Monday, September 8, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

On a past post I contemplated whether or not New York has an animation industry. For my purpose, I’m defining “industry,” as consistent employment available for a large number of artists at ten or more large studios. Clearly, New York does not have an animation industry in the Hollywood sense. Yet, we have work––sometimes stretching for a year or more at a time, more often for substantially shorter periods than that. Instead of ten or more large studios, there are only three or four active large studios with temporary employees numbering over fifty employees. Since Blue Sky is planning a move to Connecticut, we can leave them out of the equation. The majority of animation studios in the Big Apple are smaller boutique-style operations that expand and contract based on the amount of work they take in.

With no consistent “industry,” in New York, its animation artists survive by their wits, skills, and creativity. We build relationships. We look out for one another and recommend each other when appropriate. Sometimes large groups of artists even seem to migrate from job-to-job in packs. Witness the large group of Code Name: Kids Next Door employees landing at Word World, as well as the stampede of a core group of artists pack-walking from Little Bill-to-Wonder Pets-to-Little Einsteins-to-Umi Zumis. As much as there is movement in groups and individuals looking out for one another... real community group action has been lacking at times when its been needed most.

First launching in 1996, Blue’s Clues was one of the first digital-in house animated series in New York. Certainly, it was the largest and most successful of its kind. Developing its new model for series production, the show spent its first three seasons honing its production systems to ever increasing efficiency. It was just in time too, because by season four, the show nearly doubled in production and greatly expanded its staff. A weak link with Nickelodeon’s digital studio of that time was the tech department, which serviced and maintained the busy staff’s computers.

The increase in computer stations wasn’t accompanied by increase in the already spotty tech service. Animation artists had long grumbled about slow fix times when their computers were down but, the biggest issue was lack of basic communication from the tech department. An animation artist would call in the tech problems and get no response. And when a tech person did visit their station there was little to no follow up information on when a computer might be fixed or what the problem was. In short, animation artists weren’t feeling very supported on this issue. But, for years the crew kept their complaints to themselves or to each other by griping over the problem at lunch. Occasionally, individuals complained to supervisors or producers but, nothing really changed. Tech service was still a source of frustration and the production expansion only made matters worse.

One day some of the animation artists decided that a group action might be justifiable. They drafted up a petition, had the entire creative staff sign it, and then presented it to a department head. With this action, the problem, which had been festering for four years was suddenly on the road to being solved. The tech department was given the message and they made the needed improvements in communication and service. It was a victory for group action. Other crews have had (and have) similar opportunities across town––where the stakes are a lot higher than waiting on broken computer. At a couple of other studios the problems are alarming. There are studios currently operating where employees are expected to give their entire waking lives over to their jobs. This comes out in mandatory late night and weekend work (without additional pay or the full proper compensation that such overtime would require.)

Animation artists understand that this is a business that sometimes requires late nights or additional work. Often this is the result of a fickle client or a changing deadline or some other unforeseen challenge. So, how does one know if they are being exploited on the job? Here are some telltale signs of a bad situation that might justify a group-action response:
-The studio demands that a crew put in mandatory unpaid (or underpaid) overtime requiring that it work late nights and weekends on a consistent basis. They do so to such an extent that such a situation is IN FACT their business model.
-The studio’s work atmosphere or culture is prohibitive to each crewmember delivering their best work.
-The studio’s production process, systems, or workflow is sabotaging the crew’s ability to deliver their best work, putting unfair demands and pressure on the individual workers.

Since the Blue’s Clues crew came together on their tech issue there have been a few other group action events in New York animation. Last year, a major studio cut its workers’ benefits and healthcare insurance but, after a unified staff (including animation artists and live action staffers) walked out and took their case to the media, the studio changed their mind and restored much of the benefits package to its workers (see photo above). Another crew came together after an employer decided not to pay previously agreed upon paid holiday days off. The crew and its director brought their case to the studio and the studio partially relented, paying the crew for more than half of the agreed upon holidays. More than half is better than none. This year, a crew facing mandatory late nights and weekend overtime created a petition and handed it to their supervisor. The producers backed down and eased up the unfair requirements.

Think of it this way––if a studio has such power over a crew that they can demand it to work mandatory improperly compensated overtime, then, what else might that studio do? Such a situation opens the gate to other abuses of power such as harassment. Certainly such a studio doesn’t respect artists as individuals. But, they will be forced to change their agenda if group action is taken.

In each case outlined above, the group actions were successful BECAUSE the actions were JUSTIFIABLE (not frivolous) and were staged DURING production. This is when a crew has the most leverage and the best chance of creating change. Nobody in this business has to be alone.


Michael Lapinski said...

well said dave. someone just forwarded this to me and I wanted to thank you for your always insightful views on the "industry."

I worked through 2 and a half of those events you mentioned and agree with your characterization of them.

as part of the viacom walkout I have to say that I am very proud of those who work together and took a stand together.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Dave. When artists stand together on an issue affecting them, they can accomplish much more than when acting alone. Taking a stand can enact change across the board and trickle down into better working conditions for all of us resulting in higher quality work and higher morale on productions. Passive acceptance and apathy never did anyone any good. I'm also very proud of my fellow artists who've stood together in tough times.

David B. Levy said...

Thanks for the feedback. We've been lucky that such bad situations don't represent every place of work in the city, but even one is too many. I hate to think of the damage that is done to employees whose first working experience is at such studios. That can take a long time to undo.

I recently worked with a person who spent some time at a bad studio and it took me half the job to win his trust and rest his fears. I could tell he'd built up a huge defense mechanism having been treated badly earlier.

Is-boset said...

Hey David!
My name is Raineiro and I from Colombia.
I'm don't found another place to could express my gratitude for your amazing book, few months ago I purchase your book and since the day I start reading become in one of my favorite text.

I wish could met you some day and give you my thanks personally.

Thanks again for your generosity in knowledge share. hope some day become an Animation Artist.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Raineiro,

Great to hear from you. Thanks for the praise on this blog and also for your kind review on amazon. I really appreciate it, but, most of all, I'm happy the book has been useful to you. Hope you visit the blog again. I update every Monday with topics that might be of interest to you.