An article is making the rounds promoting the 40-hour week and explains how long work hours have proven to cost workers and their employers more of their time, their money, and their health.
It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.
If you are a professional in the VFX industry you are probably familiar with the death march that is months of 60+ hour weeks. A reader emailed me to ask: “Why does the VFX industry continue to work crazy and exhausting hours like this?”
To be frank, the reason why is because we accept it and we love it.
The article cites 3 reasons for crunch time and I feel it nails the issue right on the head for why the VFX industry is the same way:
- We have an obsession for VFX.
- We have turned into “VFX Jocks”.
- The industry has no union.
The Obsession For VFX
It’s good to like what you do and it’s one thing to love it, but I find many VFX professionals are obsessed with VFX. Many volunteer to work a 12 hour day or ask to come in on weekends to quench their obsession to bring perfection to their VFX work. This practice has turned long hours into the norm and has become an acceptable practice.
In pursuit of that perfection we choose to sacrifice time with friends, family, and our own health and sanity. I think it’s great to strive for perfection, I just prefer to do it Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. I like VFX but I don’t love it and I personally get creeped out by people who are obsessed with it. I prefer being with friends and family and having a chance to enjoy some of the fruits of my labor and having time to take care of personal errands.
The author of the article points to this obsession called “passion” for work as to one of the reasons for the explosion of overtime:
Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t named and identified until 1994, but by the 1950s, the defense industries in California’s Santa Clara Valley were already drawing in brilliant young men and women who fit the profile: single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached, and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion, and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food, and sometimes even personal care.
James Cameron made a similar observation during the making of Titanic:
The Digital Domain guys are brilliant, but sometimes I think they’re idiot savants.
Rise Of The VFX Jock
As the obsession for VFX became the norm, it became a potent mix when combined with a competitive work environment. VFX professionals developed a jock-like mentality similar to sports athletes that are eager to prove the idea that “pain is temporary, VFX is forever!”
It starts with casually letting others know that you work longer hours. Then some start challenging others or calling them out for going home early: It becomes a sport.
I was appalled by the mentality displayed on some of the productions I’ve been on. I remember one co-worker happily cheering LucasFilm for firing a woman because she was pregnant. I’ve come across workers that told me that if the company wanted to slash their pay by 50% they would happily accept it because they love their job. I’m all for competition but I want to compete in a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.
So we look at the long hours as a symbolism of pride. I think much of this stems from the cyclical and nomadic nature of the industry: We are unable to display the fruits of our labor by having families or firmly rooting ourselves down and have some ownership in our lives. So we use the scars as a substitute to show how much we love VFX and also how much we love the companies we work for. The author rightly points this out. She calls them internal entrepreneurs:
The new ideal was to unleash “internal entrepreneurs” — Randian übermenschen who would devote all their energies to the corporation’s success, in expectation of great reward — and who were willing to assume all the risks themselves. In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America’s business landscape.
The author points out that it was the Unions who helped mandate the 40-hour week and were also the guardians. As the 80’s came along unions became the convienient punching bag and membership eroded. Corporations were successful in capitalizing in fear and lumping unionization with inefficiency, laziness, and free-loading.
The reality of course is that none of this is true. Forbes had an article about German auto workers: They are all unionized, produce twice as many cars as the US, and are paid twice as much. I also found that the most competitive countries in the world have the highest rates of union membership: Do Unions Make Us Less Competitive?
For VFX companies that are fearful of unreasonable client demands, a union can sometimes be a convienient bad guy preventing the use of expensive overtime.
Why Do Employers Continue The Death March?
With all this evidence that shows extended periods of crunch time being bad for workers and especially bad for productivity and profits, why do employers continue with the death march?
I believe there’s a huge disconnect between management and the VFX crew. I think most producers don’t have intimate technical knowledge as to what we do. They are concerned with bid days or when something is finaled or kicked back. So when they find a production that is falling behind, the question isn’t how to fix the problem, the question is how can we scale the amount of time and people dedicated to the task. The harder question that needs to be answered is why a particular task has fallen behind. This industry has always chosen the easy answer to the problem. The easy answer usually ends up being the costly one.
Crunch time usually comes from failures in planning. I’ve been in meetings where supervisors throw out wild unrealistic ideas of how the pipeline will work. Nothing is ever stress tested. No simple experiments are done to prove a concept which could point out future problems early on. Instead it’s just put your head down and plow through the work using brute force. The industry also suffers from a herd mentality. If another shop burns a shitload of overtime well so should we! If they go to Vancouver so should we! If they stick their head in a blender so should we!
I also believe there is a certain level of fear production management has with supervisors and clients. Sometimes a panicked coordinator will tell me the client wants to see something Monday and needs me to come in Saturday. So I agree only to realize the work I plowed through doesn’t even get reviewed until the following week!
Why did the production waste my time and company money for a task that really wasn’t needed? What I’ve learned is that the client or supervisor will say something like “it would be nice to see that Monday” and production goes into this frantic trauma thinking they need to see it Monday when in fact they don’t.
There are other times where I’ve found some companies that use the death march to just overbill the client. I’ve been asked to come in on weekends with nothing to do. While this isn’t true for every company, what I learned was the company was able to charge the client another bid day. I wouldn’t be surprised if a company charged a client bid days when artists weren’t even in for work.
At the end of the day the massive amounts of wasteful overtime is just another example of how careless the industry is about earning a profit. We see instances where executives earn more from the golden parachutes they earn by seeing the company fail. We see them compete to chase work in subsidized regions just so the client can obtain a rebate while they burn through millions in infrastructure costs, labor mobilization, and increased overhead.
This industry is in the middle of a Mexican standoff with an absurd twist: Instead of having their guns pointed at each other, they’re pointed at their own heads.