On Motivation

One of the youtube channels I’m subscribed to is TED. Lately, I’ve stumbled upon a talk called “What makes us feel good about our work?”. It’s quite interesting because it reflects my experience in VFX.

Dan Ariely, a professor of “behavioral economics”, talks about what motivates people to work. While money might be an initial incentive to start working on something, it’s not the reason why people enjoy their work. That enjoyment comes from the feeling that the work you do is meaningful.

Ariely mentions several examples in his talk. In one experiment, test subjects were much more likely to continue working on something mundane when they had to sign their work results and upon handing them in, their supervisor gave the impression that he inspected their work and said thank you.

Other participants, who had their work shredded before their eyes, obviously felt least motivated to continue working on their tasks. The interesting bit, however, was that a third group of subjects who didn’t receive any kind of feedback to their work felt almost as bad as those who saw their work shredded.

Demotivation Hazards

This made me think of VFX. The bigger the show, the longer the chain of command. Leads, supervisors, external supervisors, DOP, director… such a hierarchy easily creates the situations that Ariely mentions in his talk:

  • The longer the chain of command (especially once your shot gets delivered to somebody outside your company) the more a single artist becomes an anonymous cog in the machine. He or she’s no longer “signing” a shot. Most artists will never show up in the film’s end credits as well.
  • Feedback to your shot by people several levels above you (DOP comes to mind) will usually show up on your screen as a short quip that somebody transcribed from a meeting or cinesync session. There’s no “thank you” and even a positive “keep working” comes across as much more negative than intended.
  • Your work gets shredded without notice. Sometimes, the shot you’ve worked on will simply get omitted because the edit was changed or the director doesn’t like the camera angle anymore.

In the TED talk, Ariely also talks about how workers get demotivated by performing work that reminds them of Sisyphus instead of being meaningful. This, of course, also happens in VFX:

  • You are requested to revise and improve things in areas that you know will be thrown away (frames that are part of the handles or areas that will get cropped/matted).
  • You need to exaggerate a requested change to your shot just so that the DOP or director notices the change. He’ll then tell you to “split the difference” and reduce the effect by 50% but if you had provided that version right away he’d told you he doesn’t see the change he requested.

All of this diminishes the feeling of doing meaningful work and will in time cause frustration. The good news is that I have experienced or heard about ways to prevent situations like that.


  • At one facility, artists had access to recorded cinesync sessions. It felt like a great way to hear a supervisor’s or DOP’s thoughts about a shot before it gets condensed to “add more flares” in the shot database.
  • In an article about Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” I’ve read that the director sat down with artists as often as possible. This is of course only possible in rare cases as usually work gets subcontracted around the globe. But if you’re working on smaller projects, local movies or TV commercials this could probably be done a lot more.
  • Especially in-house supervisors could review shots directly with at the artist’s desk. Since everybody involved will know that they are looking at a work-in-progress snapshot, mistakes and misunderstanding can be identified early and feedback might not sound as harsh. On the other hand, many programs used in VFX don’t allow for real-time interactivity on screen so reviewing rendered versions is necessary.
  • On shows where I was comp lead myself, I tried to use “thanks” or “please” in every artist feedback I typed into the database or an e-mail. I’ve also tried to acknowledge the change that an artist has made especially if the result didn’t meet my expectations yet.
  • Personal feedback in dailies instead of e-mails. Intercontinental cinesync sessions outside office hours may make this impossible but at least in-house reviews should be done more personally. It may be true that having the supervisor review shots with a producer “in private” saves a substantial amount of time, but actual dailies and personal feedback might just make work more meaningful.
  • Scheduled weeklies with all the artists. Only an appallingly small amount of shows I’ve worked on had actual weeklies where everybody was able to see what was being done by other artists and (even more important) other departments.

Well, there’s certainly more to this. For one, I have no work experience in large companies (100+ artists) on the one hand or vfx sweatshops on the other hand. At the end of his talk, Ariely mentions approaches to work in an industrial society where division of labor was a key factor to mass production vs. a knowledge society where meaningful work might be more important. So watch that vid and if you have any comments feel free to share them below 🙂


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