Saturday, August 01, 2009

Spending the Money - How to Get it Right

It’s a problem familiar to every independent producer - how to allocate limited resources so they have the greatest impact to the quality of the project.

No matter the budget, producers are often faced with the reality of fewer resources than hoped for. To create outstanding content, they must therefore concentrate on multiplying the value of the resources they have. Knowing how to do this, and when to spend the money to best effect is often difficult, but there are two factors we can focus on that are of disproportionate influence. These are time, and performance gain.

Time is the most important resource producers must manage. When deciding how to spend money, or allocate resources, it’s often the number one consideration. Spending money in ways that save time often translate to significant gains in quality and performance. The opposite also holds true – if the money being spent isn't creating incremental time gains, it almost certainly could be better spent in other areas.

Performance gain is the incremental improvement received with each dollar spent. The issue here is one of scale. How much better will the project be by spending a dollar in one area (locations, equipment, OT, etc.), as opposed to spending the same dollar somewhere else? Will spending that dollar create a better experience for the audience and stakeholders?

Making these decisions is as much an art as a science, but there is a simple rule of thumb that can help. When making these types of decisions I often use a very simple graph to help put things into perspective. On the X-axis is Time/Performance Gain, on the Y-axis is Resource Input (money, equipment, personnel). To illustrate I'll give an example.

On Welcome To Academia, we were shooting a very difficult scene at night, and approaching overtime, when the DP informed us we had a dead pixel on the camera. The choice was fix the pixel on set using the camera's software interface, or continue shooting and fix the dead pixel in post. Both alternatives had pros and cons.

Fixing the problem on set would take approximate 30 minutes while the crew stood idle and the clock ticked. Fixing it in post would allow us to keep shooting, but would require painting the affected area frame by frame. Depending on the action and length of the scenes, this could take a great deal of time. There was also the consideration of how a known problem with the footage would impact the cast and crew (on set this matters). So what was the better option?

When prepping the show, my producing partner,  Laura Cartwright, and I discussed this eventuality with our post house, and the camera techs at CSC in New York. We knew the rough cost-per-hour of fixing a dead pixel in post (it is impossible to determine exact time and costs until the footage is seen), and knew the precise cost of having our crew sit idle for 30 minutes, and the cost of each 30 minute period of OT. We decided to fix the camera on set.

On the surface it may seem as though idling the production would be the less efficient choice, but when all the variables were considered that was not the case.

As the chart at left shows, fixing the problem on set - under the circumstances we were in - was overwhelmingly the best choice. In a bad situation it made the best use of our resources because it gave us the highest time gain with the lowest resource investment.

It also gave us a chance to boost morale. While the camera department worked on the fix, the director rehearsed the last shots, and our wonderful craft service team whipped up some smoothies that cooled us down, and gumbo that restored our energy. 30 minutes later we were rolling cameras. Ultimately the scene looked phenomenal, and we made our day.

Deciding how to spend money comes down to deciding what actions consume the greatest amount of resources, while returning the smallest quality and performance gain. And conversely deciding which actions consume the least amount of resources, while returning the highest quality and performance gain.

Not easy choices, but when framed this way, producers can see beyond the stress of the moment to the bigger picture, and gain insight into how to direct resources so they make the greatest impact to the project, the team, the stakeholders, and ultimately the audience.