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The Trouble with Overtime

Why Overtime in VFX and Animation is a Really Bad Idea.

I can’t help smiling (on the outside) when I discuss this topic with certain visual effects production people, especially the managers who haven’t had to do 12 – 18 hours straight busting their brain at a computer work station for five months of 6-day weeks. You know…the ones who work 40 hour weeks, including 1.5 hour lunches each day.  The conversation will usually revolve around me expounding upon the financial, morale, health and work-quality benefits that come with working an 8 hour day followed by someone else saying something like “Onset crew works 14 hours a day, so what’s your problem?” or “We’ll never make our deadlines without working 14 hours a day.” Or “We (can’t afford) (don’t have the power for) (can’t fit in) any more workstations so everybody has to work longer hours.” Or “You can’t predict what is going to change, so we need to be able to increase capacity quickly. OT is the best way to do that.” We’ll examine all four of these in a moment, but first let’s chat about the concept of overtime.

Overtime is not the problem per se. Most visual effects & animation employers actually pay you more to work past 8 hours. That’s the law anyway although some choose to reinterpret labour law so as not to pay for overtime. This is illegal in Vancouver, Canada. (Digital visual effects artists are not “high tech employees”) But getting paid time-and-a-half or double time (or sometimes triple to work on statutory holidays) can be pretty great when you get a big fat paycheck far beyond your needs. Many artists actually like piling on the OT, especially when they are single, without family obligations and in serious need of a sports car or a boat or a condo of their own.

The problem arises when excessive OT becomes the normal day.  It is even worse when there is no extra pay for the extended day. But let’s pretend everybody honours labour law and pays for overtime. It’s still a bad idea to make OT the normal day. Here’s why: The average human can work about five to six hours straight without fatiguing. That’s OK. There’s lunch break and then there’s a cup of afternoon coffee to power through to the end of the day. The worker goes home, enjoys life, rests and comes back to work the next day ready to put in a full 8 hours of hard work again. This is great for employers because the math is easy. This person will output 1 task hour per hour worked. So if I have a task that is budgeted at 8 hours, I can, on average, probably get it done by an intermediate-level artist or T.D. in about a day.

Now let’s throw OT into the mix.

Maybe one day the project starts going a little sideways, so we put the crew on 10 hour days. At first, we are getting 10 task hours per 11 hours of pay.

“Wait a minute, didn’t you say “10 hour days?”

Why yes I did. But for those last two hours, I have to pay time and a half. Essentially 3 hours of pay. So my 10 hour day costs me 11 hours. Even with my crew working at full efficiency, the cost of making visual effects has suddenly risen by 10%. That is a lot of money when profit margins are as narrow as they are today. It is in my company’s interest to get people off OT as soon as possible and get back to 1 hour of pay for 1 hour of completed task. If I can do that, I’m probably on a good path. Short stints of OT to correct for unforeseen circumstances are expensive but can work. It takes a pretty wide-awake production team to see the problems coming early enough to keep the OT in short bursts, but it is completely worth it.

So far the math has been pretty simple, but here’s where it starts to get interesting. The following results come from analysis of several of my own production budgets and schedules.

The Cost of Fatigue

If I keep my crews on 10 hour days for about three weeks, things start to change. You see, each time someone works 2 extra hours, that’s 2 hours less with family, friends, relaxing and resting. The effect of reduced rest is cumulative.  The crew member begins to fatigue. Fatigue begins to manifest itself in several ways. First of all, morale begins to drop. Crew begin realizing that their management team don’t really care about their health. Ultimately, they recognize that they are not really being treated with respect by their employer. The result is that their respect for the employer begins to wane. Crew begin arriving a few minutes late, leaving a few minutes early. They might take slightly longer breaks or spend a little extra time surfing the web or taking lunch than they ought to. They start grumbling to each other about it, rightly so, and might even start covering for each other leaving early or starting late. Why should they care about the company when it obviously doesn’t care about them? Shortly, the cumulative result of all these adjustments nearly negates the overtime, so I am now paying 11 hours for perhaps 8 hours of work. The math? Cost of VFX has risen by another 27%.

But let’s carry on with our scenario. The crew continues to fatigue. Shortly we are beginning to see more and more errors in the work; errors mean more iterations, longer dailies for everyone and longer times to final. It’s a snowball effect. The worse it gets, the worse it gets. My numbers show me that artists on a sustained 10-hour schedule will soon be able to accomplish only about 5.5 hours of task per 11 hours of pay. Congratulations to me, I have managed to double the cost of making visual effects and slow down production, exactly the opposite of what I intended.

If, instead of 10 hour days, we go to 12 hour or 14 hour days, the same thing will happen only quicker. We have seen this time and time again over project after project. If you’re a seasoned production artist or T.D. you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So why on earth do people keep running crews on crazy overtime? It’s a bit of a mystery. The fact is some companies are already taking the hint. Some (few) studios in town don’t permit overtime. Those studios are doing well.

But let’s get back to the arguments on the other side. Let me remind you:

1. “Onset crew works 14 hours a day, so what’s your problem?”

Nonsense. Usually something like this will be uttered by a person who has never experienced both work environments or by someone who is trying to manipulate you into compliance with guilt or the implication that you don’t know how to work hard. It is true that both onset and post production people work hard. But it is impossible to equate the onset experience with the workstation experience. Onset work has been described as “Hours of boredom followed by minutes of sheer panic.” Onset, long hours works because production is paying for all their equipment whether they are using it or not. It actually makes financial sense. Onset, the crew usually have long breaks between tasks. Never mind the fact that most people who have worked on set for many years are walking zombies with no family life or friends outside of their work, but that is another discussion.
Working in post-production requires intense focus and attention all workday long. It is actually impossible for a digital artist or TD to remain focused much longer than 8 hours a day. To suggest or imply that not working 14 hours in some way indicates the ability or commitment of the individual is ludicrous and rather ignorant.

2. “We’ll never make our deadlines without working 14 hours a day.”

Well guess what, Jimmy? Every other industry IN THE WORLD makes their deadlines in 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, so what’s your excuse? If the production team is consistently unable to accomplish this, it means there’s something seriously wrong with the production team. We know this because we have managed and completed many projects on 8 hour days successfully and with a good financial outcome. It takes great planning, situational awareness and awesome team communication but that’s all. One of the big problems with vfx these days is that too many teams are managed by artists instead of managers. This is not good. One of the really big things needing change in the industry is that talented, deserving senior artists looking to manage teams need to get real team management and leadership training. I have seen bright, talented, super nice people turn into angry, demoralized assholes because they had no clue how to lead a team and consequently failed miserably.  This belief in overtime as the only solution is what we call “The Culture of Crisis”.  Too many people believe production needs to be in constant panic, therefore they make it so.  All it takes to change is the belief that production not only does not need to be in crisis, but can not be, in order to succeed.  If a company were to absolutely ban overtime on a project, the team would find a way to deliver without overtime.  I know.  I’ve done it several times.

3. “We (can’t afford) (don’t have the power for) (can’t fit in) any more workstations so everybody has to work longer hours.”

If you don’t have the capacity for bigger shows, then grow your capacity or don’t do bigger shows. If your business model is to burn out artists to meet your financial goals you are going to go out of business sooner or later. Word gets out pretty fast. And although you can always hire enthusiastic, naïve junior artists, you can’t make feature films with nothing but enthusiastic, naïve junior artists.  Remember that, although a junior costs 1/3 as much as a senior, a senior can easily do 5 to 10X the work of a junior.  So juniors are actually much more expensive.

4. “We can’t predict what is going to change in a( visual effects ) (games) (animation) project, so we need to be able to increase capacity quickly. OT is the best way to do that.”

This is actually a valid remark. It’s true, you can’t predict everything that’s going to change. But you CAN build a flexible plan that is nearly immune to “Scope creep”. A quick increase in capacity through short stints of OT is perfectly fine as well. The danger comes when the long days become standard rather than short-term measures to deal with an unexpected turn.
The math does not lie. Reducing or eliminating overtime should be of prime importance to all digital media studios. There is every benefit to this and absolutely no benefit to a normalized OT day. If OT is the norm, then everybody, absolutely everybody, suffers from the artist all the way up to the client.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this change has already begun among smart, little companies and will continue until the digital media industries mature and stabilize, following normal, good business practices like limited OT. It makes great sense.

Now why don’t you go ahead and be a part of the future? Limit overtime. Kill it if you can. Your crew will love you for it.

copyright Nicholas Boughen, 2017

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