Is it worth it working extreme hours all the time, day in day out? More importantly: Are you actually getting that much done during that time?
OVERTIME VS PRODUCTIVITY: PART 2
By Allan McKay
Originally Published: January 2011, Los Angeles
The reason this article was set in two parts was to put some focus on ways to work more productively through less work by applying some core rules to your day-to-day work life. However, the second half of this article is aimed more at looking how artists themselves can really step up and take more responsibility for the productivity in the workplace. Work faster and more efficiently, and explore ways to inspire themselves to be better at how they handle themselves day to day.
Evaluating Your Own Daily Productivity
Although it is easy to blame management for having to stay back to finish up shots, I think what is really important is for everyone to also look at themselves and evaluate how much work they are getting done day to day. What if a typical day consists of the artist coming in at 10:00 a.m., checking email, getting a coffee, catching up with buddies? By this stage it’s 11:30 a.m. and then they check their renders and do some work. Then they head to lunch. After coming back from lunch at 1:00 p.m., they browse web and email while their food settles. They resume work until the 3:00 p.m. coffee break — also do a game or two of ping pong or whatever else — work until 5:30 p.m. and head home.
This, of course, isn’t everybody and every work environment and individual is different. However in this scenario, if we look at how much work got done in a 10-hour day, it’s really closer to 5 or 6 hours per day of actual work. Of course, no one is expected to be glued to their screen, and I honestly think it’s far more healthy to have breaks and be relaxed. I tend to get a lot of my work done when I’m away from the computer sitting on a couch with my eyes closed (I’ll get to this). But it is important to first of all be aware that if you think it is unfair to work late hours, then you must also look at how much time you are actually spending on getting work done throughout the day.
There’s an interesting TED talk by Jason Fried on Why work doesn’t happen at work. It brings up a lot of valid points on why most of the time while we are at work we aren’t really getting that much done, and it’s more why we end up going home to get work done; and similarly, why most of our “ah hah” moments are probably on the toilet or our drive to work. This is because we have far too many distractions AT work, in addition to meetings, and various other productivity stoppers.
In 1991 H. Randolph Thomas did a case study on effects of scheduled overtime on labor periodically: Effects of Scheduled Overtime on Labor Productivity. What’s interesting is that for such a common subject as overtime, there really isn’t much data to track what is productive and what is destructive, and therefore there is no major case studies to demonstrate how destructive this can be.
The more you reflect on yourself day to day — the better you’re going to be at being productive. I regularly look at what I did each day and if I could have worked better; and if I did do something right, then how to replicate that more often. The same reason we have post mortem meetings to evaluate how a project went, I will regularly look at what I am doing and how I can work faster and more effectively. I also look at common problems that happen and how I can avoid them. I plan my days quite thoroughly before they begin, and I really focus prioritizing my tasks and communicating with the people around me. All of these things make for more efficient work. If I don’t think for some reason I will deliver on time, I do not wait to the last minute to let people know, I raise my hand right away so we have time to change our plans.
Something to live and die by is Parkinson’s Law. This really applies to your work day to day, but also sadly it can apply to the reviewing process of getting shots approved if clients have all the time in the world!
When you need to deliver for a deadline, usually you’re able to pull absolute miracles: knocking out work faster than usual, paying attention to what’s going on, chasing up renders to the compositors as soon as they’re ready, and checking if they need anything else. You’re really on the ball, making sure everything gets done. Most of the time we do not all work like this; however when we do, it’s amazing how much we get done. And this essentially is Parkinson’s Law.
What if you work like this all the time? I try to as often as I can. I usually have one goal in my mind when I walk into work in the morning, and that is to try to get out of work on time. So I am usually working as fast as I can and hard as I can.
Identifying Time Wasters
Every time a render is completed, check your renders. This is important, and it might take 3 minutes to load, but can save you a lot of grief. If you just forward your renders on saying that they’re done, then you’ll look stupid later when there are render issues. More importantly, if they are submitted and the compositor and no one checks them until right before the deadline, and at this stage the renders ARE incorrect, then you will have had all of this time to check your renders and fix the mistake before it became a big deal.
This is also why I say: Comp your work! It might mean you do not have to do more work as you realize that the stuff you’ve done so far is sufficient, and there’s no need for excess amounts of layers, etc. But also it lets you see your alphas and how things blend together, as a big and common mistake is holdouts rendered with alphas etc. If you find issues with your renders, and then go and fix them right away – then it’s not as big of a deal. Producer asks why your stuff isn’t there yet, you can say, “I noticed a mistake in the renders, I’ve fixed the mistake. It is now re-rendering, it will be done soon.” This shows initiative, you’ve gone and fixed the issue without anyone else needing to detect it. This is better than them coming back and saying your renders are wrong. Or like I mentioned, finding out after it is too late.
Usually I will submit a render, and then go and do a test render of a single frame. At least now my render is on the farm, so it’s doing its thing. But then I can basically render a single frame that might take a few minutes to render, but at least then it will tell me whether I might have rendered with the wrong render layers, or there are issues with the alphas, or other things that I might not have picked up. If your renders are pretty intense, you can always turn off GI and motion blur, reflections and other things that are likely not going to stop you from viewing noticeable errors in your render.
If I do in fact find a problem, then I can simply kill my render and re-submit it. This is important as it saves time, and also if you are rendering something that is incorrect, it’s better to kill it sooner so the farm isn’t wasting precious cycles that another artist could be using.
After I Submit a Render Do I: A) Go play ping-pong? B) Go get a coffee?
AKA: Workflow Tips
I will usually keep an eye on my renders too. That way if they are error-ing out, then I can notice ahead of time, rather than waiting for someone to tell me, after it has been crashing the farm for a good hour by starting and quitting my jobs. Also when 10-20 frames are rendered, I will try to check those rendered frames as a way to check whether my renders do in fact look correct.
These all might seem like a lot of work, but honestly they’re all background tasks that you can do while you are working. Just to keep an eye on things and make sure your work is in fact rendering correctly.
Be Your Own Manager
This might have come from running a studio for so long, but any time I am physically working on FX shots myself, I tend to keep an Excel sheet of every shot I’m working on, and its status. I also have another individual Excel sheet for every single shot of mine. I will basically write up a template of each, and then all the statuses along with a color for each, and then it’s easy for me to copy and paste different statuses as needed, to change things on the fly.
This again might seem like a lot of work, but in fact it’s so easy to work this way, and it saves me from having to store too much information in my head, or leave room for making mistakes. I update this Excel sheet with where my shots are at, and continue to go about my day. Also if compositors or producers need to know the status of my work, they’re able to just load up one of these sheets and take a look for themselves. Compositors will love you for this once they get used to your process, and producers with LOVE you for this, because essentially you’re speaking their language.
Going Down the Right Path the First Time: Make a Plan of Action
What you really want to do is plan your day: Write down on a piece of paper everything you need to do that day. By writing it down it’s there, it’s a physical action and it means you can’t forget it or mix up your priorities. It’s a constant reminder and it also means you have a plan.
The next step, is to prioritize these things. Essentially you want 2 primary goals you need done, and then you will put those that are really crucial for that day on a side list. This might be emails you need to send, chores like going to the post office, etc. Group all of the side chores up so that you’re doing them in a more effective manner. (i.e. If you have several phone calls to make, and emails to write, errands to run out of the office — group them together.) Ever notice how you’re able to knock emails out faster when you’re writing lots of them? Rather than writing one and then making a phone call and then writing the next; or constantly ducking out of the office all day long when you can get most of your errands done in one trip. The idea is to group things together, but more importantly get rid of them, so you can have a longer period of focus on your main 2 primary tasks.
Simple, but Effective — Yet Most People Remain Unorganized
The idea here is that you want to be in the zone. You want to be able to focus for a solid 3 hours at least, each day on one or two major tasks, and see them through. So that day you write down the two major things you want to achieve, and you set out to get those done, everything else is secondary and should be done in your downtime. Don’t start writing those emails you listed on your list to write, while you are animating or comping your shot. Wait until the shot is submitted for review, and then go do these things. Or better yet, come in earlier and get those things done and out of the way so they’re not your problem anymore.
Now how can you tell if you have written too much on your list of things to do? Here’s an interesting thing to try. Write down a realistic and slightly generous amount of time it will take to do each task. Writing an email is usually a 5-10 minute task, but creating a fireball for a specific shot could be 5-6 hours; phone calls can sometimes go for 30 minutes, etc. So if you have 5-10 things on your list, you might soon realize you have 2-3 days worth of work written down here. This is a good way to disqualify things off of your list. It’s also a great practice as you can quickly realize you might have 2-3 people’s workloads on your to-do list, and then you might need to notify your producer to ask for tasks to be taken off of your plate. For me learning to estimate time more accurately is very important, but it’s also fun. And the more you do it the better you get at judging how long something takes. You begin to realize things go wrong and you compensate for that.
The hardest part of having a to-do list — is actually marking things off of it. I still do this too, pushing items in my calendar forward a few days after I didn’t get to them the day before. It’s better to learn to schedule tasks more realistically so you know you actually can get these done.
A brilliant friend of mine showed me his productivity chart he has, which literally is a chart which outlines each day how successful he was at getting things done day to day. His game was to keep it at 100% consistently. In other words, he would never overburden his day with unrealistic expectations, because he knew it would lower his success rate when he wasn’t able to deliver.
Setting up Time Constraints: Timing Your Tasks
Probably one of the weirdest yet most important bits of advice I can at least suggest for people who are really getting into working more productively is: To get a stop watch. I own several, and I usually have one at my desk at any given time. Whenever I start something, I usually give myself a time to completion. So if I’m doing a shot, I might give myself 2 hours to do it. I will set my stop watch to 2 hours, and put it in front of me. This keeps me from getting distracted, and works far better than looking at the clock every 5 minutes. Each time you see the time ticking down it reminds you to get back onto your task, or to focus. Time tends to move slower for me when I’m more conscious about that time is ticking down, so I tend to get a LOT more done this way. It might sound quirky, but I live by this these days.
It also helps you work with estimating how long your tasks take to do. If you are finding that you think a shot is going to take 3 hours to do and it takes 6, then it will help you realize this and better gauge your estimates, which helps when you agree to do a job / task.
It’s been something I’ve done for probably two years now, and it’s changed my life. I’ve been hesitant to really mention it to people as it seems a little odd, however now a lot of colleagues of mine are doing exactly the same thing — and getting more work done.
I’ve also found this works with almost anything: There are times when I might think I don’t have time to write an email or clean my apartment, because I’m far too busy. But by setting a stop watch to 20 minutes, I know I consciously have 20 minutes to do this task. So I’m more willing to donate time to doing this if I know there’s a set amount of time I’m willing to spend. And surprisingly, all of these tasks I put off usually take a 5th the amount of time I expect when I stop procrastinating about them and actually do them.
Setting Productivity Reminders
If you like that one, then you should also try this. Set a reminder either on your phone or your Google calendar — or whatever you feel like — at set times of the day that you find you tend to get distracted and start checking your email. Set these reminders to be whatever you want, whether it’s “Get back to work” or “Are you working?” The idea is that at certain times of the day, your energy drops and you start to lose concentration. Even if you are working, you might just be clicking away and going down the wrong path. By setting little reminders it allows you to be more conscious of this, and look at what you’re doing. So for instance spending 20 minutes color correcting your pass you might realize you’re really not being productive and just zoning out, and this at least makes you aware that you need to look at the big picture and get back on track!
There’s also a cool little app you can purchase called RescueTime, which allows your computer to monitor what you’re doing and at the end of the day / week / month tell you how much time you spend in what application, doing what. Or how productive you were that day based on this data. You can also tell it to block distractions (you can specify what is a distraction) so that for the next 2 hours (or whatever you tell it to do), it will prevent you from browsing websites that are not work related, or loading up solitaire, or whatever common things distract you from your work. This can be really handy!
The idea here is not to block you from having fun by literally being tied to a ball and chain. But it is a way to make you more aware of working faster and more efficiently. This way rather than doing overtime, you can potentially go home early!
Work Day Countdown
Lastly, I have my iGoogle home set up with a widget that reoccurs every day counting down to 6:00 p.m. This is something that I keep on my laptop screen all day, ticking down. A boss might look at this and see it as a Fred Flintstone type of a dick move: having a clock count down how long you have left each day at work. But actually, I use this as a constant reminder that I have an X number of hours, minutes and seconds to achieve all of the tasks I have been assigned today, if I want to get out on time.
This helps keep me on track: Each time I see it, I stop messing around and focus on the quickest solution to a problem, rather than trying to find the fanciest.
Early Bird Formula
Something I recommend trying (and you will get mixed responses from management) is approaching them to see whether it’s possible for you to trial coming in 2 hours earlier than everyone else each day, and then potentially leaving 2 hours earlier, provided all of your work is done. The reason this is suggested is this: Have you noticed how when you come in to work on a weekend or stay back at night, you seem to get more done? Because work is less busy, there are fewer distractions and less chaos in general. So what if you came in at 8:00 a.m. instead of 10:00 a.m.?
Now, when you get in, rather than almost instantly having to check your renders and being whipped off to dailies, followed by chasing up shots and fixes, then lunch and dozens of other distractions — you actually get to come in early and, while no one else is there, sit and review your renders. And if there are errors, then you have time to actually fix those renders and resubmit to the farm before dailies. Better yet, in most cases, the farm is free at this hour because no one else is using it, so you have the entire farm to yourself to fix these things. And that way you’re able to tweak your work further before the review. But more importantly, there are far fewer distractions: No one is buzzing around or stressing you out, you have time to focus and get things done without the chaos that usually pursues in the mornings. Better yet, traffic is usually much lighter earlier in the day; and potentially, if you are leaving 2 hours earlier, traffic is lighter on the way home. Leaving early usually isn’t going to be a problem, as most reviews and meetings are done by 3:00 or 4:00 that day, and it’s usually the time of day that people’s energy and productivity begins to sink anyway.
However most producers and managers are not going to like this idea, just because there is potential for something to be overlooked if they agree to it. But just sell it to them as something to trial out for 2 weeks and see if you are in fact more productive during that time, and when they see that you are being more productive, push to make it a permanent change.
On Superman Returns, I and another colleague used to try to beat each other to work each morning, at a fairly insane time of 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. because it meant we were in sync with the other studios in LA and Canada; as well as giving us time to get stuff done before meetings and shooting sessions. Plus it meant I would feel less guilty about having extended lunches if I wanted to watch a movie at the theater in the public area of the studio.
Getting Your Work Right the First Time
A great approach to have is to begin to learn what the director and supervisor or client wants. If they approve one shot and decline another, look at what is different about these. This way, if they’re approving several and you notice similarities you can start to hone in on what exactly they like in a shot. Sometimes you might make a really amazing effect or animation, and they really prefer a subtle and less interesting or distracting work (because they may want the viewer’s eye to focus on something else). The more you study what this person approving your work likes — the more you can get your work approved the first time, and also gain their confidence and opinion, if later you want to suggest changes to future passes.
Find What THEY Like — not What YOU Like
Recently I worked for a studio in LA and a friend there was having issues with some of his passes not getting approved. The work looked really amazing but the director kept wanting fixes. So we sat down and rather than looking at the work, I decided to go through all the shots and look at which ones had been approved and which ones had been rejected. It quickly became obvious to me: Most of the ones the director approved were all far simpler and less interesting shots; that really what he wanted was subtlety and he didn’t want kickass effects that take your eye away from the car zooming past camera. By looking at what he was approving, it was easy to suggest to literally dumb down his shots. And guess what? They got approved.
This is a huge thing I learned when I was young: Begin to look at your work from the perspective of the client or producer, rather than as yourself. The more you put yourself in the position of the people who review the final output — and think from their perspective whether this is what they would want, rather than what you think is good — the more likely you are able to get an idea as to how it should look.
I’ve witnessed artists get emotional and refuse to change their work after there’s been a rather crazy design change to what they were doing, because they think it will ruin the shot. The truth is that you’re hired to deliver a shot specifically to what the client requested. So if they want to make this change that you feel isn’t really suitable, then sadly this should be something you need to do without an argument. After all, you’re being hired to supply a service. For the same reason if you were asked to paint a house pink, you’re not going to refuse because you disapprove of the color choice. It’s better to realize this now. A wise bit of advice I was given 20 years ago was, “If they have the money, then I sure as hell have the time!”
NOTE: Now keep in mind, if you disagree with the direction they’re going, once the show is over, you can always re-render out your work how you like it and throw that through the comp, so you have the look you’re after for your reel.
One really interesting thing I noticed when I’m reviewing animation or most people’s work — when I want to make sure the motion is correct — is: I will tend to review the work either at 6 fps or 60 fps. Your eye tends to pick up whether the motion is really real at extremely slow or fast speeds. It’s even more so for the higher frame rate. By looking at it too many times at the normal frame rate, after a while it becomes impossible to tell the difference. But watching at higher frame rates, you tend to pick up whether the motion is really correct or not.
Avoiding Distractions and Really Focusing
It’s important to consciously be aware of distractions. Whether it’s your girlfriend / boyfriend calling you at work all the time, or the person next to you talking all the time, or even producers / supervisors checking up on you one too many times a day. Or more likely, you browsing the web and sending out emails, or looking at cute kittens doing back flips on YouTube. Identify things that distract you and try to minimize how often they do.
Usually, even if I use MSN or Skype for work, I will close these down while I’m in my zone concentrating. When I’m concentrating and people send me links, I tend to open up notepad and copy and paste those links into the window. And throughout the day, I’ll add those links in there, and then when I do have some downtime I can look at what people are sending me, rather than either opening it on the spot or closing the window and not actually seeing whether it was relevant (or a cute fluffy kitten again). Other times, I’ll shoot those links and other things I need to follow up to my email, and then I can review them on my laptop or phone on my way home.
I pretty much carry my Bose QC15 headphones with me everywhere I go. I sometimes go as far as to sleep with them on, especially on flights. They’re comfortable and noise canceling, the sound quality is great and they’re easily portable and very durable. I find now that I concentrate far better with these on, even if I’m not listening to anything. I can have them on to block out 90% of the sound around me: People’s voices disappear, and if you’re in a city like New York or Chicago — with heavy traffic and constant road work outside your window — these puppies really help you focus. In addition to this, I wear them a lot when I don’t want to be disturbed, as people are less likely to bother you about minute non-work related things when you have your headphones on. So there are times of the day I will put these on as a way to prevent people from interrupting me. Much easier than having a do not disturb sign on the back of your head!
There are times that I need to think about how I’m going to approach a shot,or tackle a lot of stuff, or just plain blow off some steam. Depending on your personality type, some people find it easier to think on their feet, others with their eyes closed, etc. I’m lucky that most of the time when I’m working with others, I’m able to go lie down on a couch or even the floor without anyone getting upset that I’m not working. Most people are aware that you’re obviously lying down because you’re exhausted or you’re thinking about something, or both. On Priest, this would be something I would do a lot. With a pretty loud work environment, I would sometimes go lie down on a couch in another room for 5-6 minutes and think about how I’m going to do a shot; then come back to my desk with a clear plan, which otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been able to concentrate enough at my desk to do. Other people tend to want to go on a walk or talk to themselves to help this process. Or go into a confined space such as a bathroom stall to think. (Hey, when you’re under stress, we all have our quirky ways of dealing with stress and thought processes!) I’ve spoken to a lot of people about how they tend to concentrate and deal with stress, and these are the most common. Others are listening to classic music or, similarly, metal. Talking to yourself oddly can work very positively, as you’re able to basically have a discussion about how you want to do something, and essentially trick your brain into giving you some sort of solution. You’re just going to look really weird while you do this, of course!
The Element is a great book written by Ken Robinson, Ph.D. It describes a lot of really successful artists and individuals and their paths to success, but more importantly the different ways to which we think and learn and apply our individual skill sets. This is one of my favorites because everyone else seems to adapt to this approach almost instantly after they see it.
I tend not to work with high contrast colors. Initially this came from years ago reading that green tends to help you concentrate more (most libraries lamps are green because it’s easier on the eyes and causes less strain). Cooler colors tend to be easier to read and focus with. So whether I’m working on writing a book or working in 3D, I always change my colors to be easier ones to work with. As I previously mentioned, it seems almost viral. People comment my colors are weird, and then I explain to them why, and then within a day most people’s color schemes seem to change as well.
Because it makes so much sense, reading black and white just plain hurts the eyes, high contrast colors tend to make it harder to read, which is why people prefer a book lover reading their monitor. (I conformed to black and white for this article against my better judgement).
Having an Area to Escape To
This isn’t for everyone. When I moved into my new office, one of the first things I did was make sure I had a thinking chair. This ended up being a nice leather massage chair, but hey, it was something I wanted to try out. And it has really increased productivity. There’s a term in NLP called reframing, and it essentially applies to everything. If you’re in a funk, you need to go for a walk to snap out of it. It’s essentially about finding your refresh button and looking at things from a different perspective. I decided that no matter what sort of work I was doing, I wanted to have a comfortable area near my desk I could move over to and relax for a minute: out of my work seat, be able to comfortably review my work, think about it and decide on a good plan of action. This changed everything whenever I was in a bind or trying to figure something out.
I could take a step back and review my work, think about it, figure out solutions. I could also lean back and close my eyes and think about how I’m going to do a task or take a break at will. It gave me an opportunity to step back and look at the big picture, and when I would come back to my desk, I would have a solution. This is something I wanted to try, and it’s been a positive solution to giving me a chance to take a break without going far from my desk; to get out of my work posture and my locked train of thought.
Some interesting articles related to concentration, productivity and rest are listed below. Check out the one from a sleep researcher at Harvard on sleeping, on your thoughts, and on how to help your brain boost productivity by making connections and processing those thoughts more effectively while you sleep:
3. This is no news as to why Google employees, amongst many other more successful and radical companies, are essentially forming new age siestas: Google Sleep Pods
Handling Feedback: Getting Stuff Approved
Recently I worked at a studio with a friend and his project’s director kept sending some of his work back, because this reason or that. Rather than trying to anticipate what the director might respond about next, I suggested we sit down and look at what shots of his were approved and which ones got sent back, and what feedback was said about them etc. This made it really clear very quickly, because I was able to look at the shots the director had approved, and I could tell right away that in those shots, the effects were much more subtle and kind of simple. Whereas the other ones he was working on were far more interesting, but definitely made your eye look at them rather than at the car which was meant to be the main focus. So by getting a better feel for what the director / supervisor / client goes for, you’re able to anticipate changes ahead of time and make the look specifically what they’re after. Many times I’ve supervised a show and gone, “Wow this work X artist did looks great! But I know that the director / client is going to want it to be blurred and fluffy and boring.” So you’re able to at least anticipate the changes; and the more you work with someone — the more you get an understanding for how they work and what they’re going to ask for. So later, you will get your work approved on the first take rather than fishing for approval.
Speaking the Producers’ Language
One of the key things that can get in the way at times is too many reviews. If every day you’re trying to get stuff out for a review, it’s harder to really make much progress. And it’s up to you to politely approach your producer and supervisor and let them know that you are busy trying to get everything done. You could say, “Let’s organize an official review later in the week at X time. Until then I want to keep my head down and get everything done.” This way you’ve basically freed yourself up to work focused, without any distraction. However, you’ve also locked yourself into delivering stuff for that day. By showing people schedules and what you plan to have done by certain dates, it will give them more comfort because they know what to expect.
At the same time talking in the same language as producers and supervisors is good too — spreadsheets, schedules and shared documents they can keep track of — and it makes you favorable over other artists and shows you can work the same way they are used to.
What if you are given requests that you think are a little silly, and from your experience on that project, you are pretty confident that they aren’t necessary. Speaking your mind about this is not going to do you any good, however the best way to approach requests that aren’t high priority or are just outright insane — is to just agree to them, but say that you have a lot on your plate to get done first. However, once all of these other tasks are done, you’ll look at what is left for the bonus round, and start focusing on getting these additional changes done if time permits. It makes sense to deliver what you’ve originally been asked to do, before you go and spend all this extra time on something that probably isn’t going to be too important; rather than spend all the time on that one task and then not deliver anything at all.
Set a Cap on People’s Changes
When you initially submit something for review, I always urge artists to show variations rather than just one example. This way we can pinpoint which one might be too much or too little. I always tend to apply the formula of 1. what they asked for, 2. what you think looks best, and then 3. absolutely too much. This is a good formula, because if someone says, “I want that explosion 10% bigger” and you go and make it 10% bigger, they might say, “I want it another 10% bigger”; and then another, and then another. Then later they realize it’s far too big when they see what it originally was. So usually it’s better to show what they asked for, then what you think is good, then one absolutely insanely wrong. So they can see how much is too much, and then you have a set limit of how far you can go with this. This prevents you from infinitely changing it. Plus the one you show them and the one they designed, they’re most likely going to like one or the other more. So it’s the fastest formula for getting work approved on the first or second take.
Communication Is Important
When your renders are complete, shoot an email to your compositor so they know where the passes are, but also CC your producer or supervisor too. This is important, as this way everyone is in the loop, and if your compositor for whatever reason doesn’t get around to comping your work, you are in the clear. You did in fact submit your stuff, and everyone was kept in the loop about this. This can be really important.
Also when you do submit your renders, spend an extra minute or two to compile a quicktime of your render passes, if your farm isn’t set-up to do that automatically already. And that way if a supervisor or producer wants to view your pass, they are more likely to do so if they just need to click on a quicktime, rather than trying to load an image sequence up which they’re less likely to do. Do this because then they’re able to see your work and know where it’s at; and if for some reason, it’s comped incorrectly, they know what your passes look like. This is to cover your ass, just in case for you’re working with someone a little devious and wants to push the blame onto you for something they haven’t done or mistakes they’ve made. Which believe me, does happen.
At the same time, check your renders before you submit them to your compositor. As I just mentioned, in some situations your compositor might be too busy or just not able to get around to comping your stuff. So if you assume that you’ve sent your renders to them and your job is done, think again. It takes 5 minutes to check your renders to make sure they work. But if you don’t and they assume your passes are fine, and then when they go to comp them on the last day of a job and your alphas are all wrong, or you just plain rendered your shot from the wrong camera, then you’re to blame for this and you’ll have no time to fix it. So check your renders before sending them to the compositor. And then you have time to fix these errors before anyone else gets to see them!
Part of my process is usually: I try to finish my day at 5:30 instead of 6:00. I spend the last 30 minutes writing emails to producers and others. And I also send an email to the compositor, producer, supervisor about where my passes are, and the status of my work. This is good because it covers your ass by showing people what you’ve done that day, and also might save you getting called into work at 3:00 in the morning because they can’t find your render passes. The better you communicate with everyone the easier your life will be.
I also plan my next day while it’s all fresh in my head. I also will usually mention to the producers what I’m planning to do the next day. This way if there are some higher priorities, they can let me know before I start in the morning. It also shows initiative, so again people will appreciate how you work. No one is ever going to complain about getting an email from you with important information like this. If they don’t want to read it, they can delete it, but they’ll definitely appreciate it!
All of this will be appreciated and show a lot of incentive. It also means that in the rare situations that you do work with people who aren’t doing their job, and want to lay the blame on you, then your ass is covered. There’s nothing negative that comes out of this, and usually takes up just a few extra minutes of your time.
During rounds or dailies, if you get feedback on something, usually there’s a production assistant or a VFX coordinator around taking notes. Otherwise ask the VFX sup or whoever is giving these changes to email you directly with what they just said. “Cool, can you email me what you just said?” It’s important to do this. Then if they tell you to make drastic changes to your work, if they have to then email you — it will give them a second chance to really think about what they’re saying while translating it into an email. Sometimes comments are made on the fly and later they just plain don’t make sense. But also it gives you a second chance to interpret what they are saying, in case you actually had a completely different idea in your head of what they wanted based on your discussion. So this is a good chance to double check that you are both on the same page. Lastly, it covers your ass if you are going to go make drastic changes and they say it’s not what they actually asked for, then you can refer to the email as to what you were asked to do.
Some of these things might seem like a lot of extra work, but try them out. Honestly, they will take a few extra minutes of your time and become second nature after a while. They will help you incorporate them into your process without thinking, so you become more and more responsible, organized and productive without much thought or effort.
Reevaluating Your Workload
It’s also important not to take on too much work. If you think you’re being given too much work, rather than just thinking you’ll deal with it and trying to get it all done and risk realizing it’s far too much to handle — it’s better to raise your hand and let them know that it might be too much. In most cases, a producer or a coordinator probably doesn’t know how long a task is going to take, and they’re waiting for you to agree or disagree to the task. After all, you are the one doing it. So if you think it’s too much for you to handle, tell them rather than waiting until it’s too late to say you can’t in fact do it. Which does happen, and it screws everyone.
I’ve gone as far as to say I do not have time to do my time sheets or go to the post office or to lunch etc. I had other people take care of these tasks for me, because in the greater picture, those small distractions are less important than me delivering a shot. Now, of course, I’ve approached these issues in the correct way. But if you are doing a high priority task, it isn’t necessarily a bad idea to see whether other things that might get in the way can be handled by someone else, so you can keep your productivity up.
Same goes if you are under-resourced or you might need more computers to deliver your work, it’s better to let people know this so they can accommodate it. Or, if you have minor tasks that other artists can take on (such as exporting your stuff to FBX for the compositor, converting your passes or transferring files, etc.) If you have more important things to do, evaluate whether you’re the best person to be taking on the smaller tasks. It’s not being lazy — it’s being efficient. And as I mentioned before, communication is key here, so keep everyone in the loop.
This article has been really fun to write, and I’ve been wanting to write it for a little over 2 years now. The idea behind it is simple: Look at how you are doing your work and try to see if there is a more practical way to do it. Brute force isn’t always the way — and overtime can be destructive rather than constructive.
Writing the second half of this article has been a lot more difficult than the first. Part 1 was aimed purely at the way we work and what works and what doesn’t. Part 2 is much more focused on ourselves and really taking responsibility for getting work done. It’s meant to look at ways to expand and at least motivate people to go out there and find ways they work more effectively.
I originally collected most of these notes over the past 2 years, as I’ve become quite OCD about monitoring successful and destructive patterns with pretty much every type of way I work. But recently I started to put this together and realized there’s literally too much to fit into one article without it become too big to bare. So I’ve just put in here a select few approaches for day-to-day work that I think are applicable and that yield the most positive results. Most of what I’ve covered here are the approaches that I’ve shared with others and seen others be able to practice time and time again. Not everything in here will be useful for everyone. Hopefully you will be able to select some practices that will apply to what you do and help improve your productivity overall!
Allan McKay is an award winning Technical Director & VFX Supervisor, working in visual effects for Hollywood films for over 15 years. Also a Public Speaker & Author. Teaching master classes at events such as siggraph and for Autodesk and other events all around the world.
Allan has previously worked for studios such as Industrial Light + Magic, Blur Studio, Ubisoft and many others and was awarded as an Autodesk Max Master as well as working on dozens of projects that either received or were nominated for Emmy and Oscar awards.
McKay lives in Los Angeles, CA and is the director of Catastrophic FX film studio.