Friday, July 28, 2006
The old saw that there are zero non-believers on battle fields has its equivalent cliche in cgi-land today: "There are no unionists in computer graphics studios. Everybody's a libertarian." But the formulations, I submit, are really one hundred and eighty degrees apart. Over the past fifty years, unionized industries in the United States have down-sized and down-sized again. In 1950, forty percent of the American workforce was repped by some labor organization or other. In 2006, it's down to around 12% -- depending on how you do the counting. The great exception to this steady shrinkage has been the American motion picture and television industry. There, the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and IATSE have maintained robust representation over the people who struggle to make a living in the entertainment business. The exception to this exception has been in computer graphics imaging. Show me a visual effects shop or digital game company, and I'll show you a studio filled with staunch free-thinkers who claim to need no help from anybody. (An executive from Blue Sky Animation told me a few years ago: "An animator came into my office last week and said he was a rugged individualist, didn't need help from anybody, made his own way in the world, yada yada. I said, 'Fine. We'll drop you out of a plane into the Canadian North Woods with a knife and loin cloth. And we'll see how long you and your rugged individualism lasts out there.'") His point was: all the "rugged individualists" are just as dependent on the trappings of benevolent civilization -- the power grids, high capacity computers, and interconnectivity of broad-band networks -- as the weepy, bleeding-heart liberals who had the bad judgement to vote for Al Gore. "Rugged individualism," he went on to say, is mostly a state-of-mind that flowers when things are going swimmingly. But confront a grizzly in a stand of tall, first-growth pine trees, and knife and loin cloth seem somehow inadequate. Where's a shotgun, or the 101st Airborne, when you need them? When the chips clatter down, most libertarians and individualists turn into Roosevelt Democrats (non-atheists?). The labor strikes that got animation and the rest of the movie industry unionized sixty-seven years ago did not occur in a vacume. There was a depression going on, and lots of artists were making twelve to sixteen dollars per week. So it was easy for them to get religion. There was also a Washington power structure (those nasty Roosevelt Democrats again) who already had it. We're pretty much on the other side of the compass from those perilous times, but underlying dynamics are still the same: when employees feel used and abused, they start looking around for remedies. In the past fifteen years its happened numerous times: IDT Entertainment/Film Roman staffer became militant when their health benefits and pensions were cut. Disgruntled employees voted for unionization at Hyperion Productions, at "Clifford the Big Red Dog, the Movie" at small studios and large studios. When management gets perceived as being mean and nasty, employee attitudes change. In the wink of an eye, libertarians became unionists. There are no atheists in foxholes when times get tough enough. And now here we are at the height of the cgi animation boom, and lots of people are feeling self-confident about their careers. Nothing but good times as far as the eye can see, just as it was in 1995, at the crest of the last big animation wave. (Seems like little more than an eye-blink, but it's been a whole ten years. A thousand lay-offs ago.) Lots of CGI animation is unionized, but big chunks of it aren't, most notably PDI and Pixar. I get asked all the time by Disney and DreamWorks employees when PDI and Pixar are "going union," and I mostly give the same anwer: When PDI and Pixar employees are good and ready. For if history is any guide, it won't be management that pushes for unionization, whether management considers itself "liberal" or not. (One Disney Feature staffer recently told me in wonderment: "I went up to Emeryville, and a management guy bragged to me about what a hard-core Democrat he is. Oh, except he didn't care for unions at all." Which is a little like being a Civil Rights enthusiast who doesn't like black people. But hey. What's a little hypocrisy in 2006 America? It's almost mandatory.) So, as always, it's up to the board artists, writers, designers, scene finalers and animators to decide on the path they want to take. When the uncompensated overtime stacks up high enough, when weekly pay checks and health benefits are cut deeply enough, then the church organ will commence playing and attitudes -- and the non-guild studios in which they dwell -- will change. How does it go? There are no atheists in fox holes.
Posted by Steve Hulett at 11:00 PM