Why the Next Generation Is Essential For Success
The following is adapted from Laura Frank’s opening keynote presentation for the 2023 LDI conference and tradeshow
I have had a number of jobs and titles in my career. Some of you might know me as a Screens Producer. I made the switch from automated lighting programmer to media server programmer in the early 2000s, working primarily in live events, broadcast and temporary installations.
From that role, I spent years developing a content production workflow and a media operations team to support my transition from programmer to Screens Producer.
I documented my approach and became a textbook author. This was not an easy transition as I’m much more comfortable with numbers than words. But here we are.
My first textbook, Screens Producing & Media Operations, was my attempt to outline a video content production workflow. That workflow is created to the specific needs of a production by individuals sitting in or near content playback for multi-screen designs. There is no single process that meets the needs of every production environment, so what I delivered was a textbook about communication, and resolving communication issues between departments no matter the production environment.
Being an effective communicator around cutting edge technology became a soapbox of mine and led to the second textbook, Real-Time Content for Virtual Production and Live Entertainment. Notice the subtitle for that book is: “A Learning Roadmap for an Evolving Practice.” That’s going to be important later.
I’m the source of a couple good LDI memes. In my many years of attending LDI, I somehow missed the 2016 arrival of the “I Know Laura Frank” stickers. The picture on that sticker celebrates my 15 seconds of true fame in the battle of the bands sequence from School of Rock. I made up for my absence that year in 2017 with the launch of #ZFG.
ZFG is at the heart of my approach to everything I do. It is a brand, a personal philosophy and a rallying cry for community. We’ll circle back to some details on that as well.
Finally, I am the Executive Director of frame:work. frame:work is the home of “live pixel people.” We represent the designers and technologists who create pixels for live audience or who generate pixels live, in real-time, for camera and spaces.
Our goal is to be the professional society for creative pixel makers across theater, music, live presentations, installations, film and broadcast. The video technology our community uses is at the forefront of major changes to entertainment production.
frame:work to date has held multiple conferences. We present on topics that directly speak to challenges facing the live pixel community whether that involves getting pixels to screen, being fairly compensated for digital labor, educating clients, or engaging the next generation of skilled professionals. Creating the frame:work platform has put us at the forefront of solving issues related to securing opportunities for the next generation.
If you work in video engineering, creative video design or media server programming and have not heard of frame:work, links are listed at the end of this article. We are a growing professional organization and are committed to representing the community fairly and inclusively.
But I’m not here to speak about frame:work. Instead I want to point out that what we have learned supporting the video community, has positive learning for the wider production community
So what do I mean by ‘fearless collaboration?’ And why should you listen to what I have to say about it?
Look, there are a lot of things we can talk about here. I should acknowledge I’m not a sociologist or psychologist. I didn’t study business and someone else does my taxes. But I have a deep love for all facets of the production community and our culture – I think these opportunities to gather and talk about the meta issues around the future of our work are critical to our practice and to our wellness. Fearless Collaboration is both a soapbox and a challenge to the wider community to do their part.
So let’s get into it.
We have a problem.
We’re not the only labor force with this problem, but there are factors at work in the entertainment production community that put us at a disadvantage in solving this problem.
First, we need skilled talent.
At the same time we need experienced talent.
And we need to bridge this gap between skills and experience in a dynamic landscape of rapidly changing technological dependencies within entertainment production.
Not so easy, actually.
There is already a lot of work going into solving this problem. Academic programs are catching up to the latest bleeding edge entertainment tech. Manufacturers are putting together robust training programs.
But I promise you there are people reading this essay that have done those things and haven’t found the work they were told was out there. Or they have found the work and realized our work ethic does not align with their values.
frame:work recently hosted a conference in LA this past august and Ben Nicholson, Professor of Emerging Technology in Business and Design at Miami University in Ohio, gave a great summation of this struggle.
Ben calls this the struggle, but I look at this issue as the great disconnect. We are all motivated to solve this divide, but entertainment production moves at such a rapid pace, with practitioners spread so thin, there is no singular driving force trying to rectify what I consider a show stopper of an issue.
So what stands in the way of integrating the next generation of talent into the community? Let’s look at some myths and stories that I hear from my colleagues.
Gen Z is lazy.
Don’t we say this about every generation?
When members of Generation X were entering the workforce, they were often described as disinterested and apathetic. Gen X was perceived as lazy and lacking in work ethic due to their, well our, different attitudes towards traditional work structures and authority.
As millennials started their careers, older colleagues characterized them as entitled and lazy, particularly due to their desire for flexible work arrangements and their inclination towards seeking purposeful work rather than just a paycheck.
Now we’re after Gen Z for being entitled AND disinterested. They’re seen as having unrealistic expectations regarding work-life balance and career progression. Their disregard for hierarchy, as well as lack of traditional interpersonal skills is both infuriating and honestly, inspiring.
I say inspiring, because every now and again, Gen Z actually challenges us to consider why we are so committed to some of the worst parts of our work culture. Some of it really does need a re-think.
When promoting this talk on social media, I received a comment from George Tucker about T-Shirts from a west coast AV company that read:
Engineers Diet: Nicotine, Alcohol, Sugar, Caffeine, Grease
George tells me that, “Many younger folks do not find this funny the way we did….. perhaps they are on to something?”
I don’t know George. As someone who felt pretty comfortable telling my team we’ll sleep when we’re dead, I’ve been re-evaluating many, many things.
I believe we create this myth about young people being lazy because knowledge is only part of the equation. Applying that knowledge confidently to your work surroundings takes time and effective mentorship from experienced leadership. Time is in short supply. And the mentors are woefully overworked.
So the industry pushes back and says, we don’t need those technology natives. We just need to retrain experienced professionals on the new tech! Problem solved!! To that I say, fabulous, where would you like to start? What skills do you want to prioritize in the tech landscape? Coding? 3D Modeling? Content creation? Maybe networking? Optical tracking systems? Throw some color science in there while you are at it.
I’m picking on the Video Department here as we’re the newest discipline with the most technology and the least amount of clarified production process, but some version of this exists in every production department. We all suffer from the fantasy that production professionals either figure it out or just move on. And maybe that used to be true.
But if the answer to a lack of qualified talent is to retrain existing production professionals, I think we are applying a band-aid to a broken bone. It’s up to us to be clearer about the path forward for all incoming professionals, whether new to this work or transitioning between entertainment production practices. This is done through mentorship, through community building and through thoughtful re-evaluation of our production work culture.
I want to introduce you to another frame:work speaker and Gen Z perspective, from Brittany Mena, and let her give her point of view, which I think effectively refutes both of these myths.
Let’s revisit the statement at the bottom of an earlier image.
We have a dynamic landscape of rapidly changing technological dependencies in entertainment production.
I don’t want this point to get lost and I will keep referring to the challenges it presents. Entertainment technology is changing faster than the paradigm of entertainment production can adapt. However there is one myth I hear whispered among our ranks that I wholeheartedly disagree with.
Theater education is irrelevant.
It is quite the opposite actually. I would happily argue that everyone should have to take a theater course to graduate from university. And that’s if you even plan to go to university which is another discussion entirely. Rather than open up that can of worms in this presentation, I’ll double down on my first point and say let’s just get rid of standardized testing and make everyone work on at least one high school musical. And the world will be a much better place.
So many easy fixes!
I think if there is an issue facing entertainment production besides rapidly changing technology, it is that we are hiring into our ranks from skilled labor communities that have never put on a theatrical production. That motivation to re-train experienced production professionals on the latest technology? – We can’t even name the intangible cultural asset that we value so closely. Our colleagues either “get it” or they don’t. One might even wonder if we mythologize being born into the mindset of production entertainment work.
So let’s name it, our production ethos, our culture.
We are experts at Creative Collaborative Problem Solving. I struggled with the right wording for this. Creative Collaboration doesn’t quite cover it as it’s missing the technical challenge we need to solve for. Collaborative problem solving misses the glorious “oh by the way” creative inspiration moments delivered as the plane has already taken off. Creative Collaborative Problem Solving. I’m going with that.
Depending on what type of entertainment production work you do, when you have some experience, you become part of a machine of unspoken insight on getting shit done. It’s magic to behold. It’s also immensely intimidating when you are just getting started.
Creative collaborative problem solving is at the heart of what we do in entertainment production and is learned through experience and iteration.
In the US, education systems have devalued collaborative problem solving by defining academic success with test scores and correct answers. Theater education is one of the few academic pathways that celebrates and reinforces group success rather than individual success.
Entertainment production is made more complex by the fact there are several right answers to a problem, quite a few more that are mostly right and even a few more that aren’t great choices at all but will get the job done in a pinch. Theater and other entertainment education celebrates finding a variety of right answers within a group dynamic. I would argue that teaching our new colleagues to feel confident in collaboration is as important as teaching technology.
This is a 10+ year old blog post by Tom Vander Well. I share this post regularly because I think it speaks to the heart of the creative collaboration that comes from a traditional theater education.
As schools adapt to provide access to the latest technology, do not lose sight of these important cultural and foundational points to production practice. When we talk about retraining experienced production professionals on the latest tech, it is these character traits we are looking for. When we are mentoring young professionals who might be computer geniuses but don’t know how to collaborate with their colleagues, it is our responsibility to create opportunities to learn and feel confident in these specific character traits.
Entertainment production culture is not obvious to everyone. When faced with the nuanced human-ness of mentorship, often necessary during the intense demands of a production in process, at some point every one of us will throw up our hands and say, “Hey kid, you’re smart – you’ll figure it out.” This is especially true when interacting with a young person you might perceive as highly competent who is responsible for technology that confounds you. Besides, you yourself had to get started somewhere in your career and you’re doing fine. That’s just how it’s done.
I went through this myself in the early 90s. I showed up in NYC in the summer of 1993 with two phone numbers, a crescent wrench and a dream to be a modern dance lighting designer.
When I looked at the landscape of work in front of me, sure I was intimidated, but I had a clear grasp of the roles and technology I could pursue. I had access to all of these roles in college and summer theater programs and felt confident I could function passably in any opportunity. Maybe there was some trailblazing to do over in the field of moving lights, but that existed within the known requirements of a structured lighting department.
So let’s look at today.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone starting out now, looking at this abyss of technologies. If the rules of production around these tools are still being written, how do we have a hope of asking our newest production professionals to “just figure it out.” We barely understand this ourselves. And we certainly haven’t defined anything close to resembling best practices.
Earlier I pointed out my real-time textbook is subtitled “A Learning Roadmap for an evolving practice.” There was no way I could outline a practice for real-time content use in entertainment production while it was being invented. At best I could outline a foundation of knowledge and leave breadcrumbs scattered about to suggest a guide to success.
I have a similar issue in my Screens Producing textbook. Again, there is no established production paradigm for delivering creative video content for scenic screens. I outlined how I solved that problem and created a process to train others to solve the problem for themselves.
How do we train the next generation to make production decisions when we are actively trailblazing the creative video production paradigm? We can’t even agree what to call this discipline. I’ll invite you to the next frame:work board meeting as it will certainly come up.
If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am. This struggle ends up being carried by a small group of incredibly talented trailblazers who are beyond burnt out. They are devalued because of the misconceptions of the labor of digital work. They are tasked with making bleeding edge tool sets perfectly reliable for live audience. They fall down a communication black hole of demystifying technology for the clients, coordinating data dependencies between multiple sub-departments that consider themselves the Video Department, and coordinating the complex work that needs to be done. When do we have time to mentor the next generation?
We have – a serious – problem.
If I have not made the cultural problem clear, let me explain it in demographic terms
The pool of potential talent is getting smaller. And is going to stay smaller for another 20 years. We not only have to work hard to mature the future talent within our ranks, we are going to have to actively recruit and invest in that talent.
We need to show the incoming generation that a future in entertainment production is possible. That it’s sustainable. And that we will be a reliable ally as we show them a pathway to a career in our Creative Collaborative Problem Solving Work Culture.
I’m not saying you need to make unrealistic promises or make life risk-free for the kids. We all benefited from developing a thick skin early on our career timeline. But I am saying to my peers: lead with empathy, communicate clearly, and be a thoughtful guide to our future production partners.
I believe very strongly that the next generation is willing to work as hard as any of us, but when it comes to creative video production projects – we need to provide more clarity and direction than we have been able to provide or have even known how to provide on what it is that we do.
I recognize we are trying to teach a paradigm that has barely congealed, but we have to try. Even when we are not clear on the process ourselves, we still need to provide a kernel of insight of a project plan, the roles involved, and the tasks that need completion. If that sounds shockingly simple of a list, then let this point clarify that is not what is happening.
If we can extend even the most basic road map to new talent where their help is needed, we will have committed and astute production partners. Instead I think we often alienate new hires with the scale of project scope that is actively being invented while somehow assuming it’s clear where they should participate.
I consider this part of new talent development something akin to cultural maturation. It’s the process of turning skills into environment specific application of those skills within a team.
I want to share a couple of programs that specifically take on the challenge maturing of new talent, that are not primarily focused on training and education.
If you are interested in education I suggest you look at ALT, the Academy of Live Technology on the Rock Lititz (USA) & Production Park (UK) campuses, or any number of advanced entertainment design and technology departments that exist in universities around the world. In the US, university theater education is evolving, integrating with other design and technology disciplines parallel to entertainment production, and sometimes with access to funds and tools we can only dream about on some of our own projects.
If you are interested in training on specific tools, many of our manufacturing partners have built fantastic training programs. Check out the websites of our colleagues. Many have stepped up access to online materials and in person courses and should be commended. Skills acquisition is not my particular focus as I feel these opportunities are available.
What I want to focus on, is the gray area between skills acquisition and skills application – the cultural maturation of new talent. We need to turn the newbies into confident users of their skills and inspire thoughtful collaborators. A great example of this is the Hemsley Lighting Programs. These fellowships and internships give young lighting designers opportunities, through financial support and access to working professionals while they are on projects. Programs like this build confidence with practical experience. We desperately need these types of programs in the creative video community.
One program I really admire working in this space was created by FRAY Studio. Based in the UK, FRAY Studio is an award-winning video design studio that pushes the boundaries of what technology can achieve while always centering on real, human insight. Their collaborative approach to work coordinates the design and delivery of exceptional, immersive experiences.
During the pandemic, this studio founded FRAY_DEV. This all volunteer run program provided the experience of building a FRAY Studio project with the team, facing all the challenges and creative exchange in a virtual laboratory. Participants were able to review a creative brief with FRAY Studio, discuss approaches, experience the studio’s solutions and meet regularly to simulate the experience of building a show together. This laboratory style of mentorship provided a motivated exchange of insights, and allowed participants to experiment without the risk of failing in a precious new gig. FRAY Studio has gone on to hire participants from this program.
Another very strong program that takes students through training, coaching and job placement is The Interactive and Immersive HQ. This paid resource is taught by industry veterans with decades of combined experience, and serves artists and developers who want to take their technical and artistic skills and career to the next level as quickly as possible.
Their holistic approach to learning and access to experienced professionals makes their program an essential guide to learning interactive toolsets, as well as a partner in launching people into professional practice.
One more program that I briefly mentioned before, is the frame:work New Talent List. This annual program is in its fourth year, and connects students with industry. Students apply to be represented by frame:work, applications are currently open by the way, and we host speed interview sessions between students and our professional community in the spring. There are a lot of types of work environments in the creative video community and we want to help students find a good fit and support our membership with new hires that have the needed skills.
Currently the frame:work New Talent List only serves to curate a list of potential hires. Our intent is to build this program into a fellowship. We see a pathway to cultural maturation through a series of 6 week job placements, say, at a rental company’s media server department, or in a content creation studio, on a virtual production stage, building screens content for a rock tour, or working with a manufacturer. We want to create risk-free exposure to the variety of working environments that exist, so that new professionals can get their bearings, and find the job that suits them best. That’s how we create new professionals that thrive. It’s also how we balance the investment companies have to make in onboarding new team members.
These programs might come across as altruistic feel-good endeavors. They are not. We’re not giving hours of our time to cheerlead an abstraction of “how to succeed.” We need funding that will go to solving real issues facing the community. We need participation and investment by companies dependent on a skilled labor force to realize the future of entertainment production.
First, for my young colleagues. I’ve put a lot of expectations on the adults in our field, but you are not getting out of here without some healthy assignments of your own.
You need to invest in the future you see for yourself and take some risks. In one of the presentations at frame:work:losangeles this past august, I challenged a speaker to say his phone number to the audience so that people looking for work could contact him. This phone number was broadcast in a live stream and is currently still available on YouTube.
Not one person called him. Not one.
I need those of you getting started in entertainment production to know it’s going to take some time and dedication and work on your part to find your way in this business. No one is looking to hire you specifically, not in the beginning anyway. And if you exist at the bleeding edge of technology, the people hiring you might barely understand what it is you can do. What will read clearly to the people hiring – is your motivation, your commitment and consistent reliability. Show those traits first and then you can promote your particular interests, and make those opportunities you really want, happen for yourself.
I know that might sound abstract, but in practice it’s very simple. Introduce yourself to four new people every day you are at this conference. Be clear about the opportunities you are interested in. Be open to the possibility that opportunities you are less interested in, could lead to the ones you want. Don’t stop investigating connections to the opportunities you want. When the opportunities don’t exist, go make them. And when someone gives you their phone number, call them.
Do those things and in return, I will let you in on my personal philosophy about work. About getting work, about the way you work, about the way you invest yourself in the work you want to do in the future.
And that is the philosophy of ZFG. ZFG!!!!
I shared this meme earlier. I carry one of these poker chips wherever I go. This chip has been to 46 countries! And what does ZFG mean? Anyone?
It’s Zero Fucks Given
I highly recommend this life perspective for trailblazers, startup makers and inventors of all kinds.
But let’s be clear about this practice, one does not simply give zero fucks. There is an art to this. Do not make the mistake of assuming I don’t give a shit. It’s the complete opposite.
ZFG > IDGAF
Zero Fucks Given is greater than I Don’t Give a Fuck.
ZFG is open; it’s full of hope and inspiration.
IDGAF is a dead end; it’s dismissive and angry.
The way of ZFG is not giving a fuck about how many fucks you give.
This is what I mean when I say invest yourself. Get vulnerable. You are on a quest and must declare yourself! Life is risky so what is the worst that can happen? You embarrass yourself at work? You don’t get your dream job? Someone realizes you don’t know what you are talking about? I promise you, I’m doing all three of those things right now for a few people reading this! But if I don’t do these things, how do I learn? How is someone else motivated to prove I’m wrong and we make the practice better for everyone in the process? How do we advance the growth of the entertainment production community?
Take risks! ZFG!
To the job makers: please introduce yourself to new professionals. Offer to meet with a few and consider mentoring someone for a 6-12 month period.
To the job seekers and new professionals: introduce yourself to people, be able to quickly describe your interests and skills with confidence, and go find yourself a mentor.
Thank you all and good luck! ZFG!!
10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me For Success
frame:work New Talent List
The Interactive and Immersive HQ
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