Animation Crunch Time

This article aims at highlighting tools and best practices to avoid crunch time culture: crunch time as an expected part of work, rather than a happy accident to strive for what’s best.

17 days ago   •   9 min read

By Gwénaëlle Dupré
Photo by nikko macaspac / Unsplash

It’s 9PM. The cold glow of the computer screen is reflecting off your tired eyes as your stomach is screaming for help. One last edit before you call it a day. When was the last time you had proper, uninterrupted sleep? The animator next to you fell at her desk, using the pile of storyboards as a cushion. The deadline is next week. You’re two-third of the way there. How did you get there in the first place? The exhaustion overwhelms you and you grab a snack and one last cup of coffee. You finally send the edit. Your supervisor is wired and sends some minor edit requests minutes later as you’re about to leave. The cycle will go on tomorrow.

Crunch time is a necessary reality of the animation industry. During the production of the animated film Legend of the Guardians, Brendan Body describes in his blog that crunch time wears you out, but it’s also “an exciting time” where things move fast and you get to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the cliché of “animation crunch time is bad!”―no amount of prevention is 100% foolproof against the entropy of life―this article aims at highlighting tools and best practices to avoid crunch time culture: crunch time as an expected part of work, rather than a happy accident to strive for what’s best.

But first what’s a crunch time culture, exactly? And how is it different from accidental crunch time? 

What is Animation Crunch Time Culture?

Crunch time culture in animation, or simply "crunch culture," refers to a work environment where animators are required to work extended hours, often for weeks or even months, to meet tight deadlines and complete projects. 

While crunch time can be unavoidable due to unforeseen circumstances,  it has unfortunately become somewhat normalized in some studios that perpetuate a culture where working long hours is expected during the final stages of a project.

In an animation studio facing a looming deadline for a feature film, a regular 9-to-5 schedule can dramatically shift over weeks: what begins as a manageable workload on the first week becomes a cascade of revisions and unexpected changes, pushing the animators into longer hours by the second week. As the release date remains fixed, the studio unofficially normalizes overtime during the third week, and by the fourth week, animators find themselves working 10 to 14-hour days, including weekends, to meet the deadline.

Why is it Counterproductive?

Crunch time in animation, marked by high stress levels, burnout, and urgency, is counterproductive due to its adverse impact on both the quality of work and the well-being of the animation team.

When animators are under intense pressure to meet tight deadlines, the focus often shifts from delivering a polished, high-quality product to simply meeting the project's schedule. The toll on mental health during crunch time results in diminished creativity, as the team becomes more concerned with completing tasks quickly―that will require none or fewer revision rounds―rather than exploring innovative approaches to animation.

Extended work hours and relentless pressure not only stifle creativity but also increase the likelihood of errors in the final product: rushed production leads to cutting corners by  overlooking details, inconsistencies, and animation glitches that may have been avoided with a more reasonable timeframe. The quality of the work suffers, and the intended impact of the animation may be lost on the audience.

Continuous exposure to crunch time not only jeopardizes the current project but also contributes to burnout among animators―physical and emotional exhaustion with long-term consequences for both individuals and studios. High turnover rates become a common result, disrupting the continuity and efficiency of subsequent projects: it’s a vicious circle. If the individual suffers, the team will as well. If more people quit, hiring might become more arduous for the studio in the future.

While crunch time may be viewed as a cost-cutting measure, the negative repercussions on the animators' health and the decline in the quality of their work ultimately undermines the sustainability of the studio.

For all these reasons, it’s absolutely essential to leverage crunch time as a last-resort measure, rather than a habit. To guide you on this path, we listed best practices that, from experience as a software production tracker company helping hundreds of studios from all over the world, will help your team to develop a smooth, predictable workflow.

1. Effective Planning

In an ideal scenario, crunch time would be an anomaly and projects would smoothly progress according to a well-thought-out plan. To achieve this, meticulous planning and strategic execution are imperative.

All projects start with the creation of a timeline encompassing clear goals and milestones. In an animation project, those are usually straightforward: you begin with concept development, then pre-production, production, and post-production. Depending on the desired type of animation, each phase can be broken down in departments with clear deliverables that can be estimated from experience. 

As per Parkinson's Law, work tends to expand to fill the time available―defining realistic deadlines is essential to maintain a consistent pace. But the sheer scope of work, coupled with strict deadlines, often leads to a rushed development process, inevitably culminating in crunch time, so balance is required: avoid over-promising, but also under-delivering

One of the primary contributors to crunch time is the failure to conduct a thorough analysis of project requirements. Breaking down tasks into manageable units is a fundamental step to mitigate this risk, but estimates are notoriously hard to get right.

To sidestep this pitfall, developers must prioritize tasks based on dependencies and critical paths. In the digital age, project management tools like Kitsu play a pivotal role in tracking progress and identifying potential bottlenecks. By providing real-time insights into the development process, they empower teams to stay on top of their tasks, ensuring the project remains on course and that deviations are promptly addressed.

Lastly, crunch time often stems from a lack of managerial oversight over the development timetable. To counteract this, it is important to enlist the expertise of individuals experienced in the animation production process. This is why a production tracker like Kitsu is built for collaboration by design. 

While time management is traditionally seen as the responsibility of supervisors, one must view it as a collective effort: the entire team must be engaged in the process, understanding and adhering to the established timelines. It is essential to acknowledge and work within the team's capabilities by communicating properly to prevent unrealistic expectations.

2. Communication and Transparency

Open communication and transparency are vital because they foster trust, collaboration, and realistic project planning―key ingredients to avoid crunch time.

It involves keeping team members informed about project goals, timelines, potential obstacles, and expectations. Not just by holding meetings but also by proactively sharing regular updates on any changes to the project scope with both the team and upper management and encouraging the use of asynchronous communication channels to make progress, like team messaging platforms or specialized tools like Kitsu's review engine―creating an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing concerns or proposing alternative solutions without additional friction. 

Creative and technical challenges are commonplace. Animation films often look different during the early stages of their development process because changes affecting the development timeline are inevitable, although hard to predict precisely. A budget should always account for such changes, regardless of their exact nature. In any case, addressing these challenges as a team is key to overcoming them.

With Kitsu you can follow the productivity of your artists and anticipate when someone encounters difficulties using productivity goals to make sure no one is blocked:

The same goes for a delay in the release date. Whether you're talking to a publisher or a fanbase, you're all part of the same team―it's better to face a temporary disappointment than to end up with a half-baked product.

3. Investment in Resources

Providing the necessary tools and resources ensures animators can work efficiently without preventable delays.

Technological improvements happen every year so it’s important to regularly assess the hardware and software needs of the animation team and invest accordingly to decrease little by little the probability of crunch time. Take render farms for example.

It can also be valuable to schedule time for training sessions to ensure the team learns new tools or for teammates to explore new opportunities, but it’s more efficient short-term to encourage animators to use their preferred digital creation tools. A tool like Kitsu allows teams to centralize assets across different sources like Blender, Unreal, etc. and automatically keep everyone in sync. 

Finding ways to integrate a variety of tools in your workflow greatly improves how you adapt to change and ultimately protects you from delays.

4. Flexibility

Creating an agile culture to adapt to changes is another way to avoid resorting to a crunch culture.

Plans are often too rigid. Instead of going through it linearly, agile methodologies embrace flexibility using iterative processes―enabling teams to deliver value incrementally while continuously refining and improving their approach. 

Instead of making a plan once during pre-production and accumulating time debt until it’s too late to avoid crunch time, teams can assess the project's progress on a weekly basis and adjust priorities accordingly. Using a production tracker to estimate efforts based on past iterations, the process can be data-driven to remove any unrealistic guesswork. Kitsu allows you to compare time estimates to actual task durations:

Embracing risk also implies developing contingency plans to mitigate possible disruptors.

5. Employee Well-being Initiatives

Last but not least, animation is creative work: rest is key to recovery but also productivity! Prioritizing the well-being of the animation team involves implementing initiatives that support mental and physical health as well as a healthy work-life balance. If there is no recovery period after crunch time, fatigue accumulates and increases the likelihood of another crunch time. Recovery policies include:

  • A flexible working hours policy to accommodate different working preferences
  • Encourage the use of vacation days.
  • Establish clear boundaries for after-hours communication, ensuring employees can disconnect from work when not at the office. 
  • If employees are sick, the studio should encourage them to stay at home to reduce productivity loss while they’re at work and avoid spreading the illness to other team members in the office.
  • Provide mental health resources and support, such as counseling services or workshops. 
  • Limit overtime budgets.
  • Recognize and reward the team for achieving milestones without resorting to crunch time.

Kitsu generates timesheets for all team members to know how they fill their day, if they took a day off, and more importantly, if they are working over time:

When bad working conditions become systemic, unions can protect workers from hurting practices. Crunch time is often leveraged as a way to squeeze more costs out of passionate artists―you work more without extra pay, for the sake of the project’s success. Unions can balance labor law exemptions by bringing legal expertise, social awareness, and solidarity. 

Conclusion

Animation crunch time may have become an unfortunate norm in the industry, but it's essential for studios to recognize the detrimental effects it can have on both the quality of work and the well-being of their team: 

the animation industry is relatively small, and your reputation, both as an animator or a studio, can easily get tarnished by backward practices like crunch time culture.

Creating a serene work environment not only benefits your animators but also your studio’s profitability―it’s been scientifically proven that stress is the enemy of creativity. And fortunately, the tools exist.

Kitsu is a production tracker that can drastically reduce the mental load of managing schedules and deliveries off your team, without disrupting their favorite workflow. Just add your tasks and link your assets from your favorite digital creation tools and you’re good to go! The best part? It’s free to try!

Make sure to join us on Discord if you need additional resources for your creative projects or want to hang out with 1000+ animation experts from all over the world!

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