Category: Working

The Lamest Blog Post

is one where the author says, “Ooops, haven’t updated in a while!”

I haven’t figured out how to make the blog a regular habit yet, so it’s going to be spotty for a while yet. (That’s okay, since no one’s reading it yet.) I  need to build a habit of doing a little bit of work on the blog each day, but I haven’t got that figured out yet. I’ve been pretty good about making exercise a thrice-weekly habit, even going when I don’t particularly want to, and I feel great as a result. If you look carefully and take precise measurements, you might even notice the difference. Anyway, that’s one good habit I’ve built, time to move on to other ones.

The process of work itself is getting better; I am working more consciously and trying to choose the most efficient approach: brute force when it’s needed and cheats when they work. Previz is still a challenge for me b/c there are so many unanswered questions in each sequence and I have an instinctive fear of spending time on approaches that might not work. (I really like finishing projects, because the path forward is usually so clear.) I’m working on letting go of the fear of failure and the fear of wasted time. As long as I’m working on solving the problems of the sequence, it’s not wasted time.

Last item: I joined ACM/SIGGRAPH so I could have access to the phenomenal collection of research papers they publish. I intend to:

  • read all the papers about NPR and associated technologies so I have a broad understanding of the state of the art
  • write capsule summaries on the blog of relevant/useful papers for my own reference (and build Google hits)
  • in the future, build tools based on the best underutilized ideas

Look for SIGGY paper summaries, coming soon.

One of my big goals right now is building deep focus and eliminating habits of distraction from my workday. I want to come in, kick ass for eight hours, and go home happy. And just like budgeting money, it’s hard for me to know if I’m ahead or behind if I don’t have an objective picture of where I am.

Yesterday while browsing a productivity blog (oh the irony!) I stumbled across the time-tracking tool I’ve been searching for: Rescue Time. It’s a lightweight application that logs what window is in the foreground, and for how long, and uploads this information to the cloud. You assign ratings to various programs and websites as ‘productive’ or ‘distracting’ and it reports back exactly where you spent your time at the computer and how productive you’ve been, hour-by-hour, or month-by-month. SWEET. (And of course it has a variety of options for scrubbing data you don’t want tracked. Ahem.)

Rescue Time productivity report

Rescue Time productivity report

Better still: it can be set to nag or praise you based on goals you set, and you can tell it to enforce focused work by blocking certain sites or programs for a set period of time. Perfect for helping me exercise my focus muscle.

The Enforcer

A few years ago I spec’d out a tool that would do most of this but I never had it built. Rescue Time’s implementation is way better than what I envisioned. It’s beautiful and easy to use. Right now I’m using the free version to see just how much I am in love with this tool. I’ll almost certainly upgrade to the paid version eventually, which stores your data permanently as opposed to two month’s worth, tracks individual files as opposed to applications, and–oh–it appears the goals and blocker tools are part of the paid version as well; I’m just on the free trial of the paid version at the moment.  Well, I expect they’ll be getting my money soon.

There is a version for teams, too, with project tracking tools.  They suggest trying a fully-open workplace, where everyone can see everyone else’s time track. That would be an interesting exercise in radical transparency! I wonder if I would be brave enough to host a widget on this blog that would show my productive hours on a daily basis?


Man, my body is a delicately tuned machine. Forgot my allergy meds this morning and spent the whole day with yuck belly. The yuck belly makes me feel hungry which led me to eating two Starburst candies I found in my jacket. Mistake. Even that small amount of sugar was enough to get me on the blood sugar rollercoaster, sending me into a crash right before lunch. I managed ok but felt uneven all afternoon. The blood sugar affects my focus strongly, so lately I’ve tried to avoid sweets at work. A birthday cake? Forget it, I won’t be getting much done that afternoon. Hard to decline, especially if it’s those little chocolate cupcakes from Hey Cupcake. But I really try to hit the low-sugar snacks like pretzels or bananas. Honestly, I do.

I always thought of VFX as a service business: we provide a service to a client, don’t we? Well, maybe that’s not the best way to think about it,  suggests this post by Scott Squires, a man who knows more than a few things about running VFX production houses.

One: most service providers (your dentist, your auto mechanic, your lawyer) bill based on time and materials. They don’t typically bill by the project.

Two: what we sell is really a product, not a service. Isn’t VFX more like custom manufacturing? After all, we create completely bespoke imagery and the client doesn’t really care about how it gets done. Most custom manufacturers (homebuilders, for example) work from a detailed specification and they typically set the schedule.

Three: the apparently limitless flexibility of digital processes, the position of VFX at the end of the production chain, and the ‘black-box’ nature of the VFX house from the studio’s perspective has created a situation where studios and directors have been trained to expect VFX to turn thumbnail sketches into oil paintings while speeding up the process to make up for every shooting delay and botched shot. What other industry operates like this? And how do they survive doing it?

What this all suggests to me is that a different business model is needed. Perhaps billing on a time and materials basis, also known as cost-plus, is the first step. The director can tweak to his heart’s content but the studio knows up front how much that tweaking will cost them. The VFX house no longer has to summon all its courage to charge an overage for big changes–something they are generally loathe to do–instead they simply bill for the added work, their labor costs are covered and their margin is protected. This would encourage better work practices on the part of the studio. It is for this same reason that I suggest freelance artists bill by the hour, not the day or week. I think it’s fairer to all involved.

The Infovore’s Lament

I love to read. It might even be more accurate to say I’m addicted to reading. I can’t help it. I see words, I read. I will read just about any article to the end. And a bad habit I’ve developed is that I will read to avoid thinking or working. I’ll happily devour news or polemics or tech gossip in order to avoid mental labor. This is a habit I am working on unlearning.

First step: being faster about closing browser windows. I’m trying to bias myself toward NOT reading things. I try to remember to think, “Do I need to know this, right now?” and unless the answer is unequivocally yes, I click close. I’ve not regretted it a single time.

Not reading ties into my larger goal of maintaining focus, short term and long term. I am letting go the need to know and do everything and it’s actually quite a relief. I am slowly making peace with and embracing the fact that I am finite, that the set of things I might like to know about is boundless but making the most of my finite self requires that I focus my time and attention.

This was an online townhall meeting to discuss the state of the Visual Effects Industry (for film particularly) that was spurred on by Lee Stranahan’s Open Letter to James Cameron.  Basically, the vfx industry is famous for grinding the hell out of artists. Hours are long, changes are many, and all too often life is sacrificed on the holy altar of production, in many cases without overtime pay. People burn out, facilities close, it’s not sustainable. Avoiding that burnout is one of my big goals with this blog and this career. I want an extraordinary career, and I want my family life, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation.

I found the discussion, hosted by Lee and featuring representation from the studios (Chris deFaria of Warner Bros) the facilities (Scott Ross of Digital Domain) and the artists (Jeffery A. Okun, VFX Society) to be quite thought-provoking. While there were no easy solutions, there were many good ideas put forth, and a mature lack of demonization. If you expected the studio to be a punching bag, it’s not here.

The most insightful comments to my situation had to do with handling the danger of commoditization. VFX is becoming a commodity business except at the very highest end. There is no avoiding this. Artists are partly to blame, for describing themselves as ‘geeks’, not artists, and promoting the computer over the artist. But the barriers to entry are simply too low. For me, the takeaway was that value comes from having (and selling!) a unique value proposition, the talent and vision to do something no one else can do. This is what studios are willing to pay a premium for. Finding my niche and excelling in it is the key to long-term success as an artist. It’s good to know how to camera track or pull keys, but that is not where I’m going to find success as an artist. That is not where I should focus my efforts.

What follows is my rough transcript of the discussion. I believe recordings will be available online, but I went ahead and noted what was said for my own purposes (maintaining focus on the discussion for the better part of an hour and a half being a big part of it).  View Full Article »

Headphones and Music

Until very recently, I listened to music while working. Then I began to notice that music aggravated my tendency to allow myself to get distracted, probably because the music was a more or less constant stream of minor distractions itself. Even the wallpapery electronica. I also noticed, somewhat to my surprise, that wearing headphones without any music playing was almost as comforting as wearing headphones with music playing. The same sense of isolation–the audible masking of outside noises, the physical sensation of wearing the the phones on my head, the social signifier of headphones on–was present, but without the focus-breaking distractions.

I will say that I’ve found music less distracting (and more useful) when I am cranking through a repetitive sequence of actions, but most of my work is not mechanically repetitive. Normally, I’m making decisions and solving problems, and that’s the way I want it. I want my primary activity to be solving novel problems and making complex decisions. And I want to find ways to automate or delegate repetitive tasks. This requires deep focus, a skill I am working on.

So, for the moment, I’m wearing headphones and listening to nothing.

Study Hacks is a terrific blog. It’s been the primary inspiration for my newfound career focus. More on that later. But I wanted to call out this idea from today’s post:

 I argue that the secret to James McLurkin’s success is his ability to choose the right projects. By resisting work that reinforced what he’s comfortable with, yet also sidestepping overly-ambitious projects, he consistently advanced his skill until he arrived at the bleeding edge of research robotics.  Once there, the “breakthrough” projects that cemented his reputation became obvious next steps.Put another way: stretch projects are an effective way to integrate deliberate practice into fields without clear competitive structures and coaching.

To make this more concrete, let me give you a couple definitions:

  • Stretch Project: A project that requires a skill you don’t have at the outset.
  • Stretch Churn: The number of stretch projects you complete per unit of time.

If you’re interested in building a rare and valuable skill in your field, ask yourself a simple question: What’s my stretch churn?

That’s where I need to be taking this “Variations” project. Into stretch project territory.

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » How to Become a Star Grad Student: James McLurkin and the Power of Stretch Churn

I love Freshbooks

In general I don’t like thinking about money, and I really don’t like invoicing and billing. For whatever reason, I have a mental block against it, and in the past I would even drag my feet to bill clients. What I needed was a tool to make time tracking and billing as painless and easy as possible, which is why I was so delighted to find Freshbooks via this FreelanceSwitch post about online billing apps. There are a lot of solid-looking online billing apps, but I gave Freshbooks a try because it’s free for the sole proprietor with up to three clients, and commenters raved about the quality of their customer service and the ease of their tools.

Having spent two months with Freshbooks, I have to agree. Their customer service is Johnny-on-the-spot, answering forum posts quickly and even calling me, somewhat out of the blue, just to welcome me to Freshbooks and inquire how I was finding the service. Not bad for a free service.The online tools are terrific, well-thought-out, and quite user-friendly. The main bits I use are the time tracker and online invoicing tool. Sending an invoice is a matter of picking the range of dates to be billed and hitting send. Clients get a PDF via email. Boom. When I get a check, I mark the invoice as paid, so I know which invoices are outstanding. FB will even send a followup email to forgetful clients if you want.

There are other features I haven’t really explored, like various data mining tools you can run on your data, and tools for building estimates, and lots more. Of course, there are a dozen other worthy online billing apps out there, but I love Freshbooks. Thanks for making billing painless.

Looks to attempt

For the fruitbowl still life lighting challenge

  • Color photograph, realistic materials
  • Silver gelatin print
  • Sin City contrasty b/w
  • Lichtenstein big color halftone dots (in screen space and in object space)
  • Marker grafitti
  • Different Metals
  • Engraved illustration
  • ballpoint pen sketch


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