Friday, May 15, 2009

Our Schizoid Business

There are two dynamics going on in Animationland just now. And they're pulling in opposite directions.

On the one hand, there's a lot of employment. It isn't centered in the formerly booming area of television, but in c.g. theatrical features, visual effects, and digital games, which explains why I'm getting a cascade of calls from television production board artists and designers complaining about lack of work at the same time TAG receives 2-3 foreign visas per week for jobs in theatrical c.g. animation.

It seems borderline shizophrenic, but here's an example showing why it's not:

Advancements in animation technology and consumers' insatiable appetite for stylized robots, animals and monsters have propelled the industry. The momentum isn't likely to slow down anytime soon, industry watchers say.

"If you look worldwide, there are 45 or 50 fully 3D feature-length, computer-animated films in production today, ready for release over the next couple of years," says Terrence Masson, an industry veteran who has worked at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic and consulted for Disney and DreamWorks.

See what's going on? At the same time production rockets upward, the fierce competition for production gigs amid a global recession have caused animation salaries to go south.

International competition in the visual effects industry is intensifying and ambitious German companies, exploding onto the scene with upcoming pics like Sony's apocalyptic thriller "2012" and Warner's "Ninja Assassin," are looking for a bigger piece of the action.

... Germans are used to working with "very low overhead. The money all goes into the work." ...

It's little wonder that, with the money squeeze and eagerness of hungry foreign contractors, the dynamics of the business are what they are.

Over the past three weeks, I've heard complaints about shorter schedules and heavier workloads. I've listened to veteran animators talk ruefully about their shrinking salaries, even as the projects on which they work make big money. Four days ago, a staffer at a well-known studio told me:

"They've let us know that when the current project is done next month, we're out the door. They don't want anybody to think they're going to be held over until the next project gets going. A bunch of us told them, 'Yeah, we know. You don't have to keep rubbing it in.'"

Day before yesterday, an IA representative said to me over lunch: "It's a damn good thing we've got contracts at most studios. Otherwise they'd be paying everyone eight bucks an hour."

The rep was talking about live action, but I knew what he meant. Nobody in the cartoon business gloats to me anymore about their weekly salaries at double and triple contract minimums. Most of those jobs have gone away.

Of course, a chosen few at the top don't have to tighten their belts. This is, after all, America.


Anonymous said...

I've just got a bad feeling that the novelty of 3D animation has run its course. It's not enough to pull in audiences anymore. So what's gonna happen to those 40 or 50 fully 3D feature-length, computer-animated films in production today, ready for release over the next couple of years?

Can you say Delgo times 50?

Computers are indeed the great equalizer. Animation on the production level is no longer an art. It's not even a craft. It's assembly-line push-button product. Yes, I know that the old 2D system was like a factory as well. But at least the product was still MADE BY HAND by skilled artisans who did ALL the construction of every character, tedious as it was. That's why the best Disney toons had such soul. I'll stop reminiscing now and go watch Pinocchio again. I need a pick-me-up BAD. Ta.

Kevin Smith said...

The other trend to look for is whether 3D movies without the name Disney or Dreamworks attached to them will make any money. Battle for Terra, while not a bad movie by any account, crashed and burned, in no small part due to Wolverine coming out the same day.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, I know that the old 2D system was like a factory as well. But at least the product was still MADE BY HAND by skilled artisans who did ALL the construction of every character, tedious as it was."

What the hell do you think happens in a 3D production? - THE SAME DAMN THING!

Ignorant, ill-informed, biased nonsense...

Dongle said...

What the hell do you think happens in a 3D production? - THE SAME DAMN THING!

Ignorant, ill-informed, biased nonsense...

Yeah, I decided to cut the anti-CG guy some slack. They sound very down-in-the-dumps, and I expect a little lashing out when people are having a down period.

The animated films that have a soul are the ones that have good stories, and a singular, passionate vision behind them, making clever choices. Medium is largely irrelevant; the audience really doesn't much care, and the medium doesn't decide whether a film is good or not. We've all seen good and bad from every medium.

Most of those 50 animated films will be terrible. They would be, whether they are handdrawn, cg, stop motion, or whatever. A few will be good. A tiny, tiny couple will be great. It's just the natural law of averages.

Anonymous said...

I only wish the union had some pull with the Major Union Studios farming things out to foreign markets.... Dreamworks has a studio in India. Disney has an Indian studio as well... Pixar at least kept it in the same continent by opening up a shop in Canada.... But still.... If the Union wont do anything about foreign production, and the State of California wont do anything either... There is nothing to stop production 2D or 3D from going oversees to cheaper bids.... Sad but true.

Anonymous said...

I'm a newbie, trying to soak up some knowledge from seasoned professionals while trying to figure out the dynamics of studio business and life and the union.
so i'm sitting at my desk i overhear an artist complaining about losing their job. In response, an offer was made to re-train that artist in CG. The artist then complained that he was not interested in learning CG because it was not a traditional art. The conversation moved away at that time, and I am not sure how it ended. I'm thinking the artist walked away knowing that they would probably not have a job soon. But just the thought that this artist was unwilling to embrace change was bewildering.
I am a little disheartened about the attitudes around town. Having read through the TAG blog recently it feels like people are overreacting about everything! Almost feels like junion-high all over again. I am not sure if people are reacting out of fear, hostility or unwillingness to embrace change? Please enlighten me. No mater what the reason, it is sad. I am in this industry because I love art, I love animation, and I want to be apart of making awesome animated films for kids and adults. It doesn't matter the craft or style; let it be 2d, 3d, stop-motion, live action, VR, stereo, upside down or backwards, they are all amazing artistic tools. I was always told that the job of the artist is to masterfully use his/her tools to tell a story. If the story is strong, nothing else matters, it's just the icing on the cake. The pressures of life, studio politics, foreign competition, the market... blah blah blah... we should use our time efficiently, embrace and experiment with new and old ideas and be open to change. We did not become artist to make money. We became artist because we are all just a little bit schizoid no? move me to Canada or NZ, sounds like a fun adventure. So what's up with this union anyway, do the artists do anything other than complain, bicker, and dwell on what was? Just curious.


Dongle said...

To v:

I think it's understandable that there is both nostalgia and a resistance to change in people who grew up believing things a certain way, only to see it all change. It's human nature.

Ultimately, though, you are absolutely correct. Change and evolution are the truest constants in life, and any artist (or anybody, for that matter) who wants to continue to stay relevant needs to be willing to adapt. The best ones are not only willing, but enthusiastic to change, because it makes life more interesting, sparks new ideas, and prevents statism.

As people grow older, though, they often desire stability--the reassurance that they can predict and rely on what they already know. I don't think it's an "animation" thing, an "artist" thing, a "union" thing, or whatever. It's simply human nature.

Anonymous said...

3D is not for everyone - some folks just don't enjoy the process or have any interest in it. However, that's vastly different than running down artists who choose to work in 3D. To imply that it's not art, that it's not craft, but merely button-pushing is just insulting. It's not unusual though; there's never a post on here mentioning 3D that doesn't include a negative comment from 2D purists

If you don't like 3D, that's great; it's one less person to compete with in a crowded job market. But to suggest that there is no artistry involved is naive at best and disingenuous at worst. It's not the fault of your fellow animators that 3D productions outnumber 2D just now. Save the us versus them attitude for your political discussions :0)

Anonymous said...

Everybody desires stability. Stability is key to a child's upbringing, the mental and physical health of teens, young adults, adults, and elderly. Please do not assume that just because someone is young, or new to the industry that they do not desire stability just as much as the seasoned professional does. Nothing is absolute, and stability is a construct which can never truly be attained. Life and human nature will always be in flux, no matter how we try to control it.

I guess my question really is, what can we do to break the ice between the old and the new? Is it not reasonable to work together to create unique animated films? Lets experiment!


Anonymous said...

Not loving 3D does not necessarily mean being unable to embrace change. Like everyone else, I have seen both 3D and 2D films. And by now I am thoroughly sick of the SIGHT of 3D animation. It's blah, it's static, it's sterile, it's visually tiring, and it doesn't delight the eye and imprint on the mind the way really lush, lavish 2D does. Certainly it has its place, but the result is not superior in any way to the visual feast that is Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, Fantasia, or even a minor accomplishment like Treasure Planet. After watching a bunch of CGI films, (and enjoying most of them), I was astounded at my visceral reaction to seeing Pinocchio. I was starving, and I didn't even know it...

Anonymous said...

>>>I only wish the union had some pull with the Major Union Studios farming things out to foreign markets....

See "World Production" post by Steve, below. Unions can't do anything about this, nor do they believe this is possible. Nor do capitalists or socialists or communists. Anyone who says they can is running for a public office.

DSM said...

It's not that a CG film is less of an art form or less entertaining than traditional, it's that less of the process of producing CG involves artists- it's more technical by nature. Does anybody come out of a CG film marveling at the riveting rigs, tantalizing textures or the breathtaking lighting? I don't think so.

And why doesn't anybody pick up on the implicit admission by Steve that much of benefit this CG boom is being enjoyed by foreign trained and foreign born artists, leaving many American animators who may have no objection to joining in the fun, (and employment), with their unemployed noses to the glass.

Why? Maybe because they come from countries where they don't consider free vocational training "Socialism."

They got the jump on us, and we never really caught up.

Anonymous said...

>>move me to Canada or NZ, sounds like a fun adventure<<

Sounds like someone is single. Some of us have wives and children. Jumping around from country to country isn't very attractive.

Enjoy it while you're young. Because one day you're going to realize that you can't get up and move so easily. You'll may be stuck with wherever you are at that time.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the studios are overrun by them fur'rners!

Whatever. I work at a large feature CG studio. Very few "foreigners". The percentage of Canadian-born animators is about the same as it was back in the 2D days. Same is true at every other major studio.

Certainly 3D is very technical, and requires many technical people. But it still requires a large number of artists too, and the better CG movies are the ones that involve even more artists. And that is certainly the trend right now.

DSM said...

'...television production board artists and designers complaining about lack of work at the same time TAG receives 2-3 FOREIGN VISAS per week for jobs in theatrical c.g. animation." -Steve Hulett (above)

"Very few "foreigners". The percentage of Canadian-born animators is about the same as it was back in the 2D days. Same is true at every other major studio."

I suppose Steve H doesn't know what he is talking about. Or maybe your just blowing it out of your ass. How the hell do you know what's going on at other studios, anyway? Do you go around taking surveys? And who said anything about Canadians, eh?

Anonymous said...

"Does anybody come out of a CG film marveling at the riveting rigs, tantalizing textures or the breathtaking lighting? I don't think so."

Rigs, no; just as no one comes out of a 2D movie marveling at the quality of the graphite used in the pencils. But if you're coming out of a 3D movie unimpressed with textures and lighting, then you're going in with a bias that prevents you from appreciating the meticulous work of some very highly skilled artists. And that's just sad.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody come out of a CG film marveling at the riveting rigs, tantalizing textures or the breathtaking lighting? I don't think so...

Absolutely. I have friends who are not in the animation business, just average moviegoers, who were absolutely flabbergasted at the colors and rich detail of the underwater scenes in Finding Nemo. They couldn't get over the beauty of the water, the sealife, the marine plants, etc.

I remember similar comments coming from many different quarters at the time. I've heard others comment on the beautiful art direction and lighting in Rataouille, especially in the kitchen.

But really, this is all just dancing around the elephant in the room. All these anti-CG comments have one thing in common. They all come from people who feel excluded from the process of making CG films, and are discouraged that their professional worlds have been disrupted. For that, I can totally understand. For anyone who is unemployed, or facing unemployment, I would encourage them to re-train, as many others have successfully done. There are a wealth of good schools, both physical and online, to help guide you.

robiscus said...

The bottom line here is that CGI is not better than 2D. Its just new, but "new has an expiration date and we are just about upon that day.

People still ant to see drawings move. Why? Because its cool. As cool as CGI, but the studio heads are so stupid, so dimwitted and so trendy in their binary thought processes that they actually believe that CGI has completely replaced 2D. If you love CGI, tyhen you should be upset about the glut of these pictutres because signs are pointing to the bottom falling out on the CGI sector.

The simple reason beind tis is the universal truth that "that which goes up, must also come down". A rock solid bet always.

robiscus said...

^I apologize for all the typos. yikes...

DSM said...

There is a huge gulf between "taking a course" and bumping a thoroughly trained professionally experienced CG artist from his position. I wonder how "many" of the jobs in the field are currently being filled by Americans, caught with their pants down by the virtually overnight revolution in our job market who bridged the gap with Sunday classes. If there are so "many," what are all the visas about?

Those conversations, reported by the "newbie" upblog a bit, where some 2-D artists turned down in-house 3-D training happened years ago during the time of Dinosaurs and Antz. That door has been long shut.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is hard to get into the 3D end of the business with minimal training - just as it was hard 10 years ago to get into the 2D side with minimal drawing skills. Why should it be any different?

The notion that the industry changed "virtually overnight" is absurd. 2D production didn't stop with the release of Toy Story. Artists who chose to stay in 2D rather than transition to 3D had every right to do so, but also are responsible for the consequences of that decision.

Wishful thinking and drive-by slagging of 3D by 2D artists won't change anything. Yes, watching drawings come to life is unbelievably cool, but not many of those films are getting made today. So the question remains: what are you going to do about it that's actually productive?

DSM said...

"Chose?" Are you kidding? How smug and arrogant. Listen, Mr. "I'm-all-right-Jack," Stop you forced equivocating and acknowledge the problem. Stop blaming the victims. Very few of us were given the "choice," then or have it now. We basically have the door slammed in our faces. Are there courses? Are there schools? Of course there are, but how effective are they given the competition and the demands of the professional pipeline? Some of us need jobs now and don't have the luxury of being able to indulge in long-range comprehensive re-training. What are the odds that I can take one course and then set myself up in the cubicle next to yours? Not very high. I suppose I deserve it because I made the wrong "choice" at some mythical, proverbial crossroads sometime (when exactly?),in the murky past.

Steve Hulett said...

...television production board artists and designers complaining about lack of work at the same time TAG receives 2-3 FOREIGN VISAS per week for jobs in theatrical c.g. animation." -Steve Hulett (above)

"Very few "foreigners". The percentage of Canadian-born animators is about the same as it was back in the 2D days. Same is true at every other major studio."

TAG sees visas for union and non-union animation shops, viz effx shops, games studios in all parts of the country (northwest, northeast, etc.)

There's a whole lot going on out there, my friend. Way beyond the L.A. cluster of cartoon houses.

robiscus said...

"Wishful thinking and drive-by slagging of 3D by 2D artists won't change anything. Yes, watching drawings come to life is unbelievably cool, but not many of those films are getting made today."Aaaaand this is reflective of what? How immensely shortsighted you are?

When I say that 2D films are AS good as CGI, I didn't mean to stom,p on your sensibilities so that you would devolve into a juvenile tirade. Nor will I apologize for it.

Its actually a telling sing of things to come when the bottom falls out on the CGI boom. That which goes up must also come down and in the future, I can GUARANTEE you that we will be in here discussing how there are just a fraction of the purely animated CGI films being made as there were in the past.

As CGI and live action merge closer and closer there will be no difference between the tow and live action will be augmented into a CGI vision. Animators won't be needed to do any acting.

Enter the desire to see drawings move again. Its all cyclical.

Anonymous said...

You may be right that handdrawn will experience a renaissance sometime in the future. Or you may be wrong. I don't know, because the future is a tricky thing to predict with any accuracy.

A while ago, I decided not to rely on faith--faith that at some point in the future, the stars would re-align for me, and I could jump right back into the 2D world that had been so familiar to me. I reluctantly began re-training, and yeah, it certainly took longer than one course. It turned out that having prior skills in 2D were a definite BENEFIT and ADVANTAGE when learning 3D. And it paid off.

I mention this not with some "how-great-am-I" attitude, but simply to point out that it absolutely IS possible to re-train and get back into the pipeline. People are doing it every week! The visas that Steve mentioned should be an indication that animation employers ARE needing people, and I assure you, they'd rather hire someone local than go through the hassle of visas, and possibly green cards. There ARE jobs out there, if you're willing to train for them.

Anonymous said...

@ Daniel,

Dude. That may have been the saddest display of a pity party I have ever read.

You mean to tell me you would rather sit and wait and complain rather than taking night classes, or going through a program like animation mentor in your spare time...or anything else for that matter?

If you don't have anymore ambition or self determination than that...well frankly, you deserve to be out of work.

Sorry pal...put up or shut up.

DSM said...

I'll thank you to park the sarcasm, "pal." There was no self-pity here. I'm just trying to bust the lies distortions and hypocrisy. I'm saying that the visas combined with the high unemployment among those not seated when the music stopped proves that there is something rotten in Denmark.

Tell the truth. Is that how you got you got your job-Animation Mentor in your "spare" time, and bingo- you were in? Come on.

What I do see is a lot of smug self satisfied nose thumbing from CG people and hypocrisy from studios who think that training CG artists in India is a good investment, but training people in America is not.

Anonymous said...

It's true that studios generally aren't retraining artists anymore. They don't have to; here is a very large pool of 3D-savvy artists for studios to choose from. That's true here in the states as well as overseas, the difference being that overseas workers get paid less - just as overseas 2D animators have for decades.

I don't see any smug self-satisfaction; what I do see are statements that retraining in 3D can and does happen all the time, if one is interested in it. What one does with that information is up to the individual.

DSM said...

Again and again, you are avoiding any reference to the visas. That's what started the discussion. If the talent pool is indeed "very large" then why is Steve handling three visas a week?

To me, every visa represents one potentially retrained American artist stuck on unemployment.

Railing on about self-determination and taking the initiative doesn't really address the issue. That can be applied to any field at any time and in any situation.

r said...


r said...

the relevant part starts at 3:00


Anonymous said...


Ok, I understand your point about the visa issue. It is unfortunate for sure and really sucks for the industry.

But look, at some point you have to deal with the issue one way or another. Either start training yourself, take night classes, or find a mentor to teach you 3D...or start your own thing and become your own boss.

Either one of those situations puts you more in control of your situation.

Whether the problem is 3D, or executives, or India, or some point you can't worry about that and just do WHATEVER you need to do for yourself and your family to succeed.

Daniel said...

Enough with the cheerleading. You are missing the point. I am certainly not against taking the initiative, raising your intention level or seizing control of your destiny or any of that high-minded stuff. Even in a world of infinite fairness and opportunity, (which this is not), nothing is or can be achieved without focusing all of your intention on your goals, and taking responsibility for your life- no disagreement, here.

The problem is that you are using these principals to let these companies off the hook. You are taking their intransigence as a given and their policies as unassaultable and unassailable. This flies in the face of the entire principle of unionism. These short-sighted, greedy corporate policies and practices are bad for, not only the industry but the economy and the country. They have to change. They have to open the doors. It will be good for everyone.

Yes, we can do the heroic Rocky bit. I've got my sweats on. Start the music! But really, why should we have to go through all that? Why can't they meet us halfway?

g said...

Daniel, if you're so hell bent on doing traditional work, why didnt you get a job at Disney doing Princess and the Frog?

Were you not good enough?

By the way, I worked at Disney when the reverse of what we're all discussing happened. SOME animators, when Bolt wrapped, were laid off EVEN though they showed a STRONG desire to work on PATF, and had the resume to back it up. Their work wasnt deemed good enough. It can happen both ways, and it does.

To be honest, this stupid discussion inevitably rears its ugly head every 2 months or so on TAG blog, and every time its the same nausea-inducing diatribe from some bitter animator who says CG is a button pushing, brainless process, and in my opinion they can go fuck themselves. Ive worked on enough pictures to know that is COMPLETELY not the case. You have to a slam-dunk awesome good actor, a fantastic compositionalist, a master of weight, spacing, and timing, and have the uncanny ability to take an ugly-as-shit rig and pose it into a living breathing work of art. PS. I draw each one of my keyframes as my blocking pass for director approval, so hows that for not being an artist?

Your argument is that the current rise of CG films is due to the "easiness" of making them, where my counter argument is that the market has become so lucrative that more young people are becoming animators instead of other types of artists, and the market supports it. There are more schools and more opportunities (even outside of filmmaking) than ever before, and therefore more people doing it. But trust me, we throw away 99 percent of the reels we receive, because their work is absolute garbage. Yes, even masters of Maya can be (and more likely are) sucky animators.

Daniel, if you're so good, you could take one class of animation mentor to bruch up on the tools in Maya, and you'd be set in no time. But unfortunately, I suspect you are just spouting off here on TAG blog and have very little high-quality work on your reel. And if you DO, then shame on you for not evolving with your industry if this is really what you want to do.

Daniel said...

First of all, you are confusing me with some of the other bloggers. I didn't put down CG or insist on working in 2-D. If I had that much volition there would be no problem. I'm not particular about what tools I'm using, I just want to work. I think most of the animators in my situation would make the same statement. The subject was about our being denied access to that work and the opportunity to retrain appropriately to qualify for it. The very fact that 99% of the reel submissions you receive are "garbage" as you put it, only proves the point. The percentage of acceptable reels would be much higher if we had access to better training as they apparently do in other countries.

That brings me to the main subject of the visas. Instead of training us, the industry chooses the easier solution of importing artists and other specialists who have been trained elsewhere.

As far as PATF, you are obviously trying to change the subject by baiting me and insulting me. You have absolutely no idea who I am, what my experience has been or how talented I am. In other words, your blowing out of your ass, just to be provocative. Nice try. In point of fact you are imposing logic and cause-and-effect on a situation that doesn't have any. It would be a nice storybook world if who was or wasn't hired to work on the feature was simply a question of talent. The fact is, I personally know many artists with years of experience working on Disney feature films and are easily qualified and talented enough who were passed over. They just didn't have the right "friends."

Your really blowing it out of your ass with that one class-and-in fairy tale. How many artists do you know, (and this isn't the first time I asked), who did that? (Among the 1% that didn't submit garbage, that is).

g said...

Fine, whatever.

But from my experience, we hire completely based on talent and experience, not by "importing artists" over training traditional American animators. Thats something you've fabricated. Sorry to tell you, but its the truth.

We dont care where you're from, or who you know, only that you can do the job. If you havent learned CG after smelling the blood in the water for nearly 2 decades, thats on you.

You're right, I dont know you, but based on some guesswork Im thinking you've possibly done some traditional feature work, but probably cleanup or in-betweener, or TV/DVD stuff. You were let go at some point (maybe layoffs, maybe you werent cutting it) and now you're making excuses (visas, lack of training)

My honest advice, do some training. Ive known 3 or 4 people PERSONALLY who were already great traditional animators and took animation mentor or taught themselves maya and are now working. Dont be afraid of the computer, like Lasseter said, its nothing more than a more intricate pencil.

Daniel said...


I'm glad you've changed your tone, so I will, too. It sounds like you are experienced, knowledgeable and in a position of responsibility in CG animation.

In some ways your guesswork about me was surprisingly accurate in some ways, in others-way off. No, I never worked my way up to the level of traditional theatrical feature animator, but I have done a much broader variety of work than you would think for a much longer time and in several different fields.

Where you were way off was my attitude toward CG. Far from being "afraid of the computer," years ago,(but not decades), seeing which way the wind was blowing, (I don't remember smelling blood, exactly), I jumped in with both feet. Aside from applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and Flash, I took a series of Maya courses. I worked with nurbs and polys, inverse and forward kinematics, modeling and texture mapping. I created rigs, used graphs, animated cameras and targeted morphs (morphed targets?). In other words, the works.

Unfortunately, my home computer couldn't handle Maya and I couldn't spare enough lab time to complete a reel. For the sake of my family I had to use my non-class time to look for a paycheck. As far as CG work goes, as you well know: No reel-no paycheck.

Now your advice is to go through all that again with no more assurance that it will result in a paycheck than I had before. No, thank you.

A few lucky traditional animators back in the day, who happened to be in the right place at the right time got training AND a paycheck. That's what I want.

The visas are real, so is the unemployment. You say you know "3 or 4" people? Considering how many of us are looking for work, that's pathetic.

g said...

Well, I dont know everybody in the industry. But out of the 50 or so animators at my studio, to know 4 of them who never touched a computer before 2 years ago is pretty good.

Honestly, look into Animation Mentor. Its vastly different than anything else youve taken. They dont teach you the technicals of rigging and modeling, strictly how to get effective performances out of pre existing rigs, just like a feature film studio would expect you to do. I think you'd find it extremely helpful, especially since you already know animation

Caveat: Ive never taken the course myself, but some of my coworkers teach there and Ive seen students hired from there all the time, and Ive seen enough of it to know what they do

Good luck

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