Good Project/Bad Project: Finding Your Scope

Previously, we had a project management crash-course, going over the basics of how to be successful with your independent production. Now, though, let’s go into some more detail into the parts of this plan for success. We’ll start at the beginning: how do you determine your scope?

Your project is like a house.

And any good house starts with a foundation.

A foundation needs to be solid. It needs to be able to hold up the weight of the rest of the house and made of the appropriate materials for its environment. For an original project, we start pouring this foundation by asking three questions:

  1. What are we making?
  2. How much of it are we making?
  3. How much time are we using to make it?

Let’s say we’re looking to write an audio drama. Saying “I want to create a superhero audio drama” is a good start. This is the type of foundation we’re going to build. A basement, a slab, a pier or something even more complex for a bigger building. If our next statement is “It’s going to be 10 episodes of 30 minutes each” that’s our rebar and wood framing for the foundation. If we don’t have these frames, then when we pour the concrete it’s just going spill everywhere. The concrete is your timeframe and your schedule. You have to calculate how much time you need to do this thing you want to do and form that schedule. If you don’t, you’re not going to know how much concrete to mix and pour.

Saying “I’m gonna do some comic dubs for xyz franchise” doesn’t work as a good foundation. Which comics, how many of them, is there a specific artist you’re looking at? When are you going to stop? You’re going to run into trouble if you have an indefinite end time. That’s knowing you want a crawlspace, but having no frame for it and pouring endless amounts of concrete into an open pit. Can you build something on top of that? Kinda. Is it going to be pretty and well-constructed? Very likely not.

Now, sometimes, your foundation ends up being too big or hardy for the rest of your house. It’ll look a little ugly, but at least there’s room for your walls. You can cover the excess with dirt, and no one else will know the difference. You also have room to expand in the future with a porch or an extension. If your foundation is too small or poorly constructed, though, your house runs the risk of collapsing.

The walls in this house are the different parts of executing this project. Your voice actors, your writers, your artists, and your assets are all the sheetrock and wood and insulation. The technical and soft skill sets are the plumbing, electricity, and HVAC. Software is the nails and fasteners. Some walls are going to be more important than others because they’re load bearing. It’s up to you as a producer to determine what of those walls have to be there for the structure to stay up and what walls you can move around to create different sized rooms. For our audio drama example, the load-bearing walls are typically writing, voice acting, sound effects, and audio editing. Leave out one of those walls, you can’t finish your house. You won’t have a project.

Once the once the necessary walls are up, you have the ability to make a more complex floor plan. Add directing, and that’s a master bedroom en suite. Create advanced foley and sound panning, and there’s your formal dining room. Keep in mind, though, that for every new wall you put up, you’ve got to paint and spackle it, too. If you walk into a house, and the foyer is beautifully sponge painted with wainscotting and intricate moulding and the living room is just plywood and cement, that tells you that the builder doesn’t have their priorities in order and ran out of time and money. You don’t want to be that builder.

The roof caps off our house. It’s the package deal, the product ship, the “Episode 1.” If the roof is too heavy for the walls and foundation below it, the whole structure falls apart. Any crack in the foundation or a poorly constructed wall becomes visible in the roofline. We’ve all seen this even in professional projects like big-budget movies and AAA games and broadcast animations. It presents as bugs and plot holes and not quite right CGI and keyframes.

Lots of times these small faults don’t affect the overall structural integrity of your project. Maybe a door doesn’t quite close right or your covered terrace leaks when it rains, but, overall, it’s a perfectly livable house. While you’re constructing it, though, you don’t know which of those cut corners is going to result in a building collapse. It’s easier to try to build something as sound as possible the first time instead of having to clean up the mess later.

At this point, we’ve haven’t talked about our windows and doors for a very specific reason. You’re well within your rights to build something just for yourself and not give anyone else a way to come inside. You have to consider what the point of building a beautiful mansion is, if you don’t at least cut a hole in the wall for people to visit and look around.

That’s what our windows and doors are. They’re the way we let the public look at or come inside to experience the project that you (and your team) have spent so much time working on. It can be a simple door or holes in the wall, and that’s fine. But maybe you’d benefit from springing for some nice glasswork or shutters.

The exterior look of your doors and windows along with things like exterior paint and landscaping are all part of your curb-appeal. The importance of that to the selling success of your project cannot be dismissed or downplayed. It’s what draws people in to give it a tour. For your project, the curb appeal is your website, your Twitter, your Youtube, the landing page on Itch or Steam, your overall media presence. These may seem like afterthoughts, but they are essential elements that need careful consideration, even if they come a little later in the process.

From the back property line all the way to the curb, the lot that all this happens on is your scope. The yard, the building, the guts all have to be taken into consideration as you’re drawing up your blueprint.

In an ideal world, for your first project, your scope will start small. A two-bedroom bungalow on a tiny lot with a simple but attractive succulent garden. Maybe you find that you can expand your scope a little. That’s when you have to decide whether you add a second story or build a front porch. Trying to do both may leave them both half-finished. As you go, the bigger and more complex your projects get. Bigger houses, bigger lawns, topiaries, columns, dormers, three car garages, out-buildings, more and more the sky’s the limit…as long as you plan for it…and file the right permits with the city.

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