Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What I've Learned About the Animation Biz

And now, a brief re-recitation of the obvious.

Politics is a permanent part of studio life.

Empire building. Back-biting. Maneuvering for position. I figured out a while ago that in the workplace, the higher the perceived rewards, the more vicious the infighting. (I saw it when I worked at the studios, I see it -- though at more of a distance -- when walking around now. And I've been disabused over the years that it was different in the Good Old Days.

Joe Grant: Are studio politics different now? Not really. The people are different [than when I was at Disney in the thirties], the buildings are different, but the same stuff goes on.

Old Assistant Animator: Frank Thomas wasn't the mellow guy you knew when you were at Disney's. I was in his wing. I remember him coming back from meetings and drinking Maalox. He kept a bottle on his shelf ...

Uncompensated Overtime is Forever.

When I started this job, there were production managers pressuring artists to work free overtime.

Now, there are production managers pressuring artists to work free overtime. ("We need it Tuesday and we don't have any money in the budget for overtime.")

Most of the overtime comes from tight schedules and fear. The fast and efficient have less uncompensated o.t. (if any) because they know how to accelerate and beat the deadline; everyone else puts in extra hours on their own dime .

Some folks put in the extra hours because they have a love of craft and want to create at the highest level. For others it's more basic: a fear of $450 unemployment checks.

Nobody complains or files grievances; in this economy, nobody wants to rock the boat. But then, nobody wanted to rock the boat in the go-go nineties, either.

Unequal treatment of employees is a given.

The stars and key personnel of a studio get way more slack than the the people down in the trenches working production. They can come in late. Take long lunches. Cut out early. It's always been this way and always will. Mere mortals will just have to learn to deal with it.

Animatics are a waste of money. And considered essential.

Today a veteran teevee director told me (again):

"Animatics are there for the executives who can't read boards and don't want to learn. They've tried to get rid of exposure sheets and just go with animatics, but they always come back to exposure sheets. The thousands they spend on animatics never show up on the screen, but they'll never get rid of them. They're like management security blankets. You have to do 'inbetweens' so that the animatic keeps moving.

"They could spend the money better someplace else."

There are animation professionals who disagree with me on this, but I don't care. The things are black holes into which money is poured without a hell of a lot of results. I've seen a studio that puts animatics in color, uses music and sound effects, goes the whole nine yards making the thing as close to a produced cartoon as possible ... without it actually being a cartoon.

Ludicrous. And these clowns whine about wanting to save money. What they want is a video they can show to little kids in their always-popular focus groups.

When people begin making a lot of money, they tend to spend it.

Most animation artists have never made huge pay checks. Except in the middle 1990s. Then, through a confluence of happy events (blockbuster Disney animated features, new studios springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain to imitate Disney, and animation artists finding themselves in high demand) wages skyrocketed.

And many people made a fatal miscalculation:

Heey now. This is the way it was always supposed to be! And this is the way it will be forever!

Sadly, no.

But many animation employees began buying bigger houses and fancier cars and generally increasing the size of their lifestyles. And after a few years, when the supply of talent caught up with demand, and several of the studio closed their doors and Disney laid off staff, the big paychecks went back to being much smaller paychecks. And many were in deep financial trouble (although there were a few who rode the wave frugally and ended up financially independent).

What I learned from living through these fat times is it is always useful to live below your means. (It's why I drive a used Saturn Vue. I'm too old to dig out and start from scratch.)

When animation employees hit their mid-fifties, they also hit a wall called "less employment."

It doesn't happen to everyone, and it happens less in animation than it does in live action, but somewhere between their fifty-third and fifty-ninth birthdays, many will be enjoying way longer stretches of vacation.

I've thought about why this is. I don't believe it's simply ageism. It's also that most artists have a support network of people who are somewhat older; by the time 'toon employees reach fifty-five, the people in the network on which they relied are retired. (And yeah, there are the thirty-two-year-old animation producers who are uncomfortable with storyboard artists who remind them of their dads.)


Anonymous said...

you mean 24-year-old animation executive producers. this is 2009, remember?

Anonymous said...

You mean............When animation employees hit their mid-FORTIES, they also hit a wall called "less employment."
This is 2009 remember?

Steve Hulett said...

Maybe you're right.

I get around so little.

My 2 Cents said...

"I don't believe it's simply ageism."

Are you kidding, Steve? That's like saying, "They don't hire black people, but I don't think it's simply racism." How does that sound?

Logic and rationality don't right a wrong or excuse misbehavior or discrimination. If (slightly) older artists can't get hired, it's ageism, pure and simple.

Anonymous said...

It's bad economics and bad business culture. It's astonishing how people buy the individual responsibility line fed to them by the same people who aren't accountable to anyone at all, even Congress. Corporate welfare creates the diametric opposite of employee welfare.

Business is not responsible for the welfare of the individual. The State is not responsible for the welfare of the individual. But because of this free market wisdom, you and I can be free to chose our employer from an infinitely diverse marketplace where survival of the fittest reigns and the best employers hire the best people for the best money to do the best work. I'm still waiting for someone to show me this amazing mythical land of unicorns and lollipops as I get to chose to work for one of five corporate entertainment monopolies all hacking out the same terrible crap.

And what is our reward for actually getting together to help each other out in the absence of government and business helping? They call us 'expensive labor' and ship our jobs overseas. Do we really have to ask why 24 year-olds are running television shows?

Anonymous said...

It most certainly IS ageism.
But imho what matters more than that and has way more of an impact is cronyism. That word sounds so sinister, but it's actually not at all-we've all formed our own circle of friends in the business-even trainees do it straight off at their new gigs at Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks or Imagi because that's just what we human beings do. It doesn't happen because anyone is consciously plotting about it either, but because the natural thing is, if there's an opening(or even sometimes of there's not, or if there is any squeeze room at all on a crew), to get one of your tried and true old friends on the crew.
The only way to crack that situation is when the production if blasted wide open with an immediate and desperate need to staff up. If all the TPTB's usual hires are spoken for or already there, then they gladly consider someone they've never met of heard of before.

The OTHER way to beat cronyism and get a position on a show is if you're a brand new trainee because then you cost [insert corp name here] next to nothing, relatively speaking. And the trainees now are virtually always smoking good artists, too, which doesn't hurt.
That usually results in a situation where half the crew is 35, the other half is 25...and any 54 year olds better be Glen Keane.

Anonymous said...

Gosh Steve,

You sure take a beating on that job!!!
I'm glad you're there.
You've helped a lot of us
animation folks over the years!
Going to the Guild meetings is such an eye opener to what you and everyone in the office have to go through.
Thanks for doing as good a job as can be done with the position.

Steve Hulett said...

If (slightly) older artists can't get hired, it's ageism, pure and simple.

2 Cents, I get the sarcasm. But yeah, there is an element of ageism ... and sexism ... and cronyism.

I've been kicking around the business a long time, and I've been at enough job sites and in enough meetings to know it's a part of the workplace.

Certainly it isn't the whole story, but to deny it's not a factor is to wear blinders.

Going to the Guild meetings is such an eye opener to what you and everyone in the office have to go through.

Catching incoming javelins is part of the game. Everybody around here knows that. Most people are courteous and fine.

There's occasional vitriol, but I became accustomed to it a long time ago. (Nobody is making me do this, after all.)

Floyd Norman said...


I'm so damn old I'm young again.

My 2 Cents said...

I almost mentioned Floyd Norman, the exception to every rule, in my post.

Floyd, you're my hero!

Steve, what "sarcasm" do you mean? That was a reference to the previous poster who claimed that ageism in our business actually begins at 45, an age I barely remember. Irony, perhaps, but not sarcasm.

To give equal time to the other side of the coin, things like ageism, sexism cronyism and racism mostly come up when there's not enough work available to occupy the talent pool. A sense of scarcity incites people in a position to hire or influence hiring to employ factors that wouldn't even think of when things are busy.

When work is scarce, every time someone get a job, someone else is unemployed, or remains unemployed. Who deserves the job more? You could go crazy trying to figure that one out.

The real question is; why is a business that is obviously booming providing so few employment opportunities? That's what we have to fix first.

Anonymous said...

Experience (older people) costs money. And experienced people are considered "resistant to change." Inexperienced people (young) are cheaper, and are easier to control--even though fixing the problems brought on by inexperience ends up costing far more than hiring experienced people.

How's that?

Nothing's changed.

Anonymous said...

Then the younger people are blamed for the cost over-runs, and the work is outsourced.

ru said...

In my experience, it's the younger dudes who resist any sugestions to improve their work. They fall in love with their work "as is", as if it could not be improved upon.

I used to be like that.


My 2 Cents said...

Young vs. old, cronyism vs. meritocracy, who cares? We shouldn't be reduced to having to play this Darwinian game of Killer Snatch-the-Bacon; prey to exploitive greedy corporations and power-drunk supervisors.

There should be a job for anyone who is in any sense qualified or experienced and wants one.

What are we going to do about it?

Anonymous said...

As an animatic editor I'm a tad insulted at your view of my craft - but you're entitled to your opinion.

Granted it all depends on the animation studio & if you're dealing in traditional or flash or whatever. If the overseas people can't look at the animatic & an only read the sheets then it's useless.

But on shows I've worked on (granted all flash) we've been able to save money but cutting down creative retakes to close to zero. All creative changes get made in the animatic where it's cheaper!
It saves time on the editorial end as the quicktimes drop in the timeline as the shots come in. It's easy to see if the outside studio sent long or shot footage.
One show also eliminated the slugger & timer to do the animatic & I did all the timing. Sad to loose those people for sure, but from a business end, I do cost less then they would...

Only one show I've been on that the animatic was a waste of time & money. & that was only because we found out later that the overseas studio was just converting our animatics to sheets anyway & it was slowing them down. But that was only one time out of several.

Steve Hulett said...

As an animatic editor I'm a tad insulted at your view of my craft - but you're entitled to your opinion.

No offense meant. You foks work hard and should be in the editors guild, earning better money than you are.

There are few shows with animatics that don't also have sheets. And I'm not here to say that animatics have no purpose or use. But there are decades of animated television show, many brilliant, that were made without animatics.

How could that happen?

And I find it a tad hypocritical when studios whine "there's no money in the budget for (choose one; overtime ... an extra board artist ... two more days in the schedule ... ) while at the same time spending tens of thousands for animatics.

Site Meter