Minimum Viable Movies

Making movies and building software.

Today, animated movies are risky bets. Unlike a piece of software, you can’t iterate on a movie— once it’s out there, you can only hope that people like it. The three-part production process is designed to de-risk a project before too many resources are dedicated to it, but it still takes a lot of people, time, and money to make a movie.

Even for industry giants like Disney, movies are a small part of the equation— the real money [1] is in parks, resorts, and consumer products. In other words, when fictional characters or worlds are engaging enough, they’re reborn as toys, rides, and diaper bags, all of which are more likely to outlive the movie itself. But that only happens when the movie’s a hit. When a movie flops, it’s the end of the line; studios are forced to forge on, hoping the next project will save them.

At this point, maybe you’re asking yourself: if technology companies can test their hypotheses with minimum viable products, why don’t animation studios do the same? It’s tough. Traditional tools are hard to learn, becoming a trained animator takes practice, and the act of animating is extremely time-consuming. In short, it’s hard to move quickly in traditional animation. But all of that’s changing sooner than we think.

Two years ago, Goro Fujita made Beyond the Fence, a VR short film designed to be experienced with friends. The film looks hand-drawn, features a fully animated character, and unfolds across several animated vignettes. This would have taken a team of artists months— if not a full year— to do with traditional 3D animation tools. But thanks to Quill, Goro made the entire film in three short weeks.

Since Beyond the Fence, Goro has made hundreds of animated pieces in Quill, some of which only take him thirty minutes to do. Ultimately, Quill makes it easy for Goro to experiment with new stories, characters, and worlds that could turn into something bigger down the line. Each piece is the animation equivalent of a minimum viable product.

When entertainment is made like great technology is built, the industry has a better shot at producing a hit. The pockets of innovation we see today are indicative of what the animators of tomorrow will take for granted: tools and methods that let artists produce shows that are expressive, iterative, and scalable.

It’s only a matter of time before we all get to enjoy the next animated classic, because the future of animation is being built right now.

[1] Excluding media networks (Disney’s real moneymaker).

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