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Work/Life: The 40 Hour Work Week


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The headline for this post probably strikes most of you as a joke — at least those of you working in motion design in the US, and especially those of you working in LA or NYC.

But it’s no joke to J.D. Meier, a Principal Project Manager at Microsoft for over 10 years, who uses the 40 hour work week as his barometer for project management success. As he says on his blog:

In my experience, a 40 hour work week is a benchmark of the most effective teams.  They have work-life balance.  They have buffer to respond to opportunity and to deal with crunches.

Meier has overseen projects large and small, with budgets ranging from zero to over a million dollars. A self-avowed workaholic accustomed to slaving over 100 hours a week — and enjoying it — he finally came to realize that such an approach was not only unsustainable for himself, it was also unsustainable for Microsoft.

Inviting inefficiency to tea

Without the constraint of a 40 hour work week, all sorts of inefficiencies become the norm. It’s as though they’re being invited to tea — and to supper and a late-night snack.

The primary problem, as Meier describes it, is the tendency to “throw hours” at projects. When the sky is the limit, why not schedule another meeting? Why not ask everyone to stay late? Why not hire more freelancers and expect them to work weekends, too?

According to Meier, some of the issues that arise from the 60-80 hour work week mentality include:

  • Nothing is a priority because everything is a priority.
  • Working faster and harder to make up for bad planning
  • Lots of meetings because there’s more time to throw at them
  • Lack of priorities because there is no forcing function like time
  • Lack of focus because of a lack of priorities and throwing time at problems
  • Bad estimation because it’s spread out over too much work or too much time or is too ambitious
  • Bad resource planning because of bad estimates and lack of clarity or feedback loops on results
    [For the full list, see Meier's post.]

In business terms, this spells doom. Every bullet point above saps profit from the budget. It’s no wonder that so many motion studios complain of razor thin profit margins. They’re probably the same studios ordering pizza every night for their dedicated staff.

The return on reduction

When limiting yourself (and your team) to a 40 hour work week, you earn the following:

  • Increased focus
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Improved physical and mental health
  • More accurate estimates, due to a clearer understanding of accurate throughput and capacity
  • More focused communication, both internally and externally
  • Better control over profit margins

Putting a 40 hour cap on the week means there can be no waste. It means working smarter. It means zeroing in on the 20% of output that constitutes 80% of a project’s value. It means testing and refining ideas instead of dumping an army of employees on the first sketch.

Efficiency is your friend

One key note that needs to be underlined: Implementing a 40 hour work week mentality isn’t easy. You must commit to it with monastic focus and understand that reducing hours means drastically improving efficiency.

There’s that “E” word again: Efficiency. For many creatives, it’s a four letter word, banned from their vocabularies. Efficiency is for factories and robots, not artists.

But it’s efficiency that allows you to focus your entire self on a project. It’s efficiency that makes flow possible, that magical headspace when creativity and effort are aligned and productivity explodes.

It’s efficiency, in short, that makes work fun.

“Yeah, but that’s Microsoft. We’re different.”

That’s right. Creative services studios are even more sensitive to inefficiencies than most other industries.

At the heart of every studio — and every talented individual — is the creative spirit. It is a fragile and temperamental thing. It’s also the most valuable asset any studio can hope to claim. The “normal” demands of a 60-80 hour mentality threaten to tear that precious spirit to shreds.

And if you talk to anyone who’s burned out in this field (you don’t have to look far), you’ll find the creative spirit is not a thing easily repaired. Motion design infamously “eats the young” because the young burn out and never return, looking for careers that protect their talents instead of exploiting them to exhaustion.

Guilty as charged

I want to take a moment to confess that I’ve leaned on the 60-80 hour mentality as both an individual and as a manager. I’ve often responded to big challenges with bigger time sheets, believing it was the only way.

Like Meier, I like work. I do it a lot, and I’ve never burned out. And like so many Americans, I’ve prided myself on the number of hours I’ve logged while simultaneously playing the martyr.

As I head into my mid-30s and start to make plans for a family, I realize this must stop. It’s not only unhealthy for me, it’s unhealthy for those with whom I work.

And it’s bad business, plain and simple.

The “That’s Impossible” response

Maybe you’re a producer or creative director reading this, shaking your head and thinking, “40 hours!? That’s impossible.”

And now for a trip down memory lane, back to my post as Executive Creative Director at a fledgling studio in Austin. During initial client meetings or at the end of a pitch, I knew damn well when I was getting our studio into hot water. I knew when the budget was too low, the timeline too short and the expectations too high.

Of course, we’d always agree to do the work anyway. We’d tell ourselves, “We need this. Without this, we won’t be able to pay everyone’s salaries. Without this, our portfolio will stagnate. Without this, our competition will slaughter us.”

Some of those fears were well-founded. Some weren’t. The point is that we created a scenario in which the only solution was to say “yes” and commit ourselves to the consequences. The result was often a skinny profit margin, which of course only perpetuated the cycle. The whole thing started to feel like a long, magnificent death spiral.

Moving past impossible

Thankfully, we broke the cycle. We realized that we needed to ruthlessly focus on our core strengths. That meant turning down work. It meant dropping a couple offerings from our website, no matter how cool or promising they sounded. It also meant potentially trimming staff (which thankfully never happened).

On the flip side, we could sleep at night. We resumed normal lives. Sure, we pulled occasional all-nighters, but they weren’t vital to the success of the business. We did them because they were fun, and they were always optional.

The “You Can’t Schedule Creativity” response

Another rebuttal to the 40 hour approach goes as follows: Creativity is a fickle friend. You can’t schedule bursts of inspiration. You can’t put genius on the clock. So how in the world can you expect great work to get done within a tidy, 40-hour box?

This entire line of thinking — this myth that creativity requires a muse, and that this muse cannot keep appointments — is a natural byproduct of believing that one must work late nights and weekends in order for things to get done. It’s what happens when you become accustomed to working without time constraints.

Ever notice how inspiration strikes three hours before a deadline? Ever entered the “zone” with just an hour left and been amazed at how much you were able to accomplish?

Time, in limited quantities, is an incredible motivator. While you can’t schedule a great idea, you can benefit immensely from adding structure to your week. Try it.

Worms, be fruitful and multiply!

Obviously, this is a huge can of worms I’m opening here. A fully fleshed out proposal for applying Meier’s approach to creative services would take much more thought and testing than this meager blog post. And it’s not entirely up to the studios to “fix” a system that clearly needs some retooling. Everyone from the client down to the individual freelancer must play a part in reform.

I’m simply trying to challenge the notion that things are the way they are because that’s the way they have to be.

I’ve accepted that for a long time, but now I’m looking for alternatives. I’m looking for different perspectives. And so a software project manager’s ideas seem like as good a starting point as any.

Tell it like it is

How many hours do you work? What do you see as the challenges of a 40 hour mentality? Do you think you could, in theory at least, make a 40 hour work week a reality for yourself or your organization?

Devil’s advocates are welcome. Comment away!

For those who are interested, Meier uses the Agile system of project management. It’s specifically tailored to software development, but it’s worth checking out. The idea of iterative development, which Agile promotes, maps well to motion design, up to a point.

Posted on 12 October 2011 |

64 thoughts on “Work/Life: The 40 Hour Work Week

  1. Nice post. I agree completely that the endless workweek encourages bad practices. When your time isn’t valuable, you waste it. And there’s a lot of romantic mythology built up around superheroic martyr hours. Nuts to that.

    I’ve been having success maintaining a 40 (ok, 45) hour week the past several years. As an employee, you have to ask for it, and stand by that, politely but firmly. (Charging overtime helps. Not charging overtime is, frankly, asking to be robbed.) You also have to deliver, of course. But I’m more productive now that I think hard about how I spend my time. 

    • I agree. It’s really on you, the individual, to set realistic timelines early on. When I was younger I would agree to projects and not really ever analyze the actual timeline, or deliverables. If it sounded cool, I would do it. Nowadays, I really do my homework before I book, making sure I’m not getting caught in some perfect storm of dysfunctionality. 

  2. THANK YOU. 

    The logic in this approach is overwhelming. The exposure of myths about creative work, right on. 

    Let’s not go on being impressed by 80 hour work weeks. Let’s see consistently long days for what they are- a sign of inefficiency. 

  3. I am curious to what extent the work schedule of motion graphics works grows out of the college experience of everyone involved, as opposed to actual technical constraints. 

    When I was in college, I majored in biology, and minored in Near Eastern history. As a junior, I lived with a chemistry major, and as a senior, I lived with a literature major. 

    The work schedule of my second roommate, and the work schedule of my peers in the history classes, mirrored the late nights and long hours seen in the motion graphics industry. After all, with shifting deadlines and few time constraints, why not just write a paper at 3AM? I saw the same thing with my artist friends, who rarely had classes before noon, and succeed by doing their work whenever they saw fit.

    Conversely, the work schedule of my chemist roommate, my other science friends, and myself much more closely resembled that the limited, but intense, 40 hour work week. We had very constrained access to laboratories, timed tests instead of papers, and problem sets labeled with ideal time limits for each question. Barring extreme circumstances, tests would not be rescheduled, especially lab practicals. Ultimately, we did our work according to the strictly bounded times devised by our professors. 

    I am not judging one better than the other, merely observing we all culturally internalized the schedule of our primary course load. When taking humanities classes, the science kids would schedule their paper writing times with strict beginnings and ends, and when taking science classes, the humanities kids would usually end up doing their problem sets one question at a time, spread out over a range of days and times. 

    Most relevant to this Motionographer post, we all seem to have carried the work style we learned in school into our professional lives. Even though I now work in a more creative industry where people have more flexible schedules, I set strict time limits for all my productivity, even when I don’t have to. And my art friends, many of whom bagged it in and went to law school, constantly petition their superiors for more malleable schedules. 

    Is this a phenomena that you have also observed? What defines the work schedule more, cultural norms or fixed technical issues like render times and time zone differences? Did any of you move from a very structured industry with a 9-6 schedule into the more fluid scheduling of motion graphics? If so, how did you make the change, and do you feel more or less productive? 

    Again, I am not claiming one method is better than the other. I am just curious whether the scheduling seen in motion graphics exists because structural elements in the industry demand it, or because it is an emergent property from a community of people who independently learned to do their work in this style. 

    Thanks for everyone’s help. Cheers. 

  4. Great point here Justin. I’ll play devil’s advocate only by saying that Microsoft is its own client. They are trying to make products for themselves. Shipping, in that case, is on terms they themselves define. In most motion studios there is an external client who sets the schedule, the budget and can drag their feet in delivering feedback and approvals. Management is not blameless in accepting the clients’ terms and should not put up with scope creep or changing parameters. But all too often, our job is to do everything the client requests, period.

    • A valid point from the devil’s advocate POV. I would retort by saying if we set up parameters with our clients telling them when we need feedback in order to meet deadlines to prevent them from dragging their feet. By charging overages for them missing their deadlines in providing feedback we charge them, hopefully preventing them from doing the same thing in the future. If we continue to give in to everything the client wants and when they want it while not charging them accordingly, then this indeed will continue to thwart our goal of 40 hour work weeks.

    • Valid counter point Bran, however I have to disagree. To me there is a failure in Client Management in what you’re describing as well. Clients are not buying slaves…we are not manufacturers on an assembly line where the client dictates and we take orders. Motion Design is not a commodity.

      They’re buying our creative minds, and ultimately the vision that we bring to a project. To me, that also ultimately means that there should be an acceptable level of Studio-side management of the Client and their expectations. That’s the primary role of a Project Manager in most agencies. But even lacking a PM, this needs to happen to prevent the client from inadvertently causing harm to the artists and the studio on a grander level (AKA… you can’t allow a CLIENT to burn out the studio.) 

      And in my experience, any client that is heavily demanding usually pays
      the least, creates an moving target for success, and wastes almost every
      resource until the profit margin has disappeared. It’s never easy, but I’ve walked away from clients (or “fired them”) specifically because they approach me with a “my way or the highway” approach.

      I’ve found time and time again that the short term panic behind loosing the money is never enough to have suffered the aftermath of a horrible client.

      • Thank you Brian and David. I don’t disagree at all. I have just been in countless situations where this attitude actually doesn’t get from the trenches into the clients’ ears and pocketbooks. 

        • Well, if they’re paying a flat rate, what care they if you work all weekend? Clients love hearing how incredibly hard you worked to get it done. It’s flattering to them.

          It’s hard to push back on clients, no doubt. You have to lay the groundwork early to protect yourself and the process.

          • A flat rate should be initially detailed with specific rounds of revisions outlined and agreed upon before any work commences. A section of the contract should also outline overages for additional revisions and unexpected rush fees applying to any fire drills the client may put a vendor through. Contracts should cover any and all bases that may put us in harms way. Any and I mean anything a client asks us for that creates an “above and beyond” situation should be compensated for. Bottom line. Otherwise, we are driving the cost of our services down in a world where cost of living only goes up. 

      • I agree and at the same time mildly disagree with this. Clients are buying our creativity & technical savvy to realize their visions. But where do you draw the line on telling a client what he or she may mor may not do? Normally if a project is getting out of hand I can reign in a client by reminding them of their budget, or their deadline. But if they say the budget doesn’t matter, or the deadline can be extended I’m obliged to accomodate them. The fact is if I say no flat out they’re going to find someone else who will say yes. Ultimately my most demanding clients push me to present my best work. and pay well. 

    • Another thing to remember is the amount of work that Microsoft sources out. I worked at Studios for a bit. Most of the producers aren’t even there half the time. 9 out of ten times while a project will be handled in house, it will be handled by a preferred vendor working at studios. I would imagine that you could achieve a 40 hour work week working as a microsoft blue badge employee, because it’s going to be the outside vendor who is pushing 100+ hours. Ask the guys who are putting together MGX or CES how long their work week is.

  5. Great post Justin! For one thing I’m glad you are thinking of having a family;). There are so many inefficiencies in this industry. I’m always flabbergasted at the amount of rotoscoping that takes place, because footage was ill-shot and ill-planned from the beginning.  Creative thinking is about establishing good creative habits and being inquisitive and cultured. Not all of which happens behind a computer station.

  6. This makes total sense. Where I’ve been working the past year they more times than none have us in 40 hours per week. We never miss deadlines, no one is burned out, our time is managed well and almost everyone seems happy. I’ve seen both sides of the game I’ve worked the 70 hour work weeks and it does suck it hurts your social/ family life, you hate what your doing after awhile and it especially sucks when you get the whole ” well you don’t get OT per say but we will buy you pizza or chipotle for your time” which sucks cause now your becoming over weight from lack of movement + bad dieting and your mentally exhausted.

    Moral of the story 40 hours is enough time if managed well.
    http://www.JonathanWinbush.com
    http://www.Sixteenxnine.net

  7. Great thoughts about a subject that gets talked about very little.

    I work a bit more than 40 hours a week at a small agency in the southeast and for what we do, it’s enough.  However, I think if I was doing my own thing or working as a smaller motion studio or collective it would be a bit harder to put the projects down at 40 and take a break.

    I definitely think we can learn alot from developers and their mindset, I’ve been following the guys at 37signals (Ruby On Rails, Basecamp) for a while and I try to absorb/filter what they have to say and apply it to my design and motion process.

    Has anyone read Re-Work by 37Signals? What did you think?

  8. I’ll play devil’s advocate as well. The priority is to have a successful business, but as well a lot of people want to have a cool business that is fun to work at and a place where you can be creatively experimental. I’ve definitely seen a broad range of working styles in motion graphics and I’ve known people who have families and who always worked very efficiently so that they could make it out on time. I also noticed that that method didn’t allow for much interaction between coworkers or exploring and experimenting with ideas….. so I think like anything it needs to be balanced so keep in mind that when thinking about efficiency you should also think about the atmosphere that you may or may not be sacrificing.

  9. Excellent. I think it’s important to stress that young people need to protect themselves from the 80 hour work week and practice good time management to prevent inevitable burn out. I think sometimes life in the studio becomes social life too and maybe that leads to bad habits, such as staying until midnight regardless of necessity. I agree it’s a personal responsibility but maybe needs to be re-enforced by producers and those in leadership roles.

  10. great post! 9 times out of 10 I feel that the 80 hrs a week comes from the studio creating a “fun environment” where everyone stays late and just hangs out. It isn’t so much about getting a project done, often people will be hanging out drinking and playing video games because they’re lonely and don’t have families. ESPECIALLY in new york. I think its great to hang out with co-workers, but I don’t want to do it at work, I’d rather go somewhere else. So, if I finish up my work at 7 and leave, I’m looked at as not really experimenting and making my project as good as it could be. 

    This thinking really needs to stop. As you get older you realize, experimenting and doing really great work comes from having a life OUTSIDE of work.

  11. I find this post hilarious as i just finished a freelance project w/ microsoft. It was one the worst experiences i’ve ever had as they were guilty of everything Meier describes as the cause of the 60-80hr work week. They had no sense of scope, project management, deadlines, ect…. They were making design changes 4 weeks after they signed off the final comps, decided they wanted the video in a different format after final delivery. It was beyond anyones worst nightmare. After my brief encounter w/ MS and watching them throw money around like it was trash, I now understand why they’re losing 5 billions dollars a quarter on bing and trashing a OS that was once considered a good / stable product. 

    • Maybe the branding / marketing department hasn’t read the software department’s memos? That can happen in lots of smaller organizations as well. The right hand may not know what the left hand is doing. Or a CD may ask for things a client doesn’t need and a producer doesn’t know about… happens.

  12. Nice post. 

    I work a 40-hour week as a staff AD at an LA motion-graphics shop. I had to ask for it and, frankly, wasn’t really “brave” enough to ask for it until I had a kid who needed my attention more than my shop’s clients did. 

    I’m very protective of my time. When I’m at work, I’m at work. I don’t screw around. I don’t take 2 hour lunches. I don’t check Twitter 17 times a day. And I do good work (I think so, at least. They’ve put up with my hours for several years now).

    I feel bad when I see plenty of people in my shop work longer hours but I can’t justify staying late & sacrificing time with my kid just to make me feel less guilty about going home at a reasonable hour. 

    It’s lame that I need a kid to ask for a life in addition to my job and I think shops need to expect people without kids to want a life as well. 

  13. good article. try as i might, 40/week with any consistency is impossible. i do try to unplug completely during my down time which helps me regroup. my vice, bicycle racing requires it.

  14. Great post, I have a six month old baby and it definitively make you see this sort of things. I found that the need of having to work less time made me indeed more efficient, it’s all about those extra things you o during your day that kill hours, like coffee, long lunches or well.. reading motionographer during work hours.

  15. Great article Justin, thanks for posting. I totally relate to this article as i have a family with two kids and often have to think about work/life balance.. I recently witnessed few of my really talented designer/animator friends quit their career’s to simply want to spend more time with their families. I am just wondering how is the work hours and structure of the relatable industries like; architecture and fashion. I believe with everyone in this industry have to force ourselves to have a normal work hours and life otherwise it will be always called  “famously”  -  “eats the young” industry. 

  16. Forwarded, by request, from my loving wife:

    As a motion graphics “widow” I have to wholeheartedly agree with the
    writer on this one.  As someone also employed in the entertainment
    industry in LA, I get it… the mentality, the drive, the compulsion to
    work harder and longer.  I know that everyone else is working long hours
    so my husband must be a martyr to compete.  I know that he has to miss
    family gatherings, holidays and even time with with me for work, but it
    should be once in awhile, not a regular occurrence.  I know that the
    work is mostly interesting, sometimes fun and sometimes challenging, but
    it doesn’t need to be mostly deadlines.  As an educated and reasonable
    person, I cannot believe the amount of wasted time, money and health
    that are poured into these projects.  In any other industry, even in other
    sectors of entertainment, this would be unacceptable to the bottom line
    and to morale.  Why should motion graphics play by different rules?  I
    don’t know what it’s like to run a small studio or work in one, and I
    know there is pressure exerted on all sides.  As in other systemic
    problems (the economy, educational systems, health care) no one thing is
    the problem and no one person or idea is going to suddenly be the
    savior.  But at the very least, a professional, mature conversation such
    as this needs to be happening in order for mentality to shift.  I can’t
    imagine anyone wanting things to stay as they are– clients, producers
    and freelancers alike.

  17. I work in the social games industry. Games that are running live, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they never end. Our ‘clients’ are millions all over the world that look for small bouts of entertainment *all the time.* Imagine hundreds of employees constantly on a crunch-content-train. I’ve seen co-workers literally collapse from exhaustion and be hospitalized just because the company says it needs to keep cranking out more and more artwork and code to satisfy its ‘customers.’

    It’s sad to say but employees who have children get to use those children as an excuse to leave early, and in most cases no one will bat an eye. But for the rest of the people who don’t have children (like myself), it sounds less meaningful or serious to leave your job to ‘do laundry’ or ‘grocery shopping’ at what could be deemed a normal hour, since we have no other time to do it.

     I’m always fearful for the younger employees that have just gotten out of college. No one is there to tell you working so hard is beyond unhealthy, and that their talents are being exploited. I’ve seen co-workers calculate out their hours with their salary wage (read as: no over-time) and come to realize they’re making $2-3 an hour.

    I could only dream of working 40 hours a week. The only reason why I’d say, ‘That’s Impossible’ as per written above, is because being part of a large company, you come to realization that you just might be quite expendable.

    “You won’t work over 40-45 hours a week? Fine. We’ll fire you and hire someone newer/younger that isn’t burnt out just yet.” Lather, rinse repeat. And nowadays, most people wouldn’t want to risk their job in this economy where finding a new job is damn near impossible.

    I truly hope one day that my entire industry opens its eyes up to this article to working regular hours. It’s been drowning in bad practices for far too many years. The lawsuits that occasionally pop up at other game companies are proof enough.

  18. Using Microsoft as an example is probably one of the worst companies to shine the spotlight on.  How much has their market cap crashed over the last 10 years?  What if anything have they done of much interest or success in the last 10 years?  

    As a freelancer, I enjoy what I do and I don’t mind long hours for the right client.  If the job/client sucks, they get an 8 hour day, and I do the best job I can do in those hours.  If the client is awesome and the job is fun, I’ve done 18 hour days without a thought and doing amazing work.  I’ve also done great work for great clients that adhere to an 8 hour day.

    This is the path I chose, and I can change it at any moment I choose.

  19. I LOVE this article. Thank you for posting it. 
    One thing that constantly arises in my life is my social life vs my motion graphics career. 
    Sometimes I feel bad for going to see my friends/family when in the back of my mind I think i should be doing a tutorial or learning something new. 

    I shouldn’t feel bad. Ultimately it is my friends and family that inspire me and that then transcends to my working environment and motion graphics.

    It definitely worries me that being a workaholic is seen as an impressive trait at some companies. 
    I think the people that should be praised are the ones that put down their pens on time and invite everyone out for an after work drink.

    I am very lucky to work for a company that don’t ever keep me in at weekends/past my set working hours and really encourage socialising outside of the office. 

  20. In my experience here in the UK, I’ve never had to or been expected to work a 60 hour week, nor would I.  If that were the case, there’s something seriously wrong, like I’m in way over my head or there’s little or no project management or there’s a huge amount of time wasted through dicking around online or with others in the studio.  Granted, occasionally I’ll put in a couple of 12hr+  days when the job at the time requires it, but that’s rare and can often be self-defeating as fatigue and boredom create mistakes on top of mistakes and that’s a vicious spiral in itself.

    I guess what it comes down to is using time in a far more efficient manner – if you have to sit at your desk for 60+ hours per week, every week, to get your work done, either the boss is giving you too much to do or you’re just wasting time.

    While I do absolutely love what I do and I enjoy going to work every day, any time I’ve found myself putting in excessive hours, it’s created resentment against the job/client/agency at the time.  Ultimately, I work to live, I don’t live to work. 

    I’d also recommend people read Niel Fiore’s The Now Habit which perfectly outlines how inefficient workaholics actually are and shows how to get more done in less time, along the lines of the saying “if you want something done, give it to the busiest guy…”

  21. I rarely put in more than 40 hours a week. I meet all the deadlines and plan ahead for projects that seem daunting. I truly believe this should, and can be the norm. Creativity needs down-time. Being away from projects can only improve them when you get back into it the next day with determiniation and focus.

  22. Should send this article to the owners and managers from some of the most high profile companies we see here on Motionographer. I will not mention names but we very well know who they are.

  23. Once I worked on a company in LA (Hollywood) that the owner (famous for opening credits) just had a newborn soon. (1 week old). We worked on a project that the norm was 12/16 hrs day. On the next day if you did not get there by 10 am he would be pissed and look at you with a angry face.
    At some point late early morning I looked at him on the eyes and said, why don’t you go home and enjoy your son and support your wife. He looked puzzled at me.
    I worked there for 2 weeks freelancing, at the end of the project I was very sick. They were very “nice” and gave me a $200 bonus at the end of the gig. I never worked for them again, no matter how cool the gig was. Talk about sweatshop mentality….Still happens big time.

  24. I’ve seen the system from numerous angles: as an on-site freelancer, remote freelancer, on-site project lead/manager, and owner of my own minimal studio that hires freelancers and works directly with clients & agencies… and I feel like the blame can be placed at three key places:

    1. When freelancers don’t charge overtime, then there is minimal negative consequence for relying on it from the studio’s perspective.

    2. Producers & PMs need to plan a schedule with the ironclad assumption that everyone is only working 40 hours a week. Few do (refer to item #1).

    3. And probably the biggest offender and most difficult to remedy: Whomever is designing boards needs to be very aware of the schedule and budget and take these things into consideration regarding their designs. The problem is that around 2004ish the industry was rapidly growing and production pipelines became more segmented as teams and studios ballooned. Often the person who’s doing the boards were just really good at making pretty, colorful, overly Baroque-inspired images and knew almost nothing about animation or how to actually pull off what was depicted in their styleframes (aside from an intro to AE class they took at Art Center). And so began what I call “the great styleframe arms race of 2004-2007″ where styleframes would have more and more elements and usually just junk in frame, along with the implication, or outright depiction, of rendered 3D in there as well. Like “oh I have a small area of negative space over here, let me occupy it with flourishes and chaotic triangles and paint splatters”. And then someone has to actually animate all 162 of those insignificant background elements you spent 3 minutes adding to your photoshop file. But it’ll look so cool on your website, bro. And to win bids, everyone had to start doing this. Snake eating its own tail. Anyways, the industry seemed to have collectively and fully learned its lesson by around 2008, but the damage had been done in terms of bloating client expectations. The “do whatever it takes to win a bid” styleframe mentality is a foolish approach that destroys profit margins.

    • I have to argue with your 3rd point here. I assure you there wasn’t a collective competition with us designers to overcomplicate or embellish styleframes because of some made up arms race. Your first 2 points were very spot on but I would have left out your third point or find a little bit more concrete evidence that said arms race actually happened.

      I am a designer and I have always considered the budget, deadline, and scope of project before “preparing for the arms race.”

    • Also, I’d love to add that if at any point a designer is going too far off the deep end it’s a creative director’s job to reign them in. It sounds like to me that wherever you worked, not sure as I don’t know who you are, the creative director and producer didn’t do their jobs properly.

      • Brian, I completely agree about the CD and producer’s responsibility to police overambitious styleframes, but that refers to items #1 & 2, making a fun endless loop. 

        And obviously the arms race thing doesn’t apply to literally every designer that was doing boards at the time.

        • I think it’s great having an open and civil discussion. I was sure you weren’t wanting to generalize and were being a tad sarcastic in reference to your point. I am simply saying whose job it is to to what in our industry. There is nothing like a well oiled machine. When it’s rusty and doesn’t move quite like it should. We have problems.

  25. Compelling & provocative! Since I left corporate land just over 2 years ago, one of my promises was to myself was to work less…& more flexibly. I’ve MOSTLY been true to that.

  26. Theres a great book called re:work that sums up a lot of this and why its more efficient to not burn the midnight oil among other things. Id say a good amount of the gripes that inspired this article are because of studios and its owners too scared or greeedy to stand up to clients with a structured plan that details why its more efficient to not work long hours, and freelancers too scared or disorganized to set their own work limitations. At the end of the day as long as everyones creating a service or product the clients cant live without, setting limitations shouldnt be an issue. 

    • PJ, I don’t know you personally, but I know you worked at Stardust & now are Laundry. I’d be curious if there’s any difference in the amount of hours you generally worked at Stardust & if you work more/less doing your own thing at Laundry. I think you do great work & to be honest, I’d be shocked if you only work 40 hours a week.

      I also read re:work. It really is a great book & well worth the time reading it, regardless of what field your in.

      • John, when I was working with PJ over at Stardust back in the day, I was shocked at how fast he would crank out designs. A little bit of advice he gave me was to not labor over every detail, giving you more time later to labor over every detail. This all speaks to his comment about “as long as everyone’s creating a service or product the clients can’t live without…” If you are toiling endlessly on inefficiencies, you will burn out, and the ability to be in the moment and create amazing work with less effort will suffer.

      • to put it in perspective, I worked till 2 or 3 in the morning at stardust at least 3 times a week. At laundry ive prob worked til 3 am once this year and we often leave between 7 or 8. Their volume of work and consequent billing is much higher than laundrys at stardust as they are much farhter along but we definitely plan more than my producers did for me there, and instead of 20 sets of boards on a pitch we do 3 or 4. Also if we dont think we can get something done we just wont do it, or require more time and money to complete what is required. Our goal is not to bump chests because we pulled all nighters together, but to not rush where possible to eliminate mistakes. Theres times we work late but its very strategic and usually towards the end of projects, particularly the music videos.

  27. In the video game industry this would never fly.
    One of the only times I had a 40 hour work week was 3 months in the 12 + years I worked in the field. After that it was crunch for a year without weekends until ship, and this was DLC not even the full product.

    It is not possible to create a great AAA game without at least 4-6 month of crunch. The key word here is “great”. You can maybe make a mediocre game with 40-hour work weeks and lower overhead. A good game. You might even profit slightly above cost but it’ll never work for a great game.

    I worked on one of the biggest (and most lucrative) titles last year and I has to walk into a buzzsaw to finish it.

    The only way to break the cycle is the Wargames adage “The only winning move is not to play”. Go into some social games outfit, B+ game studio, or teach. Not much else you can do since the way games are made is you pretty much have to build from the ground up if it’s an original title. Hell, even if it’s a sequel the studio has to “1-up” themselves above the last one and the competition.

    • I don’t understand this response at all. You say it’s not possible for a video-game developer to make successful games with its workers working 40-hr. weeks, but you’re not explaining why. That may the habit of game developers, but from everything I’ve read about that industry, it has worse burnout of its workers and retention rates than the vfx / motion graphics industry. I don’t want to spam this comment thread, but I linked to a 2004 whitepaper in comments above that I think is very relevant.

      Couldn’t the schedule be stretched to accommodate a longer build? If not, why? The crunch might make the game more profitable, but is that really the determinant of success?1-upping the competition is not my goal at all, and I’m super happy not to play that game. 

      • Sorry for the late reply and short post. These are what I feel are the reasons why we’re in a mess.

        Video games surprisingly is still a young industry, at least compared to movies or TV. At the beginning there was really no need for content, it was 2 paddles and a ball. After a period of time though, starting away the ps2 days at least IMO, content and “pushing the envelope” with graphics and gameplay had become the standard on which most games were successful. The genre pushing games even received it’s own label, “AAA”.

        Game makers build a game from the ground up and it’s HELL to get that going. An analogy would be that every time someone shot a movie or tv show they would have to build the cameras and film completely from scratch with little previous knowledge and film the movie.

        So, as for scheduling..for a AAA original IP game, we sort of just go in blind. We might have an idea about some gameplay we would like to try, environments, characters, and level design but I would say, if it’s a original IP, not a sequel. that is trying to do better than the “last guy” and break new ground, scheduling can’t really be granular enough to get away from any sort of crunch.

        Hell, I know people who work on the upcoming Uncharted 3. They work for one of the best game companies in the world, and they just finished 4+ MONTHS OF CRUNCH.

        Even yearly SPORTS games, genres you would think would be pretty damn static, have crunches. They have to innovate or die.

        Re: Profit. It is the be-all-and-end-all in games especially ones that have budgets of up to 150+ million or so with a marketing budget to match. They have to be successful of the franchise dies, and there are massive lay-off or shuttering of studios.

        One of the most critically famous games of all time: Shadow of the Colossus, only sold 100k units at launch. Horrible sales, the the team went defunct for a long time.

        The real problem is this though:

        Cultural cache: as in the tens of thousands of art, programming, and design students they pump out of the “game schools” every year that want to get your job: and they will work INSANE hours practically for free to do get in the door..

        Why hire an experienced (and “expensive”) dev where you can just throw a bunch of bodies at it with a lead of two to
        whip them and then let them go at the end of the project? Burn and churn!

        If you want to go indie, and get away from the behemoths and publish on something like iTunes: good luck. The top 3 or 4 companies with the marketing muscle make the lion share (70-80 percent) of the profits. Why do you think EA bought Popcap for 450 million?? You’ll most likely drown with the 15,000 games that are already on there to make a decent living.

        That is in a nutshell why I think it’ll be very, very hard to stop crunch in the industry.

        • Thanks for the responses. You should definitely check out the IGDA’s 2004 whitepaper and look up the EA spouse story. If 4 months of crunch time isn’t enough to motivate game developers into wanting to unionize, I’m not sure how that culture can change… Good luck!

  28. People tend to believe that creative talent is limitless like a person’s imagination. But EVERYTHING has limits–when was the last time you expected yourself to suddenly have the brain power to jump through a quantum string’s multiple dimensions? As such, sometimes knowing the limits gives you more power to actually achieve more in a shorter period of time. Some of us are not great designers, some of us are geniuses, but no one is going to be able to achieve more than they have the ability to. Meaning: get it done and stop wasting time convincing yourself you can make that lower 3rd the best thing since apple pie. If you want to be great, go out and cure cancer. I got better shit to do.

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