Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Against Outsourcing
(March 22, 2009)

"And 44 percent of the time (there are commercial airline crashes), the two pilots have never flown together before, so they're not comfortable with each other." -Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

"A palpable energy is released when inspiration and dedication come together in a creative art. The energy is transformative in an individual who is innovative, but it is transcendent when manifested by a group. There are no words for the dynamic thrill of participating in a mutual mosaic of creativity." — Wynton Marsalis

My father worked for over 60 years as a machinist. His job was to take a blueprint supplied by a client and figure out how to make the machine part using the tools and crew at his disposal. Often, my father had only the vaguest sense of what the piece would be used for; he rarely saw his piece assembled with any other pieces.

The system worked because of the nature of blueprints. I grew up listening to my father talk about the challenges of making certain parts. The allowable tolerances, meaning the amount that the part could deviate from the blueprint without being rejected, was often as small as four ten-thousandths of an inch. As a child, working with a ruler whose closest marks were one thirty-second of an inch apart, I was amazed that anything could be made so exactly.

It works for machine parts; it doesn't work for entertainment. The theory behind outsourcing is straightforward. If you can buy something for less money than it costs to build yourself, it makes sense to buy it. If a dentist needs a stapler, it's far more cost-effective to buy one than to order raw materials and tools to make a single stapler. Even when a dentist needs a crown for a patient, it's more cost effective to buy the crown from a specialty company than to make it in-house.

Problems arise when entertainment is treated like something that can be built to a blueprint. The relationship between client and supplier is very different than that of collaborators. Both client and supplier need the instructions to be as specific as possible (down to four ten-thousandths of an inch if possible). The client needs this so that the resulting work will fit his or her needs; the supplier needs this as he or she is being paid piece-work, and poor instructions inevitably mean rejects, which cut into profits and threaten the existence of the business.

It's clearly a master-servant relationship. The master has a need; the servant wants to meet that need with as little fuss as possible. While this sounds like a symbiotic relationship, where both parties benefit from each others existence, it often becomes an adversarial relationship. The master doesn't always know what he or she really wants. The servant has to satisfy the master in order to get paid, but has a limit as to how much effort can be expended before taking a loss. The master rarely takes this into consideration, thinking that payment allows for unlimited revisions. The goals of the master and the servant are different and the financial relationship they enter into makes this inevitable.

Collaborators share the same goals. They may disagree as to the particulars or how to reach the goals, but they agree in principle or they would abandon each other as collaborators. What happens in a good collaboration is something called a positive feedback loop. One collaborator does something which presents opportunities for another collaborator to elaborate on. If the elaboration is any good, it often stimulates additional improvements. The feedback between collaborators pushes the idea or product farther than one simply giving directions to the other.

In many cases, animation is now thought of as a service to be outsourced. It requires that pre-production be far more detailed than in the past. Storyboard artists (especially for TV) are being asked to draw tightly and on model, as their work serves as the basis for the creation of the animation. In other words, the boards are thought of as the blueprints. But there is no way that a storyboard can contain as much information as a blueprint, and so inevitably there are mistakes and retakes. More money is spent on pre-production to take advantage of the economics of outsourcing, but due to the nature of entertainment, there are more retakes required to fix the mistakes. More money is being spent up front and at the end in order to justify saving the money in the middle.

Furthermore, this process eliminates the possibility of a positive feedback loop. There's no financial incentive for servants to try and outperform their masters' expectations. It only makes life more difficult when masters are already asking for too much for the money. Masters don't see their servants as collaborators; servants are merely "the help." My father never knew how a part was to be used, so it was impossible for him to suggest design changes that might have made a part work more efficiently.

What outsourcing does in entertainment is to increase costs in certain parts of production and to wall off any supplier innovation from the rest of the production.

You can't put a dollar figure on collaboration, because until it happens, you don't know what will result. Eliminating collaboration is a false efficiency. In entertainment, it may reduce cost, but it also reduces quality. As the marketplace becomes more crowded and as the internet drives the cost of everything towards zero, the cost of entertainment is going to become less important than its quality.