Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Animation Studio Blues

I don't know of a more romantic notion than opening your very own four walls and a roof animation studio. To do so is to follow in the footsteps of Max Fleischer, Walt Disney, John and Faith Hubley, and so on... For decades there has never been a better way for an animation artist to take fate into their own hands, to work with the people they'd like to be working with, and to the set of their own marching orders. There have even been pockets of time where an independent animation studio could equal big business. For instance, Shamus Culhane's 1950s NY commercial animation studio made millions of dollars at a time when commercial work was plentiful, creatively rewarding, and highly profitable.

Obviously even the smallest studio will have ups and downs that tend to fluctuate along with changes to the economy. Today, some small animation studios (at least the ones I respect most) are not in the business to make a Trump-sized killing. Instead, their founders chose to build and organize studios where independence, survival, and a lifetime doing what one loves is enough reward.

But survival comes with its own reality. For one thing, the small studio (even ones that grow as large as 75 employees) will either (as necessity or when pushed against a wall) resort to robbing Peter to pay Paul. In such a way the studio hires labor and gets paid by the client, but puts off paying the worker to first pay off other pressing bills. These bills might include rent, utilities, salaries of key personnel, and (finally) the labor that's been waiting the longest to be paid. The average small animation studio works with one foot in a ditch. And, the odd part is that the medium to large independent studios are no better off. These studios tend to go after longer form projects such as TV series work. And, yet, the economics are still such that to bring in a show on schedule, within budget, and to the desired quality... often some amount of free labor is engaged, some of which may or may not qualify as illegal internships.

Case in point: I recently caught up with a very talented animation artist who graduated four years ago. During that time he had found some long-term employment at one of the local studios, but when I saw him a couple of weeks ago he told me he was interning at another studio. Four years out of school and now working for free? What does this say about the viability of the small animation studio? Or about the health of our so-called industry? I think we can all agree that it's sobering stuff.

I don't have the desire to found my own traditional studio. But without having done so, I've been able to work from home, land jobs (big and small), and augment my efforts with off-site workforce as needed. And, when my workers have to wait to get paid, it's because I am waiting on the same check. When the check comes in, my workers get paid at the same time. No robbing Peter to pay Paul. I used to say that I didn't want to have my own studio because I didn't want to buy light bulbs. But, the real reasons I don't want a studio is I don't think I'd have the fortitude to layoff workers I'd like to keep, or to have to ask some people to work for free, or to expect others to wait to be paid despite the fact that the client has already paid for that job. And, perhaps most important of all, a virtual studio doesn't have the same pressure to take undesirable jobs just to keep the whole darn thing afloat.

The life of an animation studio owner can't be easy, but even with all the above I still find it a very romantic notion. And despite what I've written, a virtual studio is not without its challenges and problems. You have to be able to get the work, deliver the job, and get paid, and this requires a strong set of business skills, people skills, and creative chops. Perhaps most importantly, to be successful at the virtual studio you have to be able (and willing) to over- communicate to both your clients and your workers because working offsite requires this as a rule. And, not every type of job is easy (or even appropriate) to tackle in a virtual studio with an offsite workforce. The virtual studio does best with relatively simple animation jobs that don't require everyone working under one roof.

I particularly enjoy that working off-site allows me to creatively and responsibly organize my own work day. Because of this I've been able to seed in more time for my own projects than I have been able to do at any other time in my career.

Is the four walls and a roof studio a thing of the past? I sure hope not. As a virtual studio, I enjoy collaborating with such small studios on series and pilots, helping them offset their cost by providing some of their labor so they don't have to hire and station all those bodies in house, which is something that meager budgets would not allow in the first place. There must be other creative ways by which work can be organized, produced, and delivered without having to make free labor or unreasonably delayed payments the go-to solution. It's just up to us animation folks to figure it out, just as others did before us.


Emmett said...

I had a feeling you were going to write something inspired by the NY Times article.

It was such a relief to read that, because I didn't know if I was doing anything wrong in handling my last few jobs. But not its even clearer to me that they simply needed free labor, and they used sneaky semantics to draw workers in.

I know the point of this entry is about how studios work (both virtual and independent). But to make it there, animators need to be paid to get it started.

Thorny said...

Looks like we do things in a similar way. Ultimately, we're just a couple of guys pitching our ideas and trying to get our shows off the ground while at the same time taking full-time salaried work that keeps us paying bills. To supplement this we sometimes take freelance animation assignments through our partnership and hand out work to local friends and associates -- and by local i mean an email away. When money from clients comes in -- it always goes to those who help us out first. Without trusted and trusting men in the trenches we'd never get anything done. It's important to be responsible to those who work for you -- even if it means not taking anything for youself every so often. I know that the guys will more than likely be there for me when I need a hand -- and they can be confident that they'll get paid as soon as the client coughs up.

roconnor said...

Running a company has lots more "hidden" costs than just paying employees.

There are all the insurances and taxes that go along with hiring workers -worker's comp, payroll, disability. These are things which are legally required.

On top of that many contracts require liability or other coverage. A yearly policy can be upwards of $5000.

If you rent space you've got to pay for things like trash removal and other odds and ends which would never occur to you. It all adds up to a lot of money -money which clients don't like to see in their budgets so "you've got to hide your overhead away."

As for the intern thing, there's no doubt there can benefits to the artist. The fact is, however, it's against the law.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Emmett,
The thing to remember is that at any point in animation, building a career in this industry has never been an easy thing. Today has its own set of problems and advantages. Folks just starting out have to be creative in how and where they look for work as opposed to simply lining up to work for free.

David B. Levy said...


Other hidden costs I'd add to your list are: not being good at finding work or managing jobs, over expansion (too big a space, too many computers, etc), and too many senior staff skimming off the top. Just think of how much these follies cost.

I think these are the main reasons studios have so much trouble. If they solved this list of "hidden costs" they might find some real profit. And maybe they would not need to be asking anyone to illegally work for free.

The smart studios like yourself don't have these problems, but many of the medium to big "empire" style studios do. They are helping to bring about their own extinction.

roconnor said...

We do plenty of stupid things to make up for any smart ones.