Nov 28, 2023

Kaya Kuhn: A Creative Force in Animation Production, Orchestrating Creativity and Collaboration

This interview was conducted by Giraffics own producer Reem Khalifa.

Producing is like running a 5-star Michelin kitchen. It's not only about creating the dish; it is developing a story through coordinating and arranging the perfect balance of elements to present the menu. Or at least that's how Kaya Kuhn works.

With over 10 years of experience, Kuhn has worked on various projects, mainly focusing on post-production and animation films. In her world, every detail matters to create something spectacular. She took her first major step in The Voice, where she post-produced six seasons. She later joined Triggerfish, producing various projects like Zog, The Snail and The Whale, and most recently, Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire. Kuhn also works in training and mentorship programs like Triggerfish Academy and Foundation, Animation SA, and AFDA. In 2022, she founded Those Production Girls, a production firm offering dynamic and innovative services such as project management, consulting services, and production training. Throughout her career, Kuhn believed in the process of learning and never shying away from asking "how." In this issue's interview, we discover this process and step foot into Kuhn's journey, but with a twist. 

The Early Days Laced With an Existential Crisis

“In my very early 20s I was studying psychology with the intention to become a neuropsychologist, and whilst I found it interesting and had a natural aptitude for it – I found myself disillusioned at the idea that this would be my career for the rest of my life. In particular, I found myself burning out quite quickly as I struggled to manage my own boundaries and took the difficult content I was dealing with very personally.

This led to a realization about one of the things I love about working in animation: If we miss a deadline, if we make a mistake, no one is actually going to die. We are not saving lives and I find myself repeating this often to other producers, artists and even myself during periods of high stress where people forget that our jobs are meant to be fun – we are making cartoons – we are not saving lives. It’s okay to have an off day, to make a mistake, to miss a deadline: no one will die”

Nothing Beats a Good Spreadsheet

“Here I should add that when I made this decision, I had no idea what I actually wanted to do in the film industry, I just knew I wanted to be in it. The energy, the people I met, the pace and the creativity attracted me to it. I didn’t even know what a producer was, and I was very blessed to have a mentor who identified my ‘producer personality’ and suggested that I move into the production department. And he was right, I am a natural born producer. I love organizing things, I love solving complex problems, I love a good spreadsheet, and I love being able to create an environment in which artists thrive and we bring creative visions to life.”

First Big Girl Leep

“I initially started working in live action on set and then moved into post production, where I found myself ending up as a specialized post producer. After working in post production, the move into animation production isn’t very difficult and that is how I ended up applying for and getting my first job in animation at Triggerfish animation studios. At first it was completely overwhelming to me how many people work on an animated project, and how long everything takes! But I ended up falling in love with the culture that exists within the animation industry, the journey you go on with your team while creating animation and the content that we produce. Whilst at Triggerfish, I got the position of Senior Producer on Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire. This presented me with an entirely new way of working. For the first time, instead of me being a line producer feeling on my own and entirely responsible for one film; I had a teammate (Leanne Preston, the other Senior Producer on the anthology) and together we were responsible for all 10 films – which each had their own line producers, creating a beautiful and rare production community.”

There is Nothing Wrong with Asking “How?”

“We started doing monthly producer forums where all the producers on each film would come together and talk about their projects. This provided an incredible opportunity for us to collaborate and support one another; learning from each other’s mistakes and insights and upskilling through our collective experience and knowledge. We all benefited from the support and the comradery, and all of our productions benefitted from having supported producers. The collective knowledge amongst us leads to quicker problem solving and optimized workflows, and being part of a community contributes to our overall well-being. It is so important that producers are healthy and supported in order to effectively support their teams. Happy teams do great work and so as producers a lot of what we focus on is how to cultivate a healthy and sustainable working environment.”

Have You Met the Girls?

“This experience of working collaboratively as opposed to in isolation is what led me to forming ‘Those Production Girls’ where we offer high end production management, supported by our collective of producers. Our main principle is one of senior support policy which means that our producers are never dropped in the deep end and expected to figure things out on their own – they exist within and are supported by our collective expertise. Often one producer’s learning can save another from making the same mistake, or a challenge that one may be facing may have already been solved by another producer. We compliment one another’s strengths and weaknesses and most importantly, we have each other’s backs. As a producer, you end up wearing many hats and sometimes we find ourselves in positions where we have to make financial, legal, HR and business decisions that can be very overwhelming. Sometimes we are the coach, and sometimes we are the cheerleader. Sometimes we are your therapist, and sometimes we have to be the bad guy. A lot of life happens during productions – people have babies, get married, experience losses, get sick, experience traumas – and the production team are the first responders. We are continuously adjusting plans around curveballs and setting the pace for the crew. This is why it’s also important to us that within our network we don’t just have producers but we also have change managers, accountants, lawyers, counselors who are also available to support us with their expertise.”

Cheers To an On-Going State of Becoming

“I was recently asked by a group of aspiring producer’s what the biggest challenge I faced at the beginning of my career was and I think it was that I was afraid to ask for help or say when I didn’t understand something. I thought it would expose that I didn’t know what I was doing and that I should just figure it out on my own – and whilst it’s true that you should do your best to try figure things out – I would have saved myself so much time if I’d just put my hand up and asked instead of feeling like inexperience was a character flaw. What I have since realized is that this industry changes all the time, technologies change, workflows change, teams change and there is no way that any one producer will always know everything. It’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to say “I don’t understand, please explain that to me again”, it’s okay to ask questions – in fact, it’s not just okay; it’s expected. We are all continuously learning and part of the journey is learning together.”

It doesn't always end how you start it. For Kaya Kuhn, her professional career took an unexpected but a much-appreciated shift. In her early 20s, she enrolled in university to become a neuropsychologist; however, after much thought, she realized that the material she was studying was taking a significant toll on her. That's when she decided it was time to find something that made her feel fulfilled yet less stressed. When she stepped into the world of production and animation, she had no idea what she was doing, but the people around her, the energy, and the creativity inspired her and helped her learn and develop. She realized how much production fits her personality, and that's what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. From there, she started working on and aiding in various projects, from feature live-action to animation. Along the way, Kuhn learned how to ask for help when needed and how much you can learn from working with a team. All the collective knowledge, support, and optimized workforce created a working environment that produced killer projects.

To continue this journey, Kuhn started her own production firm, Those Production Girls. Together, the team created a supportive and stimulating network where they fit together as a puzzle, complimenting each other's strengths and skills. Kuhn continues discovering more in her field, diving into new technologies and innovative strategies that make her and her production house stand proud amidst the ever-changing industry.