Animators and the Law: Pay and Cost

This is the third in a series of posts that take a look at just some of the many legal aspects of the animation industry.

Pay and cost are two things in the animation (and entertainment) world that are intertwined with each other. Both have a heavy influence on a production so it is well worth having a look at the basics behind them.


I see and hear a fair amount of talk about pay. You are almost always entitled to receive remuneration for goods or services rendered to a client or customer however, it is not nearly as simple and as straight forward as you might think.

Over at the TAG Blog, pay crops up fairly often as a gripe amongst animators, mostly as a result of unpaid overtime. If you are salaried, then you are generally not entitled to overtime. If you are hourly, you are absolutely entitled to overtime, regardless of what the boss says.

A more serious issue revolves around the idea of unpaid interns. The concept of an internship is one that allows an inexperienced student to come on board and observe how things run in a studio. This is supposed to be an educationally rewarding experience that will hopefully allow the intern to acquire or learn a few skills that they can then use in their career.

The problem appears to be that some studios think that interns are essentially ‘free labour’. Numerous productions have used interns in the course of their run who were been paid either little or nothing, or at the very best, well below the industry norm.

While plenty of folks will espouse the many benefits of being an intern and the very real dose of experience they receive, relying on them as a source of labour results in some serious warping of the cost of productions.

The problem with free labour is that while the work is essentially gratis, the total cost of producing the show/film, is lower than where it ought to be. This has the effect of making productions appear more efficient than they actually are.

Economists love efficiency, however, in their minds, that means the efficiency is absolute. “Free labour” is not efficient from a cost standpoint because the economic aspect of the work is conducted but the remuneration is not. As a result, the production “withdraws” more from the national labour “man-hour bank” than it “pays back” in real dollars.

To clarify, a show that uses free labour and costs $100,000 may well have cost, say, $150,000. The missing $50,000 is essentially removed from the economy as it would otherwise be passed back to employees and spent. The $50,000 is not ‘saved’ by the studio because it never exists in real dollars having never been paid out in the first place.

If in any doubt, consult the “Should I work for free” flowchart. As humourous as it is, it does do a swell job of guiding you in the right direction.


Yet another aspect of working on a project is where you bill your time to. Hollywood is notorious for shuffling money and time around to suit the bottom line, and I’m sure many smaller studios do too.

Why is this a problem? Again, it masks the real cost of a production and leads to misleading perspectives. Let’s put it this way, as a private sector employee working on public sector projects, I am absolutely forbidden, no way no how, to bill time on a project to anything other than that project, regardless of how over budget it is. Why? Because the government wants (and needs) to know exactly how much a project costs, regardless of whether it is more expensive than it needs to be.

That’s not to say they won’t be upset if something overruns the estimate, but they will be very upset if we tried to sweep it under the rug as something else. And mark my words, they will crucify us if we ever do.

My point? Production costs should be fully accounted for. If they go over, at least the proof will be in the numbers and can provide evidence of how to properly estimate future costs for a similar production. The result will be more efficient productions that incur less hiccups.

Tomorrow’s post takes a look at Mickey Mouse and the effect he has had on copyright laws in the US.