Friday, August 29, 2008

Wages Then, Wages Now

I'm reluctant to get involved in an argument I've so far stayed out of, but what the hell. It's Friday night. And Robiscus writes in "Disney Tuesday" comments:

I'm saying wages are lower because studios can "get by" with animators who are more technicians than artists. There are lots of people lobbying for jobs here in LA, and that makes wages lower - but the skill sets of the people who studios will hire are much much much less than they were.

I'm not exactly sure what the thesis is here, but here's the deal about wages ...

Artistic chops don't have a hell of a lot to do with the amount of money people get. Demand for the specific skill-set does.

The Nine Old Men might have been terrific artists and the best animators of their age, but that didn't translate into huge salaries. Woolie Reitherman told me:

"Shit, Steve. I didn't get rich from the checks Walt paid me. It was the stock options we got that set us up."

The top-tier animators of the Golden Age (and beyond) made good money. But none of them were exorbitantly paid. I'll give you an example. Art Babbit, prior to the '41 strike, was one of the higher paid animators at the Disney studio, $300 per week. This was a HUGE payday for an animator at the time, since there were then folks working at the studio making -- and living on -- $15 a week. My father was one of them.

(Today, $300 would equal $4391, according to inflation calculator.)

Let's put this in broader, Tinsel Town context. Top-level, live-action screenwriters in 1940 were earning $1,000-$2500 per week. The top stars (Gable, Flynn, Cagney) made $4,000-$6,000 per week.

Like I say. It's demand for the skill-set that sets the wage, not the skill-set in and of itself.

In 1994-1995, when hand-drawn animation was white-hot and demand for feature animators and feature animation staffs was at historic highs (Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Feature Animation, Turner Feature Animation, Rich Animation were all bidding for the services of a small pool of talent), wages went through the roof. Lead key assistants were being paid $3,000, $4,000, and $5,000 per week. Lead animators were making $10,000/wk and more.

Think about that a minute. Key assistants were making more than one of the greatest animators of the "Golden Age," adjusted for inflation. Lead animators were making more than double. How is that possible?

Demand, my children. Demand.

Now let's look at the reverse situation.

Today, the same talent that made five figures each payday twelve and thirteen years ago labor on Princess and the Frog at a fraction of the money they collected in the 1990s. As a Frog artist told me three days ago:

"I'm making a little above scale. But I was working out of the business making a lot less the last two years, and I'm happy to be earning it. No complaints from me ..."

How could this be? With the guy drawing a mean line with a pencil? With all that artistic skill? Simple. The Princess and the Frog is the only game in town just now, and if animators and/or assistants want to ply their trade, scale wages or close-to is the deal in 2008, take it or leave it. (The managers at the Mouse House know how much they have to pay to lure their formerly high-priced staffers back. And if some complain about being "low balled" and refuse to come back -- and some have -- there are plenty who are willing to return at greatly reduced wages.)

Studios "get by" paying less because they can, not because traditional artists have more (or less) intrinsic worth than "technicians." Right now, the market puts a higher value on the techies because there's a greater demand and competition for their services across the industry.

It's always ... always ... ALWAYS about leverage. In today's animation business, skilled "technicians" have more of it, and skilled traditional artists have less.

Guess who makes the higher weekly wages in 2008? (It ain't the "artists".)

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

"It was the stock options we got that set us up."

And honestly, I think that sort of system works better than huge inflated paychecks , which as you point out can rise with demand and fall dramatically when demand lessens.

Things like stock options and bonuses if a movie is a bit hit are what gives the artistic staff a feeling of participation and ownership . I think that sort of incentive causes the artists to give a extra to a project and to care more about the success of a movie or the studio over the long run because it has a clear financial benefit for them.

A decent living wage (union scale with health care benefits) plus participation in the company via stock options and/or a system of bonuses (if a picture comes in under-budget say , or does particularly well at the box-office) is something I think most of us would be perfectly happy with , not the inflated paychecks of $4,000 , $6,000 or more a week, which was a bubble we all knew was going to eventually pop.


I'd be curious to know : have producer and other management wages fallen accordingly or are they still happy to make the big bucks each week while "the little people" get by on scale ?

Steve Hulett said...

I really couldn't say, since I don't know what that group makes.

I do know that Michael Eisner got rid of broad-based stock options for Disney animation artists when he took over in 1984.

Stock options were given to some lead artists in the 1990s as part of their compensation packages in their personal service contracts.

Anonymous said...

...Artistic chops don't have a hell of a lot to do with the amount of money people get. Demand for the specific skill-set does.

Then what's the point of adding anything original to a project? That's why people watch animation, correct? This kind of thinking is exactly what gives the WGA and SAG the right to trounce the shit all over TAG. They protect and encourage their memberships creative investments. We're not construction workers here, but as long as we define what we do as about a decimal point above skilled labor, we're going to continue to take a beating in this town. If that's the way we view what we do, we deserve it.

... "Shit, Steve. I didn't get rich from the checks Walt paid me. It was the stock options we got that set us up."

Sounds like an argument in direct opposition to collective bargaining agreements. Yes, it is true. No one gets rich off of earned income.

Steve Hulett said...

what's the point of adding anything original to a project? That's why people watch animation, correct? This kind of thinking is exactly what gives the WGA and SAG the right to trounce the shit all over TAG. They protect and encourage their memberships creative investments. We're not construction workers here, but as long as we define what we do as about a decimal point above skilled labor, we're going to continue to take a beating in this town. If that's the way we view what we do, we deserve it.


I think you've got a skewed view of why various guilds and unions are where they are in 2008.

Back when guilds and unions formed in the thirties, different labor organizations staked out different jurisidctions.

The WGA (then the Screen Writers Guild) had no interest in animation. None.

So cartoonland ended up falling under the Screen Cartoonists Guild, which was (originally) an offshoot of the paper hangers union, part of the Conference to Studio Unions.

The CSU, fairly militant in its time, was muscled out of existence by the Producers and the IATSE in 1945 and 1946. And the Screen Cartoonists Guild became an "orphan union," finally going the way of the dodo bird in the late fifties and early sixties. And TAG ended up with the jurisdiction.

Until 1997, the WGA repped zero animation employees.

When you write that "thinking" is why TAG is where it is and SAG/WGA are where they are, you miss a large and obvious point: the power and leverage of the respective guilds and unions in Hollywood is directly linked to the time of their creation, and the contracts they've negotiated over a seventy year-span.

For their own reasons, guilds and unions divided labor jurisdictions up in a particular way, and they've travelled different roads to end up where they are.

Every guild and union is tied to their organizaing and negotiation histories. The WGA represents no feature animation writers because of language in its collective bargaining agreement. Does the Writers Guild like this? Want this? Hell no. They propose, contract after contract, to take the restrictive language out, yet in the language stays.

Why is this? Faulty "thinking?" I would suggest it's because the Guild doesn't have the leverage (that horrid word again) to get it out.

In the same way, TAG is tied to its bargaining and organizating history. The Screen Cartoonists Guild proposed residuals in 1943. It didn't get them, and went on not getting them until it flickered out of existence a decade and a half later.

Thinking had nothing to do with it. Power and leverage derived from the strength of different jurisdictions had everything to do with it.

If it were up to labor, it would have a bigger piece of the pie (see "Scereen Actors Guild, current negotiations"). But there's lots of other inconvenient realities that intrude, and so they've had to accept smaller slices than they'd like.

Where they are has little to do with "thinking."

Anonymous said...

The Nine Old Men were lucky to get income from their Disney stocks.

I trust index funds, but I would not keep stock in any single company, especially if I worked for that company. If the company fell on hard times, not only would I be out of a job, but my stocks in that company would have fallen, too.

Sometimes investing in one's workplace can turn out even worse that that: Enron, Worldcom, and Bear Stearns come to mind.

Anonymous said...

Just as an FYI, but from what I hear, Blue Sky employees dont get stock options, but they do get bonuses if a film makes a certain number at the box office. I also hear they can be substantial, depending on role and salary, it can be anywhere from 10 to 50k.

PS) Hey Steve, is it really wise to quote Robiscus....ever?

Anonymous said...

CG animators are NOT technicians.

Being a rigger, I can say without a doubt, that animators are probably the dumbest bunch alive when it comes to the computer. I think they can ONLY be qualified as artists.

No offense you guys, you know I love ya. Just stop breakin the rig.

Kevin Geiger said...

Hi Anonymous,

You know I love ya... but ya got it all wrong. :-)

As a CG Supervisor of modeling and character setup, my philosophy (which I abided by personally and espoused to my TDs) was this:

If the animators are breaking the rigs, we aren't providing them with what they need.

It's not the animator's responsibility to work carefully within your limits. It's YOUR responsibility to EXPAND their limits and keep their focus upon the performance - not worried about "breaking" anything.

P.S. - Steve, funny you should post on the subject of wages. I'm just now working on a new blog post entitled "Wage Rage". ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yes Kevin, you're completely right, I was just being tongue in cheek. My bigger point was about how animators cant be categorized as "glorified technicians"

Anonymous said...

Oh, and by "breakin the rig" I mean, setting keys where they arent supposed to, or using the tools the way they are meant to be used in order to provide 100% flexibility, then I get a note to fix the rig, when, its working perfectly, but someone is just doing something they arent supposed to do. (lie unlocking things that are supposed to be locked and setting keys on them...when all they need to do is set a key on an already existing attribute)

Now, in terms of built-in functionality, yes, we as riggers are the vendor to our animation clients, through and through

Anonymous said...

I do appreciate the history lesson, and the importance of the way labor has traditionally dealt with management in Hollywood. But TAG's history is generally a reactive one, an orphan among a sea of some very big fish, both on the labor and the management side. Personally, I see no difference between the powerful on both sides. Ronald Reagan, a real 'hero' of labor, was president of SAG, an era I'm certain the current leadership despises. The big fish take their serving first, either by shrewd negotiation and angling or by force.

And true working Hollywood gets what is leftover and has to pretend that this is labor? It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I'd rather we stopped pretending and call it what it really is - capitalism. Whether the insurance and 401K comes from a corporation or some quasi-socialist surrogate that the corporations ultimately control, it really makes no difference. I still get a pink slip at managements whim.

Steve Hulett said...

is it really wise to quote Robiscus?

No, but it is good fun.

Kevin Geiger said...

> we as riggers are the vendor to
> our animation clients, through
> and through

Ideally, we're PARTNERS. That's when greatness is achieved. :-)

KG

Kevin Geiger said...

When people deride TAG for not preventing layoffs, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the union's role. TAG is there to try and maintain reasonable standards of income, safety and sanity in your place of employment - to the best of their ability. That they have limited power in doing so owes more to the power of the studios and the general fecklessness of the employees than anything else.

The "difference" is that TAG is an organization whose charter is directed towards the welfare of its members, whereas the company's charter is directed towards the portfolios of its shareholders.

Of course, that's "socialism" vs. "capitalism" for you. ;-) I've always wondered why socialism was such a bad word anyway, as it means concern for society (people) over capital (money).

robiscus said...

"Artistic chops don't have a hell of a lot to do with the amount of money people get. Demand for the specific skill-set does."


Yes, indeed.

But correct me if I'm wrong here - During the nineties there was a high demand for talented animators because three huge studios were all working on feature animated films. There was Dreamworks, the now extinct Fox, and Disney. That requires a lot of animators and the demand gave those people 'the leverage' to demand higher wages.

Today there are three huge studios manking animated films. All of the work is CGI. There is Dreamworks, Disney, and various other small ones producing features like "Space Monkeys" and which all together I'd count as requiring the same as another huge studio.

The same demand is there as it was in the nineties.... but We're supposed to believe that there has been an explosion of talent. There are more talented animators who work in CGI than there ever was(even at the art form's peak) before.

No.
There's not. There's the same amount of good animators and a hell of a lot of people without a lot of training in animation who can manipulate a rig and have a supervisor do checks and balances on them. The studios can get by with the dazzle of realistic rendering and it masks the shortcomings of the majority of the CGI "animators".

Thats my take. Thats what I've seen. I've seen one real animator looking over six people who should be working in video games rather than seven people who know what a convincing performance requires. CGI has allowed the studios to cash in on the use of technology rather than the use of talent.

And its cut wages.

Kevin said...

But correct me if I'm wrong here - During the nineties there was a high demand for talented animators because three huge studios were all working on feature animated films.

Okay, I'll correct you. There were far more than three studios. As Steve already pointed out, there was also Turner, Warner Bros., and Rich, in addition to Disney, DreamWorks, and Fox. And Disney had the equivalent of three full crews -- two in Burbank, one in Florida. The demand for feature-quality animators, especially in southern California, spiked over a very short period of time. It's not like the current situation at all, where the demand is spread all over the country and all over the world, and there are actually fewer total feature animation crews.


We're supposed to believe that there has been an explosion of talent. There are more talented animators who work in CGI than there ever was(even at the art form's peak) before.

No.
There's not.


Actually, there is. Despite your contempt for those who animate in CG, there are far, far more trained animators than there were in the 90's. At that time, if you didn't go to Cal Arts or Sheridan, you had to learn on your own. And if you wanted to learn on your own, you could find about 5 or 6 books to help you, and that was it. Because of the hiring boom in the 90's, there was a subsequent boom in animation schools and animation training and animation books over the next decade. Yes, lots of that training stank, but the number of people going though formal animation training over the last 10 years probably exceeds the total number of people getting animation training over the first 100 years of the artform.

There's the same amount of good animators and a hell of a lot of people without a lot of training ...

If you actually take the time to look at the films released from the boom in animation, I think you'd have to be blind to think there were a ton of talented animators. There's some good stuff, and a lot of barely passable stuff. There were a lot of people who became animators overnight during the 90's, simply because the demand for animators so dramatically outstripped the supply.

I remember the time well. ANYONE who had any claim to being able to animate had a shot at working on a feature. If you could hold a pencil and had the desire to be an animation artist, you could get hired. Today, I see talented graduating students from good animation schools schlepping their reels all over the world, trying to break into the business.

Anonymous said...

>>There is Dreamworks, Disney, and various other small ones producing features like "Space Monkeys" and which all together I'd count as requiring the same as another huge studio.<<

Let's be fair. There's Dreamworks (PDI and DWLA), Sony, Disney Animation, Pixar, and Blue Sky.

So...depending on if you count PDI and DWLA as one, theres 5 or 6 "major" studios making at least one major feature a year. Yet another example of Robiscus not thinking before opening his mouth.

I agree that there are less talented animators being overseen by a talented lead. But has that really changed since the Golden Era days? I mean, that's called mentoring. I worked at Disney recently, and the "new" 2D kids there are just as watched as the new CGI guys...probably more so. The only thing that has changed in my mind, is that there are 6 major shops now instead of one.

You are so hell-bent on discrediting CGI animators, and unless you've been on a CG film and watched and worked with these talented ARTISTS, you have NO IDEA what you're talking about. Im sure there are exceptions to the rule (as there always is) but these people are true artists, and if they took a hiatus and focused on drawing skills for a bit, they'd be the "true" animators you blather on about. Thats the ONLY difference. One group draws, one does not.

So give it up!

The more you drone on about this, the more you look like a sour grapes has-been who is just resistant to change.

Evolve or die.

2D has it's place, CG has it's place. End of story.

Steve Hulett said...

And true working Hollywood gets what is leftover and has to pretend that this is labor? It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I'd rather we stopped pretending and call it what it really is - capitalism.

Uh ... I've never not called it capitalism. I don't know a labor leader in Hollywood, now or ever, who doesn't think of it ... call it ... capitalism.

But thanks for the view from the alternate universe.

Oh, and St. Ron? He stopped being a hero of labor way before he became President, like either in 1954 or 1961, depending on your POV.

Me, I give him kudos for negotiating the first residual agreement in 1960, although there are those who thought he negotiated a skim-milk deal.

Steve Hulett said...

Just so we're clear, as Mr. Geiger says, in 1994-1996 there was a far smaller pool of qualified talent than today being chased by a large number of animation studios.

Plus there was a personal tug-of-war going on between Eisner and Katzenberg, which also drove up salaries.

For additional explanation regarding the spike in salaries, see "Smith, Adam."

Google it.

Anonymous said...

Labor referencing Adam Smith?

You're marrying spiked salaries to supply and demand and personal vendettas between media moguls. How very capitalist of you. Just direct the dialog toward the actual talent that created the work a little more often. Maybe that had something to do with successful animated movies and profits made.

Steve Hulett said...

Labor referencing Adam Smith?

You're marrying spiked salaries to supply and demand and personal vendettas between media moguls. How very capitalist of you. Just direct the dialog toward the actual talent that created the work a little more often.


Okay, Stalin, whatever you say.

The artistry of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin and Lion King (along with the box office) set off a feeding frenzy among new studios hungry to grab talent. Eisney's instructions to Disney animation management to do "whatever it took" to keep talent at the Mouse House also contributed.

For interviews and discussions about talent, I suggest you type in Mark Kirkland, Ward Kimball, Ken Anderson, Woolie Reitherman, Claude Coats or whomever up in that little white box on the left.

Hope things are ducky in Moscow.

Anonymous said...

"There were far more than three studios. As Steve already pointed out, there was also Turner, Warner Bros., and Rich, in addition to Disney, DreamWorks, and Fox. And Disney had the equivalent of three full crews -- two in Burbank, one in Florida."

---

And don't forget a Disney feature crew in Paris, France, and the Canadian studios in Vancouver and Toronto , and Disney's Sydney ,Australia studio all working on hand-drawn features or direct-to-video sequels of the features.

The last to shut down was the Sydney studio which actually made some decent looking movies , but unfortunately for the most part got saddled with doing all the crappy Part II's and Part II's of the various features. They did get to do the Mickey/Donald/Goofy feature "The Three Musketeers" which was good enough that it should have had a theatrical release . It would have been nice if the Disney Sydney studio had been given the opportunity to shine on original feature films like the Orlando studio was able to do with Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear (ok, we'll forget about Brother Bear ... *ahem* ...) . But you know the story: 2D was proclaimed to be "dead" and now it's a different world .

Oh, um.... what were we talking about ? Sorry, had another little bitter trip down Memory Lane . Gotta stop that . Move forward, Just keep swimming...

Anonymous said...

Oh, and forgot to mention Disney's Tokyo studio which also worked on the direct-to-video features.

So, yeah, at the time there was generally speaking a wider demand for highly-trained traditional animation artists, just within the Disney organization alone.

(and to correct a typo above when I mentioned how the Sydney studio "for the most part got saddled with doing all the crappy Part II's and Part II's of the various features." Of course I meant to write Part II's and Part III's of the various features. Even some Part IV's I think. What a waste of a very talented group of people in Sydney. That studio was capable of so much more if they had been given the opportunity .)

Anonymous said...

--For interviews and discussions about talent, I suggest you type in Mark Kirkland, Ward Kimball, Ken Anderson, Woolie Reitherman, Claude Coats or whomever up in that little white box on the left.

Thank you. Now I can just type in the letters T-A-G and read them here. See how easy that was?

I'd rather we trumpeted these folks than had tutorials on the latest economic bell curves. Let's take back our history rather than subordinate it to market forces. That classic shrug-of-the-shoulders "Oh, well, that's just the way Hollywood and the economy works, kids, here's your six months of insurance, good luck to you." is old and tired. It doesn't speak to what is unique and special about animation and why people continue to inspire others with it. Although I wince to say it, we could take a tip from the WGA in that regard. Let's make the studios turn to TAG for quality of talent first, rather than simply out of necessity, or when the ''market' tells them to.

Anonymous said...

That kind of talk will get you scolded in here.

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