Sunday, October 23, 2016

Leading via Questions

There's a pivotal moment in the lifetime of a growing team where its leadership no longer has enough information to be responsible for how that team gets things done. And if both team members and leadership don't recognize their roles need to change, it can be frustrating for everyone.

When a team is small and the leadership has the capacity to be in the trenches, there's a lot of efficiency in having your more experienced decision makers steering the work. By working so closely with everyone, leaders are operating with shared context that team members can trust and the leaders can course correct quickly based on all of the feedback they get.

There is a point, however, where the responsibilities of leading and protecting a larger team make it more difficult for leadership to spend time in the trenches. When that happens, if the leaders keep involving themselves in areas in which they are now so woefully uninformed compared to those they lead, it becomes meddling-- a serious impediment to getting things done.  Up until that point, the natural relationship was one of leader and followers and so it's not evident that there's a moment where the team knows a lot more on how stuff gets done.

Over the past year, with my studio having grown to more than 25 people, I've been working on this role change. There's a few interesting problems to solve. If I am accountable for, but no longer responsible for how stuff gets done, how do I pull that off? How do I help those team members that are not used to being decision makers develop this skill? What are the skills I need to grow in this new role and how do I improve? And how do I do all of this while making sure that trust flows both ways?

I have one solution that has had some success. I try to ask questions like I'm the student and they're the teacher. If I am now less informed on how things are getting done, it makes sense that I'm the one who needs to be taught.

This has had several effects:
  1. By making it clear that I respect and want to learn from what the team is doing, they feel trusted and empowered. 
  2. Because I have a lot of decision making experience and a 10,000 foot view, the type of questions I ask can probe and reveal problems the team hasn't seen from their angle. If I'm not satisfied with where things appear to be going, asking followup questions can either help the team realize they haven't thought something through or help them craft an argument that is satisfying for me. In both cases, the team is the one coming up with the answers. 
  3. Over time, I've noticed the team is getting better at anticipating the questions I would ask and in effect getting better at their own decision making. 
  4. For those moments when I still need to make the decision, there's now a clear relationship for how the team gets involved leading up to that decision and for when unexpected consequences may need correcting.
After a year, I still make mistakes where I'll give trench level direction that comes off as uninformed and meddling. It's easy to lapse back into the comfort of being the one who decides, a skill I've developed and gotten good at over the last 6 years. When this happens, it's been really exciting when my team, having developed leadership skills of their own, are now actively coming to me, letting me know what context I may have missed, and teaching me something about how I can be a better leader.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Finishing Trolls

We've recently finished our third project at the studio, and as proud as I am of it, I'm glad these final months are over. It's not the desk work that tired me out - that blood and sweat comes from my amazing team. The hard part about finishing is having the strength and discipline to know that it's good enough. As a producer, I was constantly tested in making the hard decisions necessary to ship it even when more time and effort could always make it better. And that's the haunting fact about making something creative— you can always make it better. But until you actually put it in front of an audience, it doesn't count. One of my favorite lessons from Pixar, expressed elegantly by John Lasseter, is that a film is never finished, it's just released.

The problem with working on a creative and highly technical product like what we make at Story Studio is that over the long amount of time it takes to develop, produce and finish a VR movie, you can lose what excited you about the project at the start. And then you start worrying if it's not just fatigue, but something more fundamentally wrong.

And this isn't new to anyone who creates. Self-doubt and angst are trolls that move in during those last few months of finishing. But in a medium as young as VR, I feel like the trolls are especially tricky. Not only do you begin doubting the project, but you also begin worrying if the audience will even get it. We've now spent so many more hours in VR than the average consumer that I worry my experience will mislead us into thinking we know what will entertain. One of the tricks to producing is to find the strength to ignore those trolls and push through that last mile.

I have to thank my experience at Pixar for helping me stay strong.  While there, I was lucky enough to see 3 feature films through to the end— Cars, Wall•e and Up.  I got to experience what it's like to spend so long on a project that you begin focusing on the flaws and forget what makes the film great. For each of those projects, as much as I and my fellow team members cringed to know all of the things we just didn't have time to fix, all of those films came out as beautiful, entertaining and critically acclaimed films. If I could be tricked into doubting Pixar films, and then be blown away by their reception, then those trolls aren't worth listening to.

As for knowing if the young VR audience will get it and be entertained, that's part of frontier life with this new medium. The only way we'll know if what we're doing works is to have the faith and guts to put something finished out into the world and see what happens. If we spent all of our time trying to perfect our experiences, we would never learn anything. Furthermore, with each VR movie we complete at Story Studio, it helps me build up a tolerance against those tricksy trolls.

That all being said, I can't wait to show you what we've done.  It's inspiring, unexpected, and I guarantee it's something different than anything you've experienced before.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

AR will improve how we live, VR will change how we live

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this past weekend that got me thinking about the promise of augmented reality vs. virtual reality. My friend, who's opinion of technology I respect a great deal and who has enough VR and AR experience to have an informed opinion, said that he could see how augmented reality will be big, but he still didn't understand virtual reality. This makes a lot of sense to me, and I still remain as bullish as ever on virtual reality. VR has the potential to change culture which, for me, is more exciting than augmenting it. Because of this potential, however, it's much harder to envision what the future of virtual reality looks like compared to augmented reality's.

When you think of the potential of AR, it's easy to think of how a heads up display would augment driving, navigating, classroom learning, cooking, meetings, shopping, etc. These are activities we do every day and to add an effortless layer of technology that improves that experience is a no brainer. But most of the uses I can think of for VR don't improve existing activities, they try to define a new way of doing things. Some of my favorite VR learning apps don't take you to a classroom, but transport you across the solar system or scale you down to the size of an atom. As support for a virtual desktop improves and eventually starts taking advantage of the depth dimension, it has the potential to redefine what an office looks like. If you follow our work at Oculus Story Studio, you can see how VR has required us to rethink how we tell stories and how the audience experiences them.

Immersion, the defining feature of VR, is a problem and a benefit: it's a problem because every VR experience needs to reward all of the user's attention; it's a benefit because if we succeed, all of that experience is something you've never had before. The leap your imagination needs to take to add technology to what you've already experience is a smaller one. Imagining a completely new experience that will redefine how you go about your day requires a leap of faith, and will never be fully convincing as an idea. You have to eventually see it for yourself.

I know many people who have found a compelling experience in VR-- whether it was from playing a game, seeing a story, watching a sporting event in a virtual space, or being in a virtual dance party. Of all the potential experiences you can have in VR right now, I totally get that a lot of people haven't found something that clicks for them. Talk of a single killer app that will convert everyone is the wrong approach. There are so many different uses of VR that I think everyone will come to it for their own reasons. I accept that my friend hasn't found that app that convinces him of a new way of doing things. I have faith that given time, the innovativeness of the VR community, and the inevitable improvement of the technology, enough "killer apps" will be created to cover a large range of interests, including my friend's.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Culture of Critique

It's undeniably a good practice, as uncontroversial as eating well and getting more sleep. It's a skill that applies to every profession you can think of.  You can always get better at doing it, and when done right, it will always lead to making you and your team better.  And I believe it to be the difference between what rises to greatness and what falls into mediocrity.

Asking for critique and then mindfully acting on it is the best skill for improving everything you do, and it's also one of the hardest things to practice.  We're just not naturally wired to do it.  To ask for criticism is to overcome one of our base fears, to expose ourselves to being judged as less than we think we are.

It's hard to say what makes Pixar "a lightning in a bottle" studio, but one thing I did learn during my time there is how a strong feedback culture leads to better story.  I got to see many crappy "Pixar films" in my 10 years, but none of them were ever shown beyond the studio walls.  They were all internal screenings.  During production, all films are assembled as a complete viewable experience at regular intervals and shown to the crew and creative leadership.  These internal screenings are edited together using whatever assets are available at that time of production- rough story boards, scratch audio, and unlit renders– until the final screening includes all animated, lit and rendered shots.  After every screening, feedback is given and the director uses those notes to make the story better for the next iteration.

The directors hated these internal screenings.  They were forced to put their baby up for criticism every 4 months and let an audience of film making experts point out its flaws.  And even though the screenings could sometimes create doubt and disruption, they were done on every production without exception.  It was so entrenched in the process that it was just the cost of playing.

In the absence of a strong culture like Pixar's, it's very hard to ask a director of a creative project to be so naked in front of their team.  The stress of making anything creative is tough as is.  But I believe it was only when a film had gone through enough iterations and improvements that it rose to the level of excellence that audiences expect from Pixar.  And this is why Pixar's batting average is so much higher than the film industry's.

We're striving to build this culture at our studio and it's not easy.  Not only do you need to account for the extra process it takes to be producing a screening at regular intervals (we're calling them rough assemblies), but you also need to build trust between the crew and directors.  The crew needs to provide constructive notes while being sensitive to their director's vulnerability, and the director must convey receptiveness while taking criticism.

Something we've been trying to do is to create a "notes window" after a screening. After the screening, the entire team can send notes for fixed number of days.  Discussion threads spawn and can keep active until the window closes.  It's strongly encouraged that team members not only call out what isn't working, but to highlight what they love.  Once the window ends, all official notes traffic ends.  Our director can then digest, be creative and respond with a synopsis of the new direction in which she wants to go.  She doesn't need to acknowledge or defend her decisions against every note, but it's a tactful skill to make the team feel heard even if she might disagree with the majority.  The window provides some piece of mind as to when the director can expect to feel vulnerable and when she should feel protected.  We've found that it's too hard to be receptive and creative at the same time.

Given time and consistency, it's my hope that a culture of critique grows so fundamental to our process that it will just become the cost of playing.  So far, I'm very proud of the direction we're heading.  It doesn't hurt that a lot of us at Story Studio already come from a place like Pixar where this culture of critique is so strong and proven.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Stop Climbing Out of the Uncanny Valley

I've been playing video games since my first NES.  I grew up with Mario, Sonic, Megaman and Fox McCloud.  Back then, the 8-bit machines forced stylization in character design: there wasn't enough pixels or compute power to render realism.  So the game makers worked with the constraints. Mario is a plumber because with only 16 pixel rows to work with, the designers needed the mustache and overalls to create definition for his nose, chin, and body.

Since that time, we have far outgrown 8-bit.  Games are now built on top of gigabytes of dedicated graphics memory and have a little over 2 million pixels of screen real estate.  Shouldn't more horsepower and more pixels lead to more beautiful realism and as a result, a more appealing character? And it's not just the tech that's getting better.  Today's artists are more skilled and have way more tools than those early developers.  Shouldn't the expertly crafted detail lead to a better product?

In my opinion, character design is getting worse, and it's all because of the Uncanny Valley.

In brief, the Uncanny Valley is a postulate widely accepted in robotics and computer animation that the more a fabricated character tries to act and look like a real human, the more we subconsciously notice what's wrong, and therefore reject the fabrication as creepy.

Here's an example of state of the art work in games from Ninja Theory.  The detail they're getting out of the high res scans is mind boggling - down to finger print accurate resolution.

And I have to admit that the still images of the CG character in neutral pose are looking pretty good. Where it all breaks down is when the character starts moving.  Even if the game makers capture a wide range of neutral and active poses, humans are so adept at discerning meaning from facial differences as little as millimeters apart, there's no algorithm that can blend between those poses that captures a completely believable human face.  Most who aspire to be actors have a hard time achieving believability, why do we think a computer could do any better?

What's frustrating is that even though today's game designers know they are making creepy characters, many of them have this unshakeable belief that with a little more technology and a few more clever ideas, they will eventually converge to the limit.  If you rephrase the Uncanny Valley premise from the creative's perspective, the more you try to climb out of the Valley, the harder it gets. Sounds like a classic case of diminishing returns.

Image grabbed from Manly Guys doing Manly Things.

I think there are two alternative paths that could lead towards better ways out of the Valley.

The first is obvious: don't even try climbing the difficult side.  Use our wide range of tools, talent and technology to make something you would never see in real world - like a stylized illustration come to life.  We are much better as humans in finding appeal in the fantastic than we are at forgiving flaws in the realistic.  In the 80s, tech limitations forced stylization.  Now, stylization is a choice worth making.

The second comes from thinking how film captures appealing character.  Humans are not very sensitive to temporal gaps in what we see and so flashing a moving picture 24 times a second is not distracting and has been used for over a century in the cinema.  We also know that a film of a good actor can be incredibly appealing.  So what if instead of capturing high resolution scans of static poses, we scan actors as they act at around 30 times per second.  There's already promising tech going in this direction coming out of teams like, Uncorporeal, and Microsoft Research.

We can then play that 3D capture back at 30 poses per second without needing any blending for the in between frames, even if the game is rendering at 60 or 90 fps.  Where this becomes a problem is that game developers like a simplified model, usually in the form of a joint hierarchy.  With a simplified model, developers can drive a character that can be affected by interactive input, like when the player hits the "jump" button.  Furthermore, the joint hierarchy is a good way to compress movement data so you don't need to download 1TB of data to see a cutscene.

But I think these are the problems worth working on.  Instead of finding a way to fabricate acting with an algorithm, even if that algorithm is fed by scans and motion capture, find algorithms that solve the problems of using dynamically scanned acting.

Stop struggling to climb out of the Uncanny Valley on the hard side.  We should either walk back up the easier side towards more stylized characters, or avoid falling into the Valley all together by finding better ways to record actors in 3D.  In the latter case, the problems worth solving are around interactivity and compression, problems better solved with a computer anyways.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Less Meetings, More Artifacts

I feel like I've been fighting the gravitational pull of "too many meetings" ever since I became a supervisor.  At heart, I'm a software engineer, a maker.  I'm naturally a meeting minimilast: code doesn't get written in meetings. But as projects get more complex and a team grows to match, good communication requires structure. And a well prepped meeting is often the best way to make communication work.

The problem is that meetings are addictive.  One good meeting makes you think the next will be just as effective. You forget that most of the work that makes a good meeting happens before it starts.  And as the meetings increase in frequency, it's hard to gear down when your prep time is overrun. You go from meeting to meeting without any prep and as a result they keep getting less and less effective.

In my experience, all of the best meetings I've ever attended were about reviewing an artifact - something that took time and skill to make.  An artifact can be a board of concept art, a digital sculpt, a build of the game, work in progress lighting captures, etc.  Technical artists are familiar with these types of artifacts and the dailies or weeklies where we review them.  Creating something, showing it, getting notes, and revising : these steps define a technical artist's work cycle.

What I want to see more of is an artifact for every meeting, not just for director reviews.  For example, a meeting should not be a place to setup context or provide new information.  That can be delivered by email.  That email and resulting thread is a great artifact to bring into a meeting where a decision is needed. A well organized and well paced slideshow is much more engaging than an improvised speech.  Production planning should revolve around well designed and maintained spreadsheets or database.

There are two keys to a better artifact.

  1. An artifact should be well crafted, designed to the needs of the meeting - which means it should take time to make it good.  Even an email takes crafting to make it cohesive, clear, and well formatted.  I even think it's better to err on overcrafting... to a point.  Putting more effort into an artifact than is needed can lead to a different kind of waste.
  2. Secondly, the easier it is to reproduce the artifact, the better.  For example, slideshows are fine artifacts but a recording of that presentation is much better.  A presented slideshow can change with each telling, but a recorded presentation plays the same every time and can be distributed to a larger audience.  The best part about a recording is that you don't even need a meeting to review it.  Furthermore, an edited video is easier to work with since you can use a tool like Premiere to finely craft the experience. A script is a good artifact, but an animatic reel is much better.  Two audience members can read a script very differently, but a video fills in a lot of what screenplay leaves to the imagination.  At Pixar, the animatic reel was the required foundation for all production planning, not the script. 

There are a few benefits to always requiring an artifact before a meeting.  You'll have less wasted meeting time because you'll be spending your time creating artifacts.  If there's a reproduceable artifact, especially a playable media of some kind, it's much easier to get people on the same page, get consistent feedback, and make revisions.

In the end, any creative team's final product is an artifact of some kind.  And the more we spend our time getting good at crafting artifacts at all stages of production, the more we improve on delivering a better final experience to our audience.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Gender Disparity Problem - A Fishing Story

This past week, I visited my home town of St. Louis, Missouri.  Along with getting to be with my parents and sister,  I got to meet my first newborn niece who is just 6 weeks old.  During most of my stay, we spent the time talking in our pajamas, watching Netflix, and waiting for the baby to get hungry again. 

As I do on occasion when visiting home,  I also went fishing with my Dad.  We started our Sunday waking up at 4:30 AM.  We said our goodbye to my sister who was awake giving the baby a drowsy, early morning meal.  We drove for an hour out to a small bass lake in Wentzville, MO just in time for the sunrise.

Once we arrived and set all of the rods,  I started casting a top feeder lure, setting the reel, then winding and jigging the lure across the water surface making sure to keep the right amount of tension on the line, feeling for a hit.  When a fish didn't catch, I'd do it over again.  Again and again for 3 hours... without much action.

At first, I wasn't awake enough to think about anything beyond casting and reeling.  But when the sky finally started glowing orange, and I was nearing what felt like my hundredth cast, a provocative thought bubbled up - a thought about gender disparity in Silicon Valley.

I know it's a strange moment for such a thought, but it's been on my mind as of late (we're in dire need of more females in the VR space).  For the past 2 years, whenever I get a pulpit opportunity, I have talked about how a woman's mentality is sorely lacking in the male dominated tech world.  I just know from experience that a mixed gender team performs better than a male dominated one.  But what is it that's missing about an all male team?  What is it about a male way of thinking that needs female balance?

One thing I've observed more in men than in women is an obsessiveness when solving a problem - a drive to keep going even when there's probably a good reason to stop or take a break.  Playing games late into the night passed a reasonable bed time, banging our head against a difficult problem set instead of changing context, coding past the point of dehydration and an inability to think straight – it's probably this kind of male dominated thinking that has fostered the unhealthy Silicon Valley culture of working late into the night beyond mental exhaustion.  Furthermore, this obsession with solving a problem can sometimes make us lose sight of whether we should be solving it in the first place.

I've been lucky to work with some great women problem solvers at Pixar (as well as be in a long term relationship with one), and I've found that women are better at considering the bigger picture, often augmenting technical thinking with other intelligences, like social engineering and logistics.  They are better at setting priorities and have the discipline to temper when needed and the patience to rethink an approach instead of drilling deep on the first one they tried.

And that brings me back to that provocative thought.  This all seems to make sense from an evolutionary point of view.  The men worth their genetic salt should have been able to hunt or fish over long periods of time with an obsessive drive.  Even if the trail ran cold and the fish stopped biting, the men who stuck it out had a stronger chance statistically of bringing home some calories for the tribe.  And while the men were away on long hunts, women had to deal with everything else that made a tribe work including nursing the newborns and foraging for reserves in case the men came back meatless.  So it makes sense that task prioritization and big picture thinking is their natural strength.

Now, I'm not apologetic about my male way of thinking nor do I speak in absolutes.  Some great things have come out of an obsessive drive.  Men are capable of big picture thinking as much as women can be obsessive.  My concern for VR is that without mixing in more women, a room full of men are more naturally wired to have blind spots. We are more prone to obsessing over barren rabbit holes or dead lakes.  It's a gender balanced work place that builds a healthy, long lasting, well focused product and team.

And it's around that moment of clarity that the bass finally started biting.