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Leaving Home

Linda Simensky ruminates on the political and other consequences of changing jobs amidst today's boom times in the animation industry.

No issue on politics would be complete without a nod to the politics we all deal with everyday--at our jobs. And no employment issue is more political than this--leaving your job.

Heraclitus once said, "Everything is in flux," and he certainly could have been referring to the animation industry. As the industry has grown, all sorts of changes and unexpected corporate couplings have happened. One of the unintended consequences of the rapid growth of the animation industry is the rampant job switching that has been going on for the last couple of years. Oddly enough, in all the articles that have been written on jobs in the animation industry, no one has written the article that could be the most useful to much of the industry--"Leaving."

Just to see what information I could find on the topic, I pretended that I was about to change my job, and went to three bookstores in search of a book that could give me some advice. Not advice on how to find a new job, but information on how to go about leaving the old one after I had already gotten the new one. Or how to handle the changes swirling around me. I found nothing, and therefore nothing to use as research for this article, except for personal experience, conversations, and the case studies of others. But upon mentioning job switching around the animation industry, everyone nodded in agreement. It was indeed something we had all been dealing with, either with our own change or with a co-worker's. As if on cue, as I started to write this piece, one of my closest colleagues at the animation studio I work with, changed jobs to go to a competitor. She conveniently became the final case study in my research.

Experiences are a little different between animators and what we can call animation executives (the development, production and network side of the industry), and I am going to discuss them separately.

Then and Now

Changing jobs, while an issue, has not been a big event for most animators, except for those who have been somewhere a long time. Most are used to moving wherever there was work, and leaving when production on a show or film was completed. Everyone knew they would be at a certain studio for a limited time, and then would be on to the next job. Most knew that the idea of being a studio for 50 years was a myth, and that their experience would be much like that of many of the animators of the 1930s and 40s, according to Tom Sito, head of Motion Pictures Screen Cartoonists, Local 839 IATSE, and an animator at DreamWorks. In addition, while the animation companies were competing for work or for shows to be picked up, they were not competing in the same way for artists. There was a feeling that animation was being judged as a genre, not so much studio by studio, and all shows and films depended on the success of all other shows and films. Companies would even collude in terms of salary, and were not glancing around on a regular basis to see whom they could steal.

But the industry is frenetic now. The recent successes in the industry and high profits derived from animated films, and the pressure to beat previous films, have caused a shift. The additions of DreamWorks, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, and Fox have changed the animation job landscape considerably. Animators right now are experiencing what successful college football players feel when the NFL comes scouting. And suddenly, the companies that are owned by giant corporations can double the salaries of animators from competing studios, offer giant bonuses, or make other over-the-top moves to staff their studios. Animators, many who worked (or didn't work) through the leaner times in the 1970s and 80s, now have their pick of projects. And their attitude is that animation in the past has been cyclical, so why not make as much money as possible while they can?

So what happens when a team of animators has been working together for a while, and suddenly one leaves to go to the competition? According to one animator, the vibe does get slightly strange, as you become a non-person, and everyone stops talking to you. There is some jealousy, as animators have gotten a little more competitive than they had been in the past. Money, of course, has been the key factor leading both to jealousy and to competition, as well as to other animators inquiring as to how to change jobs. There is also the slight jealousy towards an animator leaving to work on a more desirable project. However, many animators agreed that their experience has been that since they have all ended up working together over and over, most of the friction or jealousy eventually dies down.

What has also improved is that animators used to be penalized for leaving a studio for another project and then trying to return. According to Sito, this practice is much more acceptable now. In a related area, Sito does question, though, what the entry of computer graphics industry will bring to the animation industry. Historically, the computer graphics animators would just quit if they were unhappy with the conditions at particular jobs. Now that they are blending into the animation industry, it could change the industry's dynamic somewhat.

Executive Decisions

While things haven't changed that much for animators, what if you aren't "talent," are not in great demand, and can't animate? The slightly smaller but equally puzzling segment of the industry, animation executives, also remains in flux. At one time, the people in this part of the industry were either owners of studios, or were upstarts in the entertainment industry, starting in children's television en route to the more lucrative jobs in live action. Animators were used to dealing with a different group of executives each year. In the last half of the decade, many have declared their interest in remaining in animation or children's television, and have even had to compete for jobs with former live action executives in certain cases.

Historically, there has probably been more flux in this segment of the industry, but with more animators depending on these people for particular projects, and with more executives assuming their high positions mean they can be the "talent," the executive has gained even more stature in the animation pantheon. If these executives are moving around, allowing their pet projects to be dropped or put in the hands of someone who is disinterested, it can also create havoc. And even stranger is that when an executive leaves, he or she takes the knowledge of the company's "secret plan" with them.

Last year, around this time, it seemed that a game of musical chairs started, and about half of the development executives shifted to other jobs. It was odd at first to see random groups of people from various companies, who were once competitors, suddenly be colleagues. Then it became commonplace.

If you are at all involved in the game of switching jobs, you are one of three people: the person leaving, a person left behind, or a person working in a department where a new person has just been hired. If you are the latter of the categories, not much is involved. You and your colleagues either like the new person or you don't. If you don't, you may end up in one of the first two categories.

What To Do

If you are leaving, you have probably spent a lot of time deciding that you want to leave, searching and interviewing for a job, and quietly sneaking your personal belongings home. It's a difficult position, because you have to make a huge life decision, and then deal with telling your supervisors and your department that you are leaving. Chances are, you have to figure out who else to tell, and how to tell them. The last time I changed jobs, I was in a development position where most of the people I worked with were outside the company. I had to figure out how to let people within the company know quickly, and how to get in touch with all the people I dealt with who would need to find out from me personally that I was leaving. For advice, I went to someone who had been in a similar situation a year earlier. Everyone still liked her, so I followed her direction to the smallest detail.

When one leaves a job, everyone tends to be surprised, even when it might have seemed likely that one was going to leave, and that the new job is an obviously better fit. To combat the surprise, I found that the personal notes and letters seemed to help. I also found that letting people I felt were close to me know a day or two in advance helped in two ways--they were not too surprised when the announcement came (and could even tell their colleagues "they already knew") and they were often a great source of advice and support. Around this time, there is a strange feeling, kind of like everything is moving in slow motion, people are acting oddly, and you are having the exact same conversation over and over. Don't worry, though, it ends quickly.

Oddly enough, everyone who discussed leaving with me agreed that while they may have had many revenge fantasies before they left, they didn't have any as they were actually leaving. Perhaps it's the strangeness and the stress of leaving, but it is probably good, since revenge usually is a bad idea. The industry is too small. If you absolutely must experience some form of revenge, my panel of experts suggest that you wait five years, eventually run into the revengee at lunch, say something such as "Wow, sorry to hear about your show..." and then run.

If one of your colleagues is leaving to go to the competition, there are a variety of unsettling reactions you may have. You may feel abandoned, or angry, or you may possibly feel stupid that you are staying. You may wonder if you are actually happy, or just too stupid to realize you aren't. You start to think that maybe you should be job hunting. You may be jealous, thinking "why didn't they ask me?" You are confused because everyone seemed so happy working together a week earlier. Or you are nervous because the person leaving knew everything about what you were working on, and now they have gone to work with the competition. Well, there's not much to say about this other than nearly everyone I talked to who felt "left behind" had these feelings, so they must be "normal." The exception was when people didn't like the person who left, or had a chance at getting a promotion into the job.

No job switching essay would be complete without acknowledging one of the more interesting unexpected side effects of job switching--who keeps in touch with you from your old job. The unexpected people who keep in touch with you often tend to be good at gossiping, or are people who are thinking about switching jobs themselves. They may be people you rarely spoke with at your last job. And good friends from your old job that you thought were friends for life may simply disappear if they are happy at their jobs or feel abandoned by you. Either way, you'll be surprised by who keeps in touch and who doesn't.

It's also amazing to find out what people (especially those who have never met you) have speculated about why you've left. Since you probably can't issue a statement or call a press conference, you just have to live through this part. I have heard some interesting interpretations of why I left my last job. I suggest that if this happens to you, take notes on why you actually did leave, and make plans to write a book.

One other aspect of leaving a job is that you now will have former colleagues to run into. Try not to gloat in front of them, as it will probably bother them. This will cause them to tell you stories that will frustrate you in return, reminding you that there is nothing you can do about your last job, except say, "Oh, well."

And when it comes to folk heroes in the leaving department, don't forget, the animation industry will always have the master, Jeffrey Katzenberg ...

Linda Simensky is the Director of Programming at the Cartoon Network and the President of ASIFA-East. She lives in a Delta 727 airplane, and is reachable at linda.simensky@turner.com

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