Episode 326 — Artist Burnout

 

Episode 326 — Artist Burnout

There is nothing worse than burnout. As artists, we work hard, we work long hours, chase tight deadlines. As the expression goes in Blade Runner, “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns for half as long.”  So how do you avoid hitting rock bottom?

A lot of the time, burnout is that invisible pressure that comes in a form of stress. It’s not about if you’re going to crash. It’s about when you’re going to crash. There needs to be a break to rest and catch up. 

This Podcast was recorded for one purpose: to help you understand the importance of mental health and help you manage yourself when you experience a burnout from time to time. Some of the pointers you’ll find here address:

  • Why it’s important to stay in tune with yourself and know when it’s time to take a break.
  • How to come back from it by taking breaks or doing things that ignite your passion.
  • Why it’s important to identify the light at the end of the tunnel. 

In this Podcast, Allan McKay discusses a highly important and timely subject of artistic burnout: how to detect it, how to maintain the symptoms, how to recover from it — and most importantly, how to avoid it in the future.

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[05:07] Personal Stories That Inspired This Podcast

[13:41] Stay Rooted in Your Passion

[22:29] How to Detect a Burnout

[34:08] Maintenance Tips

[40:10] Coming Back from the Dead

 

EPISODE 326 — ARTIST BURNOUT

Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 326! This is a solo Episode on the subject of burnout. This is such a critical subject. I talk about how to detect burnout and its symptoms, and more importantly how to recover from it and prevent it in the future. 

We’re almost at the end of the year. I can’t believe how quickly it’s flown by. I want to talk about burnout because I’ve experienced that in my career. I want to talk about my experiences around high pressure jobs and what burnout is, how to avoid it and how to come back from it. A lot of people have recently come forward sharing that this would be a perfect time to talk about it. When COVID hit and people started working from home, for people who weren’t familiar with working from home didn’t know how to self manage.

Please share this Episode with others. It would mean the world to me! We have one month left in the year. I want to hit it hard for all of us. So:

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[01:15]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[50:28] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

ARTIST BURNOUT

[05:07] There is nothing worse than burnout. As artists, we work hard, we work long hours, big deadlines — and the expression goes in Blade Runner, “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns for half as long.” So how do you hit rock bottom? How do you avoid it? Artist burnout is a real thing and we’re all likely to experience it at some point of our career. I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, working on some of the best productions and the best conditions, as well as the worst. Throughout this, I’ve worked 150 hour weeks regularly. (That meant sleeping 2-3 hours a week, if I was lucky.) I’ve managed 7-8 films simultaneously before. I’ve been flown out to redo entire sequences of films mere weeks before those films had to come out. And I’ve been in that situation: my face feeling numb, myself being so stressed out, I was throwing up. I’m not saying this to show off. Sadly, a lot of us can relate to this.

[06:13] Just to be clear, this isn’t about being negative about the film, tv or game industry. It’s purely to help you understand the importance of mental health and help you manage yourself when you experience a burnout from time to time. And when you do experience it, how do you come back from it?

 

PERSONAL STORIES THAT INSPIRED THIS PODCAST

[07:02] I’ve worked a lot in games, film, design, visual effects in general — all high production, high stress level jobs — and I’ve always found it satisfying to make miracles over deadlines. But I’ve also observed the toll it takes on you when you do it too often. Burnout happens when you do wave after wave, without seeing any end in sight. One personal example I can give: There was one production for Bioshock cinematic. We won Game Trailer of the Year for it but it was really intense. I got flown out to LA from Australia to work on it. When I arrived, I was told, “You’re also doing a project for Halo, working for Microsoft.” Either way, one of those productions alone would have been high stress. For Halo, we had a 2.5 week turnaround for a 2.5 minute cinematic. That was insane! Meanwhile, I was also doing all the effects for Bioshock. These two projects were going on at the same time. Doing them simultaneously was too much!

[08:19] So basically I was double booked. But no one knew about it. I didn’t realize that until two days before the end when I nearly had a breakdown. I was pleading, “Can I just work on one show for one day so I can focus on that?” That’s when the producers were confused. “What do you mean, ‘two shows’?” That’s when everyone realized I was working on two jobs. It took me a long time to recover from that. I did make a lot of money, but I needed the downtime to recover. So the question is: Is it worth it to do all this overtime and think we’re killing it when you start to factor in the sick time? Because your body is pushed to the limit. The body will break down and start to repair itself.

[09:45] During that production, I would be sleeping at the studio for two weeks. Every couple of days, I’d just get a new production shirt. I remember after I finished, I went back to my hotel at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday. They thought I had checked out. They had all my stuff in garbage bags behind their desks. They called my room a few times and I never answered. I had to recheck back into the hotel because I was living at the office. I’ve been in this situation more times than I can remember. But I have to admit: I was the one chasing those jobs. This is something I built my reputation on.

[10:45] When we did Transformers, I had to do four shots in four months (while ILM had months to do those). And those were emergency gigs. When 9/11 happened, we were on a Toyota project. It was a $2 million project. We’d done all these spy jets attacking the city. When 9/11 happened, it changed the tone for everyone. No one wanted to do those threatening concepts. Two weeks before delivery, we had to reconceptualize what was 4 months worth of work. Planes were changed from fighter jets to yellow planes. We’d need to redo the entire narrative but under the same deadline. I’d been flown from Sydney to New York before only to find out there were no render farms. All of these are lessons. You’re forced to adapt to situations.

 

STAY ROOTED IN YOUR PASSION

[12:41] The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to ask questions and trust your gut. You have to understand though that you’ll have to do some late nights. You need to understand, however, that it’s part of the job. There will be companies that manage projects poorly. But you need to be honest with yourself: Are you working late because you need to keep to your schedule? It’s easy to blame everyone else. Are you delivering on time?

[13:22] The topic of burnout is important to me. I’ve written many articles that have influenced the industry (https://allanmckay.clickfunnels.com/toolkit_guide_productiveartist). I’ve helped studios with company culture. I’ve done a lot around this area! It’s important for people to understand how to manage artists — as well as for artists to understand how to manage themselves better. There was one talk I was invited to at The Industry Giants Event in Vegas. I gave two talks and was on a panel with John Carmack. John is a legend! He’s one of the founders of id Software who created Doom and Quake. He started his own rocket company and launched a rocket into space. He was a CTO for Oculus before moving to Facebook. He was an architect behind some of the Metaverse. A lot of the questions were pretty rudimentary. But one of the questions was, “How do you deal with burnout?” Everyone gave pretty vanilla answers. John Carmack gave a pretty robotic one as well, “All you need to do to avoid burnout is to get enough sleep.” My answer was a little different. “You need to find your passion. You need to find your escape from whatever is burning you out.”

[15:48] There have been times when I’ve left the studio at 2:00 a.m. and came back at 8:00 a.m. Even if I got 5 hours of sleep, it would leave this massive depression with no end in sight. Having enough sleep wasn’t enough. That’s where it starts to have a permanent effect on me. What kept me going was that on the nights I could leave early, I’d actually go out. I might get 2 hours less sleep but it allowed me to disconnect from the stress. It’s important to get a release from all of this. I’m not saying that you need to get drunk and party to avoid a burnout. What I’m asking you is: What is it that you’re passionate about? What is it that you care about? For some of you it means family time. Others want to go to the gym. It’s not about heading home and switching off. You have to rewire yourself with happiness and joy and pleasure. Otherwise, all the days blend together and it begins to weigh on you. You have to keep in tune with yourself.

[18:59] Having some escape during these tough times to do something you’re passionate about is the difference between managing depression and moving toward burnout. When I said that everyone agreed — except for Carmack. I think he thinks the same way people do. Even from a manager’s point of view, you don’t want your artist to burn out. I had to argue that point and it got heated on stage. Are you trying to address mental health and be able to do things long term? There is nothing worse than being trapped in that mental state of no end in sight.

[20:51] To recap: The solution is that you need to have passion. You need to disconnect from the stress and get back to being healthy. Another story that stuck with me came from working on a movie in Berlin. Whenever I’d get to my hotel room at 5:00 a.m., I’d see all these joggers out. I’d want to avoid them because it made me sad. Your body needs to be a well-rested machine but it won’t function without the mind. You need to give your mind the reason to keep going.

 

HOW TO DETECT BURNOUT

[22:29] Let’s talk about how to detect burnout. A lot of the time, burnout is that invisible pressure that comes in a form of stress. It’s not about if you’re going to crash. It’s when you’re going to crash. There needs to be a break to rest and catch up. There are projects that are extensive. Overtime may start early into the projects, which means it won’t get any better. The big question is: How is that affecting your relationships? I’ve been on projects where half the team would be going through divorces or experiencing relationship troubles. Sometimes, it’s about pausing the project here and there, or bringing on more staff. It’s important to have that foresight. It comes down to management and their priorities.

[24:42] It’s important to communicate where you are at mentally while you’re going through all this. Be clear with management about the hours you’re putting in, so that they aren’t blind to the fact that you’re going hard and fast. 

[25:00] It also comes down to: Is it worth it? If you’re doing big freelance jobs, you might think the overtime and the cash is worth it. But overtime, you will get sick and you’ll be stuck in a hotel room recovering and unable to work. All that time off will go into recuperating. Eventually, you’ll just break even. You aren’t making a profit. One of my friends was working on King Kong in 2005, with overtime he was making $20K a week. But after his burnout, he broke even. Think about this: Is it worth it to throw yourself on the sword for a production? It’s part of our industry and other industries. But it’s more about management and checking in with yourself, as well as the management in charge.

[26:59] I’ve never walked out on a job in my life. I’ve seen people do it. I’ve always felt people walking out on a job would let their colleagues down. I’d commit to finishing a job but never have to come back to that company. These days, my priorities are more in check: Family and health first, both as an artist and a manager. And I’ve been proud of that. I want to look out for the health and longevity of the team. But it is frustrating when you’re an artist and you are working for people who don’t have your best interest in mind:

  • They’re underbidding on projects.
  • They’re understaffing their teams.
  • They aren’t managing their projects well.

[29:24] I’ve made it a point when I’m not on the box to be there on the team. I’ll be the person running out to get other people’s breakfast or help them out with their shots. Nothing is beneath me! My job as a leader is to make sure they’re best equipped to deliver their job. It’s a sign of a leader to be there for your team.

[30:07] Sometimes working long hours hurts the project. It does more damage than help. Ultimately, is it worth it? When I was 18 years old, I wanted to give the job everything I had. I regularly pulled all-nighters, I’d overdeliver. And it worked! Everyone wanted me on their team. But: I still remember having a conversation with a producer who was a friend of mind. She pulled me aside. She wanted to tell me the truth: “Allan, no one cares! They have big plans for you. Everyone sees that but no one cares! Do you think all these nights you’ve put in, do you think they’ll give it back to you?” Even at 18, I knew what she meant. I didn’t care. I wanted to deliver no matter what. She could see that I wanted to give it everything I had. When that delivery becomes expected of you, that’s when you need to reflect on whether this is right. I will always go above and beyond for a project but I will no longer risk my health. So check in with yourself to see how you are physically.

[32:24] There will be times you’ll notice you’re burning out. That’s something you cannot ignore. A crash is unavoidable. If you’re starting to notice these symptoms that you are starting to get worn out, that’s when you can let your management know. They’ll have to figure out how to get the job done without burning you out. When my manager receives the information that I’m burning out, they can give me time off. But there will also be managers who will intentionally burn out artists. You’re messing with their schedule. That helps you understand where their priorities are. 

[33:48] So it’s important to communicate where you are at and what you’re feeling. That way you can take a break now, or know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s only when you feel like there is no end in sight that you’re going to crash.

 

MAINTENANCE TIPS

[34:08] Let’s talk about maintenance. What I found to be efficient for good maintenance is to walk out at 5:00 p.m. If I knew I would be working until 2:00 a.m., it was helpful for me to take a 2-hour break at [5:00]. I would do this every single day. I’d take my mind to other things. It was helpful to have the feeling to take some time out. To this day, when I listen to certain music, it reminds me of that experience of taking time off my mental health. Maybe it means going back to your family or your dog, whatever it takes to escape. That’s how you can get through the tough times.

[35:50] Sometimes it’s not easy to just take time off. But the more you start to track your time, the more you can see where you spend it. If you start logging your time, it’s a lot easier to make the case for your time management. If managers want to keep seeing the same output from you, they’ll have to give you some time off. By doing that, you’re saying, “I’ve been killing it. If you want these results, you need me to replenish.” You’re spelling it out for them. This is true for any industry: There will be people who care for you while others care about themselves and the results they’re getting out of you. If they don’t care, it helps you see things more clearly. You can then take measures accordingly: either resigning or going to speak to their manager. 

[38:04] Set expectations early on. If you’ve been pulling your weight and putting in the hours,  you can state how these hours have to be made up. Negotiate it now rather than wait until there is no more urgency. Think about the math here too. If you’re making $400 a day (which is 8 hours long) but then you’re starting to work 16-hour days. That means you’re worth half the rate. Then every extra hour or minute is lowered. It’s worse when you go to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee and realize that the barista is making more time than you. So remember: Manage your time. Know where your time is spent. That sounds trivial but it’s important for when you have to state your case.

 

COMING BACK FROM THE DEAD

[40:10] I also want to talk about coming back from the dead. We can talk about seeing the signs and not be so bitter. But sometimes, at that critical point, you’ve hit rock bottom. For a lot of us, it’s the tricky part. How do you get back to it? When you crash — you crash! 

[40:48] As I mentioned before, you need to escape. You need to do what you’re passionate about. Be reintroduced to things that you’re passionate about. You can’t be forced to sit back at your desk with your PTSD. What’s the thing that got you interested in doing VFX in the first place? I mentioned working in the worst conditions on that job in Berlin. This was a never-ending drudge. It took me about 6 months to recover from that. No VFX work at all! I was burning through my savings while recuperating. It was hard. I’d be offered jobs and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It wasn’t until I found a project that excited me (which was at ILM) that I got mentally back on board and I started to care again. Thankfully, there were only two bad projects like that in my career. Both times it took serious time to recover. 

[43:38] Giving your soul to a company that doesn’t care about you, you realize it’s never going to be worth it in the long run. These are the projects that will haunt you. It’s a bad ROI. In other jobs, I’ve always found a way to make the stress worth it. There were funny stories or it was highly fulfilling. You find a way to look at those experiences positively. Also, remember to talk to your manager to make it worth it. It’s always critical to escape during the projects, just as it’s important to lick your wounds.

[45:18] It’s also important to plan financially for these burnouts. Typically when you’re in the trenches, it’s more immediate. After the job is over, the immediacy is gone. The managers remember the job differently. You hold the power when you’re in the trenches. That’s the time to negotiate more compensation or more time off. It’s more likely they’ll meet your request when you’re both in the thick of it. This applies to any industry! Most careers have that expectation of crunching hours. Keep open communication. Set clear delivery deadlines and stay focused during the day. Think about if you’re pulling your weight on the job.

[47:05] Manage your time by knowing what you’re contributing to the project. That makes it easier to see where you spend your time, and where things are going right or wrong. The more you try things, the more you are able to identify when things are likely to get hairy. You can even communicate terms to your managers to avoid mistakes next time around. The more you can go into projects aware of this, the more you can make them worth it in the long run. You can negotiate being a Lead on the next project, for example. Learn if your interests align with the interests of your managers. All this helps you make better decisions. It helps you identify projects that are going to burn you out. 

[48:50] I hope this helps. This isn’t the most fun subject but I hope it helps you know how to navigate through a burnout. You always have a choice to not take on projects like that, or to decide that your health comes first.

  • It’s important to stay in tune with yourself and know when it’s time to take a break.
  • Know how to come back from it by taking breaks or doing things that ignite your passion.
  • There always has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. 

[50:12] Thank you for listening! I hope you got a lot from this. Don’t forget to subscribe.

 

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on burnout and what you’ve experienced. This is something that’s really important for us to be aware of, rather than realizing one day we’ve been hit hard.

Next week, I will be talking about pricing strategy and the value that you put out.

I’ll be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!

 

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