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The Conductor, Producer Erica Hilbert of The Mill
Producers do more than budgets...
They are the conductors of the MoGraph orchestra... they do the dirty work so the artists can give total focus to their craft. They have to master the art of telling clients "no" without saying "no," they have to read the tea-leaves when it comes to budgeting and scheduling. And, of course, they are often the gatekeepers to getting booked as a freelancer.
Our guest today makes Producing look easy. In this podcast episode, Joey talks with Erica Hilbert, Producer Extraordinaire at The Mill in Chicago. She knows all about the art of wrangling a project; keeping everything on schedule and under-budget. This interview is a real eye opener for any artist who has never stopped to think about the importance of the Producer and what our lives would be like without them.
Don't forget to check out the show notes below for links to all of the studios, work, artists, and resources mentioned in this podcast.
Joey: I'm an after effects geek, at heart. That's just what I love doing. I love spending hours tweaking things and working on really elaborate set ups and comps and generally just hyper focusing on the task of animation and nothing else. And that is why I have a very special place in my heart for those folks out there who can sit back and observe the big picture, who can manage all of the moving parts of a project, like some sort of puppet master.
I'm of course talking about producers. So if you haven't work in a larger environment you may never have experienced just how invaluable a good producer can be, and how awful a bad producer can be. But their title, producer, it doesn't really do justice to the miracles that they're asked to perform on an almost daily basis. They're juggling the needs of clients who are paying the bills, with the realities of renter farms and artist availability and a good producer is worth their weight in gold and I am incredibly fortunate today to have an excellent producer on the podcast. Erica Hilbert is a producer at The Mill, in their Chicago office. She has over a decade of experience and has also produced for Method Studies and Digital Kitchen so she's used to working at the high end of the industry in terms of budgets, team size and of course talent pool. She's also a mother of three beautiful children which I can tell you from experience does not make your job easier. Erica and I actually met and became friends while attending the Film and Television program at Boston University. So she's also a great buddy of mine.
In this chat with Erica we get into what the heck a producer actually does, how they manage clients, how they hire free lancers, how they deal with the stress of last minute changes and budgets that are too small and all of the other fun parts of motion design. I think you'll learn a ton in this episode, at least I hope you do. If you like this interview, head over to schoolofmotion.com where you can find other podcast episodes, articles, tons of free lessons and information about our training programs which have recently crossed the 2000 alumni mark. Our students have been getting gigs at companies like Google, Troyca, Giant Ant, Facebook, HBO, Netflix, you name it. A lot of amazing places.
So, without further ado, let's say hello to Erica Hilbert. Erica, thank you so much for taking time out of your insane producer slash mother of three schedule to talk to me about producing.
Erica: Of course, I'm happy to be here and happy to lend my expertise and hear what you have going on over there as well.
Joey: Well, there's a lot going on over here but let's talk about you, let's bring it back to producing. One of the things that kind of hit me, I think probably like two or three years into actually working, like once I graduated college and I started working, was that there was this role in the industry called producer and it seemed to me that without them nothing ever happened. What's funny is I didn't have a clue what a producer was. I didn't even really know it was a thing until I started working, like I wasn't taught about it in school. I was wondering if you could just kinda start out for everyone in that situation, just explain in as much detail as you want. What the heck does a producer do?
Erica: Sure. You know, we went to the same college obviously together and then went kind of in somewhat different paths and then came full circle into motion graphics and design so it's pretty cool. I think it's not something that I obviously studied in school. We both were in film and television and in the film program at B.U. I definitely took on more of a producer role since I started to gravitate towards that. And I think in school what that encompassed was sort of just wrangling everyone together and organizing the shoots, organizing the budgets, planning the schedules, making sure that everyone was where they needed to be when they needed to be there.
Taking that skill set and that sort of mentality into the working world, I definitely kept in the producer track when I went to go look for jobs in television, film and commercial production. Generally speaking, I always say, or I always used to say that a producer is the liaison between the client and the artist, or the client and the shop. As I've kind of grown in my career that's definitely still true but it's definitely evolved into way more than just that and I've learned to know that it's more, you know, you're the representative of the artist and of the shop or the corp that you're working for and you're helping to sell whatever creative product it is that your artists are coming up with for your client.
So, generally speaking, it is just you take on the roll of being the liaison but you also take on the roll of being the, you know, punctuating what the creatives and what the artists are trying to do for the client, keeping everyone on schedule, within budget and working with the client on giving feedback to your team, and giving feedback from your team back to the client, why we think a certain thing works better than another, offering up creative solutions, financial solutions and you know, things within the schedule as well but just being that advocate for your artist. That's what I think producing is in a nutshell. It depends on what type of shop you're at and what specific field you're in for motion graphics or design, unusual effects which I'm in now.
It is a lot, you know, being the advocate for your artist and for your company and being the representative and going out there and presenting the best product to your client. But then also, keeping the artists and your team in check is making sure they're hitting those bullet points in the original creative brief and making sure they're hitting the original request from the client and not just going off and doing whatever they want.
Joey: Got it, okay. So, I want to talk a lot about each of those little pieces but, you know, I want to ask kind of a devil's advocate question here. So, you know, why do we need a producer to do those things. Why can't the 3D artist who is actually kind of leading, like a 3D lead or something, why can't they be the one talking to the client since they're the ones that have the most knowledge about how long things are going to take to render, how hard changes are going to be and all those kinds of things. Why doesn't the artist just deal directly with the client, why do you want a producer kind of in the middle there?
Erica: I think you sort of explained it just by asking the question. It's the artist. To keep them focused on what they're truly meant to do and it is just to create and be an artist and not to be bogged down with the financials and the sort of nitty gritty of the job. It's just acting as a buffer so that ... The artists definitely talk to the client. You know, we have reviews or we have discussions with the client. I have my creative leads on the phone and they're leading the conversation. And if anything, the producer's just there, just to, like I said, continue to punctuate what the creative have said, back them up and then also make sure what the creative is proposing is within schedule and budget.
It's the creative and the artist's job to sort of help the client think outside the box and it's the producer to make sure that everything that was in the original box is also being accounted for. I talked ... I've always only worked in situations where there's been an artist and a producer relationship and I have many freelancer friends who have also asked for producer advice and how to handle communicating a certain thing with the client and sometimes it's just hard for an artist to try to convey what they really want to do or what they want to get across to the client without having to, you know, jeopardize their relationship or jeopardize the creative that their trying to propose.
I think it's important to have that buffer only because as a true artist you want to just focus on what you're there to do, your job, they hired you to create something really cool for their client or for the product. I think it's imperative that the artist focuses on that and that only and that the producer's able to shield them from the minutiae of financials and schedule. The artist always has an idea of what the budget and schedule is but their main focus should be on just creating the art and creating the end result for the client.
Joey: Cool. So, I remember when I was running a studio in Boston and I was creative director. I was also the lead animator and there were a lot of calls I was on with my producer there where my producer, she was amazing ... It was almost like she would jump in front of bullets and catch them for me because a client would say something that was going to infuriate me because-
Erica: Definitely yeah
Joey: As a person who stayed up all night animating that shot and then they change their mind and now they want something totally different but they don't want to pay more. I want to explode and it's nice to have that level headed person there to kind of like, take the hit, you know, and deal with it.
Erica: Take the hit but then also try to smooth things out and that's where the producer role really comes in to play is maybe the request that the client had based on your latest render or posting is absolutely ridiculous or absolutely not necessary. The producer has the opportunity there to then discuss with the client, is this absolutely necessary, do you really want this change before I go back to my team and request this of them. Is this on brand, is this on point, you know, and try to, like you said, shield you from that request before it even gets to you.
So, as a freelancer without a producer working with them they tend to then have to just say yes or the job goes away or they, you know, become a ... The roadblock is you either say yes to the request or you say no and potentially harm the relationship that you have with that client. Where as a producer can have this creative little dance with the client and say, "well, that sounds, you know, we hear your request, but here's what we may offer up instead of that, or here's why we think that might not be a great idea." The producer can also go back to the artist and say, "The client's asking for this but we can push back, help me out, help me get the point across to the client why we shouldn't do that, or why that's a bad request or a bad idea." Whereas a freelancer has to kind of think on their toes and respond to the client somewhat immediately, I'm sure, to their request. That kind of takes them out of that whole artist role.
Joey: That's a huge point. I've seen producers do that kind of ... It's like verbal jujitsu where you're saying no without saying no and it takes a lot of practice. So, are there any, I don't know, strategies or tips or anything like that, that you've developed over the years for like, how you can kind of get out of that situation when you're on the phone call and the client says, "So, Erica, we really want to take this shot and do it completely differently, can you guys do that?" In your head your like, we can it's just going to take an extra week and you know, an extra giant check from you. What would you say to them to avoid being stuck in that situation where you have to say yes or the job goes away?
Erica: The good thing about being producer is the client tends to ... it depends if the client leans on the producer a lot on a certain project they start to earn the trust so the producer has sort of like the gravitas to tell the client no, in a certain way because the producer is starting to trust, you know, the client's starting to trust that producer because they know what they're talking about.
The way that a producer gets to that point is by really just communicating back and forth with the artist and truly understanding what it takes to do the job and to do the project so that the producer can speak to the client with experience or at least with knowledge of what it entails to do the job. That way when a producer, or when a client goes to a producer and asks, "Can you redo this render?" The producer knows that the render's going to take 10-12 hours and it's absolutely not necessary to do it because you could maybe adjust it in comp or something and you know, a different way to do it. Offering up those solutions to the client but being able to speak knowledgeably about a project will make the client, I think, feel at ease that the producer knows what they're talking about and can then take no for an answer from them.
The artist can tend to do this as well. I mean, sometimes a client wants to speak directly with an artist regarding a certain request that maybe the producer's pushing back on and then in which case that's sort of when you pull in the artists and prep them for it but then also stand behind what they have to say so you're not just a yes man for the client.
Joey: That's awesome advice. One of the tricks we used to do is we would never agree to anything on the phone. We would always say something vague like, "Oh yeah, no, we'll have to just get together and talk about that and we'll get back to you."
Erica: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Joey: Never commit on the phone even though there's all this pressure to. Like, just say, "Oh yeah, we just need to talk internally about that." It gives you a chance to come up with an excuse not to do it.
Erica: Yeah, and that's Producer 101 and unfortunately I don't think as a young producer, or associate producer coordinator in the business, you don't really have the confidence or feel like you can say that because you tend to just say yes or we'll let you know, yes we can definitely do that or we'll look into it for you or whatever. It comes with experience and it comes with building up that confidence and also building up that relationship with your artists and your team. Making sure that you understand that you're there to work for them. The client hired you or your company for a certain reason. It wasn't for you just to say yes and execute their boards. It was for you to take their creative idea, interpret it and come up with something even cooler than they originally thought of.
That comes with time, I think. I had, obviously, the luxury, the fortunate opportunity to work for a great company right out of school, starting my career, so I got a lot of good experience with a lot of senior type of people right away. I think that really helped. For someone that's possibly coming out of school and just getting into production a way to just build up that confidence and build up that knowledge is to constantly be asking questions and sort of humbling their self and talking to your artists and saying, "I don't really understand what this means, I don't really understand what render is or whatever question the client has can you help me explain this to them?" As long as it's coming out of the producer's mouth, not the artist's mouth, than the client will say, "Wow, this person really knows what they're talking about, I trust them, so yes, forget about that silly request I asked or don't make your team stay late, we can post this in the morning," you know. It all just comes with experience and building up that confidence in how to talk to people.
Joey: Gotcha. So that brings up an interesting point. When you're talking about asking the artists about what, "Hey, what does rendering mean?" And stuff like that. To be a producer in the visual effects or motion design industry, do you feel like you have to have a certain amount of good taste? Do you need to be able to tell good design from bad? Do you even need to understand a little bit about 3D and rendering and after effects. How much of that knowledge do you have to have as a producer to be effective?
Erica: Not as much knowledge as the actual artist that's doing it but close to it. You really need to have an understanding of what you're artists are doing and you definitely need to have a good eye for good design, good comp, good visual effects. I think that's what really separates good producers from not so great producers, or ... not so great producers but producers that are definitely more heavily involved in the actual craft and can speak to the client in terms of creative speak and give their creative opinion. I think that lends itself to your client trusting you even more because you not only are saying, "Yes, that's within schedule and budget" but you're also telling them this actually might not work for your brand or your product, or give, you know, creative opinion that maybe your artists can definitely back you up on as well.
I think it's great when a producer has creative opinions on projects. Again, I'm always talking to the artists and talking to my team about different scenarios, different solutions to come up with. I always offer up my ideas even if they seem silly or maybe not even possible but at least it shows that I'm trying to help them think outside the box, not trying to micromanage them but just try to help them come up with some other creative solutions that maybe they're not seeing because they don't have the information that you have as a producer. We kind of can play devil's advocate on our end as well and kind of say, "Well, I think the client is ... when the client's requesting the color blue I think they're actually requesting the color blue, not pink like you keep pushing."
It's a good way ... I think it's great for the producers to weigh in creatively and a way to do that is to have knowledge of the craft. To know not only the terminology and how the process works but also what looks good and what doesn't look good. That's all subjective, you know. The thing that I always remind younger producers is that we are in the business of subjectivity. It's what looks good and what doesn't look good, there's no really right or wrong, which makes our job really, really fun but also makes it really, really hard. I think, like I said, if a producer can weigh in creatively and have knowledge of the process, that's only going to help you and help your team. You'll be able to speak knowledgeably about the subject and about the product that you're trying to sell, the client's just going to earn your trust even more and your creative team will earn your trust as well.
I think it's, you know, there's multiple personalities in this business, in this industry and you really as a producer need to know how to walk and talk with different people and different personalities and work with people in different ways, so you really need to be this sort of chameleon and wear multiple hats and just know as much as you can so that you can help in as many ways as possible.
Joey: That's awesome. Can you talk about just for a little bit, The Mill is, I believe, probably one of the biggest ... It's about as big as a motion design studio can be. Multiple offices, hundreds of staff. Where does the producer fit in, because when you're just talking, I was thinking about, you know, it must be kind of a tight rope act at some times to give your opinion and almost act as like the gatekeeper between the artists and the art director and where does the producer fit in, in terms of, you've got the artist, you've got the producer, you got the art director, you may have a creative director, you may have a senior creative director. Where do you step in and sort of act as the gatekeeper between those, I guess, approval steps, you know?
Erica: I think the key thing to remember is you're not stepping in at certain points but you're constantly involved throughout the whole process. Internally, you have your reviews between your actual team and the creative director on that job and potentially your senior creative director, the creative director of the office or the 2D lead, or 3D lead. You have internal check ins that the producer needs to make sure that the team is aware of. So you're involved internally from the beginning of the job, throughout. And yeah, you go back to your desk and your team continues to work so you're not sitting over their shoulder the whole time but the key is to not feel like you need to be stepping in at certain points but just constantly involved and it's something that happens kind of organically.
You go and check in with your team, you say, "Hey, let's have the creative director check this," or "Let's have our 3D lead check this before we show it to the client." Then, behind the scenes, you're always talking to the client and getting feedback from them, updates on [inaudible 00:20:43] schedule changes, and so that's stuff that happens behind the scenes that the artist doesn't even see. Then you go back to your artist and check in with them later in the day and say, "Now it's time to post to the client, here's some updates though, the schedule change so what do you guys think we need to do to accommodate this? Do we need to throw more resources on it? Do we need to work maybe one late night? Let's try to make it happen without sort of busting our butts on this job and stay within the scope and budget and schedule." Then you post your client, you get them to call, you get feedbacks and get back to the team. You check in with the team, make sure they're addressing all those notes. There's always ... You're always in the job and you're always involved in the project. You don't step in and step out.
One other thing is you have multiple jobs so you have multiple teams that you're managing sometimes, especially at a company like The Mill where you can be managing two, three, four, five jobs at a time. You're always in the know. You should always know what's going on with your jobs. You shouldn't just feel like, "All right, here's my time to step in," or, "Now I need to step in and figure this out for the team." It's a constant process.
Erica: If that makes sense, yeah.
Joey: Yeah, that does make a lot of sense. I mean, once the job is happening you're essentially like the traffic cop, in a sense, and you're funneling things, making sure there's going ... But let's talk about before the job begins because I think that's a part of the process that a lot of artists are, especially freelance artists who are starting out, really curious about like, some client calls The Mill and they say, "We need a commercial for this ..." What's the process of figuring out how much that costs?
Erica: Your artists are definitely involved in that process as well because when a job first comes in, or the brief first lands on that producer's desk, you do an initial call initial call with maybe the agency producer and then ideally, your creative team can get on the phone with the agencies creative team or the client's creative team and they can sort of walk us through what the creative brief is so you hear it first hand and it's not a game of telephone.
You review the boards, you go back with your team, you review the boards, and then you start to put together, you know, a schedule and how long the job will take, what resources it'll take, and you plug all that into a bid. A lot of places that I've worked at, almost every place I've worked at, you've never just gone back to your desk and done a bid on your own. You always had to rope in an artist or multiple artists and get accurate counts. This allows for two things. This allows for your bid to be as accurate as possible but it also allows some accountability for the creative team. If your creative team's telling you it's going to take three weeks to do a job and you know, you're coming down to the second week and we don't have enough time, we needed six weeks on this job, you could say, "Well, you saw the original boards, you were on the original call so the creative in you bid this out with me so ..." It also helps the creatives, the artists, learn how long things actually take and can give them some accountability on the project so they really have some ownership. It doesn't all fall on the producer.
Joey: Gotcha. That makes a ton of sense. Let me ask you real quick, Erica. You mentioned boards. Now, at what point in the process are these boards being created and are you talking about boards created by designers at The Mill? If a client says, "We need a spot for a car commercial, how much is this going to cost?", and you have that creative call with the agency, with the client, does The Mill then create boards and then present those and say, "These boards that we've created for free for you, if you want to produce spot will cost x amount of dollars,"? Or is the client paying for that process too?
Erica: That is the million dollar question. An agency will call us and they'll have their agency boards, right? They're generally just illustrated cartoon boards, sometimes they have some imagery, some staff imagery. We, in turn, would take those boards and if we're going to pitch on the job, then we'll go back and create a pitch team and put together our interpretation of those boards and heighten the creative level of them. We will ... Yes, then we'll create our own story boards or a pitch presentation. Every company I've worked at has put together always, you know, really nice presentation decks where we take the agency's original boards, their original kernel of an idea and just transform it into what we would want to create for this brand or for this product.
That can be a process of a day or two. We need to quickly put together a style frame just to wow them and win this job, or a week or two where we can actually dedicate a team of designers to put together some story boards, some style frames, some concept frames and really put together a nice treatment and presentation for them.
Whether the client pays for it, it's just all dependent on the job and the budget. Generally speaking, this is an investment, point of investment for a company where we may be pitching against two or three other visual effects post production companies so we see it as an investment. We will invest the time and the money and the artists to put together this nice deck to win the job because then the budget for actually doing the job is generally pretty good so you put the time in during the pitch phase to win the job. Rarely do we get pitch funds for projects that we're pitching on. We do sometimes and it's great but generally speaking it's usually an investment on the company's end.
Joey: Gotcha. I'm just curious how do you feel? What's the general sense about pitching at The Mill? Because this is a big, really big, controversial topic in our industry. There was a really good panel on it at the last Blend Conference and you had Tendril and Buck and Giant Ant who all had very different opinions about pitching. I'm curious, what's The Mill's position? What's Erica's position on pitching?
Erica: Usually when a job comes in you have an idea what the scope of the project is, or what the budget will be so that will really warrant how much, how many resources you put towards a pitch. If it's a job, you know, half a million to a $600 000 dollar job, you're going to try to win that by putting as many resources as you can on it. Sometimes it just takes one style frame to win a job. Sometimes it takes a whole 30 page presentation with character design and a written treatment and a whole section with cinematography. The good thing about The Mill is we get jobs off all different kinds. We'll get pure design jobs, we'll get live action with visual effects jobs, we'll get purely CG jobs.
Generally speaking, the jobs that need pitches are mostly just the jobs that we're going to do from start to finish, or what we call ... we have Mill Plus and Mill Plus handles jobs from basically start to finish. We'll pitch on this shoe, we have a roster of directors that we'll put up for the job that put together a really nice treatment and a designer will hop on and do some frames for them. Then Mill Plus will also do complete design jobs from start to finish. I'm working on a job right now for an agency in Atlanta where it's all design and so we come up with style frames to try to win the job. They bought it, gave us the job and we took those style frames and the investment there was we literally took those style frames and we put them into motion. So some of the legwork was already done. I think The Mill generally wants to pitch on jobs. Our artists enjoy putting together the presentations and it's an opportunity for us to get in from the ground up on the creative approach for a project. I think any company would be silly to not want to be involved at that point and try to win the job and pitch on something and pitch their idea. That's the opportunity when you get to really speak your mind creatively and say, "Here's what we're proposing for this product, or for this brand."
The controversy I think comes from the fact that you're not the only company, obviously, pitching on this job. There could be usually three, maybe four or five other companies pitching on it and you're not getting paid for it. They may take your creative idea, maybe produce it without even hiring you on for the job. So I understand where the controversy is coming from but that's the business and that's the competitiveness of it and I think that's where this sort of ... Like you said, like I said, you can speak your mind and try to drive the creative during the pitch so that's I think priceless and a priceless opportunity to have.
Joey: That's a really interesting way of looking at it and I agree with you. I think it is just-
Erica: That's my opinion, I'm -
Joey: Yeah ...
Erica: Not sure if it's The Mill's opinion.
Joey: Sure yeah, I mean yes, and we'll have a little disclaimer, this is not, this is not representing The Mill's official opinion. But I think it's true that, that love it or hate it, it's reality. It's just kind of the way the business works and there are studios that don't really pitch.
Erica: Right. Yup.
Joey: And that works for them but I'm curious if you think not pitching ... because it seems to me in my limited experience running a studio, pitches happen more at the higher end. Once you get those big budgets, right? Like, you know, my studio, a huge budget would be 150 grand. That would probably be the biggest one we've ever done. You just causally just threw out $600 000, you know, here's the budget. At that scale, you have to pitch, right? Do you think that not pitching would sort of limit the size and the growth a studio could have?
Erica: I don't think so. I think, I know a lot of freelancers who work on their own or in smaller co-op style studios that will put together amazing style frames or eight to ten story board frames to win a job that's potentially only 15 to 20 thousand dollars. I think anything you do to pitch is an investment in the ... If you do win the job then that's sort of the heavy lifting done. The creative idea is there, you just need to execute at that point. I don't think it's a matter of stifling growth if you don't pitch but I think it's a matter of stifling your creative art form if you don't pitch because you don't give your artists the opportunity to kind of come up with this idea and really come up with the initial concepting. I think a lot of that, as an artist, you want to be the original conceptor and have the original ownership of an idea. I think it's just better for any studio to just be in on that process instead of just taking an agency's board and just executing at that point.
Joey: Yeah, I think a few years ago you said something to me that kind of really stuck with me. You said that, and I'm probably going to get it wrong, but you said something that was basically, you don't win a client when you deliver a really good finished piece. You win a client when you show them the boards for the first time and you get them really excited. I think that's really good advice. From what you're saying it sounds like, if you win the pitch then the job is essentially done and now you just have to make it, right? I'm sure the artists don't feel that way but ...
Erica: They don't. This job I just mentioned where it's a purely a design job that we pitched and won, I've got an awesome team on it and they did a great pitch, the client just love it from the beginning, so we won the job. That enough should give the team and everyone, myself, enough confidence to say we know what we're doing and the client hired us for a reason. So that should give you as much confidence to go through and continue to sell the initial motion tests and any other little cool ideas that you think might push the project to be even cooler throughout the process. And it totally has.
We've been presenting some really cool animations and the client's just been signing off left and right on things. They're feedback has been like, "Yup, liking it, continue," because we put so much into the original pitch and the style frames that they knew what they were going to get. There hasn't been any sort of crazy left turns or surprises for them. It's been a pretty smooth process. Now, I think that's usually how a job goes but there's always those one or two anomalies where they just completely throw you for a curve ball and you change totally ... You do a creative left turn on what you originally pitched on and at that point it could be a little frustrating for your team or a lot frustrating because what they originally thought they were going to do is thrown out the window and they're doing something completely different.
I'm working on another job currently that's similar to that where we came up with some really cool ideas. They sign off on them and in the end what we ended up producing was a totally simplified, watered down version of what we originally pitched. It goes both ways. Sometimes it goes really well and the client literally falls in love with you at pitch phase. Sometimes it's a little more down the road and sometimes there's never that love to begin with.
Joey: Right, right. One for the meal, one for the real. When you're in that situation ... So the situation you just described is kind of the opposite situation where you sell them on a really complicated cool idea and in the end it's this watered down kind of milk toast version but what happens when it goes the other way and all of a sudden clients start asking for more and more and more. How do you talk to them when they're asking for something that's going to cost more money and you know that they don't want to spend more money?
Erica: Right. This is the fork in the road and as a producer you kind of need to be overly communicative with your team and with your client in terms of what's possible and what's not. I feel like you can go ... There's so many different routes you could take but the two main routes are you take one for the team and you agree that what they're asking for is definitely going to make the project or the job go in an even cooler, better way and you invest in that, knowing that the client does not have the money to put towards an overage or to give you additional funds for it, but your team agrees and the client agrees and everyone's on board so you just do it because at the end of the day you want to make an awesome stellar spot.
The other route is you have to push back because the requests that they're making are out of scope and potentially not even necessary or maybe the agency just completely changed their idea and it's a completely different creative solution or creative request. In which case, as a producer you really need to kind of explain that to your client and hit them up with an overage or let them know how much additional resources and time it's going to take. Again, it's just by communicating.
I always go back to the client and say, "We agree that's a cool request and we'd love to do that for you but we just don't have the resources," or, "Our job is scheduled until this week and you're asking for two, three more weeks of work. Here's how much that'll cost ..." Just giving them the amount and letting them know that A, they need to either pay up or be ... You're taking this on and you're investing this much into the job. What that does is the general idea is that shows you're investing in the project and you're going above and beyond for the client and hopefully they'll come back to you for more work. Does that happen? Sometimes. Sometimes they say, "No, we know you guys fell on the sword on this job and we're going to bring you back our next campaign." Sometimes you don't hear from them for years.
I think it's just about communication. Communication with your client, communication with your team about what's absolutely necessary and possible, what it'll take to actually do the work and communicating those thoughts to everybody across the board so everyone knows and everyone's on board. If you say yes to your client before going to your team and you're team says, "Well, that's going to take three weeks so super late nights, why would you commit to that?" That puts you in a bad position with your team. If you go back to your client and say, "No, we can't do this.", and just stand your ground, that puts you in a bad position with your client. So you really need to find that soft spot, that middle ground where you guys are all in agreement on what you're taking on.
Joey: I love the way you put it too. One of the things that I've kind of learned from watching good producers is that you typically you never lead with, "Well, that's going to cost more money." You would say, "That's going to take more resources, that's going to take more time, which costs money." For some reason just putting it that way just softens the blow a little bit.
Erica: Yeah, totally. And they know, they know the second they ask you to turn this car from red to blue that it's going to take days and time and money, but that's not their job to care about that. Their job is to ask you for what their client wants. Manage their client too but ask you for what the client wants and it's our job to let them know what's possible within the time that the original schedule a job and original budget and if it goes above and beyond that, letting them know that in the most sort of, you know ... You don't want to just make it all about money. Because maybe the car is better off blue than red and so maybe you do agree with their crazy requests that's going to take you another three weeks of late nights but as long as everyone's on board I think it makes it for a much more smooth process.
Joey: Yeah, and that's actually kind of profound what you just said which is something that it took me years to realize which was, "It's not their job to care about the money, it's their job to ask you to do it, to see if you will." I've worked with a lot of ad agencies where that's the culture.
Joey: Well, just ask your vendor if they'll do it. They may say no, but ask.
Joey: And so you get asked these crazy requests that they really don't expect you to say yes to. And so, if you come at it from that perspective you don't get as offended.
Joey: Especially as a freelancer where you're producing and doing the work. It's a lot nicer to kind of think of it that way. Do you have any producer tricks that you use to help mitigate stuff like this, like padding budgets, padding deadlines, like, not sending approval email 'til the end of the day when you know they're more likely to approve it? What are some of the things like that that you do to try and smooth out the bumpy road.
Erica: It kind of goes back to what I said originally. You have to know how to work with so many different people in different ways. If I know a certain client is just waiting by their computer, waiting for a posting to get to review it and give his feedback right away, there's no point in sandbagging it.
If we said, "Hey we're going to post this at three o'clock," and shocker, my designers overestimated and now it's posted by 10 a.m., I'm going to send it to the client, say, "Oh, it actually took us a lot less time than we originally thought so we wanted to get it in front of you as quickly as possible to get feedback so we can use this extra time to address anything you might need done." That does two things. That gives your artists time to revise anything that needs to be revised and also shows your client that you're considering them in your ... kind of letting them in on the process a little bit and maybe you originally quoted eight hours of render time but it only took two, then great. We're in this crazy, technological field where sometimes things take 10 hours, sometimes they take 10 minutes. You just sometimes don't know until you actually do it.
Sometimes you know a client's not going to get you feedback until the end of the day and then request crazy amount of changes so if you don't want your team to be staying late then maybe you'll say, "Hey, we'll post this for you first thing tomorrow morning." When you know that they can probably post it by the end of the day. If you post at the end of the day you're going to get feedback and six o'clock, seven o'clock at night. In which case your client could potentially be expecting you to do that feedback that night. Whereas if you post it in the morning then you can say, "Oh, we checked our renders this morning, here's the posting, let us know if you have any feedback." Then you have the rest of the day to address that feedback.
You really need to know your client and you really need to know what the project entails in terms of revisions and render time and all that so that you can play your cards.
Another big thing that I always try to do is stay in touch with your client. If your client's emailing you, checking in, checking in, the best thing to do is just reply back right away, just so they know that you're being attentive and say, "Let me check in with the team and I'll get back to you in a little bit here." Or I'll say we should have a posting shortly, instead of saying we'll have a posting by three o'clock, we'll have a posting by four because you're never going to have a posting at three o'clock. It's always going to be 3:30, or 4:15 and then that way you're at least giving yourself some pad.
In terms of padding budgets and schedules from the initial get go, I think that's always smart but with the way that budgets and schedules are these days, there's hardly any room to pad. Like I said, I always quote jobs with my artists. You get to know an artist and if an artist is quoting you 10 to 15 days of modeling you really know it's going to take 8, or you know that that artist always over compensates or maybe underestimates the amount of time it takes to do something. That's where, again, just experience with working with different people kind of helps you in that initial bidding and padding the schedule and budget so that you know this artist really said five days but I know him and it's going to take eight days so I'm going to pad the bid a bit. Same with the schedule. I know that he's said it'll take 10 or 12 hours to render but we have a lot of big jobs in house right now so the render farm might be a little bit slow so I'm going to pad some time there. Just always knowing what it going on at all times so that you can forecast everything and put yourself in a good position.
Joey: Gotcha. You've mentioned a couple times the possibility that if a client makes a last minute revision or something, the artist may have to stay over night or something like that. What's the environment like at The Mill in terms of expecting artists to work late and do over nights and things like that. Is it rare? Is it seen as sort of a rite of passage or is it something that you try to avoid at all costs?
Erica: It's definitely something that we try to avoid at all costs. The Mill has been one of the places that I've worked at that has an amazing work, life balance or that really strives to achieve work, life balance for not only producers but for artists. I think everyone has the intention of protecting their teams. That's from the producers to the creative leads, the department heads. No one wants their artists to get burnt out. With that though, there's the understanding that sometimes it takes certain things to get the job done and that could potentially mean weekend work, or late nights. It's not something that we plan for or schedule, unless the clients says, "Hey, we need this job done by Monday so you're going to have to work the weekend." That's when we plan for it and schedule it from the beginning and let the team know up front so there's no real surprises.
Do people work late and work weekends? Yes, and it happens probably more than it should but a lot of that, I think, is compensated with giving them days off to make up for that time that they did work late or work a weekend. Think The Mill ... A lot of other companies are getting really good at that. You know, compensating their artists for having to work late or on the weekend by giving them a day or two off at the end of the job or a few weeks later when they can free up. Like I said, I've been a working mom and I've been able to find that life, work balance really well. I think a lot of that has to do with just really managing your time well, managing client expectations well, and being able to just be overly connected with your client, with your team, on what's realistic.
I've always said to people, and this comes with experience, "If your client's asking you to post something that night or get a delivery out by five o'clock and you know that it's going to go until eight or nine, you can always ask. It's just like how they ask for your ridiculous request you can go back and ask them, can this go up tomorrow morning? Do I need to keep my team here late?" When you're asking that and they know why you're asking that, it kind of puts it back on them. "No, this isn't absolutely necessary so don't keep your team there late, do it tomorrow morning, that's fine." It's just all about communicating so that you guys know what's actually needed, what's not needed so that you can plan and schedule your team as best as you can.
Joey: That's really good advice. I have a kind of a tangent question here. A producer's job is to manage other people's time to some extent. Then on top of that you're a mother of three and you've got family and friends, things you like to do, so then you've got your personal time and I'm asking this as someone who has in the past has been really awful at managing his time. What do you do to manage your time and I don't just mean at The Mill, I mean, how do you balance that with, you have to pick your kids up and you've got doctors appointment. What I'm asking is do you have a little day planner, do you use some sort of software that tells you what you're supposed to be doing. How do you manage it?
Erica: I have a fully stocked bar at work and at home at all times.
Erica: No, I'm kidding.
Joey: Drink heavily.
Erica: Everyone's always asking me that. I really am trying to continue with the work, life balance. Some days, some weeks it's really, really easy. Some weeks it's really, really hard. I think the biggest thing is just having support from work and at home. Like I mentioned earlier, The Mill's really huge on work, life balance and when I went back after having my third kid, I sat down with some of my lead artists, my boss, and HR and just explained I love working here and I'll be 100% committed but my first priority is my family and my home so I need to make sure that I get home at a decent hour, getting dinner, put 'em to bed, help husband with the duties at home and see my family. Sometimes I get home at five o'clock, six o'clock and I put the kids to sleep and then I get back on email 'til 10, 11, 12 at night, catching up things.
I think that I've been warmed to that opportunity because I have proven that I don't drop the ball, I don't leave anyone in the dark on what needs to get done. You just constantly communicate throughout the day and you delegate. You delegate what needs to get done to certain people, you make sure that your artists know what needs to get. They've actually been really good since they know that I usually leave work around five or six and they'll check in with me at four, four-thirty and say, "Hey, do you want to come check this out before you head out?", or, "Leaving soon, I'll have this render for by seven, you know, just keep an eye on your email."
I think it's definitely a team effort. It's been huge at The Mill to be able to work with these awesome artists and to have them really respect your time as a mom, and as a producer and as a wife and know that they trust you and they know that you're going to be online later tonight, checking out their renders, making sure they look good, if you're not in the office physically with them. They also know that I respect them. If they need to be off a day and go see their kids concert or have a dentist appointment, I'll work postings around their schedule. It's just about communicating and earning their trust and knowing that you're not going to drop the ball, they're not going to drop the ball and everyone's got each other's backs. At the end of the day we all have lives outside of work.
The big problem is that our work is just more than work. We are in this industry because we love what we do and we're very fortunate to kind of be in this creative atmosphere. Sometimes you do want to spend a late night at work because you really want to do a good job on something, you really want to get something out. We really want to be with the team and see that project through the end. So there are some late nights and sometimes I'm there 'til eight, nine or ten, but I've got a huge support system on the other end as well with my family and my husband and being close to home really helps. It's just both, having support on both ends. That you aren't burning the candle at both ends.
Joey: Burning the candle at both ends. Yeah. That really, that actually really resonated with me because there's times when I'm working really late and I realize I'm doing it to myself because I want to.
Joey: Which is interesting and that's interesting conversations with your significant other sometimes and they're like, "Why are you still working on this?"
Erica: I know.
Joey: I can't help it.
Erica: I know. But you know, like John's job, he's a fireman, so he knows what his hours are. He leaves at six a.m. and he's home by the next morning and that's it and then he doesn't check emails the next day, he doesn't have to get a call last minute that he has to come in. I think it's hard sometimes for people to understand that we are sort of committed to this job 24/7, seven days a week. Sometimes something's up on the weekend. Sometimes I choose to ignore the email until Monday if I know that it's not necessary to reply, but sometimes you have that kind of inkling that I should reply to this client and let them know what the deal is because I know it'll go a long way and it'll take me two seconds to reply an email on Saturday morning.
Joey: Right, right, that makes a ton of sense. All right, so, you've produced for some really great places. Digital Kitchen, and Method and now The Mill. So, how is producing for The Mill, which is a really big company that does everything, live action, visual effects, design and animation, how is that different than some of the other places you've produced?
Erica: I feel like it's just different because it's just on a grander scale. I have been very fortunate to work at awesome shops and big companies, small companies. Every company that I've worked at I've definitely, I feel like I focused in on a certain thing and gotten really great experience.
Digital Kitchen, I was there during the height of design and motion graphics, main title sequences, so I really got to get a good leg in on design work and managing that type of project. There was a small company that I worked at between there and Method which I learned how to ... I totally sharpened my tools in live action skills and shooting. Method was sort of my first step into visual effects and CG so I got to learn that and experience some really cool projects while there. And then Mill, I kind of got to put everything together. Everything that I learned at all the different places and kind of have a bit of experience in all of it and I get to work in all those types of jobs. I go on shoots, I work on purely design jobs, I work with CG, I work with live action and visual effects and I get to kind of use all my expertise from the different companies at The Mill.
The level of creative work that we do there is just something that I'm super proud of and really glad that I've gotten to this point in my career.
Joey: As someone, and I'm making an assumption here but, you and I, we both went to Boston University, we were in the Film and Television program and I'm sure at the time we were both thinking, "Oh, we're going to make films, we're going to ... "[crosstalk 00:52:38] That's what everybody wants to do. And now, we're both doing very different things than we thought we'd be doing. I'm just curious, do you feel like you get to scratch that creative itch as a producer?
Erica: Yeah. I obviously did a lot of editing at the U as well and as soon as I got a job I was editing freelance in the city. When I interviewed at Digital Kitchen I actually got offered an assistant editor position or an assistant producer position and I actually ended up taking the assistant producer position. At the time, I think my logic was, "I think I'll be able to as a female and as someone who wants a family and someone who wants some sort of work, life balance, I think this will be the better route for me to take." That's really kind of funny that I thought of that at such a young age. Having sort of that ... and I still edited, I still did editing on the side, I did a lot of editorial work for not for profits, obviously I did the wedding business for awhile.
I still got to have that creative outlet but going into producing was definitely a good choice for me and I also took with me that creative ... Like I said, the creative opinion that I like to weigh in on stuff. At each company it was ... and I was completely welcomed at each company that I was at. I definitely feel like it satisfies that creative itch in me still because I am part of that creative process and involved with the teams throughout the whole thing.
Joey: Yeah, you brought up an interesting point. I've always noticed and I feel like it's shifting a little bit, but there's still a lot more female producers than males. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on why that might be, and is that a good or bad thing?
Erica: I've noticed that too and actually being at The Mill I've noticed it actually kind of shift. There's definitely a lot more male producers. There's definitely a lot more male producers that are really, really good and producers that are head of production and running production departments. Seeing that kind of shift is really nice and sort of refreshing. I think, generally speaking, you see more women as producers because it's sort of like the teachers and the nurses. It's just this kind of sensitive, motherly role that you sometimes have to take to coddle these little artists, they can be such little babies at times.
I don't know if it sounds sexist or not but I think it's the same thing with teachers and nurses. It's just kind of this nurturing type of mentality that kind of warrants being a good producer. Some men have that too and I always think like, "Man, we need more male teachers and male nurses," and when you actually see a male teacher or a male nurse they're kind of like a pink elephant. You're like, "Oh my gosh, that's awesome." And they're really good at their job because they kind of bring something different to the table. Same thing with production I think. I work with some awesome male producers and you definitely see that they handle jobs differently than you. Not necessarily because they're a man maybe, but it's just a different perspective I think and it's kind of nice to see more men in that field and same goes the other way. Seeing more female artists in those seats, it's awesome.
Joey: Yeah, definitely and that's one of the things that at School of Motion we've really tried to push and tried to raise awareness to help get more female artists into the industry. I think it's just one of these holdovers from an earlier time, there's just a lot of unconscious bias still kicking around and it's starting to go away. As far as male, female producers go, I think in the end ... because I've worked with a lot of both and in the end it doesn't matter if it's male or female. It's, are they a good producer. So I'm curious what you think makes a good producer and actually before you answer that, tell me what makes a bad producer.
Erica: I think, you said there's this bias. It's kind of like, maybe it's just a field that a lot of men decided to go into or a lot of women decided to got into more so than others. Just like, plumbers, or construction workers or dental hygienists. Just sometimes, some roles just start, you know, males or females are drawn to different roles and different types of work than others. So, regardless to why that is, as long as you are doing it well and enjoying it than that's fine. It's nice to see a shift because like I said, it's refreshing to see female artists and male producers and sort of see that paradigm shift but at the same time I don't think you need to force it. I don't think you need to force that on certain companies or industries, just let it happen sort of organically and it is, which is cool.
In terms of being a good or bad producer, I think ... It's hard to say what makes a bad producer because it's so hard. It's such a hard job. If a producer's in a role where they aren't doing such a great job or they're not getting along with their artists or they're pissing clients off, I think that's just because it's a hard job to do and that person might just not be cut out for it and to taking on those roles, taking on those responsibilities. I think the reason for that is maybe they're not good communicators, maybe they're not able to humble themselves and ask the right questions and ask, sort of try to inform themselves. Maybe they think they know it all and they don't need to check in with their artists or they feel like they can just stand up to the client without having any real knowledge on what somebody's going to take to do. So I think it's just a personality thing.
If you're a good producer that's probably because you have put the time in to like, humble yourself and ask the right questions and learn from other people and sort of take on ... to have someone mentor you and learn from someone and get yourself as much knowledge as possible about the industry, about brands and clients, doing legwork on your own. I think it comes down to a personality thing, if you're good or you're bad at it, it's because the person you are.
Joey: Interesting. I'll add to that. I think you said communication, personality ... I mean, those clearly are incredibly important. One of the things I've noticed with the best producers I've worked with is how they deal with stressful situations is different than the way a lot of artists do, right? I've been at studios where there's 10 people working on some big project and we show the client the first round and they just crap all over it and everyone's freaking out and, oh my God, the sky is falling, the client's going to leave and none of us will work again. The producer's the rock in the storm. They're not freaking out. They're like, "Eh, all right, no big deal, so let's fix this." They're kind of the level headed person in the room. I'm curious if you agree with that and if you do, how do you maintain that, when in fact, some bad news has just been given to the artists. You know, they're going to have to work harder and the client didn't like what they did.
Erica: Yeah, that's their job, you know. Their job is to keep everyone afloat and without having them see their legs scrambling under water. They're supposed to be the beacon of light for everybody and give out positive vibes and remind people that this is, this job is a really cool project. It's a good opportunity we just gotta keep focused and do as much as we can to be as proud as we can of it and have our client be as happy as they are. It's just constantly reinforcing that. I think, again, it comes down to a personality. If you are a level headed person to begin with and a good multi-tasker and a good communicator than you're going to be a good producer and be able to continue to stay level headed during certain situations like that.
Joey: Got it. So inside you're like terrified but on the outside you're like, "Don't worry, I got this."
Erica: Yes, exactly. That's what the crux of production is, is really learning how to manage all these different things that are thrown at you but also keeping a good smile on your face and doing it as calmly so that your team doesn't freak out and your client doesn't freak out too because sometimes you're client will call in a panic and say, "Oh my gosh, we need to get this by two p.m.", and you can go back to them and be like, "Well, is it okay if we get it by four because we don't want to give you a crappy product just because you need it by two." Just kind of helping them get through the choppy waters as well.
Joey: Gotcha. Let's talk about your role in actually putting teams together that are going to be working on these projects. Like, as a producer, are you involved in deciding which artists are actually going to be on a particular project?
Erica: Yeah, I think you have an idea of what the project entails, you know when you have an idea who would be best suited for it. Comes down to scheduling to, who's available. Smaller shops where you maybe have to staff up with freelancers. You kind of know who might be good, who might be bad, maybe artists have someone they've worked with in the past that they said would be perfect for this job, so you reach out to them and check out their reels.
I think, like I said, having knowledge of what's good and what's bad designing, good and bad comp and visual effects helps as a producer because you get to then decide who's best suited for your job. You definitely have a say. It's company like The Mill, it also comes down to scheduling and availability so you try to put the best person, the best team on the job but we have so many jobs that warrant the best people, the best person on the job at the same time that sometimes your ideal person isn't available so then maybe instead of having, you know, Sam, you have Joe and Katie because Joe and Katie may be a little more junior but together they can be really great. It's just kind of learning how to work with different people and moving the different pieces around so you get the ideal team for the job.
Joey: Gotcha. Does The Mill ... The Mill has a pretty big talent pool internally but does The Mill hire a lot of freelancers?
Erica: We do at times. It just depends on if the job warrants someone that has a specialty that maybe we don't have on staff or isn't available then we'll bring someone in. Chicago's interesting market because there's a lot of freelancers in town and in certain specialties like motion graphics and design, but there's not a lot that's just CG and comp artists sitting around Chicago so those are really hard to come by. Generally we'll pull resources from other offices if they're available, if not, then we'll try to fly artists in from other places, or if someone's available in town then we'll bring them in as well. So it just depends on the job and how many projects we have in house staff and our in house staff, what they're booked on and they're availability.
Joey: Sure, and you've worked at other shops where I'm sure there was maybe a higher percentage of freelancers coming in the door.
Joey: So when you are in a position where you have to hire a freelancer what is the most important thing to you? Is it talent, is it their reel is the best reel, or is it a relationship that you have with them more important, their reliability? What do you consider before you hire a freelancer?
Erica: Here in town I definitely, or even outside of town, I'll definitely consider past jobs that I've done with people and how well we work together and there experience. I think that's says a lot more than just someone's reel because someone's reel could be super specialized in just motion graphics and design but maybe I know that this person has a really good eye for concept development or hand drawn illustration that's not on his reel. Having the experience of having worked with some people really helps and I think that says a lot more than what sometimes is on just on their reels. When you're meeting ... when you're working with new freelancers, than yes, a reel definitely helps. Breakdowns help, behind the scenes help and knowing what they did specifically on a job instead of just showing the spot is really key too.
Joey: Yes. You mentioned breakdowns and that's one of the things I always tell everybody they should be doing. I'm curious why having a breakdown of a project you did would help you be more comfortable hiring them.
Erica: It helps because it does two things. In terms of a comp artist or a more senior visual effects artist it kind of shows their work progress, their work process and their mentality so you can see how they approach a certain job and what it took to actually do it. For like a design or motion graphics artist it's a little more difficult because it's more singular layers but it helps because you do show what maybe the initial board was, what their style frame was, and then what their final motion piece was so it shows their creative process as well.
Joey: Gotcha. So it's more about giving you a comfort level in terms of what they're actually able to do as opposed to oh well it's on their reel but it's possible that it's on their reel and they were part of a team and that job looks great in spite of them working on it.
Joey: Gotcha. Let's pretend that I'm brand new to the industry and I've got a decent reel and I want The Mill to consider me for freelancer. What's the best way to get on Erica's radar so maybe she'll consider me for another project?
Erica: I love looking at artists' reels and I love sharing them with the different artists we have at the shop, just kind of get their take on it. That kind of helps me, educate me in what's continually to be good and bad, comp design, motion graphics and visual effects. And just kind of start the conversation, "Oh, this is a cool spot." Maybe this guy worked with somebody in the office before at maybe Motion Theory in L.A. or something like that. So it's kind of nice to pass those around and kind of chit chat about people's reels.
I think the best way to get your foot in the door at certain shops like that is to freelance at multiple places so that you do get your name out there and you do get good press. That way, we're not only looking at you for your reel but also for your experience with other places and potentially other artists who have worked with you in the past. We have an awesome team of talent managers that can invite you to come in and chat with you and tell you what we're doing, talk about the market and what we're hoping to ... areas we're hoping to grow in and just kind of give you the honesty back on everything. Every now and then sometimes we get the opportunity to have someone come in and sit down with the creative director, lead artist and talk about what you've been up to, what we're up to and just have a conversation to get to know you better. It's such a personality thing too. The culture at The Mill is just that everybody genuinely likes who we all work with and that really helps when you're forming this team structure and you have each other's back because you genuinely like people and you respect what they do and respect them as an artist.
I think the big thing is just getting as much experience at different shops all over the place to get your name out there and then coming in through the talent managers and getting into chat with them.
Joey: Got it. So The Mill is, I guess, sort of unique in that it's a really big shop and you have talent managers.
Joey: Just the fact that you have talent managers sets it apart. For The Mill would you recommend someone contact the talent manager or if they can ... if they listen to this podcast and they get your email address to send you their reel, would that turn you off or would you rather they go through the official channels ... How do you prefer to learn about a new freelancer?
Erica: A place like The Mill, it definitely needs to go through different levels of review before bringing someone in and then you kind of getting them on board with the scheduling team and making sure the creative directors are on board with bringing them on, so having me send up ... Also I have experience in hiring freelancers and working with them directly so if I know I've worked with somebody and I'm going to pass their info on to scheduling or to the talent manager [inaudible 01:09:30] I think that says something but if I don't know you and you just forward me your reel, I'm just going to forward it on to a talent manager and maybe give my opinion but it still has to go through so many different levels of a review.
I think, I'm sure The Mill gets inundated with reels and resumes and all that but I think it's ... Unless you have someone, unless you've worked at another shop, with another freelancer who can then go to The Mill and say, "Oh yeah, I've worked with this guy, definitely bring him in for a trail, or bring him in for this quick little job and try him out," That's, I think, the best way, is just sort of word of mouth because it's such a surprisingly small community. It's like huge but the same time small because everyone's trying to ... knows everybody through some sort of three degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Joey: Exactly. Three degree of Ryan Honey or something. Yeah, it's true.
Joey: Yeah. If someone's brand new to the industry, what are some things you've seen that are kind of rookie moves, like, "Ooh, I wish they didn't put that in their email to me, now it doesn't even matter what their reel looks like". Are there any things like that that have popped up?
Erica: I think the few times when they call themselves art directors. Or creative directors. They're like straight out of scat or something and you're like, "hmm, okay".
Erica: I think-
Joey: So be humble I guess is the ...
Erica: Yeah. You know what's funny is you generally don't get those types of emails or people in this industry. I mean, you do, you'll get the few, but in motion graphics and design, I think everyone kind of knows how to play the game and walk the walk. I think another cool thing is kind of being involved in things like your School of Motion and the blogs and Greyscalegorilla, and that sort of thing because it kind of opens you to a different world and you get to meet different people and those people know people and so it's just kind of expanding your network that way.
Joey: Right. I mean relationships are still everything, even in this business where ... because to me, motion design specifically, it is very much a meritocracy. Like you can put a reel together that shows what you can do and if you're awesome people will hire you. They don't really care what your degree was. I mean, obviously, we have film and television degrees, like who would hire us? I think that people need to realize it's talent and then it's relationships and I've seen that time and time again. Let me ask you this, this is a question I know everyone's wondering. What sort of rates, and you can kind of give a range with examples, what sort of rates does The Mill pay freelancers?
Erica: I have no idea.
Joey: That's funny.
Erica: It's nice to be removed from all that stuff finally, being at The Mill. Buddies of mine who've been freelancing or leave companies to go freelance have definitely asked what should I charge for day rates and it's kind of hard to say because it depends on, like I said, your level of expertise and what skill sets you have, are you just after effects, are you [inaudible 01:12:37]Cinema 4D, are you Nuke, are you Houdini, and I think there's probably a standard rate for everything nowadays because there's so much out there that you probably can't charge much more than what someone else is already charging, I imagine. When we're considering freelancers I know we considered rates, and sometimes someone will go a little bit higher than others and we'll bring them on because we know that they'll do a great job, unsupervised, go with the job and just run with it, so maybe they're a little more but we bring them on because we know that we can trust them. I don't know what those rates are really, lately. It's just been ... I think it's better just to talk amongst different artists and see what everyone's charging because I think there's definitely a standard.
Joey: Interesting. At other studios where maybe there was more freelancers were you involved in rate discussions with freelancers or has it always been sort of, someone else's problem to worry about?
Erica: No, I was hiring freelancers directly. I definitely had to talk about rates and negotiate rates. The thing with rates is you shouldn't have to negotiate the rate for an artist. I think that's, like I said, I think there should be more standard rates for certain after effects artists, or after effects in 4D to be this rate. It shouldn't be one guy's 700 and one guy's 350. I'm going to hire the guy with 350 unless the guy 700 is going to blow me away and be able to take a job to another level but sometimes all you need is an after effects artist just to put together some moving supers so you're going to hire the guy for 350. Sometimes you need someone to kind of run with a project and sort of art direct the projects. Maybe you'll go for the guy that charges 700 a day. I don't think it's possible as a freelancer to have such a huge range in rate so when I ask the guy who charges 700, "Hey, will you do this job for 350?", And he says, "Yes," I think that's going to raise a red flag to me and be like, "If you're taking this job on for 350 than why are you charging 700 originally?"
I have been involved directly with artists and dealing with their rates but that's where I've sort of seen that it's usually the same ... everyone's rates are kind of within 50, 75 dollars of each other.
Joey: That's really interesting. So we did a survey about a year and a half ago and asked a lot of producers and creative directors hiring people about rates and that was one of the things we kept getting was that rates kind of are all over the place and don't ... they don't match up as well as they should with the actual experience level of the artist. We have students right out of school with 25 second reels of student work trying to charge $700 a day and then you have these amazing 3D artists charging 250 a day.
Joey: Just because they don't realize what they're actually worth and there isn't a great way ... and I can speak as an artist. As an artist there's not really an easy way to know what rate to charge other than to ask.
Erica: Is it not discussed at school at all, what rates, the going rates are for certain artists? Do you people just come out of school and say, "All right, I'm going to charge them a hundred because that's what I feel that I'm worth," or is that what they're told to charge?
Joey: All I can speak about is from my personal experience. For me, coming out of school I was ... I had no idea that freelancing was even a thing. It just wasn't on my radar and so the way I learned about rates was by asking another freelancer that I knew what I should charge.
Joey: It's interesting because the rates that I charged when I started freelancing 10 years ago or longer now, Jesus. They haven't really changed. My rate when I started freelancing was 500 bucks a day as an after effects artist who could also edit. Then by the time I was finished with my freelancing career I could edit, I could design, I could animate, I also knew 3D and Nuke and could composite so I was like a good B+ level in all of those things. I don't know if The Mill would've hired me. But I was good enough at all those things where I was charging 700 bucks a day and getting consistently. I was also able to lead projects and things like that. That was kind of the range, from what I've heard from people that's still pretty much the range. On the lower end, I mean, if I was starting out now, like right out of school, I'd probably only charge maybe 350 a day.
Joey: There's so many variables, right? If you're in New York, 500 bucks is nothing. No studio will even blink at that, but if you're in Topeka or something, then that might be a really high rate so it's tricky and people are kind of shy talking about money, I think.
Erica: Yeah. That's why I'm shocked that it's not discussed in school, like what rates are usually set at and I think when you mentioned you were charging $700 for a day rate because you could do all those things at a B+ level, someone who's really, really good at Nuke could charge $700 and they just do Nuke.
Erica: It just depends, the market and how you're trying to market yourself. If you're trying to market yourself as an all in type of person that can do a job start to finish, then yeah, charge that. It's really wise for freelancers to specialize in one thing and do that one thing really, really well. That would warrant a higher rate because you do that one skill set really, really well. You know, you're really good at Houdini, you're really good at Nuke as opposed to, "Oh yeah, I dabbled Houdini and I also know a little bit of Nuke and I also know a little bit of Cinema 4D, so since I know all these things, I can do all of them, I'm going to charge $700." I don't think that person's going to get hired at a place like The Mill versus someone who does Cinema 4D really, really well.
Joey: I agree with you. I think that the jack of all trades is going to get booked all the time by ... If you're a B+ artist you're going to get booked by the B+ clients. That's just-
Erica: Or directed clients, kind of internal type of places.
Joey: Yeah, and that's just reality. If you want to work at The Mill which is an A+ place you have to be an A+ artist and the odds of being A+ at all of those things are close to zero. So specialize. I guess from what you said The Mill needs more Nuke compositors. Maybe Houdini people so move to Chicago, get really good at Nuke.
Erica: It's like, learn Nuke people, we need Nuke artists.
Joey: That's awesome. All right, Nuke Boot Camp, coming soon from [crosstalk 01:19:13]
Erica: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Totally, totally.
Joey: Awesome, awesome. Well Erica, this has been amazing and we kind of went all over the place but I think-
Erica: I love-
Joey: Yeah, you gave a lot of really good advice. I want to just close with, is there any advice you would give to people who listen to this and say, "You know what? I love this industry, I love creative work, I feel like producing might be a great fit for me." What would you tell them in terms of how to prepare themselves and actually go out and find work as a producer?
Erica: I think the biggest thing to do if you are interested in producing in the field is to get in from the ground up and really learn how, not only a certain business works but how the whole industry works and the pipeline works because that's the only way you're going to get knowledgeable is by getting in and doing. You can't go to producer school. So you need to get into a company, whether it's an internship or a runner position or an entry level associate coordinator position, whatever.
Get in, get some mentors and just start to learn the industry and the pipeline. In working at as many different places as possible, like I was kind of fortunate to do, is great too because then you learn how different places work and you can bring different levels of knowledge and expertise from different places to a shop. Like I said, there's no real easy way to get in except for taking that entry level position and just really learning how to work with so many different types of people and personalities. I always say that my skill set of learning to work with so many different people comes from working in the food and beverage industry like bartending and waitressing, because you work with so many different crazy personalities that walking into production's just like a walk in the park.
Joey: So step one is go work in a bar for a little while.
Erica: Step one go work at Chili's straight out of college like I did.
Joey: Very nice. Awesome. On that note, you mentioned having some sort of mentor. Producers don't really get the credit in the press that the artists do, right? They don't get the accolades-
Erica: The awards.
Joey: The same way, right? So I would even suggest reach out to producers because ... and you can answer this better than I can but I imagine producers would probably be overjoyed to hear, like, oh you're interested in what I do, I'll definitely tell you anything. If you have questions would you recommend reaching out to producers if you have questions or just ...
Erica: Yeah. I think it's really good, I've always enjoyed at different places that I've worked at being involved in the hiring of interns and hiring staff. I love sitting down and talking with people and getting to know what their interests are and giving them a little bit of insight into what we do and maybe how to go about, you know, getting to that next step. As a producer you're genuinely a personable person and good communicator, you like to talk so, it's always a good idea to kind of reach out to them and even just meet for coffee or lunch, or come in for a quick meeting and talk about what we do and see if it's for you. Just recently we interviewed somebody who was going to be hired as a coordinator and seemed very excited about the position, didn't really have a lot of background or experience in the field but seemed very eager to learn and then two weeks in the job decided it wasn't for her because it wasn't what she expected so maybe if she had taken the time to actually sit and shadow someone or see what it actually takes and talked to a couple different companies she might have realized that ahead of time.
Joey: That's awesome, that's really good. So Erica, thank you. It was so awesome to talk with you and catch up with you and I hope everyone listening learned a lot about what it is to be a producer and maybe is producing something their interested in. I just want to say thank you and I hope we can do this again.
Erica: Yeah, thank you for having me. It's been great chatting and getting to catch up with you, hearing all the questions people might have. It kind of gives me a little bit of insight into what I do and how I can maybe help other people.
Joey: Awesome, awesome. We'll be looking out for more from you from The Mill.
Erica: Great, thanks Joey.
Joey: Here's a fun fact about Erica. Her maiden name is Wrangle and she's a producer, get it? I'm sure that's the first time she's heard that joke. Anyway, I hope you learned a ton from this interview about how a bigger studio like The Mill works and the role of producers in the industry and maybe even some tips you can apply to your own career. Thank you so much for listening and please share this episode if you dug it. It means a lot to us and it helps us spread the word about School of Motion which of course, we love. I love you all and I will catch you on the next one.