THE GOOD, THE FAST AND THE CHEAP
We've heard it. We often laugh about it. Sometimes, late at night, we might even fantasize about saying it to someone who really needs to hear it:
"Good, fast or cheap - Pick Two!"
The underlying logic goes something like this: A client may need a project to be "Good and Fast"… well, okay, but it's probably not going to be "Cheap". Or, the prospective client may say "It's gotta be Fast and Cheap"… as a result, the final product might be sacrificing "Good".
Loosely translated, it essentially means "you can't have it all". I would counter that, while maybe you can't have it all, you can have what you need (a guy named Mick once told me something to this effect). The trick is in figuring out what you need.
While we may say "Pick Two" in casual conversation amongst our colleagues, I believe there's a real business lesson here. Let's take a look:
Each side of the triangle represents one of the Three Traits.
Good (or "Production Value"):
"Good" doesn't necessarily correspond to "competence" in this case. Instead, I maintain "Good" to represent how far above the mean average of Production Value a given project will be. Are we going for an Award with this project? Or, are we simply striving to make sure everything's in focus and that everyone's name is spelled correctly?
Fast (or "Deadline"): "How soon do you need this project completed, Mr./Ms. Client?"
Will you need to work round-the-clock to finish "on-time"? Will you need to pull in additional resources (i.e., freelancers) to get that 3-week production finished by this Friday?
Cheap (or "Budget"):
What kind of resources (budget) are being committed to finishing this project? How far above or below the mean average budget for your genre is this given budget?
Already I'm hearing the howls of protest coming from talented digital artists: "We always strive to provide our clients with high quality, efficient services at a great price!"
Yes, I know you do. And, of course, you should strive for that. But… The Cold Hard Reality is that it is simply not possible to consistently achieve all of The Three Traits
! Taking another look at the Triangle, let's fill in the intersections with a few well-known genres of film/video production:
Where do you fit in the Triangle?
Geometric theory stipulates that, in a triangle, there's no single point where all three lines intersect. Likewise, I maintain that there's no type of production that consistently maintains all three Trait
s of Good, Fast and Cheap.
The Big Studio Features maintain a high level of visual quality -- okay, I hear some snickers from the audience -- but the Big Studio Feature is going to look
good, with a very high degree of Production Value (moving cameras, complex 3D composites, lots of stuff blowing up, etc.). So, "Good" is a given. Also, the major studios don't make money by waiting 10 years to release a feature. Nowadays, most big features complete post-production in under a year. So, it's gotta be "Fast". Guess what? Big Studio Features aren't very cheap to make! One small army is needed to shoot the thing... and another small army is needed to post it. Sometimes, in an effects-laden feature, it's several small armies. And armies aren't cheap!
The Independent Filmmaker usually has "Cheap" dictated to them at the very outset, especially if they are financing the project themselves. This leaves a choice of "Fast" or "Good". Any good, dedicated filmmaker is going to choose "Good" over "Fast" (One exception might be a documentary filmmaker dealing with a very timely subject, where release date is important). Put another way: If your indie feature has 200 camera setups, and you are the Director, DP and also the Audio Tech... you are not going to be done by Tuesday. If you are done on Tuesday, I'll wager that your footage isn't going to compel Ridley Scott to pick up the phone and ask you to shoot his next feature.
Local news production must be "Fast" ("gotta make air at 6:00pm!"), and is usually "Cheap" (owing to local advertising revenue). I would submit that any given local news broadcast is rife with typos, out-of-focus/poorly color balanced field video, less-than-stellar audio, etc… you get the idea.
Now, if you still believe that it's possible to consistently achieve Feature Film Production Values, be finished with the project by Monday, and are only charging $500 per finished minute -- you can (and must) be charging more for your services!
The above examples are overly generalized, of course, and live in the areas where two of the three lines intersect. There's a lot of area inside the Triangle that represent many different combinations of Good, Fast and Cheap. Every single client-driven visual project lives in a certain point inside the Triangle. Which brings me to:
If you know where in the Triangle your current project/client should be, that project/client will be a Resounding Success!
The very first
thing you must do with any new client or project is figure out where in the Triangle this client or project is going to live. The hitch is: Mr. Client is not
going to hand you a cocktail napkin with a triangle on it, and a point representing where he thinks his project should be!
Okay -- I'm hearing screams again… Of course all
clients want all
their projects to be Good, Fast and
Cheap. My point is: If you promise all three Traits
(without any qualifications), you are asking for trouble. In all likelihood, your end result will be a client who says "You said my car spot would look like Blade Runner and that you'd be finished yesterday. …And what's this $35 Dub Charge on the invoice?"
And the only way to figure it all out is to ask questions BEFORE
you begin production.
My first question is always "When does it need to be finished?" Fast is the easiest Trait
to quantify, and, depending on genre, it's the least flexible of the Traits
. Usually, the next most quantifiable is Cheap (and also the next least flexible) - and thus, a preliminary discussion of budget occurs pretty early in the conversation.
At this point, you're only 1 or 2 minutes into your Client Meeting, and you've already got most of the Triangle figured out! Depending on the flexibility of your client's Fast and Cheap factors (i.e., their deadline and budget), you're probably getting a clear idea of how "Good" you can make this project.
One quick example:
CLIENT: "We want to do a video commemorating the firm's 50th anniversary. We want it to be something special, something people will remember, and we're willing to bend the budget a little bit…"
(already you know that the Point in The Triangle can skew towards the Good, and away from Cheap... okay, let's figure out some more)
YOU: "That sounds great, Mr. Client... when's the Annual Meeting?"
CLIENT: "It's October 1st"
YOU: "Okay - that's a little tight, but... I remember you mentioned possibly updating your graphics package... how about unveiling a new high-end 3D look for this Anniversary Video?"
Yes, it's a very arbitrary example (and completely made up!). But the point is, we established early on how Cheap, and how Fast - and also how flexible these Traits
are for this given project.
In the above example, we've found that there's some flexibility in the budget (or Cheap Trait
), but not in the deadline (Fast Trait
). At this point, the discussion would move towards discovering just how much Cheap the client is willing to trade for how much Good. In the above example, we might be thinking about using some of that extra budget to hire that Really Tremendous 3D Guy that we've dreamed of working with…
The Dangers of Auto-Pilot in the Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is a famous area of the Atlantic Ocean, where boats and planes would lose navigation, get disoriented and sometimes mysteriously disappear! I believe that our Good, Fast and Cheap Triangle has a similar danger area. Let's take a look:
While there will be some projects that are a pretty even compromise of all Three Traits
, I firmly believe that if you find yourself consistently in the center of the Triangle with most of your clients/projects, you are probably cruising on auto-pilot, and may be in danger of losing a client or project.
There were a number of production businesses that grew large and fat in the mid-90s doing nothing but middle-of-the-road corporate video projects. Their success was based on the fact that they did a lot of them. And because they did a lot of them, practices and procedures were developed to maximize efficiency. This assembly-line mentality ensured that the vast majority of clients and projects lived right in the middle of The Triangle.
Unfortunately, this "paint-by-numbers" approach made it much more difficult to do truly exceptional work, or to adapt to changes in technology. As you might imagine, a lot of these corporate production businesses aren't around anymore.
It's very difficult to differentiate yourself if you are constantly straddling the median, cranking out one boiler-plate project after another with a certain degree of competence (but nothing award-worthy) -- adhering to a "get it done, get paid, don't make any major mistakes" philosophy. If this is the case, your business may be on auto-pilot, and risk the same fate as those boats and planes in the Bermuda Triangle.
The democratization of the tools of production (i.e., "It's way cheaper to do HD post now!"), have made it easier to be more flexible
with our business models. As a one-man uncompressed HD shop, I can be working on a Really Good and Pretty Cheap indie film, while at the same time advances in computer technology have made it possible for me to also work on that Pretty Good and Really Fast high-end corporate project. Being flexible means I can adapt quickly to changes in the technological landscape, but more importantly, I can adapt quickly to changes in the needs of my clients.
The Triangle Is Your Friend
So, while we may be used to hearing "Good, Fast or Cheap - Pick Two"
tossed around in a humorous (or even cynical) way - there's Real Truth to it. By asking a few questions, it's usually fairly easy to determine just how much Good, how much Fast, and how much Cheap our clients are looking for.
Armed with this knowledge, we're prepared to give our clients exactly what they want -- and we give ourselves a much better chance of actually exceeding our clients expectations, without having to work 100-hour weeks, and still protect a reasonable profit margin.
Los Angeles, California USA
Christian Glawe is an independent editor/designer with numerous national and international broadcast credits, including Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, TV Guide Network, Speed Network, G4 Television, The WB Network, Lifetime Television, and many others. Christian and his partner, Christine Hartman, design and produce high-end corporate projects through their production company, Ice Hat Creative. During his free (i.e., "render") time, Christian can be found taking pictures with his 5D, or attempting to checkmate a plastic king.