You’ve just completed another “big push this week”. Don’t you feel great for what you and your team have achieved? I bet your answer is, “no Ben, because we’re already thinking about the big push we need to complete next week!” The VFX industry is a vicious cycle; if you don’t take time out to recover periodically, you’ll eventually burn yourself out.
When to take a vacation?
For a long time, I told myself I was being a good employee & a spontaneous adventurer by waiting for a show to finish, finding out the next one starts in 4 weeks, and planning a trip somewhere with only a moment’s notice. I wanted to be available whenever a studio needed me, and flexible enough that I could take a break (i.e. not be paid) whenever they needed me to as well. Inevitably I went from one show to the next, completing many crunch times back to back, and next thing I knew I hadn’t had more than a long weekend off in three years. Because of my self-inflicted good work ethic and morals, I was being overworked and inevitably became burned out.
So what did I do? I booked an international flight to a place I always wanted to travel, at an arbitrary time in the future. I didn’t know which studio I’d be working for, what the show schedule would be like, or anything. I just did it. It went against everything I ever thought was right, and it scared the crap out of me — what if I couldn’t get another contract lined up because of the timing of this trip?! As it turns out, this shift in mindset is why I’m still working in VFX today.
If this story sounds familiar, your world is about to get easier with one simple realization: humans are designed to adapt to change. It’s the basis of evolution — we’re just thinking about it on a shorter time scale. Sure, a studio might really miss you if you’re gone for a few weeks, but they’ll figure it out, and at the end of the day, they’ll be fine… It sounds selfish, but your undying loyalty to your craft is incredibly one-sided. What happens when said studio doesn’t land the next project? You guessed it! You’re told, “We’d love to keep you but we just don’t have the work. Sorry!” It’s nothing against them — I have no doubts that I’d be making similar decisions if I were the person in charge of making them. It’s just the unfortunate reality of how our crazy industry operates, and it’s important to be cognoscente of that reality.
You can still be flexible with your shows’ schedule, but you should put you first. Constantly check in with your mind and body and assess how energetic or exhausted you are. If you don’t, you’ll inevitably burn out, and will need time off work regardless; it just wont be the fun kind!
Schedule your vacation like you would schedule a contract
I was once strung along by a recruiter who consistently told me, “just hang out for two more weeks and we’ll have a new contract for you”. Whether this was true or not, that two weeks turned into six months of no work, and subsequently no pay. You must be thinking, “This article is about taking a break, so that must have been amazing, right?!” It was not amazing. There is a big difference between consciously planning and taking a break from work, vs. being “funemployed”…
Unemployment can burn you out the same way excessive overtime can, with regards to how stressful the situation can be. This stress is only amplified when you have a mortgage, a family to take care of, etc. Although, with a bit of foresight, you could potentially plan to have months off of work without the stress or burden that the end of a contract can bring!
Don’t follow in my naive footsteps and wait until the last day of your contract to plan a vacation. Do it months in advance — plan your vacation like you would your next contract, and consciously schedule enough time for winding down and relaxing. Booking something this far in advance has a strange knock-on effect too. Rather than being available all the time, having a set schedule and telling recruiters how they can fit into it has a weird way of making you look more desirable & therefore makes it easier to land that next contract! What could be better than a planned vacation, with another contract lined up straight afterwards?!
An effective vacation
A career in VFX often requires working many weeks of extra hours to get a show delivered on time. I strongly believe that this extra work & extra stress must be balanced with enough time off to avoid burning out & going crazy. The extra money you make from periods of OT is a nice bonus, but is nothing compared to the non-renewable currency of time you’ll spend earning it.
We’re lucky that we work in a contract-based industry — rather than being stuck with a standard “too weak” vacation, we have the freedom to take longer breaks when needed. So, how long should you schedule your break to be? This number will be different for everyone, but it’s an important one to figure out. Do you think 3x two-week breaks per year would be good? How about one month off every year? Put some effort towards testing these assumptions — the rewards of a happy career and healthy life are worth it.
How this time is spent depends on what you do for fun. Do you have a hobby outside of work? Invest some time enjoying that some more. Like exploring new places? You’ve got plenty of time to jump on a plane and travel somewhere new. Like sitting on the couch watching Netflix? That’s a perfectly acceptable way to spend your downtime too! The important part is that you get your mind off work, relax, and enjoy doing something other than VFX for a while.
A closing thought
I often get lost in the question of, “What would you do with your time if you were financially able to retire tomorrow?” The answer changes as I age, but it’s a great bearing to figure out what I really want to be doing with the limited time I have. What would you do with yourself given an abundance of time? Pick a date 6 to 12 months away, and set aside 4 weeks in your calendar to go do it!
It’s important to take time off work to avoid burning out, and to enjoy life outside of your regular routine. It’s how you relax & recover, and is ultimately the best way to maintain your resilience to continue growing as a well-rounded human being.