The Five Phases of Work

In the words of author, Marianne Williamson:

“Nature is infinitely creative. It is always producing the possibility of new beginnings.”

Phase One: Beginnings


Mufasa counsels Simba, on how to hunt prey from Walt Disney’s The Lion King. Animation by Supervising Animator, Tony Fucile.

Everyone’s been there — whether you start a new job, begin a new project, or work with new people — that tingle down your spine only happens once. The anticipation is both tantalizing and frightening at the same time. You have ideas, but it sits before the vast unknown. This is what happens when you’re doing something new and art is all about that. The truth is, every situation is new — every shot, sequence, layout or painting — and that’s the challenge. Such a professional mindset and standard is what you strive for regardless of the task. That way, the work stays fresh, and more importantly, you stay fresh. Your mental and emotional attitude should be right even before you take your first step into production.

Phase Two: Preparation and Planning.


Thumbnail sketches sit atop final key drawings by Supervising Animator David Pruiksma (one of my favorite instructors ever). In these marvelous tiny sketches, the artist shows wit and wonder while exploring the peak moments of the dialogue.

Here’s where you begin. Here’s where you plan, play and explore. You seek out the greatest possibilities. It’s also the stage where most beginners and amateurs falter — too eager to dive right into the work, they skip out the thinking,  not realizing that only good preparation and planning will give the work a chance at being original or effective. Professionals devote hours conducting research, shooting video, collecting resources, doing thumbnail sketches and preliminary tests — work never meant to be seen in any sort of final form but give a good logical sense of what might or might not work. Top craftsmen spend as much as half their time doing this kind of preparation. The process is not unlike that of top musicians or athletes who spend half their time in study as much as in practice to achieve the highest performance. Solid preparation and planning is often what separates the top performers from the rest of their peers.

Phase Three: Doing the work.


Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s crew in their the historic ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

This phase, for many people, is mentally the hardest. This is when you know what to do, you suspect you know how to do it (with art, you never know for sure), and you’re about to plunge right into the grind. You’ve got your plans in front of you, the rough first steps begin, and a deadline awaits, sitting there at the end of the hall, like a shylock waiting to collect (in this case your inevitable mistakes and miscalculations). The task suddenly appears monumental and there’s the danger of paralysis by analysis or worse, staying in the comfort zone, and never jumping into the water out of fear. But you know that no amount of practice or planning will get you anywhere without actually doing the real thing. It’s the only way to see if any of it works, and until you try, you’ll never know. You’ve got time,  you’ve got energy, and now’s the time step up and just do it. Some people never start. That’s not you.

In the words of Mark Twain:

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started”

Phase Four:  Struggle


Michelangelo’s famous unfinished sculpture of Atlas, emerging from a huge block of stone.

The experience of struggle only happens to those who have dove right in and gotten themselves in trouble because they took the risk. Challenges appear, both the expected and the unexpected. You find out whether you’ve prepared or even capable of delivering the effort and quality demanded. You’re challenged physically, mentally and emotionally, as you or your crew lose steam in the midst of frustration. Here is where you need to show your mettle and scratch your brain to move beyond the tired and formulaic. This is where you battle.


Jackson Pollack, seen here working feverishly on one of his “drip” paintings.

The good thing is, that this phase of struggle is the least deceptive — it tells you right away what your problems are — you can see them, you just have to beat them. You’ve made your initial charge, but there’s resistance or a set back. Here’s when it’s best to get feedback. You’re open to it, because you’re desperate, you’re hungry and you’re receptive. It doesn’t feel like the most productive phase in the process but it’s actually the most fruitful and effective. You find your focus here. And you get going again. The troops gather, either internally in your mind, or physically with other artists. You dig down deep with all your effort. You show your true grit and get the job done.

Phase Five: Completion


Closing shot of Steven Speilberg’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

The best part of finishing, is, just that! You’ve finished! You did it! That’s a monster accomplishment all on it’s own. I like to take a small break when it’s done, and so should you, regardless of the results. In sports, everyone knows there can only be one winner. In art, the distinction between success and failure is less clear. All you can ask of yourself is this: did you give it your best effort? Did you try doing things in a new way? Were you true to the material and to yourself?  Or have you wimped out, relied on old formulas or worse, mailed it in? If so, then know that you’ve cashed in your chips and it’s time to earn some new ones.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” — Robert Frost

He’s right. And another journey lies ahead.