Thursday, February 23, 2006

Talking with a studio

Two days back I had lunch with the head of a local ‘toon studio. After a mutual whine-fest about our children’s weak math skills, we discussed professional issues. One problem, year in and year out, is tight schedules and unpaid overtime. No studio wants to bust its budget and cough up extra cash when the production time exceeds the hours some mushwit production supervisor, who’s never done the job himself, is wrong about how long the job actually takes. Another problem (and one that drives me nuts) are producers and story editors of animated tv shows who have board artists draw up thirty-two minutes of show when the show’s length is only twenty-two minutes. Some producers looove to have extra panels from which to make choices, but the artist is expected to do it in the regular time allotment. We didn’t solve the ying and yang of existence, but at least the studio head knows what some of the issues bugging his employees/our members are.


WorkingClassHero said...

Perhaps the union could send out a questionnaire asking the storyboard artists/directors if they think the scripts are too long (and what they think the correct page count should be for that show). Send the responses to the studio head. If he sees that all board artists on one show feel their scripts are long and all board artists on another are fine with the length - he might be inclined to think that it's a justified problem that deserves attention. Really...if everyone on every show thinks their shows are too long it deserves attention. But at least this comes directly from the artists...almost a petition. That is, afterall, how things get changed in government, is it not?

steve hulett said...

Depends on the government...

But your main point is a good one. The challenge is to get people to stand up for themselves. There is a general feeling (sometimes correct) that if an artist raises his head too high above the parapet he'll be decapitated.

I've talked to a lot of bigwigs about this. They make sympathetic clucking noises, but since it isn't a big problem on their side of the fence, it gets stuck way down the list of priorities.

WorkingClassHero said...

Which is why it needs to be higher on YOUR list of priorities. I know first hand that people DO in fact get their heads cut off when they stand up in this business. If everyone stood up together that'd be one thing, but most "good" line producers know how to keep people scared and separated. So what's the answer? The answer the union has given out for years is..."Well if only artists would stand up for themselves." Not an untrue statement...but at this point repeating it is ineffective. The union needs to think of new and proactive ways to take the stand ITSELF and/or GET people to take the stand together. But the union MUST be the leader. My suggestion is a good start. You guys already send out "income surveys" do you not? So, now send out a "how are the conditions on your show" surveys. Make them anonymous. Ask good specific questions, and see what answers you get back. Maybe even create a separate message board (blog) on this sight just for job issues people are having. I find that most of the time, even if people are brave enough to fight the power - they don't, because they're too tired. That's what they THINK the union is for. You're our's what we pay 400 bucks a year for. The internet is a great, easy way to start. So is the survey. Try it. And LEAD. Stop blaming the artists and LEAD the fight. Start with one show. One studio. And don't stop till you've hit them all. It seems sometimes like you guys've given up. It's hard to follow when no one's leading the path.

Kevin Koch said...

WCH, your specific suggestions are appreciated, but you're overboard with the nastiness. You obviously understand that "the union" is not Steve or me, but 2000+ working members. So when you say "the union MUST be the leader" what I think you mean is that the union leaders must lead. All well and good. But when Steve or I go to face down producers, and virtually none of those 2000+ members are right there behind us, then the producers are free to laugh in our faces. When the business agent charges forward, and no one is backing him, he is NOT leading. Leading implies that others are following behind. In many cases, Steve leads and people ARE behind him. And things get done. But it is an oxymoron to talk about leadership in the absence of active, visible member support.

Steve is out there fighting every day. Most people don't see it, but I have a pretty good idea of what goes on. But when everyone is "too tired" to act in their own self interest, then he's one guy trying to browbeat the producers into doing the right thing. You're free to characterize that as "blaming the membership," but when he goes to studio X and yells that show Y is abusing people, the producer will expect some specifics. Like who exactly is being abused, and how. If Steve's answer is, "Well, I heard anonymously that things are bad, but no one is willing to own up to it," then the producer gets a free pass.

And I think you also vastly overstate the dangers of standing up. Yes, it's entirely possible that the squeaky wheel will get punished. But my experience (and I don't mean as union president, but well before that) and from my observations, it often only takes one or two artists speaking up in a firm but respectful way to make solve a lot of problems. Too many members work in unnecessary fear. Frankly, I have seen more production people fired than artists as a result of people standing up for their rights.

Now, to the suggestion of a specific surveys or a "problem blog." It might be worth a try, but here's some hopefully useful background. The wage survey, which clearly benefits everyone, and which takes literally 15 seconds to fill out, has a return rate that's usually under 30%. That's about the rate at which active members bother to vote for the CBA every three years. So the vast majority of active members can't be bothered to take a few seconds to be involved in even the most superficial way.

When we've done more complex surveys, like polling people on what kind of training would be useful to them, response rates drop to the single digits. And these were relatively simple surveys. Having designed a few surveys, I can tell you it would be almost impossible to have specific questions that would cover every job category and type of show, and just asking open ended questions both drops the response rate and generates data that can't be categorized. Plus for many people even a survey every 6 months wouldn't be timely.

Another example of leadership in action: we got a lot of feedback that story artists were being abused, primarily in TV. So not long ago we called a special meeting of all story artists to come give specifics, with the intent to use that information in guiding the upcoming CBA negotiations. We saw a problem, and we needed the kind of concrete info you call for to formulate solutions. I believe less than a dozen people showed up. It did lead to some CBA proposals, but this turned into another case of trying to lead with few willing to follow.

Regarding internet communication, a couple of years ago (and frankly inspired by AnimationNation) I spearheaded the formation of a local 839 bulletin board. I thought it would be a perfect venue for people to talk, especially anonymously, about what was going on in their workplace. We never got a single post highlighting a problem.

As the system works now, Steve literally asks people face to face how things are going. He does this every day at a different studio. People also reach him by phone (he even freely gives out his home phone number -- ask other locals if their business agents do that) and email. And now we have this blog as another avenue of communication.

I know this is a ridiculously long post, but these are issues that Steve and I brainstorm about all the time. You may not be aware of a fraction of these efforts, so it seems to you that no one's leading the path. My hope is that this blog will be both a venue for members to better understand what their leadership is doing, and to get more involved as you've done by commenting.

Steve Hulett said...


Just so you know, I have often gone to studios on weekends and late at night to see if OT is being paid.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, and many times I have to cajole people into verifying what they're doing (working upaid OT.)

We were very successful getting a lot of board clean-up artists at Disney TVA wages they were owed. We were effective getting DreamWorks animators unpaid OT. But there are times when our best isn't good enough. You see, if members won't verify the abuse, won't agree to testify at an arbitration hearing, we have no case.

Every union and guild in this town is only as strong as the members allow it to be.

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