Search form

Down and Out in Toon Town: The Status of Animation Jobs in the United States

Lately it seems as if everyone is out of work or in jeopardy. Has the local animation biz gone bust due to globalization? A normal downward cycle? Or is something else to blame? Ilene Renee Gannaway investigates.

Times ain't all that good in Los Angeles...

Ah, those glory days. Are they gone for good?

Just six years ago, Disney's animated feature The Lion King grossed $300 million, making it the number one box-office hit for 1994 and one of the largest grossing films in history.

As a result, Simba wasn't the only one crowned king. The AmericanAnimator took his place on a new cinematic throne where he called the literal and figurative shots, reaped countless perks, garnered high salaries and enjoyed free lunches at DreamWorks. As a lowly executive at Turner Feature Animation during the height of the boom, I often found myself thinking, 'If only I could draw like those unbelievablytalented animatorshell, if only I could drawthe worldwould be mine.'

But this is America, not El Dorado, and here everything that goes up must come down -- eventually. While the '90s signaled an animator'smarket, the Millennium, it would seem, favors the financial interestsof the studios. This is, of course, bad news for the American AnimatorKing.

According to Steve Hulett, business representative for M.P.S.C. Local 839 IATSE, the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union, about 35 percent of their current 3,000 members are unemployed. Jeff Massie, the union's recording secretary, estimates that the union has approximately 1,000fewer people working in union shops than they did three years ago.

According to a recent LA Times article, union president TomSito is baffled at the current statistics. Notes Sito, "Thisyear, there are seven features being released, 10 new network televisionseries, several prime-time series, more Internet work and cable than ever before, yet we've lost a good third of our total jobs."

And who exactly is out-of-work? "The people who are unemployed right now would be, in the biggest market, clean-up artists who don't have CGI (computer-generated imagery) skills," says Hulett. "Boardartists, more or less, are employed or at least partially employed.Television timing directors are underemployed but not unemployed."

When one looks at the big picture, it appears that the three maincauses for this increase in unemployment are feature animation downsizing,overseas animation jobs, and, indirectly, the rise of computer animation.

Studio Downsizing

Hulett believes the animation industry is and has always beencyclical. "The chronology of the industry was up and down, spotty in the late '80s," remarks Hulett. "Then The Little Mermaid hit, followed by Disney's other hit features including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Every other studio decided they had to get into the animation business. They couldn't ignore billion dollar, world-wide grosses.

"So the industry really heated up to unprecedented heights throughthe mid '90s," he continues. "Since 1997, we've had FoxPhoenix close. Warners has not gone away but has downsized considerably. DreamWorks has downsized and Disney has downsized, so you're faced with a thousand or more jobs that have been lost."

Apparently, the animation boom that exploded in the '90s was too good to last. Barry Weiss, senior vice president of animation production at Sony Pictures Imageworks attributes this fall to the normal fluctuations any industry faces. "Like any other business, the [animation]industry overbuilt and now there's a lot of vacancies," he explains."People aren't buying as much as they were. But it's all relative.In other words, if the level of employment was a 2 in the beginning of the '90s, and the level of employment was a 10 in '96/'97, it'sprobably back down to a 7 or an 8. So it's still a helluva lot healthier than it was 10 years ago, but it's definitely come off its peak."

One reason why it might seem there are more people unemployed in the business is that schools have done a remarkable job of pumping out employable talent. So while a lot of these newcomers have been soaked into the system a number haven't been or have displaced people who have been employed for a long time.

Also, feature animation may have suffered from a case of too muchtoo soon. With Disney releasing at least two animated features a year -- and every one touted as an "event" -- and other studios racing to deliver what they perceived as guaranteed moneymakers, the market became overly-saturated.


Tom Sito, Union President,has long fought for artist rights.

A similar situation can be applied to television animation. Hulettbelieves that instead of focusing on producing quality American shows, the studios "want to make money as quickly as possible." It's easier and cheaper to purchase the Japanese-produced Pokémon than it is to do a show like Animaniacs.

"The studios, Warners and others, are more impatient with deficit financing than making a profit down the road," explains Hulett. "So hey if you could pick up Pokémon for $10,000 an episode and then spend $10,000 dubbing it and slightly editingit, that's 20,000 bucks and you're in the profits immediately."

Since most of our animation studios are branches of major corporations, profit margins are closely watched. After all, profits directly correlate to stock prices by which many executives live and die.

Animation veterans also point to another reason for the downsizing. Many television networks and feature film corporations rushed intoanimation, but when it came time to market the products to the public, they were baffled. So while animation artists created great products, they didn't catch on and make money. Confused by the needs of this new medium and surprised by the necessary commitment to generate ahit, many outlets decided to stop ordering animation, rather than spend the time and money needed to become experts in the field.

Overseas Animation

One of the biggest threats to American animation employment is the use of overseas talent. Television animators, more so than feature animators, are the ones most likely to suffer from American studios sending work overseas and American networks purchasing foreign animated programs. Once again, Hulett states that cost plays a big role.

"In television, you've got a glut of foreign animation," he says. "You have studios like Warner Bros. and Fox Kids who have picked up Japanese animation for the first time and have had pretty good success with it, and it cost them practically nothing."Many fear this trend will grow.

Mark Kausler, an animator who has worked in the business for almost 30 years, believes that "overseas" and "animation"have become synonymous. "I think most producers now think of animation as something that's done in another country," he laments. "They don't even think there are American animators at all. Animation is a commodity that may or may not be prepared here as far as the story goes, but is always done somewhere else as far as the animation/finalartwork goes."

Weiss maintains a very pragmatic view of the situation, admittingthat while it may be cheaper to produce animation overseas, the major sacrifice comes in the form of loss of creative control. "Look,the preference for everybody is to keep your supply line short. Dothe work locally, you'll have more creative control over the product.When you get your budget, you look at it and start saying, 'How doI get 10 pounds into a five pound bag? What stays in that bag andwhat goes someplace else?' There's always trade-off here. You're trading creative control to the extent that it represents quality. You'retrading that off for the ability to get it done."

Stephanie Graziano, president of programming, production and network development at Bohbot Kids Network (Roswell Conspiracies), doesn't see any real trade-offs or significant sacrifices where overseas animation is concerned. BKN is a global, primarily German, televisionand video animation company with offices in Germany, France and theU.K. While their development and directing talent is based in LosAngeles, "We really look to utilize the resources in all thedifferent countries that we have offices in as well as other countries that have talented resources," says Graziano. "There's a vast amount of talent in the U.S. It isn't always accessible, it isn't always affordable, and it isn't always in the scope of how we want to get a specific project produced."

As Graziano concedes, it is not always in the best artistic interestof studios to use domestic talent only. Why limit ourselves to onevision, they ask, when there are artists all over the world who can bring so much to the medium?

"Unfortunately for the workforce [using overseas labor] doesdivide up the employment," Graziano remarks. "But ultimately for the audiences, it can provide them with a much richer fare of programming."

PBS Animation's Benedict Arnold?

Virtually no one will deny the fact that we are living in an increasinglyglobal world, and that lots of people in other industries have already lost their jobs to foreign competition. However, many U.S. animatorsfeel an unforgivable line was crossed in August of 1999 when it was announced PBS (Public Broadcasting System) allegedly signed a $40million production deal with Canadian-based, TV animation production company, Nelvana. A press release last August stated that Nelvanawill "produce the network's first ever Saturday morning children'sprogramming blockfor the U.S. public network's Fall 2000 program season."

Such a move prompted angry outrage on behalf of Los Angeles animators who felt betrayed and "slapped in the face." It's one thing for animation jobs to go overseas; it's another for the American government to pay for it. Union members voiced their anger by picketing in front of PBS last spring.

Veteran animation writer Jeffrey Scott (Dragon Tales, Jim Henson's Muppet Babies) expressed his utter stupefaction in a recent article to Animation Magazine, opining, "I find it offensive that my tax dollars are paying for programs that not only am I prevented from working on, but that reduce by six the number of shows that I or my colleagues might have had a chance to sell."

Donna Williams, director of program press relations at PBS, counters these objections with a few facts. "Less than four percent of our programming involves Canadian production companies," she says. "It's not that we seek partnerships with Canadian companies.We're looking for good programming. And if a particular product fits our mission, that's great and we'll go with it."

Williams echoes Graziano's global views by adding that PBS does not necessarily mean American products solely. "We also deal with international broadcasters," she states. As PBS's mission statement avows, "enriching the lives of all Americans through quality programs and education services that inform, inspire and delight," means PBS will not limit itself to the domestic sphere. Rather it must "deal with the world."

Williams adds that in addition to the Nelvana shows, PBS programs a variety of American shows. Among them are Clifford the Big Red Dog, J.J. The Jet Plane and Dragon Tales.

Still, these facts do not mollify the majority of U.S. animators who believe that, as Hulett puts it, "Your tax dollars are paying to put you out of a job."

Moreover, while the above shows may be conceived in the U.S., theyare not completely produced in the U.S. As Kausler mentioned it is now very unusual for television animation to be done domestically.Furthermore after years in the business, countries like Korea arebecoming extremely proficient not only at animation, but layout, digital ink and paint and other previously U.S.-based production steps. Plus, they too are integrating the newest technology into their production routines in order to remain competitive when faced with newer animation nations like India. From central Europe to Vietnam, more countries are competing for animation work than ever before.

As frustrating as this whole, overseas situation may be for jobless animators, Graziano would like to remind them that they are not alone."There are many, many industries in our country specifically who have gone through this. It's not something that I think we can do much about."

Looking To The Future

But surely there must be something animators can do. Both Weiss and Hulett believe that something is computer animation. In fact, Hulett has been encouraging traditional animators to get skilled in such programs as Maya, Photoshop and Renderman.

"CGI is where the industry is going," says Hulett. "And the more arrows somebody has in their quiver, the more marketable, the more employable they are. There is a great need and a lot of people end up getting hired and employed, especially when they have an artistic background, in those programs."

For an animator like Kausler who has been drawing since he was eight years-old, learning to computer animate is a bit of an emotional challenge. "I'm doing a little experimental study in Maya. I'm figuring it out, but very little of it has the feel of animation," Kausler remarks. "It feels like learning a lot of menus and commands. You can get used to them, but I don't know if I would ever have the love for them that I have for drawing."

Weiss understands this frustration, but agrees with Hulett that retraining is utterly necessary to an animator's future. "If you were a carpenter and someone handed you a powersaw and you've been working your whole life with a handsaw, you're going to take a step back," says Weiss. "Eventually you are going to work faster, probably be able to do more with the powersaw. But initially you're going to miss the handsaw because you knew exactly what to do with it."

Imageworks, thus far, has been very successful at training traditional animators in computer animation programs. And the Union is in the process of working under an H1B grant to retrain a lot of their members. Does this mean 2D animation is dead? Hulett doesn't think so.

"Two-D animation will not go away," he remarks. "It will mutate and change, but it'll still be there in some way, shape or form. I see new technology continuing to develop and layer over old technology."

So essentially employability in animation is not just a case of who you know, but what you know. In the end, it's simple. The more skills an animator has, the more employable he or she is.

Says Hulett, "I think the industry is going to continue to grow overall, but people are going to have to retrain like mad to stay current.

"There's going to be different layers and levels of employment," he adds, "and I think people will find that overall the animation industry (including CGI animation, traditional animation, television animation, theatrical animation, live-action visual effects) is merging. It's all becoming a big ball of the same kind of stuff. If you know where to look for work and if you have the right, marketable skills, [animation] is still very lucrative and fulfilling. For those who aren't trained for the future, it's gonna be much, much more difficult. I think that's just the reality."

So, hopefully, just as the once-exiled Simba returned to Pride Rock stronger than ever, the American Animator King can make a significant comeback.

Ilene Renee Gannaway is a freelance writer who served as Director of Development for Turner Feature Animation and as Manager of Development, Motion Pictures for Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. She is currently pursuing her Master's Degree in English Literature and after graduation will, like many animation folks, be in need of a job.