I was once talking with an animator about the film ‘The Life of Pi’. We were discussing the extraordinarily high quality of the CG.
“It’s all specialty,” he said, “Putting together a team with specialists who each know how to do one thing extremely well.”
I agreed, but lamented the direction the industry was going.
“15 years ago I would never have been asked to do sound design or motion graphics or even color,” I said, “But if I tried to be strictly a picture editor today I’d never survive. Everyone wants someone who can do everything.”
It wasn’t for my sake that I disliked this expectation, but the industry’s. It is to their own detriment that they expect such a variety of skills in each crew member. By requiring a moderate aptitude in a broad range of skills, they deny themselves specialists who have devoted time developing one or two skills to a masterful level. I often tell clients that are looking for a ‘jack of all trades’ candidate to consider putting together a small team instead. It costs no more and typically yields better results. Because there is a second part to the phrase ‘jack of all trades’, and it’s ‘master of none’.
Specializing- Where it Starts and Where it Ends
The idea that specializing is beneficial to a collaborative project goes back to the advent of assembly lines. In modern terms, it’s not hard to understand how focusing on one area of the complex, unique, and collaborative creative process would deepen the skill and understanding in that area. The closer you get to the top of the industry, the less frequently you see creatives crossing job lines. The most skillful people in a particular role are there because of their dedication to that craft.
And yet the industry continues to push more and more for crew members to have a wide range of skills. The most galling thing about the industry’s new focus on ‘one man band’ type talent is the fact that it doesn’t make any sense from a financial perspective. Sure, a company looking to hire one ‘web guy’ needs someone to handle the whole process. But in most cases, from a value perspective, it’s almost always better to go with a team of specialists. It costs roughly the same to hire a one man band for a whole project as it does to hire a team specialists each for their specific portions and the team almost invariably provides better results. Certainly, there is the odd creative who is talented in every aspect of their industry, but they’re usually priced accordingly.
In most cases specializing is an asset. It can, however, be over-utilized. Most jobs require at least a working knowledge of the other positions involved, particularly the steps that will follow, so they know how their work fits into the whole process. A writer should know how graphic design works, so they have an idea of how their writing effects what is produced; a cinematographer should know how post production will be handled because that will affect what footage they provide; a back end developer should know how front end development works so they know how the front end will build on their foundation. And for leadership positions, a significant knowledge of each position is a major asset.
What do I do with this information?
If you’re a producer, creative director, or someone else who can enact change within your organization, look into restructuring your video department or typical freelance hires. Consider what, if any, benefits you receive by hiring for a broad range of skills. It’s through hiring requirements, not crew skill sets, that trends are born.
If you’re just someone who wants to keep getting hired, I’m afraid you have to capitulate to what the market demands. As they say, adapt or perish, and a broad range of skills is to what you’re being asked to adapt. Do what you need to to meet industry desires, but never forget to devote time to your specialty.