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Prodigal Mac: Find Balance, Grasshopper

Or, how to avoid a bloody nose By Kevin Schmitt
When I was little (and, admittedly, even today), I always looked forward to New Shoe Day!, a day so great, it must be capitalized and end with an exclamation point, even in the middle of a sentence. Picking out just the right shoe; the feel of the Brannock device against your sock-clad foot (yes, that metal thing they use to measure your shoe size does have a name); the agony of those rare times when they didn't have the right size; the ecstasy as you wore your spankin' new shoes out of the store, old ones already forgotten in the box under your mom's arm. There was nothing in the world like New Shoe Day!

One time, when I was six years old, New Shoe Day! was extra special: I was getting Zips. If you don't remember Zips, you were either not alive during the 1970s or, for whatever reason, forgot the entire decade. Anyway, the reason I wanted Zips so badly was because of a TV commercial I saw. In that ad, the young protagonist donned a shiny new pair of Zips and was then magically able to perform superhuman feats like jumping over large walls and running at insane speeds, all while his Zips were emitting cool Steve Austin-like noises.

So after assaulting my mother for weeks with shrewd statements like, "Can I have some Zips" and, "I'll be REAL SUPER EXTRA good if you just would get me some Zips," she finally broke down. As we left the store, Zips gleaming and perfect on my feet, I wrenched my hand away from my mother's arm and took off across the parking lot to see what those babies could do. The first sign of trouble was that the shoes weren't making the cool Steve Austin-like noises I thought they would. Strike one. Then I noticed that I wasn't really running any faster than I normally did. Strike two. I figured, what the hell, let's go for broke. I made a beeline for the nearest parked car. Once I was a couple of feet away, I took off, expecting not only to clear the first car but also the five or six cars after it, just like the kid in the commercial. Mere seconds later I watched as my blood left a trail down the passenger side window of the car I had tried and utterly failed to jump over, joining with the growing pool of blood that was spraying from my nose. Strike three.

Believe it or not, there is a point to that story. "Sure there is, Kevin," you might be saying to yourself, "the point is that you're an idiot." While I'll concede that this may be true, the real moral of the story is that you'll probably end up in a world of hurt if you don't know your limitations.

For those of us out on our own or work in smaller shops, diversification is the key to survival. We can't afford to be one-trick ponies. Let's say that I'm the world's greatest wire-removal artist (which I most certainly am not, but for the purposes of this discussion, as well as my own ego, let's just do a bit of make-believe, shall we?), and I have just left [insert name of effects or post house here] to go out on my own. Unless I can find a client or clients willing to pay me all day, every day to remove wires from footage, I'm going to be getting calls from angry creditors right quick. So what's a wire-removal artist to do? Obviously, the goal is to be able to keep as much work for yourself and pass on as little of it as possible. So, if you're following my logic, I would need to expand my skill set to be able to meet that goal.

But how much is too much?

This is an issue with which I have struggled all my professional career. I have never worked in a large shop, where there is often an assembly line approach to creative endeavors. Not to diminish at all the incredible work that frequently comes out of such environments, but projects can be so mammoth that several artists might be needed for a single task. On the other side of the coin, I have been part of creative shops that never numbered more than seven people. We all had to have a relatively robust skill set to avoid having to pass on work that came through the door. The pressure to know as much as conceivably possible about everything you can get your hands on is overwhelming. And for me, as probably with a lot of you, the desire and hunger to absorb all things digital is powerful as well. But this is where the point of the opening story comes in: the urge to become a "one stop shop" can overshadow the fact that you may be doing yourself, and ultimately your clients, a disservice.

The danger lies in spreading yourself too thin. At one time not too long ago, I was in charge of designing pretty much everything that got put on any sort of screen. Web sites, CD-ROMs, 2D animation, 3D animation, motion graphics, compositing, broadcast design, presentations, streaming media: You name it. As I tried to keep up with the unique challenges with designing (and sometimes programming) for each, it began to dawn on me that while I could switch gears and design for a lot of different media, I wasn't becoming a particularly skilled designer at any of them. I realized that all my energies were spent on keeping up with evaluating new software and design techniques instead of actually putting what I already knew into practice. As a result, I felt that the products I was making weren't especially creative. That's the disservice to you and your clients. Creativity must remain the paramount consideration, and you have to expand or contract your skill set to provide the maximum amount of service to your clients. I decided I needed to contract in order to focus more on the creative process, so Web design went out the window.

So how do you find the right balance between how much you know and how well you know it, with the goal being a sustained creativity level? Well, here's my soon-to-be-famous four step plan:

1. Decide what you really want to focus on. We all have to do things we're not fond of in order to pay the bills, but the more you do this the less satisfied you will ultimately be with your work. Decide what your core competencies should be and steer yourself in that direction.

2. Pick software packages wisely, and keep their numbers small. Software can either be a transparent extension of your creativity or a real hindrance to it. For example, for the first couple of years after I graduated from college I wanted to learn as much about 3D software as possible. I erroneously thought that learning as many 3D packages as I could would really help me out. I was simultaneously trying to get my hands around PixelPutty, FormZ, Infini-D, Strata StudioPro and Electric Image. It was only after I had chosen None Of The Above (LightWave) and focused on that single package for my 3D production did I find that I really felt comfortable with 3D modeling and animation. Over time, I have also learned to keep my software arsenal lean and mean, bringing new software packages and upgrades to existing packages into the fold only after thorough evaluation and testing.

3. Have backup. Even if you're a super freaky genius type, you can't know everything about everything. Don't be afraid to have somewhere to turn if a client comes to you with something you can't handle. Freelancers, strategic partnerships, and even new hires as appropriate provide the right safety net to fall back on when needed. Trust me, clients remember that you were part of the solution when they had a problem, even if you actually didn't end up doing the work directly.

4. Have fun! Remember, if you're not having fun, you're in the wrong profession. Fun people having fun with what they do almost always equals fun, creative, and successful products!

Now if I only had the equivalent of these four steps when I was six. It would have saved me a very bloody nose.

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Though the fame, riches, and notoriety of being a DMN contributor are both tantalizing and substantial, Kevin Schmitt still stubbornly insists on continuing his work as the Director of Interactive Services at EFX Media, a production house located just outside of Washington, D.C. Feel free to follow his updates and contact him through Twitter if you have something to share - he's ready to believe you!
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