Jean-Luc Ballester talks how a 1983 government proposal changed the French animation industry and how the major entertainment union used it to improve working conditions for animation artists.
Telling the story of animation in France along with the evolution of the labor movement would certainly be of great interest, since animation is an art, a technique and an industry. It might take a whole book to do so, but that's not my objective. What I would like to do is to recall the turbulent times in the 1980s, when the microcosm that is French animation was deeply shaken by changes that were to change the profession's outlook on the economic and social levels, with deep repercussions on the cultural front, the results of which are still being felt in the audiovisual field. In response to the 1983 Lyons Conference, which brought together both public authorities and professionals in the field, the French Minster of Culture decided to implement a plan to boost the French animation industry, a sector which had great potential for job creation. That plan was called: Plan Image. The SNTPCT (National Union of Workers and Technicians of TV and Film Production) found itself at the forefront, since it had always fought to restructure that profession. Despite the mobilization of a great many professionals, the initiative only partly attained its objectives. Furthermore, the union suffered despite its stated analyses and claims that were taken into consideration by an increasing number of professionals. Thus, it might be helpful to analyze what led to this partial failure. Today, all over the world, animation is experiencing a new "Golden Age," and SNTPCT is regaining its vitality and recruiting a new generation of technicians. In order to understand the current situation in France, we need to look back at the past, not as an exercise in nostalgia, but to see what role the union played and what status it has today.
A Profession in Search of its Identity
SNTPCT's Animated Cartoon Section was created in 1974. The aim was to give the profession the identity it needed to grow. The first two tasks the sector faced were to reinforce the idea of solidarity among individual animators and to help promote that profession within the animation industry. In order to achieve these goals, it was important to provide it with a basic agreement. Initially, SNTPCT unsuccessfully tried to include animation in the film industry's basic contract. At the same time, the union was able to sign a number of agreements were signed in the studios, particularly at Savec, a production company affiliated with the powerful Mutuelle Generale de l'Education Nationale ( a teacher's union) as well as 3A, the studio created by Jacqques Rouxel, the creator of Shadocks, and Belokapi. Rouxel's industrial films allowed him to stand apart from the usual "spaghetti" productions and allowed him to produce more ambitious works, such as films by Piotr Kamler and Michel Ocelot. Thanks to the help of Mgen, Savec was also able to turn out a great many short films, including those of Michel Gauthier. Belokapi, which started in 1968, was regularly involved in doing miniseries like Plume d'Elan by Philippe Landrot, La Vache Normande or Les Miniminos by Gilles Gay. Firmly established in these studios, SNTPCT had the opportunity to improve working conditions that allowed the gains in creativity and wages that followed.
Since its closing in 1977 of Idefix, created three years earlier by Uderzo and Goscinny, French animation had been plagued by inefficient equipment as well as a reduced number of technicians. As the union stated its memorandum to the Ministry of Culture, "The lack of incentive to produce has created structural weakness and made our companies noncompetitive." The industry could be divided into "small studios which were trying to survive," among them were those of Albert Champaux, Manuel Otero (Cinemation), or André Martin and Michel Boschet (Martin Boschet Films). The union was never able to establish itself in those studios, which were operating on a "once in a while" basis. Naturally, working conditions and wages were not guaranteed there. Because of that, the assessment made by the 1983 Lyons Conference was alarming. While TV stations were broadcasting more and more animated shows for kids, fewer and fewer were made in France, despite the fact that some were conceived there (e.g., Ulysse 31 by Nina Wolmark and Bernard Deries, or L'Aventure de la Vie by Albert Barille). Most of the shows came from Japan or the US. Because it was still working at a craftsman's scale, France seemed unable to handle productions requiring large crews, tight schedules and competitive production costs. Even the commercial spot market was lost by French producers to their English colleagues. If France were equipped with the means necessary to produce just half of the shows broadcast each year on the 3 major networks, that could have generated 500 jobs. That fact is all the more distressing when one realizes that animated animation, which were invented in France by Emile Reynaud and Emile Cohl, is an integral part of French cinema's cultural identity.
Broadcast Series Law
An eight million franc credit was granted by Culture Minister Jack Lang to promote animation following the request by professionals centered around SNTPCT, which became very much involved. But despite its involvement, the union was also very critical of the measures that were adopted. It seemed to make more strategic sense to them to foster the development of agreements with large consumer organizations, instead of handing out subsidies for the development of new techniques which did not give any assurance of any actual production. As they put it: "Market development will enable our companies to insure employment for our technicians and rebuild their capacity to finance their projects themselves, because they would have an assured market waiting for them." France Animation Studio, which had been newly created, thanks to the help of the Ministry of Culture, was designed to spearhead that renewal; along with Belokapi, it decided to meet the challenge by starting production of large-scale TV series (26 x 26 or 52 x 13). The desire of these companies to remain competitive in terms of cost, while promoting a certain "French quality" in the manner and content of the shows, soon came against the problem of finding professionals who could effectively handle industrial-style production. Other studios tried to meet the challenge and encountered the same difficulties; as they were less fortunate, they quickly disappeared (Ex Bzz that made the Bibifoc series, which would finally be animated in Asia). Under the leadership of Gilbert Wormak, France Animation hired Michel Gauthier, a graduate of IDHEC (Institute for Graduate Studies of Film, the former name of today's FEMIS [Foundation for the Study of Editing, Image and Soundtrack]) where he majored in animation. Gauthier got his initial training at the end of the 60s, on Rouxel's Shadocks.Between 1974 and 1984, he produced about 40 films (short and long series), which was warmly received in cartoon and short film festivals (Alloscopie Nº 1, Mister Jerry and Dr. Debyll, Un matin ordinaire, La Campagne est si bell.)
He quickly established himself as an original writer, whose artistic inspiration closely followed the path blazed by John Hubley. But it was in another aspect of his prolific career that Wolmark was mostly interested in. Within the union, Gauthier and his team had already completed an in-depth study of the animation industry, as well as on working conditions; and had tried to establish a methodology that would ensure the efficient production of TV series without sacrificing creativity. It was this initiative that led to the agreements signed with Savec and 3A. That know how had been successfully tested with such broadcast series as Amstram Gram (60 minutes) or M le Martien (60 minutes), both Belokapi productions.
An Economic and Cultural Stake
Gauthier was involved in the founding of France Animation, directing the implementation of its structure and team that were to produce Monde Eglaoutis (26 x 26). On the other hand, under the leadership of Nicole Pichon, Belokapi hired Michel Pillysser and Bernard Kessler to complete the Robostory series. Because they were unionized and experienced, the Robostory team, as opposed to the one at France Animation, refused to give in on the matter of salaries, as they felt that they had already proven that their production costs could be competitive. This debate forced Gauthier to resign, because for him the debate was more cultural than economic. But this did not prevent him from defending France Animation. Denouncing the producers who chose to export production under the pretext that the storyboards were done in France, Gauthier stated that, "Animation, from the Latin anima, an integral part of the creative process, that it was not disassociated with its conception . . . It is not something that be conceived of as a mechanical process which can be subcontracted out." Equally convinced that the animation was a cultural tool as important as its commercial potential, the union always fought to safeguard the artistic and technical qualities of films. They fought to get legislation passed that would put an end to the legal vacuum that still exists in that profession, but also to defend working and salaries Many thought that the wages proposed by the union were too high and that it was an attempt to destroy the industry. "Producers would never be able to make animated cartoons in France with such high salaries." It's a fact though that with those "high salaries," Belokapi was able to produce Robostory, a 52 x 13 series at FF 42,000/minute, while at the same time France Animation produced Les Mondes Engloutis for FF 52,000/minute, paying their technicians wages that were 50% lower.
Because of a severe shortage of highly-skilled professionals, France Animation was forced to hire and large number of beginners (for 98% of them, it was their first job in animation). That team, nevertheless, was able to quickly gain a technical mastery that allowed it to produce 2 blocks of 26 episodes of Les Mondes Engloutis. The union was not able to recruit this new generation of technicians, who were not able to immediately appreciate the relationship that existed between trade practices and its economic and social context. But awareness came with experience, as was seen with the liquidation of Belokapi, a company that Michel Gauthier and his team had finally joined, but it was too late. The agreements fell apart, and for the next 10 years, salaries dropped to a point, in some cases, close to the minimum wage. Working conditions also deteriorated without preventing the producers from subcontracting in the name of "economic realism." Today, that debate belongs to history. France Animation sent animation to China and the Bayard Group liquidated Belokapi. There was neither high wages nor any series to produce.
Asterix to the Rescue
Production of animated TV series was not the only aspect of the promotion of animation. Gaumont planned the production of a feature film, to be directed by Paul and Gaëtan Buzzi inspired by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny's Asterix comic books. To do this, Gaumont had to build a structure that would allow it, later on, to make two other movies with the two famous Celts. Because cartoon animation was not recognized in any bargaining agreement, the contract signed by Gaumont bore job descriptions corresponding to live-action classifications. That situation helped a multinational team of technicians to realize this lack of recognition. Being poorly represented amidst a diverse team, the union was not able to directly negotiate a contract with the company. The presence, however, of Yannick Piel, Gaumont's producer on Asterix, in the multilateral commission for the extension of collective bargaining of film production, allowed the union to negotiate within that commision! Unfortunately, due to a reason pertaining to the commission, and which have nothing to do with animation, the extension was not ratified and remains without effect. After the three Asterix films were made, and despite the company's success, Gaumont did not maintain the structure and the high quality team that made these films were dispersed, to the sorrow of the French film industry. Had Gaumont kept the team intact, which it was able to do, France would then have been equipped with the means to produce animated features in competition with the US and Japanese giants. That has not happened since the days of the Idefix Studio.
French Animation: Let's Liquidate
The final blow to the attempt to revive French animation was, without doubt, given by the liquidation in early 1988 of Belokapi by the Bayard Group, which controlled it. The closing of a studio that was turning out five international quality series, was an eye opener to the technicians who fought for four years to live up to the challenge posed by the Plan Image.
Their efforts were reduced to nothing, although they had already won a challenge thought by many as impossible to meet: to establish the basis for a French animation industry of a certain level for the production of TV series, as well as for the making of quality features. Efforts that were destroyed by the cynicism and lack of cultural ambition of those in whose hands lay the destiny of the audiovisual industry. By seriously questioning what they called the "unwise" management practices of Nicole Pichon, whom they accused of launching too many shows without securing their financing, the leaders of the Press Group "in 8 days liquidated a company that existed for 20 years," Michel Gauthier said at the time, while working on Ys la Magnifique in the Montreuil Studio. What led us to that? Unlike the American and Japanese networks, the fees French television pays for animated programming are very low; being only 10% to 15% of their actual budgets versus 50% to 70%. Producers thus have to come up with the rest of the financing on their own, betting on additional income from other rights, such as toys, gadgets, books, etc. Belokapi saw the downfall of its enterprise when TF1 (the French public TV network, which was privatized in 1986), under the direction of Hervé Bourges, canceled their showing of the Robostory episodes it had ordered because of privatization! The prospects of marketing the program's ancillary rights vanished and Belokapi was forced to return the down payments it had received from toy manufacturers and publishers. There is no protection against these types of "accidents," because TV networks have the freedom on whether they will broadcast a show they bought or not--"deprogramming" being a common practice among commercial broadcasters. TF1 had once before put Belokapi in jeopardy when production of Robostory was beginning by withdrawing from the financing package, although it was supposed to come up with a quarter of the budget. Nicole Pichon was then forced to make up for the balance through the banks.
At the time of Belokapi's liquidation, the management of children's programming units contended that the production and depreciation costs of French animation were still higher than those of companies in the Far East, which prompted them to cynically comment that, "the economics of lower cost also applied to the animation industry."
On average, the cost for one minute of animation was FF 50,000 in France against FF 2,000 in Japan, where the work was often subcontracted out to Korea. The teams working on Mondes Engloutis (FF 52,000/minute), Robostory (FF 42,000/minute), or Ys tla Manigique (FF 32,000/minute) were at odds with the declaration that, "It is wrong to say that Toei can produce an episode a day," as Michel Gauthier said in protest. At best, the schedule would be one episode per week. With Belokapi, we were able to turn out 2 a month, at a cost of FF 32,000/minute. Furthermore, the Japanese industry is 30,000 workers strong compared to 300 in France. We must also add that the arguments and figures cited by the different network heads were shameful and dishonest, because Plan Image's objectives has never been to align with Japanese and Korean production capacities; instead, they were to build an industrial sector able, among other things, to maintain the cultural specificity of French animation. When Jacqueline Jouvert, head of programming at Antenne 2 (France's second public TV network), declared that, "I imposed a 30% quota for national animation and I intend to respect it," she just wanted to be reassuring. She also added that, "We will broadcast all the shows ordered from Belokapi." But in order for her to do so, the shows had to be finished, and this was not the case with Ys la Manifique, despite all the efforts put forth to save the project. Antenne 2 did not increase its share to make up for the hole left by the withdrawal of Belokapi; and since another investor did not come up with the extra FF 8 million, the half-finished series ended up forgotten.
Ys la Magnifique, or the Engulfed Series
In 1985, the project, winner of the Antenne 2/Ministry of Culture contest, was the first Franco-Canadian production of international standing. Its aim was to reconnect with its European cultural heritage (Ys la Magnifique was inspired by a Brittany legend) and to show that it was possible to offer original stories using quality animation, while respecting the demands of a series. At the time, that ambition was considered by many as "unrealistic, outdated and even useless," and was widely criticized. The technicians who were working on it, union and nonunion, were blamed for betting too much on a "mediocre" series. If many fought hard for the existence of an industrial sector capable of producing animated series, it is because they considered that it was only on that foundation would it be was possible to build an industry capable of turning out feature films and leave enough creative space for short auteur films. In fact, that objective was supposed to allow the creation of an economic dynamics that would trickle down the whole animation industry and pull it out of the craftsman ghetto it was kept in. This is the case in Japan, where the numerous TV series are nothing but the ransom that we have to pay to see masterpieces like those of Takahata or Miyazaki. We did fight to end up providing mediocre animation to the public. Our fight is an attempt to build the foundation of an industry. Today in France, there are no more animated series, and that is not a gain for animation in general. If no producer is ready to bet on making a series in France, it will seem impossible to expect to see feature films as well. The difficulties met by Jean Francois Laguione in the making of Le Chateau des Singes or Michel Ocelot with Kirikon et la Sorceiére are a testament to that. As for the French film La Vie est un Grand Chelm, it was animated in Romania. Embezzlement of Public Funds Although the demise of French animated cartoons was also a serious failure of the government, it did not stop it from "opening the umbrella" so to speak. Two special funds were used: the support fund and the support account both served as a shield and an alibi for hiding. The reality is that those funds are being collected even as we speak, by producers who are not doing any work on in France except for storyboards, graphic research and the model sheets--enough to keep 10 persons busy. The real work is sent off to Korea or Taiwan, only to come back for postproduction (sound, editing, etc.). It is clear that public funds are subsidizing jobs for Koreans and Taiwanese.
TV networks don't play their role either. Instead of promoting a national production that will create its own market, which is the indispensable basis for the existence of an industry that would help create French cultural expression, the networks limit themselves to filling their schedules with cheap product.
The failure of Plan Image is not to be found only at the level of competition between the economic superpowers, which has more than adverse social effects; it is also a failure on the cultural front. The networks and the large organizations responsible for the future of audiovisuals bear a heavy responsibility for this failure.
Mickey to the Rescue of French Animation, or the Other Way Around
Today, animation is experiencing a promising worldwide renewal. Gaumont has decided to come back for the Dupuis series after the success of Spiron. Gaumont continues to mine this Franco-Belgian animation heritage. A number of series are under way. Very few or none will be made in France. The fight is already lost. The battle for better working conditions must be fought endlessly. The members of SNTPCT are there to fight it, despite the setbacks and difficulties, wherever they may be. Especially in the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio in France--the only studio that can claim to have the largest team of European animators, which also has the capacity to produce animated features without subcontracting work out. Ironically enough, that same studio made an important contribution to the adaptation of a masterpiece of French cultural heritage: Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris. It may seem pitiful that not one French producer was able to acquire the necessary means to tap into that heritage and instead watch it pillaged by major American corporations. Of course, one may argue that Disney's studio, based in Montreuil, on the outskirts of Paris, is a French studio with a French and European crew, and is proud of its specificity. In 1990, the union created as a section of SNTPCT in Disney and was able to acquire an audience well beyond the limits of the company. That audience is expressed not only in the number of members, but also in the fact that its people on the Board of Personnel are regularly elected by large margins. They were not only able to recapture its credibility among the new generation of technicians, but it was also able to present itself to management as a major interlocutor. It then became possible to see that many agreements were signed and, in particular, a minimum wage agreement, which stands as a reference point in the industry, since the termination of the agreements prior to Plan Image. We are certainly far from being a full-fledged industrial sector, with large studios turning out quality productions promoting France's cultural heritage. And we are far from full employment for the industry's technicians--layout artists, animators and designers--things that were promised or hoped for with Plan Image. Yes, we are far having a strong union presence in all the major companies, able to compel negotiations for our claims. And we remain far from having contracts guaranteeing basic hiring and working conditions. Despite all that, the presence of Disney in France must be viewed as a plus, not only for French animation, but for the union as well. It is only by multiplying contacts with unions in other countries, by trying to broaden its audience beyond national boundaries, by being present inside the most famous animation studio of them all that the union will be able to continue the fight that will allow the singular little voice of French animation to be heard. Jean-Luc Ballester is a representative of and Editor of the newsletter for the Animation Department of the SNTPCT in Paris.