Two years at Blue Sky
Published: February 22, 2017
I can’t believe it’s been two years already. Two years, two films, a third film on the way. I’ve learned a lot in two years.
Everything suffers when you don’t take care of yourself
Everything. Your performance at work, your relationships with family and friends, your health, your ability to focus, your enjoyment of life. That stuff’s hard to maintain if you’re not taking care of yourself. I’d even argue the important stuff is impossible to maintain long-term if you aren’t regularly putting your own needs first. To be happy, productive, and balanced, we need to be selfish sometimes.
What does “take care of yourself” even mean though? It means different things to different people, obviously, but there are commonalities too. Exercise, nutrition, and sleep are big ones. Basically just keeping your physical body healthy. It doesn’t matter if you start the day with noble intentions, you can’t do anything if you’re too sick or too tired to function. Our bodies are our conduits for everything: Locomotion, problem solving, empathy, caregiving, idea generation. It’s an infinite list, but this list shrinks substantially when we neglect our physical well-being.
Your body is beautiful, complex, and wholly unique. It’s yours to do with whatever you want, but you only ever get one, so take care of the one you have. It won’t last you forever, but if you treat it right, it can make your wildest dreams come true. Really, it’s the only thing that can.
You can’t let the quality of the films you work on dictate your happiness
Making good movies is a hard business. If you make movies your career, it’s likely you won’t love every movie that has your name on it. In fact, you might even hate some of the ones that do.
Maybe they’re genuinely low quality films. Maybe you’re just not in the target demographic. Whatever it is, you have to learn to divorce your emotional well-being from the quality of your studio’s upcoming slate. If you don’t, you’re going to be miserable for long stretches of your career because films, especially animated films, take a long time to make.
This isn’t to say you won’t have opportunities to work on movies you love or help create good movies from bad cuts. Ride those highs! But at a place like Blue Sky, 500 people work to make movies happen, and 495 of us don’t get to make the biggest calls. When you’re not the one in charge, decisions will get made and movies will get greenlit that won’t excite you. That’s just how life at a big studio works.
I’ve learned to not let executive decisions I disagree with keep me down for long. At the end of the day, the people I work with matter more to me than the movies I work on. My job is to help incredibly talented artists create characters and worlds that breathe life from nothing. That’s the magic of filmmaking, and it’s magic I get to experience every day. I’m incredibly fortunate to work in this industry, and I’m trying my best to never take that fact for granted.
One last thing: Extremely talented people work on bad movies. I don’t think Ice Age 5 is a good movie, and I won’t defend it, but I will go to my grave defending the people who made it because I know how much talent and hard work went into it.
Project quality snowballs
It’s easy to do your best work when the projects you get to work on excite you.
This might sound contradictory to what I said above, but I’m not talking about film projects here. A film is a project at the studio level. I’m talking about the thousands of smaller projects that make up the larger film. Things like a single shot an animator animates, or a small tool an engineer designs and builds. These are projects at the individual employee level.
If you do good work on the projects you’re assigned, then you’ll get assigned better projects over time. As an animator, maybe you start out doing background characters but eventually graduate to hero characters acting out the emotional core of a film. Or as an engineer, you start out fixing small bugs in other people’s code but eventually graduate to leading the design and development of complicated, high-impact systems.
This is all super obvious stuff–managers will assign the most complex and highest stakes tasks to the people who have proven themselves in the past. Duh. What wasn’t super obvious to me was how hard this shit snowballs.
If you do good work, then you’re given better projects. And working on desirable projects is fun. And when you’re having fun, working hard isn’t a chore–it happens naturally. And since you’re working hard, you consistently deliver high quality stuff, which leads to even better projects in the future. And so the snowball rolls down the mountain picking up better and better projects and building up that coveted “gets shit done” reputation along the way.
You gotta be careful though because this snowball effect works in the opposite direction too.
If you do bad work, then the quality of the projects you get assigned is going to go down, not up. And if you weren’t motivated to work hard before, you’re probably even less inclined to do so now, so you’ll continue to deliver low quality stuff. That same snowball is rolling again, it’s just rolling in the opposite direction this time.
Kick ass as early as you can because the reputation you build during your first few months at a new job will greatly inform the reputation that forms around you over the next several years. Do good work and the good work gets easier.
Leadership is mostly about trust
To get noticed and get hired, you need to have the right skills. Want to write software? Prove your programming chops! Want to be a lighting or compositing artist? Show your existing work! Convince whoever’s hiring that you’re the best at what you do.
To excel after you get hired though, you need to work well as part of a team. Filmmaking is highly collaborative. It takes 500 people to make an animated feature, remember? Nothing happens on an island. Making a film is a complicated process, and it’s impossible to be an expert in every aspect, so we rely on coworkers to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Learning when and how to ask for help is a valuable skill.
Perhaps even more valuable than learning how to ask good questions though is learning how to respond to coworkers when they come to you seeking help.
You won’t always have the answers, but resist the urge to send those seeking help away without first providing whatever guidance you can, however small it seems. Some days you’ll be swamped with other work, but a little help can go a long way, often unexpectedly so. And occasionally people will come to you with problems that feel like a total waste of time–something you could find in ten seconds on Google–but remember that a lot of problems are only trivial in hindsight. Taking time to teach someone today pays dividends forever.
There will be days you get annoyed at the interruptions. Probably a lot of days. But if you make an honest effort to be helpful when asked, relationships form and trust is born.
Being a leader on a team isn’t about titles, it’s about who your team turns to during times of crisis. To become a leader then, you have to be selfless. You have to want your coworkers to succeed and be willing to put in the time to make that happen.
I don’t consider myself a leader at work yet, but it’s something I aspire to be someday. Kindness and a willingness to help those who ask for it are two things I’m keeping at the forefront of my mind as I continue my career.
Side projects are important
The most interesting people I know are people whose lives extend beyond their work. These same people also tend to be really, really good at their jobs even though they’re not working ridiculously long hours.
How do they manage that?
Honestly, I think it’s specifically because they don’t work ridiculously long hours that they excel. They don’t live at the studio behind their computer monitors because they have passions in life outside of work that demand their attention. They regularly and intentionally take breaks from their day jobs.
Breaks give our minds time to rest, which is necessary to prevent burnout. Equally important though, when we step away from a difficult problem, our brains don’t stop working on it. They keep working, they just shift the problem into subconscious processing–temporarily out of the way to give us space to focus on something else for a bit. Our subconscious minds are pretty good at finding things our conscious minds can’t see, so it’s not uncommon to have big breakthroughs on problems we’ve been struggling with while on a break from those same problems.
Not all breaks are created equal though. If you want your subconscious mind to help you solve problems then you need to feed it the right kind of stimulation. TV? Bad stimulation. Mindless, passive, too easy. But writing a screenplay, building a shed, designing a website, exercising, teaching, drawing, gourmet cooking? These are all active, creative, and challenging activities. Good stimulation. If your brain is churning on something, then it’s churning on everything, so don’t shy away from leisure activities that make your brain sweat!
A diversity of interests also helps us approach problems in new ways. I’ve heard the term “idea sex” used before, and I like the concept. Take two or more seemingly disparate ideas and put them together. See if they make sense together. See if these ideas, when next to each other, spawn new ideas. Mix and match. See what comes out. Having side projects in domains different from our day jobs gives us more experiences to pull ideas from. It gives us more opportunities for idea sex in our daily lives. And every innovation, big or small, starts as an idea.
Ultimately though, side projects are important because life is bigger than work. Read deeply, travel, fall in love, start a family, whatever. It’s a big wide world out there. Don’t forget to explore every experience it has to offer you. No one lies on their deathbed wishing they spent more time at the office.
Image credit: Francesco Gallarotti