Crunch culture in animation industry impacts work conditions


Animation, as an industry, has faced a lot of change since the early days of shows like “Steamboat Willie.” These changes have manifested due to advances in both technology and, for better or for worse, workplace standards. 

The animation and VFX industry is a very lucrative one, currently valued at $181.3 billion with projected growth, and with this success inevitably comes issues. 

Behind every big project is a team of people under increasing stress to finish animation projects and get them to studios by a deadline. This pressure that’s placed on animation companies leads to extended hours and reduced pay for animators. The animation industry has reached a point where being overworked to meet pressing deadlines is the standard, with this phenomenon being aptly dubbed “crunch culture.”  Crunch culture has especially become the status quo in the video games industry, with game developers sometimes having to work up to 100-hour weeks to complete projects. It’s a worsening problem that exposes serious flaws in how the animation and video game industries function.

In 2004, an anonymous letter, later credited to game developer and writer Erin Hoffman, was released to the public. Hoffman was the spouse of a game developer for Electronic Arts, and her letter detailed the very poor working conditions her partner was put through. Hoffman’s letter made waves within the video game industry, as it was the first time concerns about labor conditions in game development were widely publicized. In 2010, another letter was released, this time by the spouses of developers for the massively successful video company Rockstar. This second letter echoed many of the same sentiments as the first, going into detail about the struggles that game developers were facing during development. These included regular 90-hour workweeks, cases of fatigue, chronic headaches, sickness, and depression. The similarities within these letters emphasize a broader issue with practices in the industry.

    This is also a prevalent problem in animation, specifically Japanese anime. Animating a twenty-minute episode involves thousands of hand-drawn frames, the less essential of which are drawn by independent contractors or freelancers. Using contractors means that studios can outsource animation to countries with fewer labor laws, allowing the studios to legally cut costs with less pay, poorer working conditions, and longer hours. The standard rate for a single frame in Japan is about 200 yen, which is less than 2 dollars USD. This number is minuscule given that each frame can often take over an hour to complete, meaning many artists are earning much less than a living wage.   

Henry Thurlow, an American animator living in Japan, recently interviewed with Buzzfeed News sharing his experience working for one of the largest animation companies in Japan. Thurlow described the industry as not just tough but “illegally harsh.” He said, “They don’t pay you even remotely minimum wage. They overwork you to the point where people are vomiting at work and having to go to the hospital for medicine. They demand that you come in whenever they realize a deadline isn’t going to be met. That probably means about a month and a half of nonstop work without a single day off.” Thurlow goes on to describe the never ending workload that has resulted in him ending up in the hospital three times for exhaustion and illness.

    Despite the grueling conditions, Thurlow is willing to sacrifice his quality of life to satiate the need as an artist to contribute to something he loves, which seems to be a common sentiment and the primary reason why so many are still willing to work in such a difficult industry. 

    All in all, the video game and animation industries are increasingly difficult to be a part of. The sacrifices that these employees make for the sake of their art are truly the only reason that these industries can continue to function as they do, putting millions of dollars into the pockets of those responsible for the horrible work conditions in the first place. These systems are neither ethical nor sustainable, and they need to face serious revision if these fields are to continue flourishing.