Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Management and Innovation in Animation
(June 21, 2010)

I exchanged email with a former student who told me about two other former students who were interning at an animation studio. The two interns, in combination with other interns, did a test film that impressed the studio management, including people in other divisions who thought that the project had potential to generate some profits for the company. The two interns were then moved into regular production.

On the face of it, this is a success story, right? A couple of interns impress the higher-ups and get to work on a real film, getting a resume credit and if they're lucky, a screen credit. However, there's another way to look at this.

Google tells its employees to spend 20% of their work time on personal projects. Google is not doing this because it is generous; this is a pragmatic move. Google knows that it hires smart, clever people and that left alone, these people are likely to come up with ideas with profit potential. Not all of the ideas will pan out, but enough of them will to justify the time the employees spend on their personal projects.

Contrast this to what happened to the interns. They did work that looked to have profit potential, but instead of leaving the interns alone to continue developing the property, they were taken off it.

Many animation studios are hand to mouth operations because they're small or doing service work on tight margins. However, there are animation studios and animation broadcasters who have been profitable for years, but they would never think of paying their highly creative employees to create something other than what management dictates. What typically happens is that management develops a project, hires artists to work on single functions, and then lays them off when the project is complete.

This is the equivalent of buying an iPad and only using it to read email. The potential is much greater.

As Bob Lefsetz says, "Why do the best ideas have to come from the top? Just because that guy’s paid the most? Maybe the kid on the bottom is more in touch with the street!" Once upon a time, Disney couldn't see the potential in Tim Burton or John Lasseter. It cost the company a lot of money to get those guys back.

I'm convinced that the successful companies of the future, inside or outside of animation, are going to be the managements that free their staffs to follow their own interests for a percentage of the time. Reducing human potential to a single, narrow function is not only stifling, it's money-losing. Google will never run out of ideas. Animation is in danger of doing so.