference”. When you get to this point, stop and re-prioritize your to-do list. Ask yourself, “which 3 to 5 items are most important to the shot, that it can’t do without”, and “which 3 to 5 items can be made redundant if I complete any bigger-ticket items”. Do these first.

STEP 5: Submit your shot. What? You think it still needs more time and effort? Nope. Submit it for review. This is the golden point where you’ve got your shot 80% of the way between a first-pass and a “perfect” final version. It’s the perfect time to say “this shot works well and is probably good enough to go in the movie/episode/commercial as a final”. Sometimes this is true! But other times, your supervisor or director will steer you in a completely different direction. This sucks, but you know what? You only spent 20% of your time getting to this point, which is a lot less heart-breaking than spending weeks on something that has to be re-done.

STEP 6: Rinse and repeat as many times as it takes for you to final the shot. You’ll probably find that you’re having to create less versions than before you used the 80/20 rule to your advantage.

STEP 7: Bask in the glory of Pareto’s Principle! When you implement this simple rule, you’ll be getting so much more done in comparison to your peers every day. This leaves significantly more time to work on other shots, makes every member of your team love you, and is generally the least stressful way to complete a show.

Keep this rule in the forefront of your mind, and constantly practice the philosophy. How else could you implement the 80/20 rule at work, or in your life?

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