Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Other Question: "What About Outsourcing?"

Rambling around the studios last week, it wasn't just the current strike that came up. There was also the issue of studios shipping animation work overseas.

An artist on a cigarette break out in the drizzle asked me about this. I explained that subcontracting work overseas (and elsewhere) has been an issue for decades, that the Animation Guild went on strike twice over it ('79 and '82, which was news to him) and that outsourcing hasn't gone away.

"So where do you think's going to happen with it?" he asked.

My answer was: "It'll continue. But the work isn't all going to China, or Taiwan or India, because when you ship work to other places you begin to lose control of quality, and studios want to have control.

Then there's the minor issue of the falling dollar and the changing economics. That also make it less appetizing to ship work to Timbuktu. And if a studio is being successful with their domestic model, they're usually not keen to change it in drastic ways. And of course companies want a reliable and skilled talent pool. That's why Electronic Arts has a large studio in Playa Vista and not Bangladesh."

But this globalization thing is a subject that often comes up. (It's been a subject for animation people since the early seventies, at least.) And my overall take on it is this:

In 1960, 100% of American animation was done in ... (drumroll) ... America. And most of that in Los Angeles. Disney did all of its features here. Hanna-Barbera did all of its t.v. work here, from boarding, to animating, cell-painting, post-production, everything.

But the total animation business in those long-ago days was not large, only a few thousand people, comprised of commercials, features, and television series.

And now here we are almost half a century later, and 100% of American animation is most definitely not done in the U.S. of A. Korea has a piece of it, Taiwan and the Phillipines have some of it, India and New Zealand and mainland China are in on the act. Yet despite that, there are nine or ten times the number of people working on animation in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a few other American cities than there were in 1960.

Now, how could that be?

Because the overall animation pie is one hell of a lot larger. Today "animation" is theatrical animated features, television animated series, animated features for dvds, animated visual effects, video game animation, animated commercials, and plenty of internet animation. (And I'm probably leaving a few things out.)

A lot of those things didn't exist when Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear were gleams in Joe Barbera's and William Hanna's eyes. And animation's global success in recent decades has meant other countries are increasingly serious about their own animation industries. Like for instance:

NEW DELHI: It's going to rain animation movies on Indian celluloid, with all major studios and animation companies lining up a slew of releases to keep one entertained till 2009. According to industry estimates, more than 25 movies are up for release in 2008 and 2009. According to Nasscom estimates, the animation industry is likely to become a $950-million business in the country by 2010 ...

Let me point out that this is what India is making for domestic consumption, not the product it's turning out for American companies like Disney and the Weinstein Co.

The above is an indicator of why, despite outsourcing, the American animation industry grows ever larger. We might only have a fraction of the pie today, but the pie is monstrous compared to 50 years ago. And there's lots of talent in this neck of the woods that corporations desire to use.


Anonymous said...

Outsourcing? What about INSOURCING? Disney, Dreamworks and many others have been getting work visas for non-domestic animators for years. I know plenty of American senior level cg animators who used to work at Disney, yet could not get rehired to save their lives. These companies should not be able to hire foreign workers when there are so many available right here. Local 839 does absolutely zilch about this issue. Can you imagine any other Hollywood union allowing this to happen? Local 839 looks the other way, not protecting its members. Why should the union care, it gets the initiation dues from all these new hires. Sickening!

Steve Hulett said...

I understand your anger and criticism, but you've got zero understanding of how immigration law works. Less than zero.

CG animators and others come in under O-1 visas. Labor organizations have the right under regs promulgated by the Clinton administration to write an advisory letter pro or con re the incoming immigrant. In theory, a negative letter could keep an immigrant out. In theory.

Over the years we've objected to any and all who didn't meet the standards (as we understood them) for coming into the country.

All but two of those got in anyway, because the immigrant and sponsoring company get a second bite at the apple as regards the immigration service. They write a counter letter; the service -- almost always -- lets the immigrant in.

A couple of other examples: A large IA local here in L.A. wrote objection letters to almost every immigrant app that came across its desk. After nine months, the Immigration Service noted that ALL of its letters were negative and so DISREGARDED them.

Another IA local simply refused to write advisory letters on the grounds that "they weren't going to process apps and let the immigrant come in ..." (This told to me by its business representative.)

Guess what happened? The immigrants all came in. 100% of them. You don't write a letter, the INS waves them in.

Here's the thing: You can't write a rejection letter unless, by your lights, the immigrant doesn't meet the immigration standard. You can't keep them out on the philosophical grounds that "there's people here who can do the work." Doesn't fly. The objection letter you write will be laughed out of the INS offices.

We've written thousands of consulting letters over the years, and written lots of objections. I've been screamed at by a British animator's wife for writing a dinging letter. She called me lots of colorful names. She and her husband were living in Burbank at the time.

Despite our objection letter, the Englishman was here working under the O-1 visa we'd "consulted" on.

Jeff Massie said...

As Steve's assistant, I've done the paperwork for the Guild's immigration advisory letters for some time now.

Unlike the H visas which are more prevalent in CG or technical jobs, the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) requires a union consultation letter for O visas which are supposed to be for "persons of exceptional merit and ability in the creative arts". Labor market conditions are not a criteria – we can complain till the cows come home that US artists are available, and the CIS could care less. Especially ironic given the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the party currently in charge of the Executive branch.

O visas are employer-specific, and the applicant is supposed to return home at the end of their employment. O visa applicants have to qualify under at least three of the following criteria:

1. The applicant will be working as a lead in upcoming productions, and has worked as lead on past films;

2. Within the applicant’s field of endeavor, they have received some recognition in newspapers, trade journals, magazines and other publications;

3. The applicant has worked for other animation companies;

4. Evidence has been presented that Applicant has worked on critically well-regarded motion pictures;

5. Evidence has been presented that Applicant has received recognition from recognized authorities in the field of animation; and

6. The applicant is making a salary commensurate with their ranking and rating in the animation field, as shown above.

Since Steve was elected, out of several thousand O visas that have crossed his desk, I have evidence that our objection letters have prevented at least a couple of dozen foreign applicants from getting US jobs. These were cases of people who clearly didn't qualify under the CIS criteria; almost all were from non-union shops, primarily outside Los Angeles. But over ninety percent of the apps we receive are for people who clearly qualify under at least three of the above criteria.

In recent years it's gotten worse. About a year ago a large LA union shop applied for an O-1 visa for a twenty-year-old artist. We wrote a three-page letter objecting to O visa status, pointing out that the applicant was fresh out of art school, with two months' experience as an unpaid trainee. For the first time in my recollection, we had an applicant who did not meet a single one of the six CIS criteria.

You can probably guess what happened. (By the way, the CIS doesn't have to tell us what action they take on our advisory letters, nor is there any appeal mechanism. The only reason we know about this one is that it was a union shop.) The ultimate irony: three months later, she was fired. Under O visa regs she presumably went back home, but I certainly have no way of knowing.

Many other unions refuse to participate in the advisory process, or else they file objections to every O visa they receive without reviewing them. And so, of course, every visa applicant in their craft gets rubber-stamped. You can object to the process (and perhaps you should), but no one can say the Guild hasn't tried to stop those who are clearly abusing it.

Anonymous said...

Guys, I think thou protest too loudly! Of course the studios are going to try to hire the cheapest labor possible, and overseas is a great source. You guys are going on about how you cannot stop the visa process once the studios make their hiring decision. What about attempting to stop this before they make that foreign hiring choice? Is there no way for the guild to pressure the studios to hire existing able talent here first? How do other IATSE unions deal with this? For instance, I cannot imagine grips, electrical, and teamster unions letting studios do this sort of thing!

Anonymous said...

As someone who worked for many years here under an O-1 visa, I can tell you that I most certainly was not 'cheap labour'. If I wanted to make next to nothing working in animation, I'd have stayed where I was...

Anonymous said...

"Of course the studios are going to try to hire the cheapest labor possible, and overseas is a great source."

Yes, of course - its always cheaper to relocate untested talent in from over-seas, what was I thinking? Those aforementioned Disney artists may not have been eligible for rehire for any number of reasons - not the least fo which may have been they were far to expensive for the output they created. Studios, like the rest of the real world, try to get the best talent they can for the lowest rate possible. That's business.

Anonymous said...

In regards to comment # 1.

Excuse me!! What’s with this racism??? In order for animation to develop in its true art form, what about influences and inspiration from other countries through foreign workers. Go back in animation history and see how many ‘foreign’ workers actually helped create our animation history right in our backyard of Hollywood. Why start stirring up this boarder lining between people. As a union member foreign or not, everyone pays the union dues, and be aware that being foreign you are not allowed to pick up welfare between projects. Its not like foreigners come here to destroy anyone. Some countries actually have better wealth and health-systems than in America. But the passion for creating moving images drives each individual soul. Think about the sacrifices some of these foreigners have to make sometimes, in the name of their passion, and please have some respect. There is a history to every story. I am tired of this ‘picking’ on foreigners. If you want to go that route, please think about what foreign countries have to deal with from America sometimes. Please get a grip.
I certainly hope the Union is supporting its foreign members as much as their American members!! - Being English, German, French, Italian, Korean, etc., etc.
This does not smell good! Shame on you!

Steve Hulett said...

How do other IATSE unions deal with this?

The same way we do. Consulting letters. With the same impact and effect.

I cannot imagine grips, electrical, and teamster unions letting studios do this sort of thing!

Grips, electrical and teamsters don't qualify for O-1 visas.
So assuming they came in under some visa or other, unions would have no say in the matter.

But to your point of not imagining, let me help you out. I know an IA mechanics local -- which covers grips and electrical -- that "fights" the studios by refusing to process immigration visas. And all of the O-1 visa applicants, none of which are grips, drivers or electrical, get in.

And it's not really a big issue for teamsters. No studio would spend money to import teamster classifications because it isn't cost-effective.

Jeff Massie said...

The majority of O visa applications we receive -- and almost all the apps we get from companies in souther California -- are for applicants who are being offered more than the median wages in their job categories.

Anonymous said...

Obviously anyone foreign born who comes to work here on an O visa could never be as, if not more, talented or as important as an American born artist. Is that what your sad post means, Jeff?
All those no-talent European animator losers at Dreamworks, for example, had nothing to offer the industry, did they?
Why don't you take $10 out of my union dues and go buy a clue...

Jeff Massie said...

Please go back and read my last comment again. I am neither saying nor in any way implying that US-born artists are more (or less) talented than foreign-born artists.

Full disclosure: I am not an artist, and I have never presumed to know the difference between a good artist and a bad one. That isn't my job.

My point was that the majority of O visa recipients are being paid MORE than the average animation artist. So, whatever reason employers have for bringing in foreign-born artists, saving $$$ on salaries doesn't seem to be one of them.

Anonymous said...

Ah, my bad. Sorry Jeff. The joy of debating via the internet. All apologies. Read it completely the wrong way...

Anonymous said...

This is an incredibly xenophobic thread. It doesn't reflect well upon us as a community. :-/

Anonymous said...

Honestly it is so much harder for a foreign animator to get a gig in the states than it is for a local. O-1 visa`s are for people of extraordinary ability, They are not easy to get and you`ll find most internationals are not imported because they are cheap, but because they are more talented :/

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