How to Avoid Scope Creep
I like to travel light, so I used to carry a very small, vintage suitcase without any wheels.
Then I got a bigger one with wheels. Nice! It doesn’t matter how much it weighs, and I can even unzip the front for an extra inch of space.
The first time I went out of town, I started filling my new suitcase with the essentials.
Then I added a second pair of shoes in case I went hiking. And an extra coat, just in case.
And three books. And some paper, a pencil case, and a portable watercolor kit.
And some snacks. And one last book.
I ended up filling it to the zipper capacity, and was at least 3 times bigger than my previous tiny suitcase.
Did I use all of this stuff? Not really. Maybe one or two things were useful, but the rest just sat there.
That’s a variation of Parkinson’s Law in action, which states:
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
– Cyril Northcote Parkinson
My X-treme cartoon became a monster project!
What started as a cool and simple idea got out of control, so I’m going to use it as a case study to show you how to pinpoint the problems and resolve scope creep or keep it from happening in your own projects.
In my last email, I mentioned that my project was getting bigger, but I didn’t mind because it was only a 5-second cartoon.
Well, I should mind, and I’ll tell you why.
The project went from this:
I was getting into technical problems with that pan that were complicating everything and creating unnecessary work.
See, I was exceeding the maximum canvas size for Animate CC (Flash), which is 8192 px wide, and the super long pan wasn’t adding to the story. A pan would have been fine, but one this long wasn’t necessary.
The reasons scope creep happened
- It’s a personal project, so there’s no boss or client
- No real deadline
- Not working with someone else’s budget
On a job, no one can afford scope creep. The goal of the project is (usually) very clear. The deadlines are also clear and based on a specific budget. And if you’re lucky, there is only one boss, so there is no waste of time adding this or that.
This situation made me realize I needed a plan to keep this from happening again. I need to learn to follow my first or second idea, and stop trying to add more and more at every step of the way.
That causes double trouble because every time you add something new, you need to go back and readjust what was previously done. It creates a loop of never ending changes as well as technical challenges that do not help the story.
If you want something to be done well, you should keep it simple, which is, of course, easier said than done. The more complicated the project is, the more chances there are to screw something up.
This is not about avoiding challenges or staying safe.
After all, doing animation IS a challenge.
It’s about knowing when to stop adding new things to a project.
How to avoid scope creep?
I did a little productivity research, and here’s what I’ll do:
1. Focus on pre-production: Must define clearly everything the project needs.
2. Set aggressive deadlines for each steps: Make fast decisions.
3. Share with my audience an update for each steps: It’ll keep myself accountable.
4. Once shared, there will be no adding extra stuff to it: Commit to the decisions and move on.
All this seems to be overkill for such a short cartoon, but imagine if this was a 5-minute short? It would take me 10 years to finish!
At first, everything was good
The focus of this cartoon was to have fully animated characters. The parkour stunts and free running were a great idea to practice animation. I found a silly joke for the end and was ready to go.
The plan was simple: one camera shot and one background. I learned from the last cartoon to plan better and to keep the idea simple (no crowds!).
The animation started simply too: a frog jumping around the background using plants, rocks, and trees to do the stunts. I selected two good YouTube video mashups of stunts I could use as references.
As I was sketching the character, the stunts started to take more and more space. It became obvious the background should be longer, so it became a pan background.
After a few days of this, the background became longer than the maximum pixels allowed by Animate CC!
To resolve the length limitation in Animate CC, I made the background higher. That way, when the frog reached the end of the background, it could jump on a tree and some tall leaves.
Why I didn’t see any of this as a problem?
A pan background still made sense for the story. It gave the frog space to run. Nothing seemed out of place.
I was also confident in my technical abilities in handling After Effects and Animate CC. I figured I would know what to do in Post-Production. (Hint: Don’t do that. Solve the problems before Post-Production.)
The secondary problems it created
1- A pan background is a long drawing with a camera move. The plan was to have the camera go from left to right, then up. On the technical side, it means it’s going to be on 1’s (at 24 frames per second, that’s one drawing per frame, or 24 drawings per second).
- 2D animation is usually on 2’s. At 24 frames per second, that’s one drawing every 2 frames, or 12 drawings per second.
- If you have a character animated on 2’s over a pan background that’s on 1’s, you get a strobe effect. The only way to avoid it is to animate on 1’s, which means it’s more time consuming to animate because you’re creating twice the drawings.
2- Massive background = more time to paint and a bigger Photoshop file. At a resolution of 300 dpi, the file became so heavy I started having processing issues.
3- I started questioning my skills and knowledge, but quickly dismissed this line of thought. These cartoon projects are about using the knowledge I already have, so I should plan accordingly.
How to choose what to change
I chose a few rules:
- The changes should keep the story intact or not alter the essence of it.
- They should not create more problems elsewhere.
- They should take into account what’s already finished.
- They can’t require a new skill or technique I don’t know.
Big and tall background:
Changes I considered
- Animating on 1’s while keeping the pan and the huge background.
- Adding camera cuts to the cartoons to remove the pan while keeping the background the same size.
- Cropping the top of the background to keep most of the animation plan I did.
- Going back to the original idea of one background, one camera.
Big pan background with part of the top removed.
Analyzing each idea
1. Animating on 1’s while keeping the pan and the huge background.
Animating on 1’s would fix the strobing issue, but not the camera work that was needed. I was afraid the cartoon would not have been clear enough, would be hard to look at, and would take longer to animate.
2. Adding camera cuts to the cartoons to remove the pan while keeping the background the same size.
I created a quick animatic adding 2 camera cuts to remove the pan—or at least shorten it. It didn’t look the way I thought it would; it was still too quick for the eye to register the animation. You can read a blog post about how fixing the pacing of a cartoon helped in telling the story.
3. Cropping the top of the background to keep most of the animation plan I did.
I cropped the top of the background, but the file was still too heavy and it didn’t resolve the processing issues.
4. Going back to the original idea of the one background, one camera.
On the Photoshop file, I used many layers, which allowed me to move the plants around to create a regular 1920×1080 background. The frog doesn’t rely on a specific location to tell the story; it just needs to jump on stuff. Although I had to redo the animation plan, I could keep most of the work I did on the background.
I chose #4.
I deleted part of the background and re-planed the animation. It was scaled down to 1920×1080.
I just had to admit the mistake and start planning again. I was resisting change, but it became obvious I had to if I wanted to finish the cartoon in a timely manner.
The final background, with the rocks removed. It’s now a regular 1920×1080 background.
How can you avoid the same mistakes?
The goal I gave myself at the very beginning of the project kept me in focus during all this analysis. Every time I wanted to change something, I asked myself if it interfered with the goal of doing fully animated characters.
I made a Yes/No chart to help you make decisions when a project gets out of control. You can print it and keep it handy for future reference.
Where are you experiencing scope creep? What can you do to stop it?