Providing a sustainable work/life balance is an ongoing topic of discussion in the VFX industry, and while there may be no one-size-fits-all solution that works for every studio or artist, it's easy to see why the dialogue continues. The work and time demands of this industry can be immensely challenging, and everyone has seen the impact that it can have on artists, as well as how that spreads out to the wider culture and output of a studio.
Quite likely, many us of have personally felt burned out. While I believe that your early years in the industry are the time to grind hard and soak up all of the knowledge and experience you can, there's only so hard that you can push before you wear down.
Finding my Path
Priorities change, too. When I found someone that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and start a family with, my old lifestyle of pouring in excessive hours into work became unsustainable.
I began flip-flopping between opportunities, sometimes trying to stay relevant by working on a big movie or at a big studio, but other times burning out and jumping ship to a smaller studio or simply taking unsustainable amounts of time off. With the latter route, I didn't feel like I was keeping up with the industry, plus some of those companies were volatile and went out of business. I had a contentious three years of trying to figure it all out. Near the end of that run, while working on a major feature at a large studio, I felt like I had no control over what was going on and I really didn’t like how the leadership was both managing client and crew. Effectively, I didn’t really have any control over my hours and my creativity was limited.
While having our second kid, I tried to work from home for the summer. But right away, we landed a couple of shows and things escalated quickly. I got some office space at Lost Boys, where I was teaching, hired four people (two of them students), and then added two more after a couple of months. Just like that, I fell into a trap of not doing what I'd set out to do. I got caught up in the ambition of trying to do too much, and the habit of simply working without goals or intention. A lot of excitement was fueling everything.
I really wanted to be able to see my kids when they wake up and be home for dinner… but all of a sudden, I was running a company. Right then and there, I had to figure out a new ethos - something to drive this new path forward. I really believe in being intentional and not just doing things.
Seeking a Balance
I decided that the mentality of CVD VFX was, "Quality of work, quality of life." For us, that's not an empty promise or throwaway phrase: it's the driving force behind all of our decisions, and the formula I use to determine which work we're going to bring in-house. Sometimes this means if a project doesn't check these boxes, we have to turn the project down.
As a service provider, that's a tough thing to do. We want to be serving clients, and we want to build beneficial, long-term relationships with them. If we have full resources and can accommodate a 911 request, then we'll do it. Otherwise, I don't think it's worth the potential negative effects that can follow. I'm trying to not say "yes" all the time. That's not popular, but my goal with CVD VFX is longevity - and for me, longevity means not letting your staff get burned out, and making sure that everything that goes out the door is high-quality.
My goal of running home for dinner needs to run through to everyone at the studio - it can’t be one-sided. We have a really transparent floor at my studio, and when we're bidding on projects that might require a push, I talk to everybody and make sure that everybody is onboard. I think keeping everyone in the loop and really respecting their opinion is empowering as an artist, and my goal is that they feel respected and integral to the team.
While I've personally felt the effects of being burned out, I've also seen it in fellow artists and witnessed how that can derail a successful team. When work/life balance is constantly skewed towards work, people generally become unhappy and that effect spreads. You'll find that the culture of companies can change, and artists become migrant. You spend all of this time building a great team, but then effectively lose that team and have people jumping ship. You're going to have a lot of people searching for something better.
Stoking a Positive Culture
For me, maintaining a positive culture comes down to a few things. First, I try to have more than enough resources. Generally, the mentality isn't to do things faster or count on a late overtime push. We typically have a few projects on the go and can shift and refocus resources without hitting overtime. For the most part, we're able to navigate these situations without doing additional hours, and I'm pretty proud of it.
The main thing I've learned about that is that the studio has to stay small, so we can pivot. If we get too big, then it's hard to have that kind of control. When we're a small team, we can pick up two little sequences from Fargo or Westworld, and we can do it in a way that we can really sprint through instead of doing a long-haul overtime push. CVD VFX may never be huge as a result, but that's not our goal.
We also try to have a rolling culture that always celebrates people - be it milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, deliveries, or great work. I think it's critical to let people know that they're important and that they matter, and that it's more than just work for us. That's the way it needs to be. As a leader, I'm not looking for accolades. I'd rather focus the celebration and accolades on my team.
Lastly, I really try to work with our clients rather than be a yes-man. I believe that a leader needs to present ideas to conquer the challenges ahead of them, and the challenges in our case are company culture and timelines. I'm not trying to say no to clients, but I feel like there's a healthy relationship in saying, "Oh, that request causes a problem for us," and presenting alternative options to satisfy their needs.
If your clients respect you, then they will want to work with you and they’ll understand limitations. That's been exciting for me, trying to reshape the understanding of client relationships—that you can say no and present other solutions. At the end of the day, they may not realize the weight of their requests, and my hope is that our clients are working with us so that we can problem-solve solid solutions as opposed to just doing the notes verbatim.
Sustaining the Shift
I believe that if I stay true to the ethos and we do great work, then it's only going to attract clients that respect us and honor what we're all about. I'm always trying to figure it out, to be honest, and there may be bumps along the way—those are learning experiences, and we welcome any opportunity to hone this approach and better our methods.
It's just one model of putting artists first and maintaining a strong, positive culture for them to thrive in, but it's the one that works for us. We believe that it will be sustainable based on clients seeing the quality of our work and strength of our convictions.