Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Never-Ending Cycle

A few days back, I was in one of our signator studios and discovered that the in-house staff in one of the artistic departments was being cut, and that work was being freelanced to "save money." ...

I've been doing this business rep thing for a while now, and let me tell you how this "freelance" thing goes:

1) Management gets tired of the expense of a larger, in-house staff, makes decision to reduce the number of employees and "freelance the work out."

2) Management cuts staff, freelances work. Problems develop:

A) Work coming in looks like crap.

B) Artists that management was depending on get ticked off, decline to freelance and go elsewhere for employment.

C) Management, in response (and desperation), builds up an in-house "artistic repairs" crew to ameliorate problem.

3) Work starts to look halfway decent again. Management brings more work in-house. Work looks even better. A bean counter notices (again) that costs are going up, and ...

Rinse and repeat.

I've seen this cycle happen numerous times during my tenure here. One of my favorite versions involved animation writers at Disney in the middle nineties. The division was roaring, with lots of product rolling down the pike (this was the era of "Duck Tales" and "The Disney Afternoon" on local teevee.) There were sixty writers in-house, but after a couple of years, many of them started getting laid off. But there was still a lot of production going on, so I asked one of the scribes what was happening. He said, "The staff writers aren't doing a lot of scripts." I asked why. He said:

"Because when we write a half-hour show, the story editor gives us notes, and we re-write it. And then after that draft, the producer goes over it, and we re-write it again. After that the executive producer gives us notes, and we write it one more time. Then the head of production reads it, and people on the main lot, and the producer looks at it again, and we do three or four more passes ..."

By now my head was starting to throb. I asked him how long this whole process took. He looked at me and said: "For one script? Around six months."

My head hurt worse. "So you're doing, like, two scripts a year?"

He nodded. "That sounds about right."

The above explains why Disney TVA was then laying off animation writers. When you are paying a year's salary for two half-hour scripts, you are not getting much bang for your buck.

It also explains why studios often cut in-house artists. Executivs keep suggesting "improvements." Or the director and/or producer can't make up their minds about a design. Or the supervisors keep wanting the storyboard changed because "it just doesn't look right" now that they've seen it.

And pretty soon all the creative thrashing around means that production budgets start going up, and the decision is made to off-load the costs of the indecision onto the backs of free-lancers.

Trouble is, at the same time costs are lowered, quality goes in the tank, and there are suddenly another set of problems, with the inevitable result of creative supervisors, artists and writers tearing their hair out, arguments in conference rooms, and a lurch back toward remedies that make the show better. Which brings more employees back in house before the whole push-me pull-you fan dance begins again.

Maybe I've been doing this too long.


Floyd Norman said...

Beautifully put, Steve. That pretty much says it all.

This “dance” is truly insane, yet studios continue to play it. I’m beginning to see that animation studios are often run like General Motors or Chrysler. No wonder the results aren’t pretty.

I’ve opted out of the dance, and today I spend most of my time mocking executives. I doubt I’ll ever run out of material.

Kristen said...

Fantastic incite. So if you have to do finger pointing, where should it go? TOO MANY COOKS SPOIL THE POT. Keep the artist, take 90% of the 'opinions' out of the mix. Trust in your people, that's what it comes down to.

Your observations are invaluable.

Irving M said...


Let us all remember that the decision makers are NOT to blame here. And instead... the ECONOMY is at fault.

(anybody else gotten this misdirection?)

TMatte said...

I hope it gives you a brief intermission to laugh.

Fan trailer edit made from the original short film "Vicious Circle":

Link to original full short:

Anonymous said...

Nowadays, when scripts on certain shows FINALLY get approved, a short visual version of it goes through a focus group, and further changes are made as a result. This is where all the child psychologists and educational experts get THEIR shot at the story.

After the artists finally get to storyboard a show, the director gives them notes, and they make changes. Then the producer goes over it, and they make more changes in the clean-up stage. Then the suits go over it and more changes are called for. These changes go to a revisionist to make those changes. Then, after the animatic is completed, the producer and director may call for even more changes.

And when all is said and done, the result is a memorable, life-altering masterpiece of animation virtuosity from some off-shore factory filled with desperate artists who can barely relate to the script, the terminology, the acting or the storytelling depicted in the storyboard.

Memorable shows like... uh... hmm...

gimme a sec...



Anonymous said...

All of the above makes me want to hurl. Not because it's all not true, either. The idea of non-talent dictating to talent gives me all sorts of negative physical reactions, some of them quite violent. So, is this onerous situation any better at Pixar, given that a truly talented guy is supposedly in charge there now?

Anonymous said...

This kind of thing happens typically in large entrenched entitlement management structures. Defective group think is primarily allowed to mushroom to dysfunctional proportions in the wake of large inflows of capital that are the direct result of what Hollywood likes to call "a hit." These are sometimes happened upon by accident, but more often through intense artificial marketing of the illusion of one. In either case, the largest beneficiaries of the 'hit' are simply the people that have been able to hang onto their corporate entitlements for the longest period of time and over the most number of 'hits', in much the same way senior roster employees of entitlement labor structures retain employment in spite of their negligible contribution to the work being done.

Executive 'notes' are given simply because executives are bored. That is a fact. Pixar included.

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