It’s okay to tell your clients to fuck off.
Last year, an artist at a world-renown VFX company committed suicide, in large part due to a toxic work environment, 80-hour work weeks, and an indemnity clause that didn’t allow him to quit without a severe financial penalty.
The other employees of this post production house, in an effort to gild over the tragedy, now have in their email signatures: “In the interests of protecting the health and wellbeing of our staff, we are encouraging everyone to log off after work wherever possible. Therefore, emails received outside of New York working hours may be responded to the next working day. We hope you support this step — helping us create a better work/life balance for everyone.”
That word, “Gilding”, gained its notoriety from the Mark Twain book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, in reference to the thin veneer of gold that masks severe wealth inequality and class stratification. I’ve been recently reading about labor struggles during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s: the fight for the 40-hour work week, reforms in workplace safety conditions, and efforts to take power back from an increasingly elite, corrupt, and sequestered ruling class that owned monopolies on most industries. The minor concessions and (sometimes pyrrhic) victories that heralded the end of this era were largely won by strong labor organizations, from the more entrenched Knights of Labor to the confrontational IWW. It took decades of massive industry-wide strikes, often shutting down crucial infrastructure for entire cities, to enact even modest quality-of-life reforms.
We no longer have strong labor organizations in the United States — a result of half a century of legislation designed to chip away at union power, vilification of the boogieman of “socialism” in the media, and corporate action to discourage workers from collective bargaining. We’re in a new Gilded Age, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the post-production world.
Strangely enough, Film and TV holds one of the last great bastions of union power in the country, in the labor organizations of the various parts of its production crew. Union film shoots, despite long working hours, have strict, enforceable rules regarding overtime pay, work breaks, and turnaround time between working days. Strikes from the writers union still have the ability to shut down our entire entertainment sector (remember how shitty season 2 of Heroes was back in the 00s?).
But that labor power doesn’t translate to post-production and VFX — mostly because the modern post industry, along with computers, came about at a time when the strength of collective bargaining was at its most-stifled. Standard practices amongst competing companies were codified before workers were able to say “hey, we’d prefer to not work inhumane 80-hour work weeks, thanks.” Competition, that oft-touted strength of American Democracy™, allows edit houses, advertising agencies, and CG effects companies to undercut each other at the expense of their employee’s work-life balance. There’s no collective voice to draw a line in the sand. There are only drastic acts, like last year’s suicide, to push back on the slide to rock-bottom.
As for that VFX house, now trying to reform their employee work culture? I’ve worked for them in the past, work with them on occasion presently (the advertising and post-production world is small), and may work for them in the future — because the problem we face isn’t with this specific company, it’s endemic to the industry.
As a Post/VFX Producer, I’m expected to be on call most evenings and some weekends. Editors and creative artists have a larger workload and longer working hours than me. Assistant editors and junior artists have it even worse than them (for less pay). Late nights (read: clients in your office until 2am or later) are common, and often baked into the job description. “Crunch,” a cutesy term for the severe overwork that comes from unrealistic deadlines, is an ingrained facet of the advertising, film VFX, and video game design industries.
Post production isn’t a special, unique career path. Advertising clients are more than capable of retooling project deadlines to match the reality of a healthy work schedule. There’s no real reason why VFX artists should be expected to work longer hours than, say, a tax accountant. No demands for better working conditions are unreasonable — but union organization is necessary to shepherd them into reality, because the owners and high-level managers of post houses sure as hell won’t prioritize your 8-hour workday over their profit margins.
Iceland recently ran a study on the effectiveness of 4-day work weeks, with a 3-day weekend for rest, relaxation, and presumably a quick soak in the Blue Lagoon. It resulted in more-energized, less-stressed employees, and an increase in productivity across all sectors of the economy they tested. We’re not there yet, because there’s no unified voice in our country asking for it. But it’s on all of us to speak up in the meantime.
It shouldn’t take the fallout from a suicide to mandate humane working conditions. It should only take a collective push.