Thousands of animation employees started working from home in March when physical distancing measures went into effect around the world. Thanks to huge leaps in technology, animating an entire show away from a studio is more than doable. In lockdown, many studios have finished productions, met deadlines and even started new development projects from the comforts of their homes.
However, while this remote work has been lauded, many are asking how much longer can it last? Some believe questions about the effectiveness of WFH have been laid to rest forever—we’ve done it, we can keep doing it, what’s the problem? Others see the issues that have cropped up in the transition as proof that the model can’t work long term. And many of us land somewhere in the middle.
Over three weeks, Kidscreen is exploring the long-term viability of the entire animation industry working from home. Last week we looked at why WFH works well. And today we’re diving into why the model isn’t sustainable, and why it might be time to return to the office.
Located in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, Mercury Filmworks has 42,000 square feet of office space at its disposal. The sheer size of this footprint is part of the reason why the local government gave the animation studio a greenlight to return to office, says CEO Clint Eland.
“I find that working at home is isolating,” says Eland. “It has surprised me how much information I take in and give out just walking around the studio, having water cooler meetings or quick side conversations.”
His studio is open for business, though many of his 320 employees will continue to work from home for the time being. The return to a physical space is a slow process, and Mercury brought back between 30 and 40 people in June, primarily folks who wanted to be in an office environment or who struggled with their at-home setups. Now, Eland is focused on a second wave of employees returning when childcare and schools ramp up in the fall.
Beyond the social element of working at an office, Eland argues that the barriers unique to animation didn’t vanish completely when everyone was forced to make it work.
While Mercury was able to transition fairly seamlessly at first, issues around productivity and training began to slip over time. “Getting everybody out the door is one thing, but then getting everybody working efficiently was something else,” he says.
In particular, while senior employees may be able to work autonomously, newer and more junior staff may suffer from that lack of face-to-face mentorship.
Show productions are also highly integrated, and on high-end productions—where there are upwards of a hundred people working on a single show—“the level of craftsmanship is constantly being pushed, and isn’t dependent on a few individuals, but rather the combined skill of the larger team,” says Eland. When one person can’t perform effectively at home, the whole show suffers.
Overall, it is much harder for large studios to operate in this model than it is for smaller studios, he says.
“We work at a certain level that you just can’t achieve in a work-from-home environment,” says Eland. “But there are a lot of smaller studios that probably will alter their plans and try to make their WFH animation pipeline work for them.”
For Mercury, working from home has affected each team differently—some are working at 100% capacity, while others are closer to 30%, according to Eland. On average, the studio is at roughly 75% capacity.
To address the issues, Eland see only two solutions. The first is to extend the schedule for each show, which means adding man hours, and driving up costs. Alternatively, to stay on schedule, more team members are needed, which also increases budgets.
“At the end of the day, everything costs more,” says Eland. “Over a couple of weeks or a couple months, it’s a sizeable amount of money. It’s probably not a studio-killer, but if it drags out over a longer period of time, you start getting into much more significant sums.”
With seven shows in production, Mercury is making do with a hybrid office/work-from-home blend. But the goal is to bring as many people back to the office as possible safely, he says. If they need to revert to a full work-from-home model as a result of future lockdowns, Eland says they’ve learned lots and are prepared to make that transition again…he just doesn’t want to.