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THESE DAYS, IN THE AGENCY GOLD RUSH TO ALL THINGS interactive, anyone with a pulse can suddenly find themselves with a spiffy new job title: VP-new media. Chances are, those so anointed might also find themselves in the situation recently described by a newly minted 27-year-old producer at a prestigious new-media company with recent sales of a hit game topping 300,000 units. While the sun shone brightly on ponytailed programmers in black Levi's eating lunch and sipping lattes on the grass in San Francisco's South Park, ground zero of the interactive multimedia explosion, this young man's expression grew stormy as he recounted his trial by fire: "By the time I got there, work had come to a complete standstill. Engineers weren't talking to designers, and the designers refused to consider engineering specs in their designs. Apparently this had been going on for about six months. Instead of working, they spent all their time assembling documentation on the other department's failures. It took me a solid month of meetings before we could get the two groups talking to each other and put the project back on track."

While not all projects will demand a similar regimen, all good interactive multimedia products share the same production cycle, whether they are cranked out in a matter of weeks or require months in the making. Let's assume the business will is there, the paper work is signed and the producer is on board and ready to go. Here's what it takes to be a successful multimedia producer in today's rough and tumble world of new technology.

The Production Cycle: Step 1. Hire a Team

In addition to the producer, the interactive advertising team will generally consist of an interactive scriptwriter, a graphic designer, one or more production artists and animators and at least one programmer. A complex project may require a senior technical lead and a team of programmers. Depending on the media resources required, the team can swell to include a sound designer and a composer, as well as a videographer skilled in the arts of video digitization and compression. "These people need to be extremely mature and have a history of on-time delivery and unmanaged cost-effectiveness," says J. Sterling Hutto. One of the founders of Vivid Studios, a multimedia software development company that created the reference book "Multimedia Demystified," Hutto is now general manager of technology at Electric Classifieds, a South Park startup. "I look for people who have been consultants before, or students who have experience with self-directed projects, people who have a drive to win."

Step 2: Concept/Development

Before any of the heavy lifting of production can begin, the team must wrestle the project to the ground and break its hips. Usually this results in a specification document that identifies the features of the project: the interaction scheme, user feedback, end-user experiences-in essence, the behavior of the project itself. This document will become the project bible to which all team members will refer. The goal is to freeze the features, receive the client's permission to move into production and get the team to buy off on their individual goals. From this document, a budget and timeline can be created.

Step 3: Schedule and Budget

OK, a team of crackerjack interactive professionals (often comprised of individuals ranging from those making the transition from print and video to 22-year-old skateboarders out of Stanford's Human Computer Interaction program who write code while listening to Shonen Knife) is hired. Together they've brainstormed the features and specifications for the project. "The budget, and the production process itself, is dependent on having excellent upfront project definition," says Anita Bloch, president at Red Dot Interactive, an interactive agency in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch, as it's known, whose clients include Sprint, Official Airline Guides and Hewlett-Packard. "The whole process is taken from the technical spec, the functional spec, the flow chart and the storyboards."

It is up to the producer to assemble a workable schedule that will shepherd the individual components of text, interface and interaction schemes, graphic design, art, music, animations and video through the production process and into programming. Each member of the team must be consulted. How long will it take to deliver a script? How long to design a workable interface? How long to create art and digitize video? And, the make-or-break question, how long will the project spend in programming?

While a good producer can make fairly accurate back-of-the-envelope estimates, each project is, essentially, a custom piece of software. So each member of the team is responsible for estimating how long they need to finish their part of the project. And from that estimate, the producer can create an accurate budget.

A good producer will take into account the personalities of the project team when crafting a budget. It is up to the producer to take these admittedly human elements into account when running the numbers. A really good producer will take everyone's estimate and automatically double it.

Step 4: Production

OK, you've frozen the features and the client has signed off on the budget. Now it's time to move into the elbow grease phase of production. Your writer and designer will deliver a script that contains all thumbnail screen designs, onscreen copy and voiceover. In addition, the writer is responsible for providing the "stage directions" for the designer, production artists and programmers to follow.

All interactive linking, user navigation and descriptions of screen builds must be specified in the script and an accompanying flow chart. Sometimes called a system map, the flowchart provides a screen-by-screen diagram of the program. A programmer can take a glance at these charts and get an instant picture of a program's depth and complexity. Finally, you are ready to hand the script, the text files, the art files, sound, animation and video files to programming.

Step 5. The Black Box of Programming

Unless you have some experience writing code, you will come to view programming as a black box. Things go in, and, if you're lucky, in a few weeks, or months, your project comes out. In addition, heartbreak and anguish also come out as you discover unexpected software glitches, hardware incompatibilities, programmers who have overestimated their skills and underestimated the complexity of the task, or, as is often the case, the client continues to demand still more changes. Hence, a good producer should have the technical savvy to understand the core capabilities of the tools the project team is using.

Step 6. Testing & Debugging

You've budgeted in time for testing this project with an outside testing service, right? A crucial and often overlooked part of the production process is testing. Testing usually happens offsite, at the hands of a third-party testing service. Essentially they will take a week or two to "break" your program. Want to know what happens when letters are typed into a number field? Or what happens if a user enters a 10-digit number when you've only allowed for nine?

In a week or two you will get back a bug report. It's likely these will be trivial, as you've probably done as much informal testing as you could internally while the program was being developed. Serious flaws, like a crashing program, will demand going back to programming and rewriting some code. And this is where things get dicey. Good programmers have been known to pull their hair out in clumps when every bug fix they write causes three more new and different kinds of crashes. This is where programming becomes more art than science.

Step 7. Shipping the Product

Your interactive ad is bug free, stable and ready to be mastered. You've printed labels, instruction cards, gotten a designer to create the collateral material, hired a writer to wordsmith a brochure and write a user's guide. What could go wrong? All the usual horror stories from the world of print now raise their ugly heads. Typos, paper creep, label stock, wrong ink and, perhaps the worst failure of all, instructions for installation that are inaccurate.

Now, are you ready to do it all again for the next project? If the answer is yes, you are about to discover why project managers burn out after three years.

Sam McMillan is an independent multimedia producer who teaches a course at San Francisco State University titled Real World Writing for Interactive Multimedia.

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