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.