Editor’s note: There is a misconception in our industry that many of us subscribe to when starting out: the creative is all that matters, that good ideas alone will save you. While this is, by all means, a big part of the equation, it’s by no means the whole picture.
Our industry relies on collaboration, and the producer can make or break a project. Anyone who has had the good fortune of working with a great producer can attest to the fact that they are worth their weight in gold! Sadly, there tends to be a divide between those of us on the creative side of the office and those in the world of production. Thankfully, in this month’s Guest Post we have Hana Shimizu and Zack Kortright to help share some perspective from the other side.
Hana is the Executive Producer and Zack is the Head of Business Development at Hornet in New York City. They both have a wealth of industry knowledge and in this article have a conversation around what it means to be a good producer. Enjoy!
There is always that moment of paused confusion when I tell someone that I am a producer followed by the “what exactly does a producer do?” question. Even within our own industry, I think a producer is seen through the lens of whichever micro-level interaction is occurring and whatever fire is getting put out. Through the years and conversations we have had with fellow producers, the recurring theme is we feel like we wear many hats and have to take on many roles during the life of a project: sometimes we are therapists, wranglers, negotiators, coaches, cheerleaders, translators, conflict resolution, bean counters, bad cop, paper pushers, spin doctors, food runners, naysayers and problem solvers. The truth is we are all of those things and sometimes all in the span of a day.
Our job as producers is to be the connective thread from start to finish of a project. We are doing either one of two things: moving things forward or protecting the line. Moving things forward can mean progressing along production timelines, managing artists in the pipeline, engaging conversations to move the project along (director to artist, agency to director, producer to agency producer), and any other task that gets the project to the next stage of production. Protecting the line can manifest whether we are talking about protecting the creative, tracking the money allotted vs requesting the money needed, or protecting the integrity of the project and the morale of the artists. The pressure of these tasks is what can either transform a producer into their best selves or regress them into their worst.
It was interesting to approach this subject with Hana as we have worked together for many years and at multiple shops. While fundamentally we are very similar in our core values of what makes a great producer, due to our personalities and how we inherently approach a situation we come at it from different angles. We decided to have a casual conversation about our thoughts on what we feel is at the core of a good producer.
Falling into Production: How did you become a producer?
Zack: I fell into production a bit sideways. In 2007 I was managing a now defunct arm of Hornet where we were making illustrated cat and dog pillows. While I had one eye on the pillows, I was watching the commercial arm and what the producers were doing and something clicked in me. I thought: I can do that. It fits my personality: good with people, organized (read: controlling) and a bit of a chameleon.
I can generally jump in and see other people’s points of view and advocate that position and I also have a general ability to try and ease a situation… a true people-pleaser, but that doesn’t need to get dissected here. ;) After about a year of needling at them, I finally convinced Michael and Greg to let me jump the gap, and I moved into the production side of Hornet proper.
Hana: I aspired to be a photographer and dabbled in photography for a hot second before I fell into commercial production. Photography always inspired me because it allowed me to observe the environment and pay attention to details that typically went unnoticed. It suited my personality where I always liked to listen and observe before making decisions.
That feels like a lifetime ago, but in my career as a producer, I’ve always come back to those same instincts and find that it has helped me navigate the path to growing.
Protecting the Line: Creative is Paramount
Hana: People like to assume we are just the money people or logistics people, but equally to the directors or artists, I think our fundamental responsibility is fueling the creative. Making sure whatever is on the table creatively can survive the treacherous process that lies ahead.
That process is often the all-too-familiar rocky situation of having too many cooks in the kitchen, dealing with poor decisions, indecisions, bad taste and time that constantly feels like it’s slipping away. It often feels like we are held hostage by these uncontrollable scenarios, and most of the time, we probably truly are. But I think a good producer always knows how to protect the creative and push forward with the least amount of compromise.
I feel that the best way to protect the creative in these situations is for the producer to understand that what we do in our work is about having a point of view and defending the best point of view. Yes, budgets and schedules and “reality” play a part, but at the end of the day, everyone comes to the table with something they are accountable for. And by everyone, I am including the agency and even the clients.
We need a level of empathy to discern that we all have different needs and wants. The producer needs to able to hear everyone out, see it from multiple angles, and listen to all opinions and still help everyone arrive at the best creative decision. It’s the producer who needs to facilitate that.
Zack: As a producer, personally, I approach the creative in a very specific way. I have only worked in director-based studios, so I am usually on the front line with a director who brings a strong creative POV. And because we work in animation, our crew are also these amazing artists that bring incredibly creative ideas to the table.
For me, I have been very comfortable not adding to the creative conversation but saw that my role was to nurture and protect the vision. At the same time, because I am the one in the trenches with the agency, I have been privy to having a bit more of an understanding as to what may motivate the client’s thinking. This doesn’t mean that I can’t poke and prod along the way or highlight areas that I think may need to be rethought or cleaned up. I think the tricky line to walk here is providing my team with all the information and insight during reviews without feeling the need to give a creative mandate.
Ultimately the best way I can be helpful is to provide insight and the big picture, allowing my director and his/her team the space to find that creative solution. By removing the need to add my own creative imprint, I can better foster a creative environment.
Protecting The Line: Support your Team
Zack: One of the first projects I produced was working with a high profile and (of course) super demanding client. Working with them required us to be available at all times of the day and night to work at their will. For weeks, we found ourselves at 2am jumping back and forth between the edit suite and the workstations; reworking a shot, rebuilding a scene, or simply trying to figure out why the the renders kept crashing.
This was a great lesson. As frustrated as I was, this was a crash course in understanding that even in uncomfortable and exhaustingly tense situations, it was my role as the producer to support the team and offer solutions, comfort or even just a laugh to bring levity to the situation. It was never up to me technically to solve it, but it was my job to help provide the space and facilitate a situation that allowed the artists to discover the solution.
This might mean buying more time, bringing in more artists, renting more equipment or just calling it a night, knowing that I would need to have an uncomfortable conversation with the agency in the morning. My role was to relieve the pressure and not add stress… and it didn’t always work.
Hana: Right. It is also about learning on the job. Very early in my career, there was a spec change at the 11th hour and we had to re-deliver a ton of spots. The team pulled an all nighter and my poor editor and I stayed till 8AM the next morning to get it done. It was hubris to assume we could do it, but we did it mainly because we thought we could get it done without any hiccups.
It was irresponsible of me to assume nothing would go wrong. But of course, we ran into a lot of technical issues after hours with no support, and it was way more work than either of us predicted. I agreed with the team when we assessed the work that lied ahead, but I ultimately should have avoided that scenario by saying no to begin with and presenting another plan. Hindsight is 20/20, and I’m sure we’ve all been there multiple times, feeling like that was the only choice we had. But I knew I just didn’t have the experience and foresight early in my career to say no and negotiate something else.
Moving it Forward: Pick Up the Phone & Collaborate
Zack: I think that segues perfectly: Distilled to the simplest element, facilitating communication is the cornerstone of a producer’s job.
The best piece of advice I was given was always pick up the phone, especially if there was bad news to be delivered. Hiding behind emails is the surest way to delay progress and also to allow misunderstandings and tempers to flare. While situations can quickly devolve into an us-vs-them, it is important to remember that we are all on the same side… we all want to create the best film possible. I mean, it’s production and there will always be hiccups along the way. It’s our job as producers to get in there and have the conversations to help the agency identify what the key issue is and also to help them understand what the ramifications of this note may be.
In turn, it’s also my job to relay to my team the agency’s/client’s concerns and work with my director and the artists to figure out the best possible solution(s) to address them. These solutions are not always pleasant for either parties, but it’s key to navigate these situations together and with as much transparency possible to make the compromises required.
Hana: Right, the agency’s happiness is also paramount to the success of any project. Bending over backwards has never really done any of us any good.
I also learned early in my career too that if I said, “It’s not possible” one too many times to the agency (because some stuff was really not possible unless we could time travel!) it caused them to shut down and our lives got even harder. After having suffered through many uncomfortable situations, I’ve learned that the best kind of leverage for negotiating through tough situations is leveraging something you can give up with something you cannot give up.
To creatives, this probably sounds no different than compromising. I understand the need to be black and white about it and compromising sure sounds like we’re losing the battle. But to us, producers who need to push things forward, this wonderful murky gray area is what we have to work with! Picking our battles, and learning to compromise where it’s the least offensive to your team but protecting what’s most important — it sounds so obvious, but I think it requires some serious tact to navigate those conversations in the moment of pressure.
Moving It Forward: Ask The Right Questions
Hana: The fun of producing is that you’re constantly dealing with something new. You get to learn about so many things with every project. I once had to figure out how to strap a camera onto a turtle and then the turtle onto exotic dogs that were going to race around a track. Have I ever done that before? Absolutely not. But I knew who to call.
As the person in charge, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the idea that you have to know the answer to everything. But if you can take a moment and realize that you’re not the artist on the box, you’re not the DOP on set, and it’s really not up to you, you then realize you can allow all the talented, experienced people in the world to help you arrive at the best decision and make you look good. So knowing who to ask and asking the right questions, you in turn gain their trust, because ultimately intel and experience is the key to success.
Zack: Totally agree! Since I didn’t have any background in animation or film school proper, when I was first coming up as a producer, I used to feel this pressure that I had to technically understand the inner workings of every software program. I didn’t. My colleague and mentor, Sang, was the one to remind me that it wasn’t my job to know everything, but it was my job to find out and present it back to the agency within an intelligible framework.
Once I went freelance, I learned very quickly that while every shop managed their infrastructure, studio roles, and pipelines differently, my job was the same as always. I would show up and ask myself, “How can I jump into this project and work with the team to navigate the best way to produce the film in the schedule and budget allotted, while trying to protect the director’s vision and foster the creativity of the artists working on the film?” Strip away ego and any preconceptions of what I think the job requires and begin to ask the right questions. This taught me to be ok with not knowing the answer and letting those who did weigh in.
We are all in this fast and furious paced production together and by sharing the load and decisions not only is everyone empowered to be part of the process but you can also be confident that everyone is doing the best they can to get the job done. This is the morale that will sustain your team when they are working through another weekend or keep it from falling apart at the 11th hour.
The production process is an inherently crazy whirlwind that tests one’s ability to remain calm and collected in the face of a storm. Wearing many hats as a producer can feel very disjointed and schizophrenic at times, yet in our experience, a good producer can align their values and distill the strengths of their personality into a method for walking through the process gracefully and with their eye on the endgame: a film everyone can celebrate.