Why the Boom and Bust In Animation Employment?

 

There seems to be a consensus among studios or the powers that be that mandates how productions are ataffed. No, this has nothing to do with ability, skill, gender makeup or anything like that. Rather it’s how animation employment levels tend to ramp up for a production and are then reduced as said production makes its way through the pipeline.

I raise this issue because someone likened it to being a construction worker. I.e. once the building is built, it’s time to move onto another job. That’s only partly true though, because even construction workers (unless their self-employed) aren’t fired from the overall firm. Instead, they’re simply moved to another contract that the company has.

The benefits are obvious, hence the reason it’s a widely instituted practice in construction. Contractors save money (and boy, do they like to save money) by not having to constantly hire and train workers. Their admin overhead costs are lower too, since they don’t require a large HR department to sift through resumes and file all the necessary paperwork. Lastly, they save a ton of time, because they already have a skilled workforce in place. All they have to do is manage it’s deployment.

An animation studio should be no different. the different productions are the different jobs, and a studio in the 21st century does not have the right to exist if it can’t manage it’s slate of productions so that crew numbers are constant.

What I fail to understand is that as a studio, your output ought to be constant. Sure a feature film requires a massive amount of manpower, but if you’re constantly releasing films, can’t you allocate resources to provide for a seamless transition?

It’s an even more critical issue for TV shows, which are in production year-round. Staffing up and down for a TV show is a ludicrous way of managing your team.

While there may very well be tax and wage benefits to hiring and firing, that is only because the rules of the game are set that way; to the detriment of the people actually playing.

Some of the greatest animators had very long and very stable careers with one or two studios and both parties were all the better for it. The concept of a job for life has vanished in recent decades, the notion of steady, dependable employment lasting more than one season or production should not be a rarity; indeed it should be standard.

The Disconnect That Leads to Industry Breakdown

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Any industry is a complicated beast and animation is no exception. The skills in demand are constantly changing and nobody really knows where things are heading in that regard. Many still pine for the days when traditional animation was either hand-drawn or stop-motion. Today, CGI comes in a dizzying, vast array of forms and associated skillsets. How these skills are taught is something that has been discussed here before with this blogger advocating a return to apprenticeships in animation as opposed to undergraduate degree programs that teach skills that may be obsolete by the time students graduate. On a recent post on a related topic, commentator johnV posted a comment excerpted below:

I personally feel that the reason there are more CG films than Traditional Animation is because the lack of talent and the colleges that only teach CG animation. Before, the majority of animators were artists. They went to art school, not to an animation school. They knew how to draw, paint, sculpt, and create art. They learned animation from other animators while working in the animation studio. They knew the fundamentals of ART. John Lasseter said it himself, that all animators should know the fundamentals of art.

Today, most animation students don’t bother learning the necessary principles to creating art. Thus, they become button pushers. There’s not enough people who can do Traditional Animation anymore, because it’s not being taught. Animators who want to animate traditionally, have to teach themselves, watch Youtube videos, and read books. But there are no colleges for that anymore. There are a few that will teach a class or two, but not one that will have it as a degree.

And that’s perfectly fine for the colleges. Colleges are nothing more than a business, they use the technology and computer animation aspect to attract new students. They don’t care about the industry or what is the viable form of animation. They care that they fill seats in their class rooms, sell books and supplies, and charge an insane amount of tuition that the students will be paying back for a very long time.

And speaking of business, the major studios love button pushers… they’re easy to replace. Do you think that a computer animator has the pull and power of a traditional animator…. computer animators are a dime a dozen. A traditional animator is hard to come by. They can demand from their employers. So the studio prefers the control over the computer animators.

I’ve broken the original comment up for clarity, but let’s discuss all the very good points raised.

Learning the Art

Animation is grounded in art. It’s where the inspiration comes from and where it’s influence is felt. It is nigh-on impossible to completely appreciate animation if one does not have at least some appreciation or understanding of art in general.

So the question arises: should students be forced to have a solid grounding in art before undertaking a study in animation?

I would hazard that they should, animation can be taught, but appreciation requires coaching of the kind that education is supposed to provide in an ideal scenario. While many artists employed in studio’s today undoubtedly have artistic talent, we must consider those coming behind us as well.

Skillset Supply and Demand

johnV is right about a shortage of colleges not teaching traditional animation, but it comes back to the notion that a bachelors degree is something that affords the holder the ability to produce animation. That isn’t true, and plenty of the best animators managed to get by without any sort of formal qualification when it came to their animation talents.

In a way, we are seeing the flipside of what CGI went through 25 years ago. Back then, if you wanted to learn CG animation, you had to suss out the information for yourself; hardly anyone was going to teach it in a formal setting aside from a computer science degree.

Do we strictly need a traditional animation degree? Maybe not, but it is the lack of one that indicates how the skill faces a decline as old masters retire and their skills are lost to the ether.

College as A Business

Is college a business? Undoubtedly (at least in the US), it is, and we’re talking about more than the “for profit” colleges of the kind highlighted on Cartoon Brew a while back. Therein lies the disconnect between the education and the industry. Cathal Gaffney of Brown Bag Films has long bemoaned the skills taught by Irish animation programmes that are out of date compared to the ones he needs for the studio. The result is that he must source (more expensive) animators from abroad.

Do universities and colleges strictly care about whether or not what they teach matches what the industry needs? Well, why should they? Employment after graduation is the student’s concern, right? Whose to blame if they learned the wrong skills. Again, it comes back to schools teaching “animation”, a skill that, theoretically, should be universally applicable. Software is software after all and it can be learned or taught separate from the academic program.

We have long ago lost the close connection between studios and schools wherein there was co-ordination and cross-pollination between employees and students. CalArts is the utopian example, but others exist too. Today, employees, as disposable as they are, do not have the long-term relationship with studios that encouraged the notion of investing in oneself for the betterment of the whole. This leads to employees (to the delight of employers) acquiring a set of narrowly defined skills and relying upon them. Not only does this make them more disposable, it also tends to make them cheaper since they now compete against each other rather than everyone. Which leads us to…

Skillset Supply and Demand

Even a basic course in economics can highlight just what it is about supply and demand that vexes most people. They know that as supply increases, the price you have to pay for something decreases, but what if the supply is people, and the price paid is your salary?

In a purely economical situation, your salary will fall relative to the increase in demand. Any time salaries for animators falls, it isn’t so much because studios are trying to squeeze the extra buck (they are), but they can also get away with it because they can still find the labour they require.

CG animators are currently in demand, but there are also a lot of them. As johnV points out, they’re a dime a dozen, and unless you have something over and above what everyone else has, you’re expendable!

That said….a traditional animator may have a large skillset but not be in high demand. How much can they earn? Well, while price goes up with decreasing supply, it can also go down with decreasing supply if demand similarly drops. A traditional animator can hope to earn near nothing if there is no demand for their skills.

Where This Leads to Industry Breakdown

Where all the points discussed in this post tie together is that without sufficient co-ordination of skills, the industry from an employment standpoint starts to break down. We see studios close, artists laid off and production shifted elsewhere.

Colleges continually push students without any consideration for actual demand, that pushes salaries for existing employees down thanks to a larger than necessary supply of talent. We won’t even mention what unpaid internships do for the industry as a whole, but you get the picture.

On the other end, studios continually alter the skillsets they require leaving vast swathes of artists to either get with the program or get out altogether.

In the end, what results is an industry that doesn’t know what it needs and is incapable or producing it when it does.

The end result is breakdown.

Why Animators (and You) Need To Create A Network

Last night I attended a networking event put on by Loyola University here in Baltimore, where I currently undertake an MBA course of study. Now I’m not one to readily go out and ‘network’, I can be tremendously shy and nervous at events like these, however, I did find last night a great help insofar as persuading me that I need to attend more events like this (if that makes sense).

The most important lesson I took away from the evening was that relationships can matter a whole lot when it comes to business. Although this is kinda sad in a way, it is the truth, and thankfully, there is plenty you can do about it to help yourself get where you want or need to go.

For animators, creating a professional and personal network should be one of their highest priorities. You’ll likely already have one from school, but it is important to create one outside of that, either from the neighbourhood you live in, organisations like ASIFA or the Animation Guild, a drawing class, or even just the folks you work with.

One of the points that was hammered home last night was to build and maintain relationships. One of the panelists put it like this:

It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

That’s a great quote and pretty much sums up how you can determine your place in the labour supply pool. If no-one knows you, then there’s a good chance that you can become isolated professionally and that can have detrimental consequences when it comes time to look for a job or even climb the career ladder.

ASIFA-East President and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, David Levy, often mentions networking over on his blog, Animondays. His reason is more practical than most. As a New Yorker, the tight-knit animation community flourishes because of personal relationships. There are no really large ‘faceless’ corporations operating in the city so a fair amount of the time, he is working directly with an individual or small studio. In such a situation, personal relationships can (and do) count for an awful lot. Animondays has plenty of advice so check it out (if you don not do so already).

Relationships are also something that can slip away easily. I know myself that I am a horrible communicator. If you ever get an e-mail from me, I can come off as whiny, needy, hyperactive or just plain ignorant. If you don’t receive a reply from me, I more than likely neglected to take the 5 seconds to reply.

I know these are things I need to work on, and it can be hard when you’re working or going to school full-time to justify spending an evening or afternoon schmoozing with other people in the field. However, once you create a relationship, it is imperative that you take the small amount of time to maintain it. E-mails now and then, or even the occasional lunch can work wonders.

However, it would seem that the benefits are well worth the time put in, and like a couple of the panelists were saying, the more people who know you’re out of work, the greater the chance they know someone with an open position that needs to be filled.

So quit making excuses for yourself. That TV show or computer game can wait this evening. Head on out there and meet someone in the same boat as yourself! You’ll be surprised at they great kinds of people you’ll come across.

Employment in the Animation Industry

This afternoon, while out trying to find my brother a summer job (we’re in the northern Baltimore suburbs and he has retail experience, e-mails with tips to the usual address please), I began to think about employment in the animation industry.

First of all, I’m not gainfully employed in any aspect of the animation industry (yet) so this post may be somewhat speculative. Feel free to comment if I get something wrong. First of all, the coast you are on is a big factor. Typically, the East coast scene tends to be on a more individual level. Sure there are studios, but chances are you will get a position through word of mouth more than anything else.

The west coast side of things is an entirely different animal. Being the nexus of animation in the US, Burbank studios tend to be much larger, so it is more unlikely that you will get a job based solely on word of mouth or personal recommendations.

What struck me about being a job seeker is that you are much more likely to land a job if you know someone, or someone knows you. Would you rather give a job to someone you know or a name on a piece of paper? The answer is pretty clear.

In terms of the animation industry, the nomadic nature of work means that a sizeable number of people are looking or work. More so in the current recession, but that’s the same for everyone unfortunately.

The industry is one that also has trade union representation in the form of the Animation Guild. Their blog is an excellent view from one side of a coin and while I do not necessarily agree with many (or indeed any) of the points made, it is always a good thing to keep up to date with others’ thoughts, especially those of the union guys. (For a take from the not-quite-other side of the coin, I highly recommend The Business of Animation: A Commentary, a blog that dispenses the author’s thoughts with refreshing directness.)

Ideally, you should be hired on your merits. In other words, can you draw, stick to deadlines, have artistic skill and follow instructions. Realistically, filling in an application form for a job is like someone repeatedly smacking you in the face just because you decided to apply for the job. Why make things so complicated? Sure the new employee is going to cost you money, but if you treat him or her right, they’ll generate you much more. Why beat them over the head before they’ve barely walked in the door.

The important lesson from all of this is to network extensively and maintain a wide circle of contacts who you can rely on should things go pear-shaped. In return, you’ll meet wonderful people who will eventually turn to you for advice and recommendations. Sadly, too many people don’t do this and end up feeling bitter about their whole experience.

My advice, God helps those who help themselves, get out there and get to know as many people as you can and be genuinely passionate about your place in animation, no matter what it is.