The dreaded “crunch-time email”

Work/life-balance has been a hot topic in the games industry in the last month, following publication of a pretty horrendous recruitment guide and rant by well-known games developer Alex St John. The attitudes in his articles have been rightly criticised by much of the games industry, and this critique will feel particularly familiar to anyone who has worked in VFX:

There is an embedded and endemic problem that is rooted in the upper echelons of game development production and management. It is not a new one: unrealistic expectations are set upon shifting sands, time frames are squeezed, deliver at all costs is the mentality. Typically, this will manifest itself as a team meeting or an apologetic email, followed by a “we’re all in this together” rally cry and a promise of free dinner if you work after 9pm (Need to leave at 8.30? Sorry mate, sort yourself out, your time isn’t worth dinner).

Employees are then expected to reorganise their own lives to accommodate their newly produced goalposts. Those who don’t “pull their weight” in this regard are passively ostracised as “not being team players”. But, as the craft of game development matures, so do those who practice it. With that we cease to be a population of devil-may-care 20 somethings with no strings attached. We grow up.

The “dreaded crunch-time email” is a well-known phenomenon in VFX. However nicely-worded the email might be (and they generally are), the core message is the same: “It’s time to put your personal life on hold. Don’t take holidays. Don’t make plans. For the next few months, this project is the only thing that should matter to you. We need everyone to go the extra mile, to put in 110%, to put their foot on the gas, to push harder than ever, to go above-and-beyond. And if everyone could start working extra hours, that would be great”.

Whenever a “crunch-time email” goes out, it’s hard for those affected to avoid asking questions:

  • How did we get into this situation, where the only solution is to ask whole teams to give up their personal time?
  • Is this the first time it has happened, or is it becoming a regular occurrence at the end of each project?
  • Are there changes that could be made to prevent this from happening again?
  • Which is a higher priority for the company I work for – employees’ work/life balance, or keeping the clients happy?

We’re not naïve to the workings of the VFX industry. It’s a challenging industry, and sometimes things go wrong. However, we would assert that crunch-time is almost always a sign of a deeper problem somewhere else – broken technology, poor scheduling, under-resourcing, unrealistic client expectations, and so on. Pressuring people to work extra hours only hides the problem – it doesn’t fix it. If a company is regularly asking you to work extra hours, then we think it’s only fair that they should tell you what lessons they have learned and what changes they plan to make to prevent it from happening again. We believe that it’s in every VFX company’s interests to have workers that feel rested and inspired. We believe that it’s in every VFX company’s interests to have workers that are able to develop a rich variety of personal interests and experiences outside of work all year round.

The VFX branch of BECTU stands together with anyone who wants to see an improvement in VFX working conditions. Since BECTU started pressuring the major VFX companies on working conditions, we’ve seen a number of improvements at MPC & Framestore. These changes have been needed for a long time, and are to be applauded. However, the phenomenon of the crunch-time email endures in the wider VFX industry, with members telling us of one such call for 6- and 7-day weeks being sent out at Double Negative just last week. As long as crunch-time emails continue, we will be here pressing for improvements to VFX working conditions. Over 20% of all VFX workers in Soho are now BECTU members. Do you want to see crunch-time emails become a thing of the past? Then join us. Come along to a Thursday lunchtime gathering, and find out about our efforts in other companies.

What is your spare time worth to you?