Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Morphing Roller Coaster

I've written before about what a roller coaster the animation business is: with theatrical features, big employment follows big grosses; then the reverse happens when box office goes south. Television employment is dictated by the number of shows ordered (and of course the budgets.) Work on direct-to-video features is usually months long, then it's on to another gig. (Only Disney direct-to-video sequels offer work that might go on a year or more. But then the Mouse House's budgets are way higher.)...

Over the years, business models have shape-changed like sci-fi villains as corporate income has flowed, then ebbed in the animation marketplace. When I started as a worker bee in the industry, the 'toon landscape was relatively simple: For television, ABC, CBS and NBC were the ball game; hiring and layoffs followed the networks' buying season. Every animator, board artist and cel painter knew that when the Big Three picked up their orders for a new season of shows, it was back to Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and Ruby Spears for six months of work, after which there was a half-year's unemployment and spotty freelance until the next season arrived.

Decade after decade, all this was as predictable as Southern California's sunshine, likewise for theatrical features: one full-length cartoon every few years, the producer of which was always spelled D-I-S-N-E-Y. Today, of course, all has changed. In television, seasonal employment has blurred if not disappeared altogether. Work slows down during the holidays and picks up in the Spring, but there are no hard and fast schedules anymore. Multiple distribution pipelines -- cable, network, dvds, foreign co-productions -- demand different requirements and deadlines, so artists might work for three months, six months, eighteen months on a series, then scramble to find their next project. No longer is there a guarantee of six months' work tied to network buys for "Saturday morning cartoons," then six months off. And the Mouse House is no longer the only feature player in town.

Theatrical feature employment, as always, moves to a different rhythm. Long ago at Disney, I used to watch production topkick Don Duckwall energetically lay off assistants, in-betweeners and non-supervisory animators the instant the latest feature project ended. That changed in the era of Katzenberg and Eisner, when jettisoning production personnel stopped due to multiple, overlapping productions. Long-term personal service contracts became the norm.

By the middle nineties, with Disney, Fox, Warners and DreamWorks fighting over a relatively small talent pool, wages skyrocketed, and twenty-two year-olds fresh out of Cal Arts were making two thousand dollars a week. Disney hired a background trainee for fifteen hundred, then complained to me about paying so much. (My response was, "It's a free country. Pay less if you want to." Guild rates for trainees were then forty percent below what Disney was offering.)

Those golden days are now long gone, and guaranteed employment in multi-year personal service contracts pretty much over. Disney is phasing out p.s.c.'s altogether, reverting to an earlier, pre-Eisner model, when every artist worked "week to week."

And that's not the only reversion. Sony Imageworks has long used a two-tiered production model, with permanent staff (Tier A) working year-round and temporary production hires (Tier B) hired in to get the big, labor-intensive assignments out. This is known as "the visual effects model," but it's similar to what Disney Feature Animation did with its lower-level animation staff from the 1960s to the 1980s. Word circulates that another animation studio will soon adopt this hiring model.

What this means for the working artist/animator is, long-term employment at one company is the exception instead of the rule. As TAG's President Emeritus Tom Sito often says, to be in animation means you'll work for a baker's dozen worth of companies through the course of your career. The one-studio-for-life model, being one of the "Nine Old Men" under a benevolent studio mogul, is gone. The seasonal work model -- six on and six off, year after year -- is also a memory. Now it's our skill sets, our portfolios/reels and our networks of professional friends that are important to career viability. We'd better get used to it, and plan accordingly.


Anonymous said...

I quit a "permanent job" at Disney in the sixties because I needed to break away and grow. A lot of guys did the same, even though they could have stayed on.

A career in animation should be more than just a steady paycheck, although some did choose to remain at one studio for life. Now that those days are over, only the animation die hards will be willing to put up with the uncertainties of an animation career.

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