Visual Effects Artists are Not High Tech Professionals.

Here in British Columbia, Canada, there is a special employment arrangement for people who fit into a category called the “High Technology Professional”. Under this category, 40 hour work weeks, standard overtime pay and statutory holidays do not apply. Daily overtime is only paid after 12 hours, the work week can be more than 40 hours and the employer can adjust the work schedule without a written request. The work schedule for each day doesn’t have to be specified. In other words, at 4pm on a Friday, the employer can demand that you to work until midnight, and also Saturday and Sunday without notice. It is as though labour standards have been suspended for high technology professionals, as if they do not share the same rights to life balance and liberty as the rest of us. But that is another discussion.

Most of us know from personal experience that the average worker cannot possibly be productive on a regular schedule more than 8 hours a day 5 days a week. In fact, we know that people are only really productive for about 5 hours a day. 2 pm rolls around and everyone is yawning, grabbing a coffee and powering through the rest of the day at half speed. And that is just a regular 8 hour day. Past 8 hours, workers quickly reach a point of diminished returns; the point at which, despite longer hours, employees are producing less quantity at decreased quality due to fatigue. But the problem is actually far more serious. This Aggregate data shows that there is a 40% increased risk of Coronary Heart Disease in anyone working more than eight hours a day. Setting the health issue aside for a moment and just looking at productivity, an employee may be working 12 hours, but only generating 6 hours’ worth of useful product. This happens in Visual Effects far too often.

As a matter of fact, there are some employers right here in town who would like you to believe that visual effects workers, in other words, CG artists, TDs, compositors, editors, producers and coordinators can all be categorized as high tech professionals and can therefore be treated under the “high tech professional” rules. They will tell you the rules are a grey area; that it’s not well defined and is up for interpretation. This is false. THIS-IS-FALSE.

Below is a crystal clear description from the Government of British Columbia Labour Standards Branch, of what constitutes a high technology professional:

A “high technology professional” is an employee who:

• Analyzes, designs or develops information systems based on computer or other technologies;

• Analyzes, designs or develops scientific or technological products, materials, devices or processes;

• Carries out scientific research and experimental development; or

• Is engaged as a sales or marketing professional in relation to the above services, systems, products or research.

So let’s look at this definition one point at a time.

1. Does a visual effects artist analyze, design or develop information systems based on computer or other technologies? No, of course not. The artist uses commercially available tools developed by others. Others tools may be developed in house—by non-artists, not by the artist. If using commercial software meant being a high tech professional, then anyone using Word and Excel would also fall into this category which they clearly do not.

2. Does a visual effects artist analyze, design or develop scientific or technological products, materials, devices or processes? Certainly not with the possible exception of pipeline TDs and shader writers. They make pictures for the entertainment industry using commercially available software.

3. Does a visual effects artist carry out scientific research and experimental development? Again, no, of course not; again with the possible exception of pipeline TDs and shader writers.

4. Is a visual effects artist engaged as a sales or marketing professional in relation to the above services, systems, product or research? Obviously not. So one wonders how and why some employers choose to interpret the high tech professional category to include visual effects people. Simply put, they get to make you work longer while paying you less. In the case of visual effects artists, this is flatly illegal.

But here is the real irony. Those producers who try to use the “high tech professional” trick are doing it because they believe it will lower the cost of making visual effects. They think that making artists work 12 hours a day means they will get 50% more work done each day, and if they can invoke the high tech professional category, they get that extra 50% for free. The numbers, however, differ from this ill-informed and naïve opinion.

Over the course of my career, I have kept all the stats on my projects including the bids and actuals. This means I know how much time I thought it should take to accomplish every task in the production. It also means know how much time it actually took to accomplish every task in the production. Additionally, I know how many hours each person worked on any given day during the project. On top of this statistical data, I have my own years of experience working long hours and I know how difficult it becomes to complete a task while fatigued and stewing about the family time I was sacrificing for little or no extra pay. After boiling down all the data, here is the conclusion that simple math brought me to:

1. If a visual effects artist works for 8 hours a day, they do about 8 hours of work according to expectations.

2. If a visual effects artist works for 10 hours a day they do about 10 hours of work…for a short time.

3. After about three weeks of 10 hour days, most artists are taking nearly twice as long to complete any given task due to fatigue and decreased morale. They make more mistakes and take longer to correct them. They arrive a few minutes later, leave a few minutes earlier, take slightly longer lunches, spend a little more time surfing the internet. They do all this because they need those mental breaks, not because they are lazy. They do it because their employer is burning them out and has communicated to them that it has no respect for their life balance, fatigue level or health. Understand that the MBA or P.A. cum Producer who is demanding these hours has likely never had to be creative for 10 or 12 hours straight in front of a monitor, five or six or even seven days a week. They have no idea what it takes out of people.

So back to the numbers; after 3 weeks of 10 hour days, during which I am paying 2 hours of overtime daily, I am only getting 5 hours’ worth of completed tasks as bid.

Let’s do a little math. Let’s say an artist is getting paid $30/hr. If they work 8 hours, they get paid $240 and I get 8 hours of completed tasks. If they work 10 hours, at first they get $330 and I get 10 hours of completed tasks. VFX labour is now 10% more expensive. But soon, artists are working so slowly that, although I am paying them $330 for the day, I am only getting 5 hours of completed tasks. Why? It is because there are so many errors that an 8 hour task is now taking 16 hours to complete. So now I am paying $330 for 5 hours, or to put it another way $660 to get 10 bid hours of work done.

Let’s compare

-$240 for 8 hours = $30/hr of completed task.

-$660 for 10 hours = $66/hr of completed task.

Congratulate me. Through my ignorance of human factors, I have more than doubled the cost of VFX labour by trying to reduce it. One can hardly wonder why VFX margins are so low.

These are real numbers folks, and they are only for 10 hour days. Imagine the cost of visual effects at studios where a 12 hour day is standard.

Now I am not suggesting any kind of labour action against the offending studios. There is a better way to handle the problem and that is through education. I think visual effects artists should be informed about local labour standards and about the demands of the employer when they enter a new workplace so they know what they are getting into. They should be aware exactly what sort of people run the place. On a short contract, it might not be a big deal. Sometimes, when you’re just starting out, you don’t care. It can be exciting and fun to put in all those hours when it means you’re going to see your name in the credits for the first time. Some people actually like those hours (not many). But eventually, nearly everyone acquires other priorities like spouse and children, and discovers that there is much, much more to life than working brutal hours for unappreciative producers. And believe me; appreciative producers do not do this to their crews.

So please, know your labour rights.

And let me leave you with this question: Most industries in the world manage to get business done in 8 hours a day, 5 days a week on deadline and to budget. What is the deal with the film industry? In any other business, the people at the top would be fired for gross mismanagement.

– CG Masters is a next-generation training facility focused on generating top-quality digital media artists who are as well versed in collaborative production operations as they are in tools. We believe in skills, not grades.-

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