Sunday, April 17, 2011

No Roof Rupturing?

Down below a commenter asks:

[W]hy haven't animator wages exploded through the roof?? The successes we're seeing today vastly, vastly exceed the "2nd Golden Age" of the early 90s. Disney, Dreamworks, Fox, and Universal have all seen big profits from animated movies.

We know there have been collusion agreements between the studios in the past. Do we know there aren't still going on now? According to the free market, folks working in animation should be among the highest paid in the industry. ...

I rattled off an answer in comments, but allow me to expand here.

1) The early to middle nineties ("The Second Golden Age") saw an explosion of animated features getting produced. Fox, Turner, Warner Bros., DreamWorks were all jumping into the game. Sadly, most fell on their large, corporate backsides in a very compact period of time: Less than a half dozen years.

2) During that happy but now far-away decade, there were a few things that caused wages to explode. A) A small number of animation artists with production experience were pursued by multiple (and eager) bidders for their services -- Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Turner Feature Animation, DreamWorks SKG, Fox Feature Animation (Phoenix), etc., etc. B) There was a feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, and Mr. Eisner gave Disney Feature marching orders to do "whatever it took" to prevent Disney artists from defecting to DreamWorks (or other places).

As a result, wages at the Mouse House (and elsewhere) skyrocketed.

But that "high wage window" turned out to be unsustainable. Production costs climbed dramatically, and many of the resulting hand-drawn pictures didn't perform well. Several of the newer feature divisions closed their doors, and suddenly there was a surplus of animation labor. And we all know Adam Smith's axium regarding supply and demand.

What goes up, also goes down. Pay rates tumbled.

Of course, now there are far more successful CGI animated features than there were hand-drawn specimens in the nineties, so why haven't wages shot up again? I would submit it's largely due (once more) to good old supply and demand. CGI features have been ramping up for fifteen years, and universities and colleges have had lots of time to turn out CG animators and technicians. So a far larger pool of animation talent exists in 2011 than sixteen or seventeen years ago.

Lastly, you don't have studios actively bidding against each other the way they did in the middle nineties. Today you have the reverse, as evidenced by the recent track records of some of our fine entertainment companies. Cartoon factories now work diligently to make sure the go-go nineties don't repeat themselves. And if a few (alleged) illegalities occur, kindly note that we live in a corporatist age where the only consequences for companies' misbehavior are a few gently-rapped knuckles, after which we all take a deep breath and move on. ("Nothing to see here, people! Let's continue with the tour!")

So there are more jobs, but also more people to fill them. And there are lots of eagle-eyed execs to make certain nobody's pay packet becomes overly weighty.


stevenem said...

In addition to the expansion and increased availability of specialized training, there is the game industry feeding talent into the animation studios, an influx of international talent, (and studios), and the nature of the work, which is more technical and specialized than in the nineties.

It's a good question, one I have often wondered about, but I would be curious to know what the intent of the question was. Is there an intended implication that, somehow, today's animation talent pool or labor establishment is too passive or has dropped the ball in some way?

Steve Hulett said...

Nope. I think it's more a case of supply and demand (as I said.)

Also a bit of wage tamp down from various companies, as evidenced by the government settlements referenced in the "Rigging" post, linked above.

Anonymous said...

Artists are notoriously poor business people, but need to change that and charge what they are worth. Rates have gone down while profits are through the roof. Animation creates the top money making features and artists are being paid less. Corporations are not going to voluntarily pay artists more. That is up to the artists and the union to pressure the studios and producers to comply. Without union support, artists are on their own negotiating without any backup. The union must work with artists and lead the way for change.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I've seen rates increase lately, across several companies. Not leaps and bounds, but 20% increases or so. I'll be curious to see what the wage survey is like next year.

What's funny, is that the increases happened several months after the news hit about the collusion between PDI, ILM and Pixar. I know that many of my friends at Disney and DW all got increases...

Anonymous said...

With CGI, people are easier to replace now too.

Anonymous said...

20% sounds like a lot. That's not leaps and bounds? Unless they haven't received increases in 10 years.

Anonymous said...

20% for some. But raises overall.

But one could argue that wages used to be double and triple what they are now. That would be leaps and bounds in my opinion

stevenem said...

Steve, I know what your take on the issue is, I was referring to the poster who asked the question.

For example, "Artists are notoriously poor business people," according to the poster, above, blaming the victims, which I profoundly disagree with.

You often talk about "leverage." Aside from a sudden ridiculously high demand for talent, where will that leverage come from?

Steve Hulett said...

Leverage -- for the immediate future, anyway -- will come from the market momentum of animation.

You will note the L.A. Times article posted above. Animation is now red hot as a movie commodity. And television cartoons are resurging. Here and there, animation studios are hanging on to some of their artists. This hasn't happened since the 1990s.

The demand side of the ledger is working in artists favor right now. Particularly if those artists have the right skill sets.

stevsenem said...

"Particularly if those artists have the right skill sets."

Ah, the old meritocracy canard. I wonder what your reaction would have been if someone had said that to you during the period of your career that you were out of work.

What do skill sets have to do with union signatory studios sending skilled work overseas that had previously been done in house, or "laundering" their work through boutique studios as piecework to evade paying full CBA contract wages.

Anonymous said...

-- "Particularly if those artists have the right skill sets."

- Ah, the old meritocracy canard.

Until recently I was at an 839 signatory company.
I'm over 50, and in the director's daily review of our work he would single my work out as the example to follow. A 20-something-year-old who was on their second project in this industry was made my supervisor by the producer. This despite the director routinely dismissing their work as overly complicated, distracting, and heavy-handed.

I was let go at the end of the project, with the young supervisor remaining in place.

Right skill set, indeed.

Anonymous said...

What do skill sets have to do with union signatory studios sending skilled work overseas that had previously been done in house

Ah, you've heard that DreamWorks is going back on their promise to keep all feature work in house, and is sending some of Puss in Boots to India.

Anonymous said...

I was a recruiter back in the mid 90's (Ive since, after a lot of training, joined the artist pool)but I can remember way back then when rank and file animators told me to contact their agents because they did not do their own deals. I can remember talking to animation students who told me the same thing. Students w/ agents! I remember those same animators trading in their trusty Toyota for a brand new "Beemer". They bought new houses, took grand vacations, bragged about their in home theaters. Those were heady, but unsustainable, times. So many grasshoppers, so few ants. So much entitlement and arrogance so little humility. Yes, some studio management can and will take advantage of the talent, but the talent are not all saints.

Anonymous said...

"...I was a recruiter back in the mid 90's..."

When ILM was under IATSE 16 back then, DD started up and began heavily recruiting the talent pool (thank you, Scott Ross). Those ILM Union wages were a tent-pole for other shops to rise up to if they wanted to compete for the talent. ILM responded to the raiding with the first round of those oh-so-forgotten Personal Service Contracts, and gave everyone who stayed at least a 20% bump up. When ILM moved to the Presidio and finally got the Lemmings to dump Local 16 (and vote no on 839), they then cut salaries in most cases by a third, conveniently forgetting that once-upon-a-time talent was valuable enough to reward their loyalty.

I understand that ILM Singapore is doing very nicely, however.

witheld for obvious reasons said...

"So much entitlement and arrogance so little humility. Yes, some studio management can and will take advantage of the talent, but the talent are not all saints.

'Off course I'd like to strike you, but you speak the truth...' Frasier.

Anonymous said...

"...the talent are not all saints"

On this blog, they are.

withheldforobviousreasons said...

Wether the talent is a bunch of docile sheep or arrogant a-holes is completely irrelevant to the issue of fair wages.

How come animators in the eighties where making $1500 per week on average, and today that figure is almost the same? Today's 100 does not go as far as they use to in the 80's....

Anonymous said...

"How come animators in the eighties where making $1500 per week on average, and today that figure is almost the same? Today's 100 does not go as far as they use to in the 80's...."

Because back then there were not schools pumping out hundreds and hundreds of animators. Are they all great, no but many-many of them are damn good. And as well as being damn good they are damn hungry and will work for less $$$. Also, rigs have gotten lighter, tools easier to use, playbacks faster, this allows newbies more iterations. Like Steve said, supply and demand dude, lots more animators now then back in the days of 2D

Anonymous said...

So much entitlement and arrogance so little humility.

So the fact that there was a several-year period where animators got treated like stars, in contrast to the other 100 years of animation history? How convenient to generalize from this moment in history.

And I call bullshit on 'students with agents.' I was a beginning animator in those days, and I didn't have an agent, nor did my friends. Yeah, lead animators and the like often did, but few of the rank and file.

And how is it arrogance to have an agent? Why is it normal and acceptable for creatives in other entertainment industries to have agents, but animators are supposed to remain humble and happy to have flat to declining wages for the last dozen years, while the films we create make billions?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"...Also, rigs have gotten lighter, tools easier to use, playbacks faster, this allows newbies more iterations...."

One more reason that "newbies" are NOT more cost-effective to a production.

More iterations mean more disk space storage and archiving, more editorial updating, increased review process, increased data flow tracking for coordinators and PAs, etc.

Anonymous said...

You've supposedly transitioned to the creative side and you still feel that way about the artists who got good deals?

However much the "entitlement and arrogance" was or IS now, it's MINISCULE compared to anyone over those same artists-producers, executives, "development" people. And their skills are-what exactly? Getting the job.

At least every one of those artists were expected to work and work a lot for their paychecks, not just attend meetings and "manage" talent. Hey, someone's got to do the exec work, sure, but don't kid yourself that they have respect for ANYONE on the art side beyond how much money said artists pull down and clout they claim.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

CG animation doesn't require NEARLY the time and effort and talent that classic Disney 2D required. Period. That's why there are now too many chickens for the available chicken feed.

Anonymous said...

The words of someone who knows NOTHING of CG. Probably thinks little elves do all the work in that "fancy computer thing" too.

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