Swan-filled hot dogs and top-secret projects: life as Animade’s head of production, Laura Darby
Laura Darby lists patience, flexibility and good communication as vital skills for any budding producer. But when top-secret projects and cloak-and-dagger meetings become part of your day, an ability to retain classified information is also an essential. As head of production, Laura’s priority is to make sure the work comes to fruition on time and within budget – whether that be projects featuring swan-filled hot dogs or animated naked bums. With a background in English literature, she is well-equipped to quickly and accurately criticise the details – something that comes in handy when working on such a diverse range of jobs. But we’ll let her tell you more…
Head of Production, Animade, June 2017–present
Project Manager, Animade (2013–2017)
Runner through to Producer, Factory Studios (2007–2012)
BA English Literature, University of Exeter, (2004–2007)
How would you describe your job?
I head up the production department here at Animade, line-managing our project manager Georgie. I’m responsible for keeping an overview of all the work that goes on, ensuring we have adequate resources to complete projects on time and within budget, while aiming for maximum profitability.
I lead weekly project catch-ups, manage various client and internal projects, and plan regular catch-ups with clients and internal team members to make sure we’re always on the same page with projects. My work also involves creating scopes of work and service agreements for projects, reviewing estimates, signing off and sending invoices and maintaining relationships with our lovely suppliers.
What does a typical working day look like?
I commute for an hour and thirty minutes from Essex, flying by the ever-reliable wings of our fair national rail service. Morning rituals include buckets of coffee and a bowl of porridge, and we have a daily stand-up that allows us to focus on the key points from the previous day and the things we’re focusing on that day. An ideal working day involves ticking lots off my list; and any day where I get to make people happy by over-delivering (always the dream!)
Our working hours are 9am to 6pm with an hour for lunch. We try to stick to that as much as we can by getting our heads down between those hours; a good work-life balance is an intrinsic part of the workplace culture here. The time split between tasks is totally ad hoc; it depends on what needs the most focus that day, and when you work for third party clients, priorities are constantly changing. We’re big Trello fans here – I use it to split my working week into day ‘lists’ with cards marked red for the most important items.
“I work with everyone here: animators, project managers, new business and directors. My role feels pretty multifaceted.”
What do you like about working in London?
It’s an incredible place to work in terms of the animation industry; we’ve got so many incredible studios and talents here. Downsides: as we all know, London is ruddy expensive and commuting is tiring.
How did you land your current job?
I was recommended by a contact at another animation studio and Animade were kind enough to see me!
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Most of my work takes place in the studio, while off-site work would usually be for sound recordings or client meetings. I’m pretty much eight hours in front of a computer but the studio environment is relaxed and friendly, and everyone here has a great sense of humour, which is essential!
How collaborative is your role?
Very – I work with everyone here: animators, project managers, new business and directors. My role feels pretty multifaceted.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love getting round a table and reviewing work with the team. Seeing things move forward and become deliverables when you have set all the wheels in motion is very satisfying. The creatives here are insanely talented and everyone gets a chance to pitch in on the work, which is good fun. As for least enjoyable – probably the nitty gritty of creating schedules when you know they are likely to flex or change. But the more mundane work gives my brain a rest from time to time.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’m actually working on a top-secret project right now which is exciting in itself, having cloak-and-dagger meetings every day.
I’m lucky enough to have worked on some great projects but one of my favourites has been a web, social and outdoor campaign for KK Outlet on behalf of [hotel chain] CitizenM. I loved that project because it was really ballsy and the team at KK Outlet and CitizenM were brilliant and really gave us room to do our thing. I’ve never had the pleasure of project managing a set of deliverables that included a swan hot dog and a naked bum being whipped before, and I doubt I will ever get to relive such an experience again! I worked with the mega-talented, mad mind of Milo (Targett) who directed, designed and animated the project under the guidance of Tom (Judd), and the online execution was handled by our much-missed Simon (Neveu) who has now gone back to New Zealand. My role was project management; keeping an eye on things to ensure it was all delivered on time and in budget, and generally keeping all parties happy.
“You are the font of all knowledge so it pays to make sure it’s being captured and shared correctly.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Communication skills have to be top notch – written, spoken, in person, by email and on the phone. You are the font of all knowledge so it pays to make sure it’s being captured and shared correctly. Patience, calmness and the ability not to react too negatively under pressure. A naturally organised disposition. The ability to change your focus and priorities at short notice.
Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
I’m writing a children’s story in collaboration with my sister who is a fantastic illustrator. I also went travelling (in what now feels like a zillion years ago) and I am slowly writing up my blog entries.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Trello for project management; TeamGantt (scheduling software); Google Suite (Sheets, Docs, Drive, Calendar); Macbook; Slack; Keynote; old fashioned email; a big A4 notebook and a good old Bic!
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
Massive. My mum was a producer at agencies, production and post houses during her career. I used to love it when she brought home rushes tapes and tell us about her days on shoots. I got to go into her office in central London at Christmas time and it was a lot of fun.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying English literature taught me to digest and criticise information quickly and accurately. Not subject-specific, but a degree involves a lot of self-motivated study and deadlines which definitely have application in the working world.
What were your first jobs?
I was a runner and then a bookings assistant at Factory Studios. I didn’t do an internship – just graduated and applied at the right time. I had already done some work experience and running during school holidays at other post houses, which probably helped.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
The management team at Factory were incredible. The standard of service they offer clients is fantastic and I learned so much about negotiation, time management and client-facing work from them.
“Get out there and do work experience as early as you can as a runner or a receptionist... This is very much a learn-on-the-job kind of career.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I learnt editing skills from a Final Cut Pro course prior to employment at Animade. I’ve gained a much broader knowledge of digital workflows from working at Animade, when we used to run digital projects alongside our animation.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
There are always challenging days, and we all make mistakes sometimes. Mistakes for me usually involve miscommunication or a maths fail, so I’m careful about following up after a phone call with an email if necessary, and I always get another pair of eyes on anything involving a long ream of numbers.
What would you like to do next?
I want to keep enjoying what I do in work and life, whatever form that takes, because life is very short.
Could you do this job forever?
If it stays as fun as it is now, and I stay relevant, yes. As long as I get to project (as well as people) manage, I’ll be happy. However, I would quite like to run a themed B&B in my dotage and get on Four In A Bed.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
To manage a bigger team, or to help set up and lead a new team somewhere.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Get out there and do work experience as early as you can. Join as a runner or a receptionist and make sure you get included in production chats, make tea for everyone and be a people person. This is very much a learn-on-the-job kind of career. Be thick-skinned, level-headed and down-to-earth (use lots of hyphens!).
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Andy Donohoe
Mention Laura Darby (Animade)