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Alligators

November, 1993


It's true. Some alligators can be found in other swamps equally as treacherous as the Multimedia Swamps.

The Restaurant Alligator reported last month in San Francisco showed up again in Santa Fe, New Mexico, under similar circumstances but with a different appetite: two women sharing intimate accounts of their romantic noon-time encounters with a fellow worker were unaware that the guy's sister and wife sat at the table behind them... As the subject of these encounters became better defined during discussion, the curiosity of the accidental listeners turned to incredulity, then to a hot lava of recognition. There followed a loud public altercation, a hair-pulling skirmish with physical contact, and even a table was overturned before management quelled the event. The sister, an intelligent graphic artist and animator, recounts in great detail that, as she sat watching her sister-in-law, the words separated from the conversation like shelled peas falling into a loud galvanized bucket; as the bucket filled, her companion's left eyelid convulsed in increasing tempo until finally her whole body burst from her chair. By the time you read this, the guy is certain to have been eaten alive by the Restaurant Alligator, but the sister has ambitiously embarked on a creative effort to remake the tension of that event into a multimedia project. We'll keep you posted.

Many times we have heard about the Feedback Alligator. It's mottled skin boasts an Escher-like pattern of lines and marks, showing apparently clear definition along the head and neck, but converging to a brown muddled wash at the tail. When the tail wags this alligator, all hell breaks loose, and multimedia contracts can be severely strained or lost altogether.

Feedback Alligators can appear when you throw a client into the mix of creative people... when necessary-for-client-satisfaction approval cycles can turn your project into an anorexic nightmare of continuing rework, change, and consequently diminished profit. These alligators typically slink out from the damps after you have locked down a contract and scope of work, when the creative guys are already being well paid to ply their craft.

For client protection, multimedia creative artists should be hired with a cap on budget and time. They should be highly skilled, efficient, and have a clear understanding of what a project's goals are, and they should be allowed to accomplish these goals with as much freedom as possible. But good multimedia artists should come close to the mark the first time.

They don't always. For example, you agree to compose background theme music to play whenever your client's logo shows on the screen. You master up a sample cassette tape and pass it to the client. She doesn't quite like the sound, but is not sure why. You go back to the MIDI sequencer and try again. The client still isn't sure that's it. Again, you make up a tape and pass it to her for review. No, maybe it needs a little more Sgt. Pepper... this is our logo, remember?

The process of client feedback can go on and on forever in a resonance of desire-to-please and creative uncertainty unless you have developed rules for limiting these cycles. While your client might always be right, you will still go broke working unlimited changes on a fixed budget.

So do two things to ward off the Feedback Alligator. First, make it clear up front (in your contract) that there will be only a certain number of review cycles before the client must pay for changes. Second, invite the client to the workstation or studio where the creative work is done. For sound, tickle the keyboard until the client says "that's it!" Make 'em sign off on it. For artwork and animations, let the client spend an afternoon riding shotgun over the artist's shoulder, participating in color and design choices. Get the client involved.

If your client contact isn't empowered to make decisions but simply carries your work up to the bosses for "management approval," you are facing the unpleasant Son of Feedback Alligator. Demand a client contact who has budget and design authority.

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The Credit Alligator usually appears late in a multimedia project and has nothing to do with MasterCard or Visa. This gnarly animal typically lives unseen in the delicate fringes of workgroup politics, but can appear with great distraction during beta testing, adding moments of personal tension and occasionally destroying friendships and business relationships.

After hard cash, the most satisfying remuneration for your sweaty effort and late-night creative contributions to a multimedia project is to see your name on the credit screen. Indeed, this visible credit is a special high-value currency because it can be added to your portfolio to help you land the next job; the more of this currency, the higher your potential wage. And the more likely you will remain employed doing the things you like to do.

Start building defenses against this alligator up front. When you negotiate the original contract with whomever pays the multimedia bill, be sure to include wording such as: "We shall be allowed to include a production credit display on the closing screen or in another mutually agreeable position in the finished work." If you are an individual who is contracting to a producer, be sure it is understood that IF there is a credit screen, you name will be on it.

Not all clients will stand for a credit screen. Apple Computer, for example, uses many outside contractors to produce multimedia, but as a company policy rarely allows contributors to be credited by name. Some contractors and frustrated employeees develop ingenious work-arounds and indirections to bury these important intellectual credits within their work. For example, in an excellent book written by a team of skilled Apple people and published officially by Addison-Wesley (HyperCard Stack Design Guidelines by Apple Computer, Inc.) you may discover a list of talented instructional designers, illustrators, writers and editors in Figure 3-3, an unassuming bit-mapped screen-grab showing an "About" box. The real people that wrote the book are buried here, in this example credit screen.

The Credit Alligator raises its head over the little things, too, and there are often no defenses If your name begins with a letter that is toward the end of the alphabet, it may never appear first on the list of contributors, even if your contribution was major. Of course, if your name is Walsh or Young, you have endured this ordering system since first-grade lineups. Warning: reversing an alphabetic credit list from last to first will only create or heighten tension; to propose such a list is, in itself, ego-driven and self-serving. Learn to live with it.

The most treacherous place where the Credit Alligator lives is in the busy time of finalizing a project and going gold. If you are not participating in the final mastering but have contributed a piece or pieces to the project, you must trust the masterer to do it right. But it doesn't always happen right.

One company recently consulted on a job where their work represented the second-greatest contribution from a group of about fifteen contributors, all of whom had credit screens. Their contract required credit, but in the final version of the storyboard they discovered their screen buried at the end of a four-minute linear sequence of all the other credits and advertisements. They asked the producer to move it up. "Sorry," said the producer, "it was an oversight." Then in the last-minute process of resequencing, the producer also switched that company's custom music to his own company's credit screen, leaving our friend's screen attached to a pretty ugly left-over sound byte. Because the company was not included in the final feedback and approval loop, they discovered this "little mistake" only after mass replication. It's tough to change 50,000 shrink-wrapped CD-ROMs, so there was nothing to say.

Crediting creative talent is sensitive stuff. Avoid recurring bouts with the Credit Alligator by publicizing among your people your policy about credit screens. Talk about intellectual credit openly, not as a last-minute thing. Negotiate hard for inclusion of credit in all the projects you undertake for clients. Indeed, multimedia doesn't spring from the bankrolls of investors and publishers, but is the result of the hard work of talented real people.