Lean Creativity & CLAi

Embracing A New Way Of Thinking About The Business Of Creativity

One of the greatest positives about being involved in film and video production - especially with a documentary bias - is that over the years you make thousands of programs on thousands of topics and get to research and talk to truly inspirational people.

I’ve been involved in the business of making films and video programs, in many roles, for around thirty years now.  For a large number of those I have also been a production company owner.  Yet in all of that time, with one or two exceptions, this industry has remained exactly the same.  We have split into two main types – large companies with many employees and masses of equipment that do every part of the production process in-house, and very small companies with almost no equipment and just two or three employees that work to get the job and then farm it out for other specialist companies and freelancers to execute. These were not young companies, as they still had to fund projects, but were usually a producer and a salesman, often working on developing film projects.

Of course, with the cost of some equipment and software you also had to have these specialist companies to provide, say, online editing or studio lighting services.  You had companies just to rent gear from.  And you had freelance individuals, like DPs, to provide the talent to run this stuff.

Your goal as a production company owner was to get enough work to buy more equipment and get enough good work to employ more of the talented employees. The aim was never to be bought and start again – it was to get to the top and stay there.

Then things changed.  The internet brought a wall that small production companies could hide behind and appear to be large, experienced and talented.  And it coincided with a sudden drastic reduction in the cost of the tools of our trade at the low end of the spectrum – allowing for “good enough” to be acceptable to many companies, especially in the corporate sector.  It also enabled “boutique” production companies to develop, where four or five employees would assemble around, say, a designer with a studio space and some equipment, and become a creative hot shop concentrating on just one part of the process or on an entire project.  In many cases these were assembled from freelance talent who still made their living as individuals. On the downside it also allowed an awful lot of B or even C talent to pretend to be A list, and a lot of film students who couldn’t find jobs to open their own shop and imply experience far beyond their talent.

For many even the end goal changed – with a look good to investors, grow very fast and be bought up by a bigger fish mentality that matched many of the upcoming industry startups we all worked with.

In almost every case the founding of these new types of production company were driven by economics rather than quality and creativity.  In the case of CLAi, having been bought out in the UK and having to work elsewhere, we had to start again. I chose to buy the best equipment available to offer a complete service, and bring on board good young employees as I could afford to do so, then train them to be very good.  It was a strange way to do things, a little like a hair salon first having to build stations and then fill them as the business built, but it made sense as I worked out what made production in the US tick.

I got to a staff of around five or six employees who were good, with a great base of production and post-production equipment to support the equally  new world of RED digital cinema. Then I was brought in on a project for Lean Launchpad, the startup founded by serial entrepreneurs and original thinkers Steve Blank and Jim Hornthal, while my wife started to work with a management group dealing with “Just In Time” lean business practices.

The Lean and mean creative entrepreneur.

I won’t bore you with all of the details about Steve Blank’s Lean Innovation strategies for entrepreneurs or the better known Just In Time Lean Business concept, although I’ll add some blog items to shed more light.  The keys as far as I have enacted them at CLAi are pretty simple:

  • Reduce costs and redundancy by only bringing in talent when necessary, then bring in the right people for each project..
  • Put in place the physical equipment structure to enable fast scaling to match project needs.
  • Accelerate innovation, use of new technologies and the application of creative thinking.
  • Better manage/control budgets and schedules to eliminate cost overrun and late delivery.
  • Pass the benefits on to clients through reduced costs, higher quality and increased flexibility to produce better projects of a wider range.
  • Provide feedback to constantly increase client value.

That should be a list of benefits that would appeal to any entrepreneur, and in the film and video production industry – where so many of us are not truly entrepreneurs, but should be, it is anything but business as usual.

Our nature is one of craftsmen looking for projects where we can do what we do, but it should be one of professionals looking for ways to better develop our services to the ever changing needs of clients.  This way or working and thinking allows, even encourages, that to happen.

In the real world it means that CLAi no longer have a team of employees that are becoming experts in one traditional field of production or another.  The reason for this is simple… because no, say, cameraman is going to be the best expert available to shoot both still life in a studio and ice hockey – they require totally different skillsets.  The same goes for other crew, or post-production guys, or writers and designers, and so on. So we bring in the right people to fill each role on a project by project basis.

The basis for being able to do this is having one person – let’s call him Chris – who can:

  • Control all the elements on multiple projects.
  • With the understanding of all the parts of a production to put the right team together.
  • Who can communicate clearly with everyone from client to crew talent.
  • And has a comprehensive contact network developed over 30 years – of not just the best guys in the business in every role, but ones at the right budget level with the right skillset, in the right place for every type of project.
  • Match this to an outstanding in-house set of equipment for most of the everyday needs of any production to control costs, provide flexibility and enhance quality beyond the expected.
  • As well as the individual outstanding production skills that Chris brings to the table himself.

…and you have what CLAi are all about today, and the basis of our new structure.