The Price Of The VFX Overtime Death March

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:

  1. We have an obsession for VFX.
  2. We have turned into “VFX Jocks”.
  3. 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.

Soldier On.


77 Responses to The Price Of The VFX Overtime Death March

  1. rfk says:

    I still remember when Sony cut everyone’s hours back to 40 a week and suddenly everyone’s take-home pay wasn’t so attractive anymore. Ahh, good times.

  2. David Rand says:

    My father worked himself to death at the age of 33 as an engineer for a NASA subcontractor during the space race with the Russians, yet It’s hard for me to say no to 100+ hr weeks myself. Call it passion, obsession, even addiction..for me it’s truly hard to say no and I believe I;m not alone and I’m sure it’s recognized by those who govern us. I feel fine during the crunch. It’s after it ends that I find difficult. I’m sure the long term damage is accumulating.

    Like those NASA subcontractors we worked on fixed bids…yet we have no blueprint. Using that business model without it is killing us, our creativity, and the studios profits. Massive OT is just another knee jerk reaction to the insanity of building things on a fixed price without a detailed plan, or like those in the space race, an ever compressing timeline. Eventually like a marble in a funnel the race to the bottom becomes frantic, and always falls on the backs of the artists, the last line of defense, and the weakest.

    The only weapon against this madness is Over Time. Many artists actually make most of their money during this period. Sadly many that manage us don’t get OT and perceive us with some resentment and naturally expect us to earn our pay by solving the problems of the impossible planning an client management that is the worst side effect of working on a fixed bid without a fixed plan. We are all in this crazy parade and like the kid in the fable we feel like screaming that the emperor is not wearing any clothes but instead we go along with crowd.

    One of the greatest books “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” defined for me little has changed over the centuries. Great works were produced and are often cited as the worthwhile ends to this means but the other side to that antique coin are the works that never made it because artists like Michelangelo went blind and died broke.

    In an effort to squeeze more out of the vfx profits they have lost sight of the fact that it’s the quality vfx films that make the quality profits. Taking short cuts with faked stereo conversions and unoriginal gags that make a 6 year old say “that looks fake”, as one did in my recent viewing of John Carpenter of Mars, are no answer to wasteful battles brought on by a bankrupt bidding system.

    Get the director on the vfx “set” work on a cost plus basis and you’ll quickly see the focus and creativity evolve like never before.
    I keep hearing the phrase “we need to get it to a level that we can show the client” My answer… “you mean the same client that was there every second when they filmed the actors chasing balls on sticks around rooms of green? Did they suddenly lose their imagination?” When will we see photos of directors proudly sitting behind work stations like they do in their fancy portraits of themselves looking trough the camera on a set where everyone is getting paid by the second?

    • wifeofVFX says:

      & you should be getting paid by the second too. What makes them more important or better than you?

    • Mark McLovingly says:

      Wow Dave. Sorry to hear about your dad. Not super versed in the feature world, I’ve only dabbled. But I’ll tell you this, many places I’ve been to in advertising are not happy. Lots of jock mentality pushed on artists by producers and CDs. Talented people are getting treated like schmucks. Lots of mind games. Poor management that wants you to constantly feel inferior so they can pretty much take over your thinking so they can steer your every move, which includes changes and getting you to stay late. Eventually you might even forget you’re supposed to be a creative on the project.

  3. Very good post. Only thing I haven’t seen is working overtime to submit bid days but suppose it happens.

    Many in visual effects people view it as a badge of honor. Of our scars to compare. “You worked 90hrs? Well I worked 120hrs.” Many vfx producers view it as a requirement to know that people are available to work weekends. When the VES was discussing the Visual Effects Bill of Rights in regard to overtime there were those producers that didn’t think artists had the right to turn down overtime and that they would avoid hiring any artist that said they would be unwilling to work overtime. (and we’re talking over 60hrs base)

    I’ve also had artists want to stay late because they had a false sense of priorities or they wanted to earn extra money (in this case they were paid overtime). Unfortunately the vfx producer had been approving these so the vfx supes stepped in and only approved OT when it was actually needed.

    One of the other reasons for overtime is when the director/studio changes their mind or delays making decisions. When a test screening goes wrong they may make major changes or when it goes right they may add entire new sequences. Most vfx companies can’t handle being thrown another few hundred shots in the same time schedule but are to afraid to say no. There are few clients (studios) available and they certainly don’t want to be on the black list and not get future projects from said studio. This actually happens and studios do consider the ability to handle ‘more work’ when deciding on a visual effects company.

    We do very complex work and it’s a problem to take the new work elsewhere or to have someone else re-work changed shots. What we do is not a commodity and it’s not like you can employ another contractor to come in and sheetrock a new room. The amount of time and energy to transfer knowledge of a specific process and pipeline to anther company is daunting. Most places barely have enough people to handle what they’re currently doing.

    There’s usually limited workstations available at most companies and even if they’re available trying to fill those seats and get people up and running is another major problem. Using proprietary software and unusual pipelines makes it more difficult to find people and get them started quickly.

    From my understanding:
    In England there’s a 48hr a week limit. Evidently most companies and artists sign off on a waver to this. And then overtime work may simply be made up with a day off. If you work on a Saturday then you’ll get a normal day’s pay. In this case there’s not any real incentive for the company to be careful with overtime. It’s the same as regular pay. In the US it’s 1 1/2 x over 8 hrs and 2x over 12hrs. That seems to be fairer compensation for the workers and more of an incentive for companies to get their act together.

    And as tempting as the overtime pay is for the artists at a certain point it’s not worth it. If you’re young you may not realize what it’s doing to your body and mind or it’s impact on you social life. I’ve had to cancel many family or concert events simply because overtime came up. It’s also one of those things that if you’re used to working hours on end you tend to keep to that schedule even when you don’t need to. It’s hard to wind down.

    There needs to be new thinking from everyone involved. Studios, directors, companies, vfx producers, vfx supervisors and artists. We should avoid overtime as a habit and make a conscious decision to avoid or minimize it, not to embrace it as the norm. Companies have to be able to realistically schedule their time and to say no if it’s not reasonable.

    If overtime is required it should be paid for and the responsible party should be the ones that pay that bill, whether it’s the client or the company. Companies sometimes rethink things when it affects their bottom line. If it has no impact financially on them then sure, they’d love to have more free labor.

    Artists should have the right to turn down overtime without being fired and without made to feel guilty simply because someone else made a mistake. Until artists unite that will be unlikely to happen. Will overtime be a high priority of trade organization? Unlikely.

  4. As as pointed out above, many people (including ourselves) forget that most of us are paid to some extent for overtime. Some compare our weekly pay to those not in our industry and believe we are overpaid. For those on flat rates it’s easy to think that’s a lot of money. But once the adjustment is made based on the number of actual hours worked, it’s clear it’s not nearly as much money as it would appear. And consider that many in our industry do not get health care and other things typical employees get (vacations, retirement fund, etc), it’s even less than that.

  5. r00nee says:

    Just to be clear,

    “In the US it’s 1 1/2 x over 8 hrs and 2x over 12hrs. ” is only true for California. For the rest of the states, overtime can be nonexistent.

    It was one of the items I was researching as I was developing my company. I’ve shared the sources here, since I won’t be needing them any longer. I have the big five listed, US, Canada, NZ, UK, and Australia.

    • Scott Squires says:

      You are correct that it’s not the whole US. However it’s also true of the IATSE unions and since most of the Vfx work in the US is done in Calif. it seems reasonable.

    • Reading your documents it would appear most countries and areas simply bail on the issue of OT pay and offer no regulation of any kind. They simply suggest it’s between the worker and the company to sort out. Hmmm, I wonder how that works out.

  6. jonavark says:

    Most of my overtime is caused by Autodesk.

  7. LMP says:

    Well, As far as I am concerned I probably won’t find work in this industry again. I am not signing on 60 hrs weeks that will turn into 90 and beyond when crunch time arrives. (Some companies are in eternal crunch time). It almost cost me my family and my health went to hell in just one year..

    I am an ARTIST, my idea of working in VFX was to create beautiful images. Not to be a production machine. Yes, we need money, but that is not my incentive. OT money goes away in taxes and eventually doctors. My satisfaction comes from the result of my work, not the OT fake $$.

    I came in into this industry later in life and my first surprise was to find out how soulless their people are or have become and how numbed they are. Every one falls into the carrot on a stick trick, thinking that they are making money in OT. They are so fooled as to put-up with moving around the country or the planet and living out of a suitcase. One thing is to have the choice to go abroad or out of town for an adventure, other thing is to be forced in order to just be able to work.

    I have even encounter several of those “OT champions” that had explained to me that they have addictive personalities; if they had a normal work schedule they would fall into an addiction (drugs, alcohol) so might as well be addicted to work.

    This generation was born after the horrible damage done to the organized work force in the 80’s in the US and Britain. I find it difficult with the level of cultural isolation American people grow-up, that this trend would change any time soon. Yes Unions are not perfect, but in at least one way, they do their job.

    Politicians are “warning” people of the “dangers” of the European system. They followed the greedy path of Wall Street and look at the results. Nonetheless their people and their unions are on the streets united fighting for their rights.

    The US has to polar opposite movements trying to raise their voice for what they think is right for the people as a whole (Tea Party and Occupy WS movement). What is the response from the masses? We make fun of them and dismiss them as silly cretins. This is how bad we are and that is why big corporations are taking all advantage of our lives and giving back NOTHING in return.

  8. Steve Hulett says:

    Gary Cooper was once asked what he looked for in a script. He said: “Number of days off.”

    Clark Gable had a stipulation in his contracts that he quite at 5:00. Period. (Some directors weren’t happy about this.)

    Obviously these gents were stars with leverage and not visual effects TDs, but they had the right idea. NEITHER of them looked on long days and workweeks as badges of honor.

    Needs to be a change of mind-set.

  9. I’ve also seen VXF producers and companies not see anything wrong with a major redo of all work in the final few weeks (work that was done over the course of months). It was their opinion if the client was willing to pay, what was the big deal. The problem is we’re not talking about widgets, we’re talking about people’s lives. Sure, if they cover an out of cost expense of simply purchasing more widgets, that’s fine. But to force workers to work 6-7 day weeks and to put in 90-120hrs a week on a whim is not helpful to anybody. The workers are burnt out, the quality suffers, the company probably didn’t make nearly as much profit as they thought they would and the client continues to think that vfx is very expensive.

  10. ZZtop says:

    Are you a drone or a Jedi? Seems like the VFX world is FULL of drones. Sad. Cuz its forced…dont know anything else maybe? Work for the empire and you’ll get treated like a drone. All major studios are The Empire. Even ILM. especially Imageworks. Wake up and build yer own or just do it for a hobby and quite ruining movies/ making VFX jock porn/wasting the publics time and money. Unionize already and be mean to the executives who have ruined our industry. Dont be apathetic and allow it to persist. YOU and ONLY YOU can change it. DO IT NOW.

  11. Ymir says:

    Nothing is impossible for those who don’t have to do it themselves.

  12. Stan Marsh says:

    Art is derived from nature. Disney made art and thats why alot got into this field. Star wars was “ART” and what has happened is a shift in how people think…Just say no, play video games all day and be a good little drone for the man…Yes….thats it…Follow UFC…Its interesting…gooood…..Listen to nickleback…goood, yessss…Go camping you idiots. Go for a walk. get out more..and walla…Your job and “art” will be that much better. Brains need blood and if you dont move you dont think as clearly. Move more. Studios need to built with the artists mind in…mind. Activities…organized and far, far from the studios doors. Watch how vastly superior any studios’ work will be when they start REALLY taking this advice.

  13. David Rand says:

    Anyone who knows the passion of being an artist knows the draw it has. One of my professors spoke of living in his paintings while he was taking the months to complete them and that if he didn’t they would never be anywhere near as good. This attitude is often exploited just as readily as the results of it are hailed. Maybe my mistake has been thinking what i do is some type of art form. It used to be and at times it still is. I don’t consider myself in the same arena some of the greats but my feelings are the same as an artist.

    “So now, from this mad passion
    Which made me take art for an idol and a king
    I have learnt the burden of error that it bore
    And what misfortune springs from man’s desire…
    The world’s frivolities have robbed me of the time
    That I was given for reflecting upon God.”

  14. DrFX says:

    Producers have no real incentive to reduce overtime. In fact they have a powerful incentive to work their crews overtime.

    Look at it from a producer’s point of view. Let’s say a producer misses some deadline. If he brought his crew in every Saturday/Sunday/worked 12 hour days, he can say that he tried everything he could. If he didn’t bring the crew in, then the exec producer is asking, “why didn’t you bring your crew in OT?” There is no incentive to NOT ask your crew to work long hours. The only incentive is to cover your ass and bring people in to possibly do absolutely nothing productive. No one ever got fired for working their crew on a weekend.

    I almost never hear any producer reasoning, “well, that’s twelve man-days of OT we’ll have to pay, is it really worth it?” And chances are that 12-man days of OT is only producing four man-days of output. But who is watching the producers, except when their projects fall behind? Usually no one.

    • David Rand says:

      That’s why they dropped bidding on the set decades ago and why the director is present on the set the entire time– making all the decisions –and getting to the point cause it’s now on their dime.

    • Companies can’t claim poverty and can’t claim thin margins if they fritter money away on overtime. Producers have been fired if they racked up more costs than was budgeted. Most visual effects companies are not so big that they don’t see or realize when there is massive overtime happening on a project.

      If artist agree to work for free overtime or companies agree to absorb overtime when studio changes are made, then it will continue to happen.

  15. JeanCharpentier says:

    What is funny it’s even with all the knowledge, the powerful technology, the mastering of lighting, today we can’t do better CGI integration for most of the blockbuster than 15-20 years ago (eg: Jurassik Park).

    Ok, Today, scenes are incredibly complex, dynamic but not as believable because of these bad human animation, unrealistic camera movement or simply bad render.

    Take your time, please.

  16. Technically the visual effects industry is better than it’s ever been. The film quality of the final results are now in the hands of directors (unrealistic camera moves, weightless creatures, etc are all director driven) The time when truly technically inferior work happens is when there is insufficient time provided which is part of the issue being discussed here.

  17. Bork says:

    I love how you automatically jump to a union for a fix-all. Broken record???

    • skaplan839 says:

      You think ascribing unionization as the solution to the problem of overtime to be frivolous????

    • VFX Soldier says:

      The author of the article cited de-unionization as one of the reasons for heavy overtime. However, as you may know this blog has been for unionization from the very beginning. No apologies there. I haven’t said it would solve all the problems but it would help alot.

      • Scott says:

        I am sorry to say it, but the reality is a union is not going to give me a 40 hour week. They can mandate that I get paid beyond 40 hours, but the companies that they collectively bargain with will never agree to limits on hours needed to meet a deadline.

        If you look at the mandates that are defined for stage workers, most are not allowed to work beyond 12 hours without getting an 8 hour break before their next shift. These are instituted due to safety concerns on set. We don’t have those kinds of safety concerns in the office.

        I believe this thinking of a union will solve all of our problems is naive. A union will give us portable benefits if and only if you continue to work in union shops (which are and will always be limited to large facilities and most of those already follow OT laws, small shops don’t and will not collectively bargain). A union WILL NOT change the way producers and managers crew, bid and bill their shows.

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I disagree. If enough people support it we can mandate limits on excessive overtime.

        Also it’s important to remember that when you are in a union the employer has to not only pay you overtime, but also pay into health, pension, sick and vacation time for every hour. So a producer has to strongly consider making you work longer hours.

        Secondly the health insurance is portable to non union facilities. When you work you earn hours in a bank that provides you and your family health coverage when you are working non union or not even working at all.

        When I left the union facility I had enough in my bank to cover me for 18 months at my next job.

    • Shuftan's Wooden Mouse says:

      Yer Honor,

      There is no fix-all.

      There are however, fix-a-bits. Or fix-a-bites, if you prefer.

      Haven’t you heard?

      Fix all’s are only in the movies.

    • jonavark says:

      The ONLY solution to the OT problem is, in fact, a union.

      That said I have many concerns about the end effect of that.

      Will the barriers to get into VFX work will be raised because of initiation fees and qualification requirements?

      Will students from VFX schools like Gnomon have an easier time getting in to a union than say.. a freelancer?

      What happens to small boutiques if the union focuses on big houses?

      If the end effect of unionizing actually means less ‘qualified’ workers AND the cost rises, aren’t we going to see an accelerated exodus off shore from the larger production entities?

      There are two separate and distinct issues here, only one of which a union can really affect. One is worker exploitation and the other is the mass exodus of VFX work.

      I haven’t actually solidified my opinion about unionizing. Can’t do that until I have answers. I can easily see one result being a smaller ‘qualified’ VFX workforce, which means more offshore work.

      Given the situation I am of the mind that a union might be necessary and the ONLY solution to half of this problem.

      Kudos to VFXSoldier for this forum. He posts a lot of good info and many of the others here have valuable information and insight into this problem. But because of anonymity.. this is as far as it can go unless someone stands up and takes charge, ultimately gluing together all the efforts and concerns into results.

      • skaplan839 says:

        Hello jonavark,

        I’ll try to answer your questions as I may be the one most qualified. Feel free to ask more if I confuse or confound you with my answers.

        To be clear, most of my answers will focus around hypothetical scenarios since no vfx studio is currently under contract. I’ve written at length about the organic nature of contract negotiations and how its nearly impossible to predict what will be included in that contract. I can speak to what 839 practices and say that the IA would take our representation into account when forming vfx contracts and eventually a vfx local.

        Will the barriers to get into VFX work will be raised because of initiation fees and qualification requirements?
        Union membership means paying dues and an initiation fee. If an artist starts at a union stuidio, they will be assessed an initiation fee. Most likely, any artists working at a studio that goes union while they are working there, will have their initiation fee waived.

        Dues are collected quarterly. Initiation fees are a one-time, life-time charge. 839 dues are based on contracted base wages per job category. Most of our members fall into the highest category, so most of them pay $105 per quarter. Our initiation fees are also based on contracted wage minimums. The 839 initiation fee for most artists is around $3400. Arrangements are made with most artists to pay this off over months.

        Will students from VFX schools like Gnomon have an easier time getting in to a union than say.. a freelancer?
        Union membership will be given to those artists working at a studio where the union represents the artists as the bargaining agent for the contract. Students will not be made members since the union will not sign a contract with a school.

        What happens to small boutiques if the union focuses on big houses?
        I’m not clear on the question you’re asking, but I’ll try a direct answer. The small boutiques will learn that the big shops have signed a union contract and wonder if they should do the same.

        .. aren’t we going to see an accelerated exodus off shore from the larger production entities?
        My estimation is that off-shoring, or runaway productions, or whatever you call it, has little to do with labor cost. Its easy to say “they’re going to Antartica because people there work for fractions of cents on the dollar”. However, after reading much discussion on this topic, and many of those are posts on this blog, its obvious that work flows to where the talent is when all things are equal. Currently, the proliferation of tax incentives are flinging work across the globe. Unionization of studios will not change that.

        Let me know if that helps.

      • If unionization caused runaway production, Hollywood would have relocated to North Carolina and Texas two decades ago. The only reason productions are in those states now are the incentives.

      • jonavark says:

        I understand your point Adrian. However, If you are saying that increased costs across the table to productions due to unionizing won’t affect anything I think I would have to disagree. Respectfully. That is my concern at this point. The alternatives for productions are already right in front of them so why wouldn’t they take them? We seem to feel that US VFX workers do work that no one else can do. While that may be partially true I think we know that the bulk of VFX work can be done anywhere. Comparing VFX workers to other trades that aren’t as portable, meaning the work can be done anywhere, is erroneous, I believe. So if they’re cheap enough to follow tax incentives all over the globe they are certainly cheap enough to respond negatively to full unionization and explore other options, as they are already doing.

        Though as I stated above, a union might be the only way to combat the exploitation.

      • VFX Soldier says:

        Consider the cost of unionization for a company: call it X.

        Consider the cost of opening a facility in another region: call it Y.

        Do you believe X is greater than Y?

        I doubt it and here is why: many of us believe that while Y is costly, it is discounted by subsidies offered by the government of Canada, uk, etc.

        But the facilities don’t get those subsidies, the studio does. It costs the facilities more money on top of the amount they pay to do business here.

        The argument that unionization costs will drive work elsewhere is negated by the fact that it costs the facilities much much more in infrastructure, overhead, and mobility costs.

        As I point out regularly on my blog, facilities are not moving to cheap places like India. They are moving to expensive places like Vancouver. The reason why is because the is studios coerce them to do it.

      • jonavark says:

        “facilities are not moving to cheap places like India.”

        I thought many companies are already running large Indian teams of workers. Especially their conversion departments. I _think_ DD, Prime Focus and many others have well established houses there.. don’t they? One of the guys that worked for me here ended up living there to train hundreds of people.

        I’m still not convinced of the “tax incentives are the only draw” point. Everything that affects the bottom line is always on the table.

        They don’t have to move to take advantage, either.

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I’ll have a post on India coming up but the truth is the only company that has really established itself in India is rhythm and hues. They have been there for 10 years. You would figure by now they would have sent all the work there. Talk to anyone there and they’ll tell you some stuff goes there but it hasn’t been the monumental shift that people have predicted. Even prime focus has been mostly limited to roto and tracking work.

        I understand your argument: the only reason a company should outsource is because there is a comparative advantage. That’s what makes vfx so amazing: many facilities lose money going to places like Vancouver. It’s the studios that have coerced the company to go there. This is one of the reasons I’ve fought so hard against the subsidies. It’s the biggest misconception in the industry:

      • jonavark says:

        DD, Prime Focus and many others have facilities and large staff there. I think R&H is NOT the only one there! Can’t see how you interpret that.

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I’m sorry to say but not much work is going to India.

  18. ka-tet says:

    Very interesting article and comments. Thank you.

  19. Frederic Cervini says:

    This article is so recognizable. A couple of years back when I was freelancing for a startup animation studio we were asked to do overtime to get a trailer ready to attract funding. I was one of the more senior people there and I did agree but no more than 2 hours a day on OT. This was without extra pay mainly because all the workers believed in the greater good to get the company properly launched.

    After the three week crunch it was clear that some of the people were doing more than 5 hours extra a day. I had a meeting with the producer where he told me how poor my attitude was because I only worked 2 hours extra. Especially me being the senior artist, he claimed it was a disgrace because I was payed more than the rest.
    I responded that I was payed more for being senior and that it had nothing to do with being willing to do more overtime.

    Later on I heard that production forced overtime not because we needed something done but they wanted to test how workers performed in overtime and to see if they could get away with it not paying for it.

    Short story, two months later I stopped working for that company as its ethics were below zero.

  20. chris5044 says:

    Studies have proved this and from past experiences in video games also.

    Can of worms time:

    Apparantly also for pure creatives, they require less time .. so they can come up with creative solutions and ideas,
    without the pressure held over them.
    — Innovation

    Take it as you want guys. Making healthy judgments when everything is balanced and calm prevents problems and issues later on. Rather than working all the hours under the sun and making bad judgements due to being overworked, tired and depressed.

    I still reckon the industry should have a union to protect people from issues like this and fairer business model, pay, well being, quality of life and so on… etc..
    Just look at other industries… it makes the vfx industry look like the wild west.. Just make it up as you go along.

    Something to think about.

  21. Giuseppe Improta says:

    I have been working in this industry for a lot of time so I know, like many here, what we are talking about.
    And I also got my own company, which makes me in the position of knowing exactly what a manager is looking for and what troubles he must face.

    If a company doesn’t pay overtime the production plan is usually less accurate, and it’s obviously easy for them to make a tougher schedule, since if something is wrong, people will just work more during the day and eventually they will come on Saturdays and Sundays, like common working days.
    But THEY ARE NOT, common working days.
    A person needs to rest and to do something he likes or he enjoys in order to get in shape again, and to come back work and start a new week with energy and will to make it better and faster. And this will increase productivity, which obviously is better for the company, as well.

    I really love my work, I am passionate about it and I try to give my best, but still there is something else which is more important for me: my family, my friends and also myself, my health at least.

    We all work to make possible the directors vision, not ours. So in the end we are not creative or artists which works for themselves, at least not when we are at work.
    So for the people that think we are actually doing ART, and we are well paid for that, well that’s anything but artistic (and this is not a complaint, is actually a need because of the complexity of what we do). We are a big farm, and the only ART word I have heard about is when people say that PASSION must drive our job, so in other words, we need to work more, even if not paid, because of our PASSION. It’s a pity I can’t convert passion with money, because I have ton of it!

    Everybody has different needs, but I think that if people would love more their life, they would be stronger and less incline to make overtime because the schedule was wrong.
    It is not our job to make the schedule, why should I pay for someone else fault?
    Shit happen and as artist we are ready to look for solutions, but this is something different. Some overtime is ok and I think is in the nature of our job, but it must not be the solution to bad scheduling and must not be the rule. If you have to work on weekends for 3 months and working even more then 10 hours a day, well, sorry guys, but this is BAD SCHEDULING and is not fair to ask people to face that.

    There is really no point in long overtime also for our health, because AFTER you have been working so hard you’ll need a break.
    So what happens is that after some months of overtime you need an holiday, and you will also spend your money for that, money that is NOT usually coming from the overtime, because they don’t always pay for it. Also, you will need the first week of your holiday to free your brain, and you will not even enjoy it.
    Many times I had to give up going to the gym, even for months, even if I was paying for it a monthly fee, simply because at the end of the day we had to change something that was really important, but that in the end was not. This happens, always, and I really think that is just not caring about people’s life (obviously some times there are mistakes, nobody is perfect, but errors cause problems and everybody must take its own responsibility for them).

    People usually accept to do HARD overtime because of money. Usually during those times you get a lot of money. But really, guys, is it worth it?
    You are actually throwing away your life, your brain and everything else will be affected by that, if you have kids, if you have wife, if you have other interests.
    Is it really worth it? Everybody has different feelings about that but those times will not come back, they will be lost, forever. And you will not be able to buy them with the money you just earned.

    People should not work overtime if not paid, because companies should learn to handle those things in different ways, not by changing and affecting people lives.
    Movies can be done on time with better planning, and if we are running late for scheduling, then take more people, don’t squeeze the ones that are ALREADY WORKING HARD during the whole day.

    The main problem is that it seems these days we are living for work, not working to enjoy life better. And this is a global problem, actually not only for our industry.

    We should work to be able to live, not work to get our life sold with sales.

    My 2 cents.

  22. Dave says:

    I used to work at a stuidio which had producers that never pushed back on the client when the client made unrealistic requests, then heaped those impossible tasks on the crew. Adding to this issue were Anim Dirs or VFX sups that never pushed back either. We wouldn’t get more calendar days, so they fully expected you to work a ton of overtime to get it done. Artistic pride trumped common sense for the artists as they pushed themselves to the limit. Meanwhile, our teams were sprinkled with enough folks that ghosted hours, any of us who tried to keep some kind of regular life going outside of work looked like we weren’t team players. Even lunch hours were frowned upon by some of the sups. Great….

  23. Paul says:

    Well at least with the success of John Carter we’re sure to see increased employment, rising hourly rates and lots of overtime in the near future…

  24. thats a joke right? John Carter was a flop financially. caost them 250 million to make and 100 million more on marketing ( i know wtf did they do with that money) going to cost 80- 120 million loss this quarter alone.

    • Paul says:

      And you’re wondering if I was joking?! Jesus…best and brightest around here! No wonder we’re seen as sheep.

      • Pullmyfinger says:

        VFX got pumped full of very eager and often naive young men with very limited life skills and manners. The Art schools are to blame. The commercialization of VFX was brought about by Art schools and technical colleges flooding this field with very poorly prepared participants. They culture of see and want…Te American version of Capitalism fueled the rise of executives into positions they too werent qualified for. The slow degradation working onditions due to how these 2 factors met when it came time to make movies…Its slowing our industry to a crawl and the end is inevitably total restructuring of not only our industry but just about ALL industries.

  25. G says:


    I have to respectfully disagree with your points about “obsession” and “vfx jocks” and find them a bit condescending. You’re surely a senior artist, as are many of the people commenting. As a junior artist, I would like to point out that the landscape is very, very different from when you came up the ranks (I assume.)

    It’s significantly more competitive, we’re asked for much more complicated work very early on in our careers. It used to be that having a ‘flagship’ kind of shot on your reel used to be gold, but it’s hardly worth much anymore. Since we need to move companies (and continents) so often, getting high-quality work to show our next employers is of the utmost importance.

    The pay rates for junior level people nowadays are a joke. We work in hopes that we’ll rise above our peers and be given a shot to do work at a senior level, when we can relax with a decent salary and spend time with our friends and families without worrying where the next gig will come from. Those are HARD goals, and perfectly respectable ones.

    So please, when you see us working late into the night don’t assume we’re somehow borderline autistic and obsessed with getting the spec hits *just so*. We’re probably just doing exactly what we need to do at this point in our careers.

    Producers of course don’t understand this either, and now these schedules are the norm.

    So, my $.02: junior artists need to be protected and nurtured, not scorned. There is a sad lack of mentorship in this business. Leads and sups are overworked and too busy to foster new talent. That’s a problem, and I would argue that it contributes to the decline in working conditions just as profoundly as a lack of unionization.

    But thanks for your efforts, we all appreciate them.


    Can we get a FAQ page of some kind, where you can debunk some of the tired old anti-union pro-subsidy arguments?

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Sorry your comment didnt make it pass the spam filters which is why you didn’t see it posted immediately.

      My apologies if you thought I was being condescending. I personally feel that just as many senior artists prefer to work the long hours as younger artists. Your aspiration to compete is a great thing. I made that clear: I want us to race to the top, not race to the bottom. I never assume that someone working late is there because they want to I think its become an accepted practice and the only way to change that is to have frank discussions like these. I think an FAQ would be great I just haven’t had time. Thanks for reading.

  26. David Rand says:

    If you wonder where the concept of overtime, weekends off, sick days, paid vacations, pension plans and employee health care plans came from?

    Take a guess.

    The reason you make what you do as a VFX artist is because you work in an industry where the rest of the labor force is highly organized. This happened as a reaction to the extreme and often admired organization of the studios, some of the most leveraged corporations in the world. They’ve walked above the law, controlled the press, forced theater owners to only see profits from popcorn…even control misguided union leaders at times, but those leaders have been routinely exposed and dethroned because members deserved and voted for better representation.

    It’s not a perfect world but attempting to do business in it with zero leverage is a fools game.

    Right now your work is paying a 5% residual that feeds into the pension and health care plans of everyone on the film except you…yet your work is the largest contribution to that bottom line.
    That might is the main reason there are forces a play to scatter us across the planet.

    • Simon Holden says:

      “Right now your work is paying a 5% residual that feeds into the pension and health care plans of everyone on the film except you…yet your work is the largest contribution to that bottom line.”

      This, sir, is the single best argument I’ve heard for unionization so far.

      I am a freelance VFX artist yet I work union for one of my clients and get overtime, healthcare, 401K, life insurance and disability insurance with the work I do there. As for overtime, I’m off at 5:30pm the overwhelming majority of days that I work there. I think I’ve done overtime a handful of time is six years. On the rare occasions that I run out of work I can be released and I still get paid for the day! The non-union shops I work all work evenings and weekends as a matter of course.

  27. As someone who was working in a law firm not that long ago, I can tell you that the hours were just as brutal. Even firms that place an emphasis on “work-life balance” usually required 50 billable hours a week. For an honest practitioner, each billable hour could have a non-billable hour of work behind it. There is no such thing as overtime. The pay is lousy (don’t believe the myth all lawyers are rich) and the debt from law school crushing. Most do not like the work and the depression rate is among the highest for any career. Point is, things could always be worse. I would have killed for overtime.

    • David Rand says:

      It’s about time artists made as much as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals. I remember when they cut the art program from my school..because it was felt to be less important than math, science, even history.
      I remember walking by the computer center at my school back in the early 80’s on a Saturday night late and seeing the line for kids to do their homework on the expensive machines, holding clumsy boxes of punch cards and huge texts books,

      And now Avitar makes seven and a half billion dollars.

      Individual desire to want to take part in shaping the way things evolve from here makes sense. A voice with some structure makes even more sense.

      • I think you’d be stunned how little lawyers are getting paid. Hourly, i assure you VFX artists make more. And don’t forget the loans. Just for law school (not including undergrad), $100,000 is average. Then there is the bar exam (another $1,000) and bar prep ($2,000 or so) and the study loan for three months of study w/o work ($5,000). Then, pray you pass.

  28. […] For me, its another example of the type of mentality that makes artists proud to be working in an industry that makes commodities out of their lives/work to increase production studio profits. I’ve never been able to justify how that happens and how, at one time, I did the same thing. VFX Soldier touched on this topic in his latest post on overtime. […]

  29. Trip says:

    While I completely agree that the only way to stop a lot of these practices is up to us, I’m not entirely sure a union is the answer. First of all there may be arguments for a studio to accept union contracts, but there are many reasons for them not to. When a studio is in crunch mode and they need to bring in people, it becomes incredibly difficult to fill the seats in the current age. This will become increasingly true if the workers are required to pay $3,400 in initiation plus dues just to take the gig that probably will only last for a couple months. The nomadic nature will not change with a union (especially as there are a lot of artists who prefer it) and that nomadic nature will always drive the companies to crew up and down as needed, on top of their own desire to keep costs down during dry spells. A union won’t magically change how productions run and usually mismanage their clients and projects.

    It is also nice to think of all the things that we would receive in a union, (eg. 40 hour work week, health insurance, retirement, vacation, etc…), but that is still an assumption that the union could even get that in the contract negotiations. It is definitely not a given and thus can’t be used as a solid pro in the tally. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen, but it’s not guaranteed.

    Then of course there are the negative sides of unions which, like anything, do exist. Detroit is a prime example. A worker who sees a piece of paper on the floor will literally be repremanded if he picks it up and puts it in the trash can, because it’s not his job. A secretary who’s desk lamp goes out, can’t replace the bulb with the spare in her desk without repurcussion because it’s not her job. A line worker comes to work stoned for a week and causes a multi million dollar recall and is sent home for a week with pay to think about what he did. Another who urinated in the paint vat with the same result. When these things get too big and powerful, they are just as “evil” as what they sought to fight in the first place.

    Citing German automotive unions is a good example of the difference between their and our unions. When a light goes out in the BMW plant, they shut down production and replace all the bulbs because they know the rest will fail soon thereafter. In a Detroit plant, they shut down production to change that one bulb. Then they shut it down again a week later when another one goes out. And as the majority of American automotive in unionized it’s not a good argument to say German unionization gives them a higher productivity than the American automotive industry. Our unionization is just not efficient and its giant collective bargaining has made them more powerful (in some ways) than the industry they work for.

    I’m not saying unions are bad or inherently evil, but I am saying that people are inherently selfish and while the union can solve some problems at first it too must be watched just as closely. The collective bargaining is a noble ideal, but I fully believe we can fight this on our own by just having some self-respsect and integrity. If everyone, or a majority of artists stood up for themselves then the studios would be in the same place as they would with a union. The problem is that no one is willing to stand up on their own without a bigger guy standing behind them. There are plenty of ways to ask for what you deserve and refuse with tact.

    But we have to stop underbidding each other, working for free, anything that ultimately is devaluing ourselves and each other. The studios exploit it because we’re willing to do it! And the truth is, here in CA especially, we’re protected against these forced labor conditions if you’re willing to state it. No one can make you work OT here, and they certainly can’t fire you for not! And unless you’re a supervisor or manager, you have to be paid OT. They can try and persuade you, but State law is very clear on this and one audit from the labor board would bankrupt any facility that cuts corners. No one wants this, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to play by the rules and sometimes that’s up to us to take responsibility for our actions and stand by our convictions to force a studio’s hand. There are a number of smaller studios that were forced to switch to proper OT pay due almost entirely to the reputation they had with artists and their inability to bring in talent. We have power already!

    If people believed enough in their Rights to stand up alone then we wouldn’t have as many problems. In my opinion a union is only as powerful as it’s members and a thousand GOOD artists who are willing to stand up for themselves and in turn their fellow artist and in the long run their entire industry, are more powerful than any union can ever be. But not enough artists seem willing to do that on their own without the implied power of a union behind them.

    My general point is that there are many options in front of us, but the most versitile require the most effort and self-responsibility. I truly believe that if we believe in our own talent and have the artistic integrity to stand up for it then we’ve already won. What would happen if we all woke up tomorrow and demanded to be treated properly? Or is that just a dream?

    • Marcus says:

      Every artists hypothetically standing up for themselves just invites an easy divide and conquer approach per-facility. The short 3-6 month stints that seem to prevail more and more only serve to take more power away from the senior talent that could have the leverage to bring about change at a single company without risk of being fired and blacklisted.

      Of course fed up artists standing up for themselves absolutely happens on an individual basis already… but not without HR telling you to keep your individual agreement on the down-low “or else”. This doesn’t help our line of work at large and reminds me more of working at a car dealership.

      Single artists standing up for themselves outside of collective bargaining also doesn’t get you benefits from movie residuals or into the Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Fund… which everyone else around you in the production process in this town already gets.

      • wifeofVFX says:

        Unions work in this business, SAG actors get paid a great rate, get great overtime & get paid for everything! A union is the voice for the little people who can’t be heard alone. VFX would benefit from a union. If everyone else has one then so should you guys! Because when all their union heads are working on what’s best for their people who’s doing that for you VFX? No one & that’s why you are all being worked like slaves.

  30. chris5044 says:

    This is why I am doing this now…
    I intend to go solo first and create my own work.
    I endevour to eventually have a film / game under my belt – thenm create a studio.
    The aim in the long run would be to have an awesome studio, where people would want to work for. A fun lovely working environment – similar to google offices / the look of pixar.
    Fair pay, benefits etc.. people would want to work for the company.

    Pretty soon other companies would then see this…
    and then have to follow suit, as their workers would be looking elsewhere to work.

    The aim also would be that the new company itself would create its OWN films and not get leased out like some sort of hire car.

    The profits would also be funnelled back down the chain and also into the people involved.

    Future goal =
    Film / Animation feature / games company

    Self funded, Independant.

    Perhaps Directors / actors would also want to work with us.
    These are things to consider.

    The future is bright… make believe and create! 😉

  31. me says:

    I find it funny how it seems to be a badge of honor to work overtime – where I work at a well established company, a lot of the guys are just starting to grow their families and as much as they and I love our work, we want to get out on time! We want to go be with our families and get some evening entertainment in – there’s always tomorrow to get back to one of your ‘loves’ – what losers want to work over time???? Get a life!

    • wifeofVFX says:

      At my husbands workplace overtime is not an option! All the guys seem to hate it & a lot of them don’t get paid overtime.The only ones who do get overtime are the ones making $14 an hour. The others get Comp days, it’s a joke!

  32. […] where are the VFX jocks that have routinely chastised those of us who urge organization to prevent employers who try to […]

  33. Consistent overtime often means mismanagement and incompetence on both an artistic and support level. There is no reason to consistently pull 60+ hour weeks. If your a studio doing this, you seriously need to hire some competent smart pipeline engineers and tds to fix your flow. get your act together or go out of business. These companies are going out of business because they can’t get their act together.

  34. Chubs says:

    I dont allow the company to make me work overtime. I am forced to work overtime because i dont have the luxury of being able to easily find another job. when you are new to the industry recently coming out of college you need a steady job to be able to pay those loan payments of 1200 a month.

    Its a trap when companies make you work lots and lots of overtime. You have no time to do anything else and the job consumes your life.

  35. Jt1973 says:

    Depressingly accurate ..

  36. […] few weeks ago I posted about the overtime death marches we go through in the VFX industry and how some of us develop a jock-like mentality to “love […]

  37. wifeofVFX says:

    My husband works in VFX for 10+ years as do a lot of his friends. He works for a bigger company here in LA & they work him like a slave. He had a 29 hour day last week went in Sunday at noon and didn’t get home ’til Monday after 6pm. (I know what you’re thinking but he was at work;) He was exhausted, it effects our marriage and he DOESN’T EVEN GET PAID OVERTIME!!!! They give him comp days that they never let him use!!! I can’t believe they way VFX artists are treated, you all need to realize that without you the industry would stop! What commercial, TV show & or movie do you know that doesn’t have VFX?!

    Every time I speak to people in the VFX industry they all have an air of fear, that if they don’t work like slaves they will be out of a job. People say they’ll ship the work over to India but my husband is always working on jobs that were shipped to India, the work was crap and had to be redone here. Stand-up for yourselves, VFX is an amazing field with highly skilled professional and you should all be treated with respect.

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  42. kp says:

    Excellent article, well written and well said.

  43. Mark McLovingly says:

    Chiming into your intro regarding the so-called bragging…It’s just too complicated to label it as bragging. Speaking from an advertising point of view, some people aren’t just bragging. They’re stating facts. In fact, we might be venting, not bragging. I’m venting to you now after getting my ass royally kicked by assholes all day long.

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