Ralph Guggenheim is CEO of Alligator Planet, and was a producer at Pixar on Toy Story. Yesterday he visited us and spoke on what it’s like to be a producer in the entertainment industry. He discussed his work on “Toy Story” and several other projects, but kept to the producer discussion about them. For me this was a good talk to listen to as last semester had I taken the opportunity to be a producer for an ETC project. A lot of what Ralph talked about I found to either relate to that or I saw how it could be applied to my experiences last semester.
Briefly, my project last semester was called “Bamboo.” At the first pitch the team would simultaneously integrate key next-gen video game graphics features into the Panda3D game engine and provide teaching assistance to students taking the “Building Virtual Worlds” course. The team was composed of two artists, two programmers and myself as the tech artist and producer.
” – never enough money and never enough time”
For an ETC project, 14 weeks can sound like a lot of time at the beginning of the semester. I was surprised to find out that four years to create “Toy Story” was a short time. Though it dawned on me over the course of the talk that this phrase rings true if the team is unrealistic. In an ideal world, a realistic team and producer wouldn’t run out of time or money due to their experience and ability to predict work time. However the ideal team’s schedule would probably fall apart due to unpredictable factors anyway. Unforeseen budget cuts, or natural disasters, bad blood between team members, anything completely unrelated could all effect the team’s success at accomplishing their true vision.
“its like being a conductor of an orchestra”
Symphony orchestra conductors keep the beat and rhythm going despite having little knowledge of how to play every instrument. From my experience playing in orchestras, it became clear that the better conductors were the ones who had experience with a wide range of instruments. If one is having problems with a measure the knowledgeable conductor could give tips on how to approach that segment rather than ask them to play better. It boils down to better communication overall. Ralph said he came from a CS background and it sounds like it helps him deal with CS people much better. Though he did point out that other project managers were successful, it seemed like they couldn’t hit the ground running if they did not have an understanding of CS.
“each person is actually a producer themselves”
There are two parts to this: people do produce themselves and by doing so end up producing others. Last semester I noticed that after milestones were set, people would integrate that into their own life schedule. Granted, not everyone did this completely but it was clear that they had things in mind. Eventually team members would openly ask me when things were to double check. Due to the small project space others would hear the conversation and be reminded indirectly.
“be a supportive partner and loyal critique”
In the context of a project this sounds like the producer must always make people feel like they have someone helping them but provide sound critique when the project demands it. There were times last semester when the art team cranked out art assets for the project. Every one was really supportive of each other. However when it came down to putting that art into the engine sometimes it was either me or the programmers that had to say “this art isn’t going to look great for technical reason x, y, or z.” It was a hard thing to swallow but it helped everyone on the team learn the direction of the project and more about the pipeline we were constructing.
“lead while following”
This was an area that I had a hard time with last semester. It took me some time to finally understand how to do this. Ralph talked about making sure to “lead for everything other than the creative.” For me, this meant that I maintain an awareness of the project status and direction but not step on the toes of the team. Beyond that, Ralph said that you have to “set wild goals and realistic expectations.” These two quotes tie into each other I feel. It’s almost like having a dog sled. The dogs are the muscle that’s going to propel the sled forward. The driver or producer will stand in the back correcting the course and realizing when to push forward or stop due to exhaustion or bad weather.
“no matter what you do everyone will have a different experience with the project”
It sounds obvious at first but it’s definitely something to be aware of during a project. Ralph talked about having a daily meeting during the production of “Toy Story” where each person that had something new and cool to show presented it to the company. Later, much to Ralph’s confusion, he found out some of the FX people never got to see much of the art being developed. Looking back I’m sure that this was the case last semester. At the very least there was one person on the team that was not a teaching assistant. Each person also had their own different elective class to do work for and that would cut into the project sometimes.
Overall Ralph’s talk was very informative to listen to after having some producing under my belt. During my experience I never had anyone actually describe what the role was and Ralph’s talk helped cement the role and responsibilities of a producer. It was wonderful to hear this wisdom coming from someone who’s worked in the entertainment industry for so many years on so many different projects.