On CoMotion, being an Animation Lead and tips
CoMotion is an annual student-led motion graphics conference at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Every year, the CoMotion branding contest is held in the Fall quarter, when everyone is given an opportunity to pitch the creative direction for next year’s CoMotion title sequence and event branding. All submissions are anonymous, and the winner is voted on by the students in one of the club meetings. The winner gets to become the Creative Director and select their team members to take on the design and animation of the CoMotion title sequence and the event deliverables such as graphic design, social media posts, and web design. Being a part of the team is a prestigious role in serving the MOME Love community.
During my BFA at SCAD, I worked on CoMotion 2018 as a member of the Documentary team, and as the producer on CoMotion 2019. This year, coming back as a Graduate student, the Creative Director was Yuying Herr, who enlisted me as the Animation Lead to guide a team of about 10 to produce a fantastic title sequence. This article is an account of my experience as an Animation Lead on the CoMotion 2021 Branding Team. It will serve to better inform current students of how to better run CoMotion by providing a reference of my experience, and of how to pay attention to team members’ performances and improve their communication skills.
The virtual experience
Being the first group of students to take on the title sequence remotely, we were not confident about how everything would work out. Traditionally, the whole team would spend their Saturday afternoons in a classroom working on the title sequence in the Winter quarter. With this pandemic and working virtually, we no longer have the ability to share real-time feedback or troubleshoot with our peers, and more importantly, develop camaraderie and friendship. But out of adversity comes opportunities. There were many benefits that came out of working virtually:
- Using the Notion app as a platform that curates consistent sources of information to stay on the same page. When working in teams, the challenge is not production but communication, because sometimes we do not completely understand what the other teammates are talking about. To minimize such confusion, we made use of Notion, as a knowledge base and collaborative workspace. We curated asset lists and meeting notes, team members’ astrological horoscopes, hyperlinks to cloud storage, and design/animation guides. This was very important because there were some people in different time zones who were not able to attend the weekly meetings. We needed a platform to keep our team members on track without having to tell them personally, and Notion was the best tool for doing so.
- Being able to screen share on video calls means no details get left behind. We are looking at the same thing at the same time. I can visually provide annotations on my teammates’ work-in-progress and give feedback seamlessly. Our reliance on screen sharing and its recording feature also meant being able to do demonstrations or After Effects tutorials for the team to refer back to.
- More time for ourselves since there was no need to commute to classes. While we lose physical interactions, we do gain instantaneous connections to people if we need something. We can easily jump on a Zoom call to talk about a problem and still safeguard our personal schedules.
Leadership — The Great Pretender
I had taken on many leadership roles in the past, mostly as a project manager, but this was my first time being an Animation Lead. I found it funny because I never saw myself as an amazing animator. When I first saw Yuying’s style frames in the CoMotion branding contest, I was like, “Dang, I look forward to seeing who is going to animate this whole thing.” But then I was approached by her to be the Animation Lead ….
I have to confess that I had cold feet going into the project. The visual style and most of the elements looked very organic and hand-drawn, which was not exactly my strong suit. There was no way we were going to go all out with cel animation because it is a time-consuming process. But after listing down every animation element we needed to create on a spreadsheet, I realized things were not so bad. There was a lot to do and figure out but not too much for the team to handle. Each week or two, I would hone in on a deliverable, and develop a technique or rig for the project which could be distributed to the rest of the team. Also, luckily for me, we had a reliable teammate, Greg Markman, who was on the same wavelength as me in simulating 2D animation or effects using procedural setups in Adobe After Effects. Taking on CoMotion is a huge, daunting quest, but when you break it up into small segments and tackle each of them consistently with your teammates, I assure you that it can be done easily.
Doing CoMotion on-ground is hard. Doing it virtually means it is going to be even harder, and the team needs to communicate more often and better. One thing I reminded the team from time to time was that there was no doubt we could finish our project for CoMotion in time, and the real question we should have been asking was: How good of a title sequence can we make it? With this being my third CoMotion collaboration, success to me in this project was not really about producing the title sequence. I was more concerned about the well-being of my team and making sure they were able to manage school and CoMotion work without stressing out.
To allow my team to do their best work, my role as the Animation Lead was to foster a safe environment and “give permission” to the team to balance their lives while working on CoMotion, because sometimes people can overexert themselves in order to meet expectations.
We cannot always give our 100% for a single project because we have other priorities to attend to, such as classes, assignments, or part-time jobs. I wanted my teammates to be able to speak to me freely and with ease if they had difficulties finding time to work on CoMotion. The past CoMotion I worked on as a producer in 2019 had been immensely stressful for the students and myself, and I never wanted that for this current team of mine. That’s my Way of Ninja Leadership.
At the start of the production in the Winter Quarter, I did a presentation to the team about transparency and speaking up early when things went wrong. I am unable to discern whether this strategy was successful but what I did, at least, was to give permission for the team to balance their lives while working on CoMotion. Below are the slides from my presentation for your perusal.
My favorite part of my lead role
Guide for students working on future CoMotion
Having worked on three CoMotions, I can confidently say that I have substantial experience with these collaborations. I gave it a lot of thought and wrote some pointers to keep in mind. Generally, the team members are an amicable and collaborative bunch. Everyone seems to take initiative and know what to do. It is mostly balancing school and CoMotion that is the issue. Let me start off with some items that expedited the production process:
What went right this year
Pre-production was very much done and ahead of schedule of any previous CoMotion projects I did.
- We had a storyboard and 50% of the style frames before the Fall quarter ended,
- an animatic during winter break,
- all style frames, and 70% of animation assets and tests developed before the winter quarter.
Fall Quarter Week 8 meeting (Nov 7, 2020): Once the selections of the branding team were announced, a meeting was arranged for week 7 or 8 to talk about the game plan. I felt that it was too rushed, especially when people could be busy with finals. In hindsight, that was actually good because we were able to get the team together and discuss important details before the quarter ended. As people may return to their hometowns or countries immediately after the quarter, it might be hard to get everyone in a single meeting, and their focus on creative work may dwindle, too, because they just want a break to recharge their bodies and minds.
Getting to know each other better by working over winter break (Dec 5–19, 2020): After taking about a two-week break after the Fall quarter, we held weekly Zoom meetings to work on asset development such as modeling, animation rigs or experiments. It was a good way to practice collaborating virtually and get to know one another better. We got so much done by December 19th, we thought it was perfectly okay for everyone to take the rest of the year off. During the Winter Quarter, we were not worried about the challenges we would face in the next ten weeks. We were in sync, and each of us knew what needed to be done to make this title sequence a success.
- Most of the team members were highly committed to CoMotion. Every week they made substantial progress on their assigned tasks, and asked questions when they were unclear about something.
- They were highly communicative about their commitments to CoMotion. If they had a busy week with school or life, they would inform me in advance and offer a follow-up plan to complete their assigned tasks. Every year, it surprises me that both the performance of the students and their maturity increase significantly. Whether the pandemic was a source for making us more accountable in this virtual environment, we cannot say for sure.
- Strangely enough, this year, 9 out of 12 of the members on the Animation team were Graduate students. Maybe that is why I thought the team had so much maturity.
- We also had 2 producers (who were Graduate students as well) to manage the different teams: animation, design, graphic design, experiential, and web design.
Manageable Workload: We had about 20 shots, and each of us focused on about 2 shots for 9 weeks. There were two types of people: Ones who could take on work by themselves without any problems, and people who made components for the CD to build a shot or scene. At the end of week 8, most of the team were working on their final tasks; I was even caught in a situation where I had nothing to do!
Spreadsheets for every single thing: shot list, asset list, team directory, astrological horoscopes — we had it all. By listing every single deliverable, we had a clear idea of what to do and plan for their timely completion.
What to look out for
There were many good things, but things will never go as smoothly as we hope for. There will always be friction, frustrations, and apprehensions, which are perfectly normal. The most important thing is to respond to these situations when they do happen. To do so, we need to first identify what to look for.
The Team Members
As wonderful as CoMotion is, it is still a voluntary project. Students are not incentivized to work on this project, which means they do not run the risk of facing consequences should they fail or not perform as in a class. It is for precisely this reason we need to keep an eye on team members who will not perform up to expectations, even when they are set very low. Of all the CoMotions I was part of, here are the examples of poor team performance or behavior I observed.
- Untimely and poor communication: An individual is highly skilled but not the best at communicating or speaking up about their concerns in a timely fashion. They were not able to work on what was assigned for two weeks. If I remembered correctly, the individual expressed their desire to drop out of the team half-way into the project, which was not exactly the most responsible thing to do. I think it would have been better if they had talked out their concerns and proposed a plan such as: “Let me focus on school and assignments this week and switch gears to CoMotion the next.” Something like that would have sufficed without any qualms.
- Lack of accountability: The individual reciprocates what you say but does not follow up with what they were assigned. They would say they would do it, but end up taking a long time to do it or not doing a good job in the end. In this scenario, the leads and I decided to offload additional tasks for this person, and drop the bar really low by having them focus on one task for five weeks. But even so, they did not perform as well as we had hoped for — so much so that we had to take over for completion. In addition, we relieved the individual of their participation in the project at week 6 of the quarter as we did not have much left to assign, and also because we were not confident that they could do the things we expected in a timely manner. The leads’ and my frustrations were that had we assigned that task to a stronger member of the team instead, they would have taken half a day to complete it. However, in a discussion with a friend, we came to conclude that such behavior or poor performance is actually an essential part of the team. We talked about the “lazy ant” theory in ant colonies; not all ants need to work equally hard but they are all needed in the system, but I won’t get too deep into that.
- Not performing to standards: The individual proceeded at a slow pace over five weeks and was not able to deliver the quality we expected for a shot. They had other priorities on top of classes, so perhaps that was why the individual was not able to do their best work. Similar to the previous case, we had to take over their task and reassign the person to something more manageable and comfortable.
- Burnout: The individual performs well at the beginning of the project, but as the quarter progresses, they slowly begin telling you that they are not able to finish their task on time and will be able to do so by the next week, but then the whole process repeats and nothing really gets done. This is probably the most dangerous trait in a team member because you cannot really blame them if they get overwhelmed by schoolwork, but there is also the frustration that things need to get done. Such a situation happens to the best of us; even I am not immune to burnout. The only precaution that can be taken is to make sure you have a backup or teammate who can cover for this person when it happens.
- Ghoster: The individual will disappear over Winter Break or cease contact after the Fall quarter, eventually dropping out of the team or being “let go.” Expect at least 2 Ghosters per CoMotion collaboration.
For producers/project managers and leads, I recommend keeping an eye out for these sorts of behaviors and developing peaceful solutions or contingencies, and at the same time taking these traits into consideration for selecting candidates for the Branding Team instead of solely focusing on their portfolios.
For current students who are interested in working on the CoMotion Branding team in the future, I recommend you reflect upon your work ethic, observe if you possess any of these traits, and think about how you can grow from them to be a better team player.
While it is easy to have disdain for team members with such behaviors, we also need to practice maturity and detach their performances from their identities and our relationships with them. At the end of the day, everyone is still learning to be better. Yes, while they may not have been the best during the project and even caused significant frustrations, we should not think of them as “bad” people. There is a lot we do not know, for example, their other priorities in life, lack of technical skills, or miscommunication. However, that does not mean they are spared in a professional setting. Ultimately, our impressions of them may become significantly lower. We are less likely to trust them, and we ought to be careful about working with them, or else we run the risk of more unnecessary frustrations. Working on CoMotion takes more than just having a good portfolio and skills, it takes a certain level of maturity, self-awareness, and responsibility to do good work in a team and manage your life.
The Creative Director (CD)
Another team member to look out for is the CD, as there is a lot of pressure on the CD for such a project. It is highly likely that the CD finds themself in the hot seat because :
1. They may have not had experience doing such a large collaboration,
2. Their leadership skills are still developing
3. Most commonly, they fear not being able to finish the title sequence in time.
Personally, for me, CoMotion is more of a psychological journey rather than a creative one focused on production. Working on such large-scale collaboration is a first for most students; there are still challenges that they are unaware of until they experience them for themselves when working with people. That said, the CD has this feeling of uncertainty amplified because they are expected by the MOME / MOMELove community to be responsible for the success of the event, which can feel immensely stressful.
Producers and leads need to support the CD morally and emotionally by ensuring them that “things will be alright.” They might respond with some nervousness and not be assuaged completely, but I believe on a subconscious level that it does soothe their soul, so keep assuring them with words of affirmation till it becomes a reality. I tend to bring humor in my leadership style to make everyone feel less tense and just enjoy the process. Laughter is the best medicine and way of improving a situation, especially when it comes to making people feel happier!
Another thing to look out for is how the CD will be adamant about having things their way, and so ends up taking on a lot of work personally without informing anyone. While it is natural that the CD does the most in this project, they also need to be reminded not to hold on to their vision so tightly, and trust that the team can perform to standards and help ease the workload. CoMotion is, after all, not a one-player-game. The true value of CoMotion lies in the trust and bond we developed with one another, and that we are a single unit that believes in a shared goal.
Another epiphany I had as a team member was to believe and trust that my CD could and would do a better job, and my role was to let them do their best work. I believe that is what teamwork is about; it’s about elevating one another and not letting our egos get the better of us. I will leave it to you to interpret what this means to you.
In the final analysis, being able to work on the CoMotion 2021 Branding team as the Animation Lead has taught me so much about managing a team and paying attention to their well-being. This is probably the most complex CoMotion I worked on but the easiest I experienced. I am grateful that I have developed the strength and maturity to cruise through the project with my team. Thank you for reading this lengthy chapter of mine.
For those who like to learn more about CoMotion, you can:
Thank you to the following people for making the event a success!
Acknowledgments: Yuying Herr, Freya Yeh, Kagan Marks, Scott Sandifer, DaAe Kim, Greg Markman, Leah Evans, Lirio Ramirez, Olivia Trotter, Pranay Parekh, Wendy Huang, Anna Yang, Auralee Mayfield, Ghia Villasin, Kathie Yang, Obi Nwosisi, Yu Xin King, Alaijah Hampton, Alyssa Kalbus, Erica Kim, Mel Petzoldt, Yorlieth Avila, Tzuying Wang, Alex Campbell, Riley Carson, Kelsey Alexandera Marca, Lauren Neu, Sabrina Guyton, Andrew Goodridge, Coulter Desimone, MOMELove