Kids Got Game

Time to make the donuts: Six things to do at the start of production

The start of a new project is an exhilarating time and - let's be honest - a terrifying thing. As someone who's been on core teams in both the conceptualization and production phases on countless TV shows and games, I've spent a lot of time in this space. So here are a few coping mechanisms and tools I draw on to make sure I'm on the right track as I get down to the business of making stuff.
May 6, 2013

The start of a new project is an exhilarating time. Moving into production on an idea you’ve been noodling around, pitching, and developing for months, or even years, is an exciting and – let’s be honest – terrifying thing.

As someone who’s been on core teams in both the conceptualization and production phases on countless TV shows and games, I’ve spent a lot of time in this space. Very few decisions have been made, which means everything’s wide open… which is the good news and the bad news. So here are a few coping mechanisms and tools I draw on to make sure I’m on the right track as I get down to the business of making stuff.

1. Act Like Hillary Clinton

Whether you’re working with a long-standing team of colleagues or starting at a brand new job, it’s always a good idea to take a listening tour before making a lot of production decisions. Get as many team members and project partners as possible to give you their perspective on the project and what they see as the obstacles and opportunities. It will give you a sense of what folks are good at and where you fit in the team, and when you have concerns or disagreements down the road, people will remember that you listened to them up front and won’t be as likely to say, “Well you never asked me…”

2. All Systems Go!

Making your own set of best practices and procedures for production needs to happen before you’re off to the races. Internal processes like setting up good version control, file structures, and naming conventions are critical – setting up an organizational process from the start will head off confusion and you won’t have to invent one mid-stream after problems have arisen. There are also a ton of great collaboration programs that you can use to make sure everyone on your team and any outside vendors are on the same page. Document organization tools like Google Docs (remember Carla’s complicated relationship with it?), instant messaging programs like Skype or HipChat, and task management tools like Trello and JIRA can all help everyone follow the project and track their own progress in real time. Make sure you and your team are familiar with whatever tools and procedures you’re planning on using, whether it’s a big white board calendar or an intense bug-tracking database, to ensure that things stay on track even once production picks up and things get hairy (because they will).

3. Use Your Words

The above endorsement of tech tools and processes notwithstanding, nothing drives me crazier than exchanging twenty emails or IMs with someone who’s sitting ten feet away when a two-minute conversation would suffice. Getting off your duff and walking over for a quick check in can save time, build relationships, and heck, it’s a bit of exercise. Get in the habit of talking to the people you work with – it seems crazy, but in our email-driven universe it’s easy to forget that having personal contact with the people that you collaborate with really matters.

4. Know Your Limits

Big ideas are all well and good, but we all know that money doesn’t tend to fall unencumbered from the sky, so you’re likely to have some stakeholders to attend to and some budgetary and scheduling constraints you’ll have to meet. Make sure you’re clear on what those are so that you don’t get your heart set on an idea that’s either not producible on your budget or unpalatable to the IP holder or the CEO. And build appropriate review time (and resultant edits) into the schedule from the get-go.

5. Stop Chasing the Purple Squirrel

I read an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago in which a Human Resources person referred to the problem of the “purple squirrel.” This is an oft-used HR term to describe an impossibly qualified candidate for an open position, one that you’re tempted to keep looking for even though it’s unlikely that they exist. In addition to being hilarious, this term really resonated with me, because it’s a problem creative people run into all of the time when they go into production. The big idea we’ve thought of can become something of a “purple squirrel,” a dream of making a show or a game or a product that’s all things to all people. Dreaming big is a great jumping off point, but it’s important to get to a place of more realistic expectations before production is really in full swing, so you can focus on what you do well and execute your plans.

6. Stick Your Neck Out

Consensus is all well and good, but at some point early in most projects, someone is going to have to put some stakes in the ground as to what can and cannot be done (and just as important, what should and should not be done). Here’s the secret – it’s good to be that person! Even though it can feel like you’re disappointing people or having to say “No” more than you’d like, setting some parameters on a project is a great way to take ownership of the vision. Plus, everyone will be grateful that you made some decisions, even if they’re ultimately ones that you review or revise. Making some key choices gives people something to respond to, and that can generate some of the most productive conversations that really move the project forward.

Whatever your next production, I hope the above can help you get out of the starting gate with confidence and momentum. Every new project is an adventure with its own challenges, but the only thing more exciting than getting started is seeing the final product come to life.

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