TV channels need tools for set-up processes in order to work effectively. In the interview with INTER TV’s Art Director, Alexander Serbin, you will find out how Cerebro can help keep track of projects and simplify remote work on long run projects. We talked about VJing, different types of artists, the peculiarities of creative work, the development of concepts, and much more
Alexander, please tell us about your professional path. How did you come to the industry and where did you study and work?
As long as I can remember, I have always been drawing one thing or another. I didn’t major in art, but after some time I got into the web industry, started making websites, and then switched to motion design and post-production. I started out as a web designer, and then I got involved in animation and came to television. For a while, I did commercials and films, but then came back to television, because I’m more into motion design, it turns out.
I have been doing this for 20 years. Why motion design? Because in post-production, you work with material that needs to be improved or corrected, while in motion design, you need to be creative and invent things. I do a lot of VJing. I also take advertising projects, but only those related to motion design and animated graphics.
Tell us about your VJing experience. How long have you been doing this? What projects do you have?
I have quite an extensive experience. I worked for ten years on the STB TV channel, when we were releasing such well-known projects as X-Factor, Everybody Dance! Ukraine, Ukraine’s Got Talent, i.e. our adaptation of the show. We used VJing for each item in the programme. It gradually became more complicated, and over time we switched to theatrical performances. This is not motion design, but an attempt to create an atmosphere like in a theatre. We released seven seasons, and then I went freelancing to take a year off.
Then I returned to television, this time to the Inter TV channel. There was a lot of VJing again, but mostly concert-related: for the Victory Day, New Year’s, the TV channel’s birthday, various festivals. People contacted me to work on concerts in Kazakhstan, Moscow, Azerbaijan. I gained many contacts and developed a network of clients.
Besides, we made three major live theatrical performances. This was a multi-genre show, a fairy tale on stage with singers, acrobats, and magicians, like Cirque du Soleil.
Did you get bored even a little after 20 years of your work, or does it still inspire you? Where do you find inspiration?
Over time, any activity becomes a routine, and there are moments that are constantly repeated. But the beauty of motion design is that you can always find something new: a different technology, a fresh solution. You can make motion design using paper, modeling clay, sawdust, just about anything. There is always a place for creativity. Of course, it is always one and the same thing; these are the laws of the genre: a 10-second opening, cutouts, and spots. But the beauty of it is that it can all be approached in a new way. That’s why I fell in love with this profession.
For example, we were making a film to the 30th anniversary of the death of Viktor Tsoi, and we made the opening and the promo in the form of an animated Tsoi wall, drawings, inscriptions, and stylized videoclips were changing on the wall for 15 seconds. Tsoi was very popular, and when he died, people started to make inscriptions about him, tape photographs, and draw graffiti on the walls throughout the country. It was a massive subcultural phenomenon, and we decided to reflect it in the opening. It was the first time I ever did something like this, but we thought about it and decided to make such an impression on a brick wall.
This really is an interesting project. What inspired you to make it? Are you a Tsoi fan or was it purely commercial? Do you even divide projects into commercial and personal?
In that particular case, it was two in one: this is my job and I am a fan. I was personally invested, because I am a fan of Viktor Tsoi and the Kino band. I really enjoyed this project.
Over time, I started to treat my projects like this: I devote 70 percent of my time to work, because I need to make money, and 30 percent of my time I devote to finding projects that I do for pleasure, even if the budget is small. I found the opportunity to do something for myself, and this is another benefit of my profession.
Tell us about the place you work at. How many people are in the company and on your team?
I have ten people in the design department. Half of them are involved in longer, seasonal projects, that is, projects that are launched in spring, autumn, for a whole season, and that requires lengthy preparation. The second half is occupied by broadcast graphics, announcements, with the planning period of one to three days. When I worked at the STB TV channel, I had 25 people that reported directly to me, because STB had much more of its own production, and I had to do more work there. Inter has a lot of purchased product, so ten people on the team is the best.
How do you plan things when your sprints are so short, only three days? Do you use Cerebro for this?
We add these quick tasks to Cerebro too. We have an account manager who makes sure that the task is submitted to the designersand the result is received and broadcast on time. They need to control everything, because designers are creative folk, they always forget to add something, and it is easier to explain them the rules of air combat in layman’s terms, metaphorically speaking. Cerebro is for quick tasks, primarily as a task tracker and as a catalogue tool. If we have a duplicate project, then we use Cerebro to find it on the server, if we need to redo it or change the time and release date.
The process is structured like this: the account manager receives tasks, adds them to Cerebro, the designer immediately sees that they have a new task, does it and uploads the result. The management asks however for everything to be sent them by email, so you have to go to the server through the Browse button, download the video, attach it to the letter and send it. So this chain is flawed due to the human factor. This is more convenient for the management, and they could not care less about the pipeline. They say, how you arrange everything at your place is your problem, but email is convenient for us.
Did you know that we’ve introduced integration with email clients? Do you need your files to be sent directly to your boss’s email address?
Yeah, I know. If I could send a video by email directly from Cerebro, I would use it. But there is another story. I thought that during quarantine, when everyone was working remotely, Cerebro would help us a lot. On the one hand, it did happen, but there was also a problem: we have a certain number of directors and scriptwriters who do not sit at the computer and mainly use the phone. If they need something quickly, they prefer to send tasks to designers in a messenger, such as Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook. When all this starts to pour in from different sources, even if it’s one project at a time, it takes ages to collect it.
For example, photos for retouching were sent using a messenger. You need to save them and upload to Cerebro. At the same time, a scriptwriter sends the script via another messenger. You have to spend a lot of time just collecting parts of the same task from different sources. I do not know how this can be solved on your side; I am just talking about what we encountered. When there are many small tasks, this chain becomes very long and slow. On TV, you always have to do things right now, in two or three hours. And half of these quick tasks pass Cerebro by simply because there is no time to use it.
Does your account manager track the working hours? Do you use hourly statistics?
I’ll start in a roundabout way. At Inter, I worked with Cerebro four times on different channels, on different project tasks. For example, when I was doing a teaser for a cartoon, it was super convenient. I tracked the number of hours and always used all the features, including Mirada.
When I worked in post-production, when we made films and advertisements, we used these features as well, even collected statistics on the average time each shot takes. When it comes to TV, we cannot use such things. There is always an emergency, everything is urgently needed. Time tracking does not make any sense when something is to be done in half an hour: it only demotivates the designer. They are already in a rush, and now the clock will be ticking, and what if, God forbid, someone ties the hours to the salary?
In general, everyone already understands that you need to work quickly. As someone with experience and an understanding of how long this task takes on average, I just say when and what needs to be done. Knowing the person, I understand exactly their current workload and I prioritize and evaluate the entire bulk of tasks. As a rule, I do it verbally, and we do not set anything in Cerebro.
Longer tasks are another matter. For example, a film: there are 10 scenes in production, each scene has 20 shots. Naturally, before we start, we calculate how much time it takes, how much money to ask for. This needs to be monitored, otherwise it may take twice the time, but the payment will be exactly the same. So it is like clockwork. On TV, everyone is on the payroll, and this Cerebro feature is useless. I can only think of one time it came in handy: we were preparing for a big anniversary in advance and we had a whole line of celebrations. I used this thing because all five designers were involved in one project, so I had to calculate when one would transfer work to another. But this was an exception.
Does it mean that you rarely used such features as the work calendar, Gantt chart and other tracking tools and do not look at long-term planning?
No, I don’t use it. I tried using the Gantt chart and it didn’t work. I divide designers into two categories: Techies and Artists. Such tasks can be set to techies who do not create, but do things, rotoscope, retouch. Artists are very valuable for me, and it is much more profitable and more productive not to limit them by the pressure of time.
I’d better let them work for a bit little longer but see a cool result in the end than make them work like machines. It is very important to maintain this line with people of creative professions; the balance between what needs to be done and the pressure of deadlines. That is why I do not use Gantt charts and time tracking for these tasks. This is both more humane and better for me. They give the best results when we are on the same page, in a good relationship, when I do not beat them up with a whip, like, “Where is the brilliant concept you should have come up with two hours ago?!” This could be done once or twice, and the third time the person will be demotivated and start looking for another job.
When we think about a creative task, it takes a lot of energy. Nobody knows how it should be and what we will see in the end. It is always like live sculpting. It is very difficult to predict the time here, even for me, a person with 20 years of experience. I don’t know how long it will take for me to conceptualize a film. I have three weeks to get it ready, and on my first week, I just search, search, and search… But after that, when you can already visualize the concept, it is easier to predict.
I’ll say it again: when working on cartoons, on advertising, on movies, we used it regularly, because those were not creative tasks (in my terms), but technical ones. Retouching a marker or keying a scene is what people do automatically, this is their skill. They already know how to do it, so they can assess the time. Sometimes it is more difficult, but it is possible with an acceptable margin of error. When it comes to tasks you need to do from scratch, this almost never works. Here we can only say: we have a week. Maybe we will keep thinking for five or six days, and then design it in three hours and have a result. Or maybe we design it within one day, and then keep improving it. This is unpredictable.
Tell us about the challenges; did you have any exciting projects with Inter that required a lot of work? Was there a project you are particularly proud of?
I am proud of Tsoi. We also always succeed in New Year’s projects; we prepare for them in advance. Another good project was for the Victory Day. We now have an ambiguous attitude towards this holiday in Ukraine, but we are focused more on the fact that people fought and defended their homeland than on ideology. We have this landmark in Kyiv, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War; it has a memorial in honour of the crossing of the Dnieper, 40 meters in length, with many sculptures of soldiers crossing the Dnieper. This year, we approached the matter very seriously: we used photogrammetry. We photographed this entire memorial from different angles, using a copter among other things, and recreated it in 3D in details. It was the key visual of our entire project. It was very difficult, interesting, nobody knew how it would turn out, but it did turn out amazing.
I also did interesting projects outside Inter. These were the circus and theatrical performances on stage. There is a lot of content, and I particularly enjoy it when people in the audience look at it wide-eyed. This is a project to be proud of.
Which do you personally prefer: virtual stuff or regular graphics? Do you even compare them?
I want to do something using the latest technology, such as VR, AR. We discussed this a lot, but did not implement it, mainly because no one can really predict how much it will cost. It all came down to calculating the budget and did not go further. The budget was presented to investors, and investors, feeling that the scheme is much too raw, did not give the money, so nothing happened so far.
I wish you luck with that. Let us return to Cerebro. When did you implement Cerebro at Inter? Was it difficult in your department?
When I came to Inter, Cerebro was already there, and I just picked it up. I already had experience of Cerebro implementation at STB, and it was unsuccessful. We installed Cerebro on our server, tested it for about six months, but after a full report on how the pipeline is going, the management decided not to spend money on it.
Do you have more suggestions on how to improve Cerebro? What else could we add?
There are a lot of buttons for me now. It is difficult to assign a person to a task. You need to select a task for a project, a role, then a person, and this always takes four or five clicks. Often the person I want to assign to a task has not yet finished the previous one, but I have another free team member. Then I do not appoint a specific designer, but the whole group. After that I select one senior who will assign this task within the group. This is a feature for particular situations.
It would be great to make a separate version for TV or adapt, customize the existing one so that there are fewer buttons you need to click. This is important for television because everything has to be done quickly. And when you have 20 of these tasks a day and you click and click 20 times, you no longer want to use it. If the account manager does it, then everything is fine. But as an art director, I receive tasks that I first have to process and then assign, and this is inconvenient for me as a link between the client and the designers. This is my personal bottleneck. For technical tasks, we assign an account manager who clicks and clicks and does not even know any different in their life. I, however, need to spend a lot of energy primarily on creating; I don’t want to spend it on clicking.
Thank you, we’ll think about it. Have you seen the newest version?
No, I haven’t seen it yet. I regularly get prompts to update Cerebro, but I am in no hurry. Updates often throw all your settings off, and I myself cannot restore them. I need an IT specialist who will connect to me and do everything, because I am not very versed in such technical matters. So for now I click on Update later.
We have a web version with fewer buttons and a prettier interface. It is available for all platforms. We also have a mobile version with new features. There is also a Cerebro update, where we added a new feature to Mirada that allows you to record your entire screen. Do you use Mirada? Do you have any comments or suggestions for it?
I used it and personally found it convenient. As for the inconvenient part, when a new designer comes, we need to train them for quite a long time. For some reason, they have a hard time with it. Therefore, if I have time to leave a detailed comment, I use Mirada, and when there is no time, I just take a screenshot and draw over it, if, for example, I just need to circle an option. When something is sent by email or via messenger, of course, there is no point in using Mirada, drawing, and then sending it back. I do everything on my phone.
We used it when working on the cartoon, in post-production. I would circle and number each revision in turn, read each comment, etc. I see it like this: Cerebro is very well-suited for long tasks, for major design projects. As for something we need done quickly to move on, we use it as a task tracker and a catalogue tool, nothing more. If you introduce some kind of a lazy person interface with a total of four buttons, it will be the coolest thing ever.