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Human Factors – A Key to Success in the Business of Visual Effects

But First, a context. A Brief History of Visual Effects

Digital Visual Effects is a funny and awkward industry. It hasn’t been around very long compared to, say, the film industry. It is still young and therefore, like a teenager, in a constant state of change. In the beginning, at the birth of computer technology, digital visual effects were extremely difficult and enormously expensive to make. There was no such thing as off-the-shelf software. In-house coders were constantly developing unique tools to attempt to create visual effects that had never before been attempted. These software engineers sometimes worked insane hours, sleeping under their desks or just going without sleep. Incredible feats were achieved by these early pioneers mainly through their passion; by the excitement of creating something never before achieved; by the understanding that the possibilities were endless and that they were the first people to step over the threshold of a new era in film-making. It was a heady and exciting time. Audiences were enthralled by the amazing possibilities.

After several years of this kind of software development something else happened; The “glory days” of visual effects. Tools had been developed to a state that allowed visual effects studios to create pictures with far less overhead. The tools were working well enough that they could be wielded by “artists” instead of software engineers. Far less development time (and therefore less money) was required to finish digital visual effects shots. But although it cost studios less to make visual effects, the price to clients remained high. Of course not, why wouldn’t it? These studios had poured enormous resources into tool development. They were the visionaries and pioneers of the software applications we all enjoy and curse over today. Why shouldn’t they reap the benefits of their foresight and investment? On top of this, visual effects was still brand new in the world and the demand to include them in movies became voracious. Profit flowed in like a river and business owners sought to further capitalize on the company’s investment. One of the paths to profit included releasing the tools as products that could be purchased by others wishing to create their own visual effects. Soon there were several competing 3D applications on the market, each vying for a place in film, and so a development war began. Who can create a tool that is user friendly enough, powerful enough, scriptable enough and affordable? Everybody raced toward these goals and tools improved quickly and dramatically. Before long visual effects studios began popping up everywhere. Why wouldn’t they? There was a huge demand for visual effects and now you didn’t need your own in-house software development team. Support came from the software developer who charged an annual support fee on top of the software license. As the development war continued, and as software became more and more similar, each offering similar tools and functionality, developers began competing on price as well as toolset and before long software that only a few years ago cost an annual salary or more became affordable by most middle-class individuals.

Then something unexpected happened. The tools became so easy to use, so inexpensive, that individuals and small companies began producing computer generated visual effects. People set up shop in small apartments, garages and basements. Without the overhead of a full post-production facility, they were in a position to bid lower than the big studios. Much, much lower, while still enjoying a significant profit margin. Surely they couldn’t accommodated the really huge projects, but there were plenty of smaller projects to keep them in business, and more coming every day.

Film producers, however, are nothing if not frugal. When they realized they could get visual effects done far less expensively at smaller studios, they simply started dividing a feature film visual effects contract into smaller packages. This caused a shock wave in the visual effects industry that is still being felt. Large studios were forced to compete on price with four guys in a basement just to keep the doors open. Often they bid below cost hoping that change orders would make up the difference. Thus began what had become known as “the race to the bottom” where every studio began undercutting every other studio just to try and keep the doors open. Many did not. Many hang on the edge today.

Human Factors

As the margins thin, studios try to find ever more aggressive ways to cut costs or increase output without incurring additional cost. The conventional wisdom is that costs can be cut through automation and that output can be increased by making visual effects artists work longer days for a flat rate. Both of these approaches seem common sense enough, provided you are an accountant staring at a balance sheet. If, on the other hand, you are a human being working on a production floor with people you know, go to lunch with, ski, swim and hang out with, you realize quickly that conventional wisdom just doesn’t seem…wise…in this environment. Now that isn’t to say that automation is necessarily bad. It isn’t in most cases. And I am certainly not saying that artists won’t do more in a 10 or 12 hour day than they will in an 8 hour day — at first, but human factors kick in quickly, and the production manager/supervisor who is not keenly aware of them is going to get spanked by them, and spanked hard.

So what are human factors? And how can they possibly be the key to success?

First of all, human factors are things like skill, experience, training, family life, illness, fatigue and passion. Human factors don’t fit very well into a balance sheet. Some can be difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Many are even difficult to articulate, but they exist and can have a powerful effect on any individual artist’s ability to perform the functions for which he or she has been hired. Now just imagine that every person hired to do a job had these annoying things we are calling “human factors” ruling their lives. And imagine if we pretended they didn’t exist and merely pointed at our spreadsheets as pure mathematical evidence of why our business model should work despite the fact that it is not working. Imagine that. That would be bad, wouldn’t it?

Here is a little math of my own. Over the many film, television and commercial projects I have supervised, I have kept bid and actual numbers. This means I know what my time estimate was for any give task in the project and I know how long each task actually took. I keep this data so I can compare them to find out how good a job I am doing at bidding out projects. I also know how long all the artists on my team worked on any given day during the project, so I can extract from that data how long it took to finish any given task when everybody was working 8 hour days and also when they were working 10 hour or 12 hour days. What I know from all this is that artists working 8 hour days can complete a day-long task in about a day. If I increase the length of the day, there will be a momentary increase in productivity followed by a sharp drop. The longer I make the work-day, the less the artist gets done, over time. Partly because I am paying overtime and partly due to the human factor called fatigue. Fatigue alone, on a regular schedule of 10 hour days, increases the cost of visual effects by about 42%, according to my numbers.

So how can we improve crew productivity? Well obviously not by making them work long hours for extended periods. In fact this is so painfully obvious that it is stunning to find the long days are still a standard in the visual effects industry. One of the contributing factors to longer work days is that skilled digital artists are getting harder to find as the world-wide visual effects industry continues to blossom. You see, instead of putting artists on 10-hour days, we could simply hire more artists–if we could find more artists. But why aren’t there thousands of skilled artists? Aren’t there colleges, universities and private career institutes all over the world graduating thousands of students every year? Yes. Yes there are. But unfortunately these students are not provided with skills at a professional visual effects level. This needs to change. Schools should be hearing what the industry is crying out for and addressing those needs. But this would require a major rethink of the process-based approach to visual effects education that is today’s standard. But that is another topic entirely.

Is there another way we can do more without hiring more crew and without increasing work hours? Yes! Absolutely yes, yes YES!– if we understand, appreciate and leverage human factors. Human factors are not merely an inconvenience. Aside from being very real, tangible factors in a production budget, they are also potential tools that can propel a crew from merely a room full of numbered, faceless, demoralized, exhausted employees into a high-functioning team of awesomeness. Let me give you some examples.

1. Training, skills and experience.

It seems pretty obvious that someone with specific training, skills and experience would be placed in a position which is relevant to their training, skills and experience. This should be the most basic and obvious way to positively utilize human factors in a production environment. Sadly I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen this basic principle ignored. And every time I witness a decision like this it is a mystery to me that I can only chalk up to either ignorance, incompetence or sabotage. I mean, what other explanation can there be? I have seen kick-ass character animators asked to model, texture and light on a project that desperately needed kick-ass character animators. I have seen highly experienced senior artists put into junior positions to bolster output, when the team has no leadership; when that artist, while they will certainly increase the team output through their own efforts, could easily improve the whole team output through leadership. These are just two examples of many such infractions of this ridiculously simple and obvious approach.

2. Interests and passion

Every person in the world has interests and passion. This is particularly applicable to visual effects artists. They are a self-selecting group who have gone through blood, sweat and tears to get where they are because they are excited about making visual effects. Maybe because the first time they saw Star Wars it changed their life forever or maybe because they just love the idea of creating anything they can imagine.

One may argue that individual interest and passion are personal and don’t belong in a professional environment. After all, we are professionals doing a professional job as outlined by the client and our contract, aren’t we? Well sure we are. But what is wrong with finding out what really drives someone and then trying to fit them into a job where they do THAT? There is nothing wrong with it. Sure it takes a little extra work. It takes interest in your crew members, and it takes compassion and most importantly it takes an understanding that this creative person, if put in a position to follow their dreams, is not merely going to do tasks according to budget. They are going to become a high-performing artist. High-performing artists typically outstrip the output of other by two or threefold. That seems like a reasonably good reason to try to do this. Of course you won’t be able to do this for everyone. After all, every job needs to be filled and not everybody is going to fit into their dream position. You’ll be luck if you can get a handful of artists into jobs like that. But where you can, you’ll see a marked improvement in your actuals.

3. Personality

Once again, the expectation among business people is that personality is not a factor. These are professional people and should behave professionally at all times leaving any personality quirks at home. These are artists, people, and many of them are barely out of highschool. Yes, with experience, most of them will acquire the skills to maintain courteous, professional, bland, dry relationships. Personality is a factor. Once again, if it is not addressed, it can become a problem. If it is leveraged, it can become an asset. Some people like to work alone, others are social and prefer to be in big rooms filled with people. Some are touchy about break times and labour rights, others could hardly care less. I am always very careful about how I ask artists to work extra hours and I am always surprised by how more than half of them say something like “awesome, I need the overtime for my trip to Azerbaijan!” Some of them love to listen to raucous music while the work and others need silence to focus. Often all it takes to solve issues is for artists to know that there is some attempt to address their personality concerns. Working within a team can create unexpected stresses, like the time I had two artist on my team of similar but different religion and found them getting almost into shouting matches of certain interpretations. If they kept this to themselves after hours that would be none of my business, but when it happens in the production room within earshot of the crew, it is an issue I need to deal with. I asked the respective department supers to deal with it at first, but both of them seemed anxious to continue the conversation so we just ended up putting them on different shifts. One hopes the artists will be mature enough to take a hint, but there reason for being here is, after all, rooted in passion. This must be recognized. And it’s definitely not all bad. Some times it can be amusing or even awesome. I had one amazing character animator who was a bit of a clown. He was so clowny that it could get really annoying at times. But when things got tough, when deadlines loomed and things were broken, he was still keeping smiles on peoples’ faces. This trait that I at first thought was disruptive came to be something that I treasured. It was a big learning experience for me about personality.

4. Family life

This one is also pretty confounding. Nearly every non-artist manager, supervisor and producer I have met says all the right words. Things like “work-life balance is very important” and “Your family comes first” and “of course we care about you”. But the actions seldom match the words. It comes down to this; when anyone starts a family, their priorities shift pretty fast. The moment they meet their baby, most people realize that there are things far greater in life than motion pictures and making cool stuff on a computer. Far, far far greater. The wise manager will accommodate this shift or risk losing seasoned artists. I know this because I have seen it many times. I have seen it coming many times and warned many managers who, predictably, go to the artist and say the right words but don’t follow up with the right actions. Visual effects artists are smart people. It doesn’t take them very long to realize that their manager is full of shit.

An artist usually starts a family after they are established in the industry, after they have enough experience to be sure of consistent employment. In other words, once they become valuable to the industry. Who wants to lose a valuable team member like that? Well nobody of course. But for some reason managers continue to mandate ridiculous work hours for these people. Team members with spouses and babies become demoralized much more quickly than those without. This is because they know they are letting their family down. They know they are sacrificing not only their own time, but the time that belongs to their family as well. And after a little while, the stresses will start to build up at home. External pressure from a spouse or child is one of the most powerful enemies of the high-performing team and should be avoided if at all possible. Because the end result is going to be the loss of that artist. If it can’t be avoided, be sure to reward not only the artist, but the family as well. And thank them for their patience. Thanks cost so very little and reap so much goodwill. Be very careful about those team members with families, especially those with young families.

5. Fatigue and illness

Yeah, we all hate it when critical artists are sick. We all try to build teams with redundancy that will see us past issues like that, but since it is difficult to fill a team with a high level of skill and experience, sometimes we just can’t. What can we possibly do about this human factor? Ummmmm we could plan ahead? You see, the problem here is that when a job is bid out, a certain number of crew days are assigned to a certain number of task days. Accountants then expect a certain number of crew members to take a certain number of days to complete the task. But if someone is away for a day or two sick, then that throws everything off. For some reason, illness is often not factored in, and the rest of the crew has to pick up the slack, usually with overtime. Why did this happen? Were we unaware that someone in the crew might get sick? Hasn’t this ever happened before? Of course it has, a thousand times. So what is the problem? This one is shockingly easy to get by. I know that for a five month project, probably every member of my crew is going to need two sick days. It works out to about that anyway. Some folks take a few more, some take none at all. I put that in my schedule so that when it happens, I am neither surprised nor worried about my schedule. I say “OK, see you tomorrow,” and hang up the phone. Then my boss or producer looks at me like I’m crazy and tries to manufacture a non-existent emergency. Come on, people, every other industry in the world deals with illness without blinking.

Now let’s talk about fatigue. This one is much worse and more insidious than illness. Illness is short term, but fatigue can have long-term effects on the health of your company. Fatigue affects team output and morale in the short term and your ability to hire in the long term. These artists move from company to company where they meet other artists and talk about their experiences at previous studios. There is a whole community of chit-chat going on there where they are talking about you and whether you are an amazing, understanding employer or a total nob. Word gets around pretty fast. If you are the kind of company that constantly runs in emergency mode, burns through artists like toilet paper and ignores human factors like fatigue, the best artists just will not come and work for you. There is plenty of other work out there, why would they want to put themselves through that nonsense? Allowing your crew members to reach that point of diminished returns where no amount of sleep will recharge costs you enormously. It increases the cost of visual effects dramatically and it damages your employment reputation almost irreparably. That’s a sad place to be. If you can’t get the good artists, you have to fill in with less experienced artists. The cost of making visual effects goes up yet again. One can hardly wonder at the collapse of so many vfx studios in recent years. The more difficult the business becomes, the tighter their grip on employees, which is actually the worst, most counter-productive thing they can do. Happy, well-rested artists are motivated and highly productive resulting in less costly visual effects. It’s pretty simple when you think about it.

6. Vacation and time off

Here’s one that has always made me laugh.

“I need two weeks off in six months to go to a wedding in Italy.”

“We can’t give you those two weeks off.”

“Why not, there’s no project scheduled yet.”

“That’s why we can’t give you the time off. We don’t know what’s happening in six months.”

What a joke. My standard reply to this conversation, which I have personally had about a hundred times for myself and on behalf of my crew members, goes like this: “Well you do know one thing that’s happening in six months. I won’t be here.”

The mere idea that a company is incapable of planning for a vacation six months in advance is ludicrous. Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, is irreplaceable in a production pipeline, even with no notice. If they are, then some manager isn’t doing a very good job. People quit without notice and the job gets done. People get in car accidents and end up in the hospital and the job gets done. Are we really going to tell people that with six months of notice, we are not capable of planning around a two-week absence for a project that isn’t even yet slated?

Once again, every other industry in the world is capable of planning and delivering around vacations with much less than six months notice, so what seems to be the problem in visual effects? It is almost like visual effects lives in some sort of alternate universe where everything is unpredictable and there is a constant state of emergency. I have a saying that I have carried with me through many harrying projects. “I don’t do emergencies.” I don’t. I plan, I execute, and I remain flexible. I deliver on time usually with minimal overtime, I respect human factors and in this way many of the crew I have worked with have become my very good friends. I treasure this far more than the illusion of glamor that comes from working on a feature film.

So let’s sum up.

For whatever reasons, the visual effects industry began with a can-do attitude that turned into a must-do emergency-mode attitude. This has become a culture that still exists today; a sick one. A shift in the availability and cost of commercial grade software tools made the business of visual effects accessible to small companies which started a bidding war. The race to the bottom put huge pressure on over-bloated companies to reduce costs. Unimaginative managers thought that squeezing the golden goose in a bench-vise was a good way to get it to poop more gold out but are now learning the hard way that maybe this approach isn’t working so well. Maybe the visual effects industry needs to look around at other industries to find out how they have been so stable and successful for decades. Maybe they will discover that these industries rarely do emergencies or crazy hours and that they simply work with human factors rather than ignoring them. Maybe there is a future where visual effects artists will just go to work and then go home to their families, like almost everybody else in the world. Maybe in this magical pie-in-the-sky world companies have business models that work through realistic bidding and by taking care of their most valuable assets, their employees. Oh, what a world that would be.