Friday, October 16, 2015


The Animation Guild now has 3,000 members. Officially. ....

This is a new high in unionized animation work.

In the seventies and early eighties, TAG moved through the space-time continuum with 1200 to 1500 card-carrying members. This was in the days when ink-and-paint departments still exited in studios, and lots of television animation was done in-house. Disney took its own sweet, leisurely time turning out a new animated feature every few years.

By the middle eighties the Los Angeles animation biz was sputtering. Ink-and-paint work, with the exception of the Disney feature department, had jetted off to Asia. TV animation was disappearing in the same direction. Digital and traditional cel painting jobs were gone, assistant animation was a thing of the past, small screen production work could be found in Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines. Very little of it was happening in Southern California.

Then in 1989, Filmation closed its doors after a 26-year run, and the only thing left in Los Angeles on the television side was scripts, storyboards, and key design work. Disney was about to release The Little Mermaid, but active membership in the Animation Guild had dropped to 700 people.

And that, ladies and gents, turned out to be the bottom of a deep, dark canyon.

At the end of the year, Disney's feature-length, Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale turned out to be a game changer, and staff at the Mouse House was expanded. Warner Bros. Animation, breathing new life as it developed Tiny Toon Adventures with Spielberg. Lucrative syndication deals was making small-screen cartoon a viable product and various studios upped their output. Disney Television Animation introduced a package of new product with "The Disney Afternoon" and Disney Feature went on a tear: Beauty and the Beast was followed by Aladdin after which came The Lion King, and the money poured in.

Which caused other entertainment conglomerates, anxious to cash in on the cartoon bonanza, to build their own feature studios.

By now it was the mid 1990s. Jeffrey Katzenberg was thrown overboard at Disney and swam off to found DreamWorks (and its feature animation unit) with Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Geffen. Warner fielded its own long-form cartoon division, as did 20th-Century Fox, and the Animation Guild had a record high 2800 members.

That turned out to be the crest of the wave. Hand-drawn animated features began to falter at the box office, and by the end of the decade Disney was laying off hundreds of long-time animation employees. Syndication money dried up, and TV work contracted.

From the turn of the century to the late oughts, animation was again in the doldrums, and the Guild's active membership dropped back to 1500, back where it had been when Hanna-Barbera was churning out animated half-hours with care-free abandon and much of the animation was done in L.A. It's only been in the last three years with new distribution channels (Netflix, Amazon, Disney XD, Cartoon Network) and record-breaking profits for theatrical CG animation that the tide has (again) rolled in, lifting one hell of a lot of boats.

So today we celebrate a new high in membership for the Guild. Animation is always a roller coaster, but currently it rides on high demand and profits ... and the entertainment conglomerates' strong desire to create more profit with ambitious slates of TV and movie theater cartoons.


Steven Kaplan said...

Just a point of clarification. For anyone who has heard us boast, we've unofficially broken through three thousand members long ago. However, the mothership hasn't been able to report us as having that amount until now.

There are a good number of members who are joining the guild because of the increase in hiring the signatory studios are doing. These members haven't yet finished paying of their initiation fee, which needs to happen before they fill out their enrollment paperwork and are recognized by the IATSE.

So, the landmark is still significant, and our reporting is still accurate. The growth we're experiencing is amazing and all due to the fact that the conglomerates have recognized Animation as a long-term money maker.

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