Episode 347 – Perfectionism is the Enemy

 

Episode 347 – Perfectionism is the Enemy

Perfection is our inability to balance out our priorities or see the big picture. We get so fixated on everything being perfect, we fall behind our responsibilities, eventually failing to deliver anything at all. This is a huge problem for a lot of junior artists who make this mistake which stops them from succeeding.

Borrowing from what Allan McKay has learned as a VFX Supervisor, Producer in film, as well as a Studio Owner, he talks about:

  • How to manage projects successfully and how to grow as a creative;
  • How to complete projects faster and become a better artist;
  • How to think bigger and where to put your time;
  • How to know how to make the biggest impact and earn a reputation for nailing projects.

Perfectionism is not the pride in our work – it’s the downfall of us! The faster we iterate, the faster we improve. Once we release a product, we can always do a postmortem: what worked, what didn’t and where you can improve the next time. Meanwhile, with perfectionism, nothing is good enough. And because of that – nothing is ever done!

In this Podcast, Allan talks about the danger of perfectionism, how to not find yourself stuck in the cycle of endless iterations and move forward to becoming a better artist – and gives actionable tools to avoid the dangerous space in which nothing is good enough and nothing gets done.

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[05:03] Progress Over Perfection

[06:33] Speaking from Experience

[10:57] When Perfectionism Becomes the Enemy

[20:46] Actionable Tools to Avoid Perfectionism

[34:20] Move Forward to Become a Better Artist

 

EPISODE 347 – PERFECTIONISM IS THE ENEMY

Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 347! 

This is a solo Episode. I want to talk about perfectionism and why perfectionism can be the downfall of a lot of artists. As a Supervisor and Artist, I advise how to stop being too critical of your work – and how to become better at delivering your projects.

This is a chance to get into a subject I’m really passionate about. I’ve been writing this Episode in different cities. I see this problem with both junior and senior artists: of obsessing about small details and not being able to step away. I talk about how to get better and faster at what you do.

I use the anecdote of Duke Nukem as an inspiration. I hope you enjoy this one!

Let’s dive in! 

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[01:30]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[40:18] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

 

PERFECTIONISM IS THE ENEMY

[05:03] I am a huge advocate of progress over perfection. Perfection is our inability to balance out our priorities or see the big picture. We get so fixated on everything to be perfect, we fall behind our responsibilities, eventually failing to deliver anything at all. This is a huge problem and I see a lot of junior artists for at least a third of their career continuing to make this mistake which stops them from succeeding. But it’s also true with great artists. It’s the difference between their being successful and profitable because they estimate their time as a certain amount of hours, but they end up going over that. Which means that half of their profit will end up paying for the job itself. All because of their inability to see the big picture and manage themselves – and their team – to stay on point and deliver on time.

[05:52] I’m going to break down: 

  • How to manage projects successfully and how to grow as a creative;
  • How to complete projects faster and become a better artist;
  • How to think bigger and where to put your time;
  • How to know how to make the biggest impact and earn a reputation for nailing projects.

[06:10] I borrow a lot from what I learned as a producer in film, as well as a studio owner. I had to learn how to make my work better without sacrificing the rest of the project. This talk about perfectionism being the enemy; and how constraints and deadlines actually help us make better decisions. 

 

SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE

[06:33] Most of us get overwhelmed by having freedom. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work on big video games. When you’re working on a video game, you’re working within the constraints of the engine. You want to create amazing work but you have to do it within the limitations that the engine has. That becomes the exciting part: How to create exciting work within the constraints that you have? These solutions can be applied to your day-to-day; but they can also apply to projects of massive scale. I want to use Duke Nukem, the sequel to Duke Nukem from 1996, as one of the places where this problem showed up. It was a 15-year development cycle that ultimately failed. I talk about how you can learn to apply these lessons to yourself to become more successful and get more work done to a higher quality standard, while working on tight deadlines.

[07:37] For the last 25 years, I’ve worked in Hollywood as a VFX Supervisor for ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, Activision and many other studios. More recently, I moved into an executive position in tech. I want to break down my experience in leadership roles, in order to overcome the things that we, artists, do that hold us back.

 

THE DUKE NUKEM BACKSTORY

[08:05] In 1996, 3D Realms released a Duke Nukem game with a first person shooter. It became a massive success and sold over 3.5 million copies in the US alone. It revolutionized first person shooter and blew away the entire games industry. Naturally, 3D Realms announced a sequel to release shortly after. The title was Duke Nukem Forever. All eyes were on the upcoming sequel in 3D, and with the success of its predecessor, all it had to be good. The planned release date was Christmas 1998. In 2011, 13 years later the game was finally released. Gearbox and Kirana finished it off. Sadly, it still failed because it missed its window

[09:05] In May 2009, everything ended: The funds ran out, 3D Realms laid off their entire team, and it was sued by their publisher. Why did it fail? Most of it has to do with infinite funding. With the success of Duke Nukem 3D, they had a $30 million runway. They also had no concrete deadlines which means that they kept using the term, “When it’s done.” Meaning: “We’ll release it when it’s done” because they can. Another part was in bad leadership that focused on perfection rather than delivery. They had a lot of money and lack of constraints. If we were to talk about the typical development cycle for a AAA game, it’s usually 2-4 years. Just to give context, when Duke Nukem Forever was started, Pixar released only one movie. Most computers were Windows 95. X-Box didn’t exist yet. The team had 18 people that wasted $30 million. Every two years, the co-founder of 3D Realm would continue to start over. He wanted the game to be bigger and better each time which created a never-ending development cycle. The thing is: Duke Nukem Forever looked amazing, so did each reintegration of it. At each announcement, they’d show it off and create a new benchmark.

 

WHEN PERFECTIONISM BECOMES THE ENEMY

[10:57] So: What went wrong? And why is this story applicable to you? Let’s talk about the actual problem. The co-founder of 3D Realm George Broussar spent his whole career making one single game, and he failed at it over and over again. There were infinite deadlines, or no deadlines at all. He focused on trend chasing, rather than trend setting. They weren’t innovating which meant they were always a couple of years behind. Every game that came out presented new features that they had to have! That means that they went through at least 5 video games, as they kept scrapping the previous one over and over again. This leads to another thing: Obsession. Broussar spent years obsessing about the latest software. Obsession can be a good thing, but perspective is also important without seeing that you’re married to something that’s spiraling out of control.

[12:06] There is a concept called “sunken cost fallacy”. A good example of that is losing money to gambling and then trying to win it back by gambling more. Perfectionism is similar. Early in my career, I’d do it all the time, but nothing would be good enough. I would quote 10 hours as the length it would take me to complete a job for, say, $1,000. What happens when it takes me 20 hours to get it done. Now, I’ve halved my value. If it takes me 40 hours, now I’m at $250 a day. I go from profitable to pretty much paying the client to work on their project. This is where perfectionism becomes the enemy.

[13:17] Let’s talk about a commercial that came out in 2001, by Playstation 2. It was a really smart and coy spot for the PS5. It showed the some-day features, stating that for now, we’d have to settle for PS2. I love the concept of challenging someone to imagine what is possible. I can imagine the Broussar was focusing on what will be possible, instead of what is possible right now. Essentially, it meant that his vision wasn’t good enough and he always had to settle. 

[14:08] Another thing that can help us is parameters. Duke Nukem went through 5 cycles, all of which could be released and built upon. Focus on releasing that, and start on the next one! Each time, you can revise and get better, rather than being stuck. Which means that the relevancy, time and money aren’t being sucked away. They were too busy releasing Duke Nukem 4. I always talk about the iPhone 1 and how every product needs that. You can build upon that with each version. It may be clunky, but it sets a new standard. You can look back and evaluate how you can improve the product. iPhone 1 wasn’t great, but before it there was nothing. So if you never let go, you can never reflect and set new goals. Instead, it becomes a cycle of iterating to death. You’re also building a new house each time, and end up with 5 half-built houses and nothing to show for it but an empty wallet and all the wasted time.

[16:48] To think they could’ve released each version, they would have a series of successful games. Perfectionism was the downfall. Going back to the subject of shiny objects: They had a running joke at the studio: “Don’t let George Broussar see the new games that come out, or he’ll have to implement them into the game.” When a game based on The Thing came out, he instantly wanted snow in the game, even though the game was set in the desert. Half-Life came out and it was a distraction as well. Because of the massive success of Duke Nukem 3D, it was suspected that the next game would have a similar impact. In reality, people just wanted more of the same thing. They didn’t want a revolution, so there was no need to reinvent it. There are just so many revolutionary innovations that games can have. Just like with the iPhone, there hasn’t been any iPhone revolutions, just improved versions. By living in the shadows of your success, you might think that you need to outdo yourself every single time which is impossible. You’re putting the pressure on yourself, rather than recognizing the success you’ve already had and building on that. 

[19:25] Another thing we can point out is the infinite budget. Duke Nukem 3D made so much money, it meant that 3D Realm had a lot of cash and no boss to tell you to step away or to follow the deadline. Recently, I’ve moved into the tech space. In the tech space, you have MVP’s which means that you have to bootstrap your product. It’s a lot harder to change directions when you have a big team behind you. 3D Realm was big enough to have an overhead. But it was about morale: Having limited funds makes you stay hungry and lean. There is an urgency to reach the final goal. Time is money. And when money becomes scarce, it makes you focus on what matters and on delivering.

 

ACTIONABLE TOOLS TO AVOID PERFECTIONISM

[20:46] There are a few concepts around this. For me, one of the concepts is “broad strokes”. Get the broad strokes established, then spend the time revising them along the way. If you don’t have the time to get into the finite details, that’s okay because you’ve got the vision down. If you can always revise. Whatever you’re focused on in a shot, for example, you can then work on revisions of that. You put attention into the things that matter. Get it all working and then revise, revise, revise. Get it all in there. You can continue to improve until it’s time to step away.

[21:56] Another thing to consider is Parkinson’s Law: A task will shrink or stretch given the finite time given to it. When you’re studying for an exam, for example, and you manage to get it done at the last minute. But you’ve had a whole month to do it! Sometimes, you can work on something for an entire month, and it will take the entire month to complete. We shrink or stretch the task to the time we have. So when the company adopted the phrase, “When it’s done”, it sounds like the perfect scenario for infinite time. For many people who’ve started writing a book or a short film, they can’t finish it because they haven’t set any deadlines. So it never gets done. 

[21:11] Let’s talk about actionable items. Infinite freedom is a curse. Scope creep means that you keep moving the goal post. Why do some people spend 5 years working on one project? While the artist Beeple – who recently sold his NFT for $69 million – told me that he worked on this film for years, until he was given a deadline and he finished it (www.allanmckay.com/285). When there is a deadline, you can refocus. I’ve lost track of how many people I know who never finish their project. At the same time, “art is never finished, it’s merely abandoned”. That should be the mantra. 

[24:23] These are some of the mindsets I use to create the best work possible:

  • Broad strokes: Avoid refining too far. Don’t start detailing out an eyeball because then you’ll have to start staying consistent throughout the entire piece. Instead, focus on the broad strokes. 
  • I teach my students to “race to comp”. Finish that first first pass and then start doing the details. Take all the work through the pipeline, comp it and see the whole picture and then start focusing in. It also means that if you’re labored over something amazing and it doesn’t render, you can pinpoint when or where it crashes. Another example came up on Dune of 1993. Any asset that broke, they’d replace it with a new one in bright pink; so it’d be easy to see the things that were broken.
  • Another concept that I use in movie production is CBB: Could Be Better. Other times, I call it a tech fix. It’s really my saying, “These are the things that were promised.” All the shiny objects, you’re calling them CBB. When you have finished the project, you can focus on that Could Be Better list – and add those extra things. If you don’t get to the deadline, you don’t focus on that list. That way, you focus on the original goal. In tech, this is called prototyping. The more you work as an artist, you learn where to focus. 
  • Another helpful aspect is having clear deadlines. This allows you to compartmentalize tasks in sprints. When you’re in the dark, you can’t focus on anything. I know people feel constrained by deadlines. Deadlines give you context. If you have 2 months to do something, you can look up references and plan everything right; communicate more with a client. The approach will be different if you have 2 days to finish something. Having a condensed deadline means that you will work faster. 
  • Execute! Execute! Execute! I always think that procrastination is mastrubation. We make excuses and never deliver. Another mantra I have is: Attack with urgency – and fail fast! If you hit a wall, it’s okay because now you can revise. If you’re aggressively testing things, you’re willing to fail fast and get to the right solution faster.
  • Start with the end in mind. In VFX, I do paintovers. I’ll look at references and aim at what will look right, and draw that. It helps me communicate with my artists and to myself. You’ll always have something to reference. 
  • I also love the pottery method. It’s something I heard in my teens. You pit two people against each other: One person has 10 days to make the perfect vase, while the other person is given one day. The best part, the second person will keep reiterating and making each version better. For example, I love speed painting. Goro Fujita inspired with that (www.allanmckay.com/180). Goro is the director of VR paintings at Facebook / Meta. Everyday, he creates a speed painting in VR (which used to be in 3D). Which is similar to Beeple who would constraint himself to 2 hours to complete a painting a day. With all of your work, you can see how you’re getting better and better. What gets measured – gets managed. You can see where things start to go in the wrong direction. 

 

MOVE FORWARD – TO BECOME A BETTER ARTIST

[36:20] The more I do something, the better I get at it. Perfectionism is not the pride in your work – it’s the downfall of you! The faster you iterate, the faster you improve. Focus your attention on the 20% that can be better, instead of getting stuck on the 80%. That 20% will account for the 80% that people care about the most. 

[37:13] Clear goals help you manage your time and understand where you should put your focus. Look at the dominos that will make everything work. The more you manage the time, the more you focus on the end. Then you focus on actually delivering the product. Each product will inspire you to do a better iteration. It also means you get a profit! With every influx of money, you get financing for your projects. Who is to say that the client is even going to notice that thing that you’re obsessing about?

[39:02] Learning from others’ mistakes prevents you from making the same mistake. Once you release a product, you can always do a postmortem: what worked, what didn’t and where you can improve the next time. Take a step back and reevaluate. With perfectionism, nothing is good enough. And because of that – nothing is ever done!

 

What did you think? I hope you got a lot from this Episode. Please feel free to email me: [email protected].

Next week, I will be interviewing Chris Keller, the VFX Supervisor at DNEG who most recently worked on Foundation for Apple TV+.

Until then –

Rock on! 

 

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