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Will There Still Be an Animation Business When I Graduate?

Is the current state of animation employment a cause for concern for students entering the field in the U.S.? Animation vet Tom Sito reflects upon similar times and looks at the cycles of the animation business.

The Golden Age of animation taught Tom Sito that the business goes in cycles.

Another 100 layoffs at the studio. Could the Writing be on the Wall?

This concern was not whispered the other night over apple martinis but was written in the year 1940 by Disney animator Ward Kimball. Kimball had watched the finances of the Walt Disney Studio deteriorate since the European war had broken out. Revenue had dried up and the short cartoons market seemed stagnant. The huge profits of 1938s Snow White had evaporated into risky ventures like Fantasia and a new air-conditioned studio lot. Instead of expected bonuses, many of the hard working staff were being let go. Kimball worried aloud if the end of Disney was near.

Wait a minute! 1940? Isnt that supposed to be the Golden Age? When Hollywood animation and the Walt Disney Studio in particular were enjoying their greatest success? When everything was terrific and animators expanded the limits of their artform to a level still envied today?

I do a lot of work with young animation students, and I frequently lecture around the world about the state of our business today. Lately the question I get asked a lot is if there will be jobs when they graduate? The media currently is full of stories of how companies like Disney, Warners and DreamWorks are downsizing their large staffs. Studios are outsourcing work to remote areas of the Earth not for better talent but in search of ever cheaper labor.

Snow White represents the halcyon days of animation in the late 1930s. © Disney.

Meanwhile back in Hollywood, 20- and 30-year animation veterans who remained unwaveringly loyal to their companies are being laid off with a cruel indifference as though their skills mattered no more than part-time store clerks. By 2004, a chronic sense of uncertainty has pervaded the whole industry. People wonder if there will even be an animation industry much longer.

Ive been an animation professional since 1975. I was fortunate enough to know many Golden Age artists as they were wrapping up their careers. So I heard a lot about the past currents in our business. Over the years the animation business to use a pun moves in cycles. There are good years and bad, feasts and famine. I recall 1977 was a tough year, so was 1983 and 1987.

Yet 1958 was one of the worst years anyone could remember. Disney laid off 500 after Sleeping Beauty, Warners and UPA were slowing down, MGM had closed its animation unit and laid off Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, Jay Ward couldnt find a buyer for his idea for a Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. There was even a recession in the advertising business depressing the making of TV commercials.

When I entered the animation business in the 1970s, the animation business seemed almost dead. There was a lot of Saturday morning kidvid but no primetime animated series, Disney seemed like a closed monastery where 120 aging artists made a movie every few years between golf rounds. CGI was a few engineers at Cornell and N.Y. Tech fiddling with light waves. The National Association of Advertisers in 1976 advised agencies to avoid using animation: It is too labor intensive and expensive to prove profitable. Only Ralph Bakshi and Richard Williams in far away London seemed to be doing anything exciting. The 1977 Adventures of Raggedy Ann & Andy was over budget at $4.9 million. People told me that my dreams of one day animating something worthy of Tex Avery or Frank Thomas were never going to happen.

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1958 saw massive layoffs after the release of Sleeping Beauty and hard times for Hanna and Barbera. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved, and photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation.
Those old movies were done with Depression Era wages. Youll never see those times again. The future will be more movies like the Yellow Submarine.

No industry expert then could see that The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo or The Simpsons were coming in the future. Yet despite all the naysayers, my fellow graduates and I entered the field and scrambled from gig to gig. We were called the Animation Gypsies. Groups of rootless young artists migrated from city to city, even country to country wherever there was a project that looked like it would have real potential.

The problem is not that the industry now is so tough but that the 1990s were so fat. Year round employment, high salaries, signing bonuses: it looked like the party would never end. But us old-timers who recalled the lean years warned: Beware, if the business has a few flops, a shakeout could begin. Dont believe everything the execs promise, try to stick to union work for your health insurance, save your paychecks and keep at least one credit card clear.

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After a slump in the1970s, animation reached new heights with The Little Mermaid and The Simpsons. © The Walt Disney Company, © 2003 FOX. All rights reserved.

From 1998-2003, weve had that shakeout. Many have left the field, many have returned to the cities they were originally from. Some have told me: Yeah, well you say downswings happen, but the industry has never seen such conditions the switch to digital, the work going to India.

But the business has faced big change before: silent to sound, theatrical to television. When talking movies became the rage in 1927, within two years almost 70% of the Musicians Unions membership dropped off their rosters. They were members of large movie theater orchestras who played during silent films and vaudeville acts. Up until the 1980s, the largest single union local in the film business was movie projectionists. There used to be thousands of them across North America. Now, with the automated platter projection systems and multiplexes, their numbers have shrunk to one tenth of what they were.

In 1979, the Hollywood Animation Guild was at its peak membership of 1,789 members of whom 55% were ink-and-paint artists. In 1994, ink-and-paint was down to 8% yet our roster hit an all-time 3,000 members. Cartoon studios have been outsourcing since 1959 when Jay Ward had Rocky & Bullwinkle drawn and painted in Mexico City. Animation folks walked picket lines in 1979 and 1982 to try and keep work from leaving L.A. but to no avail.

Of course, these numbers are no comfort to the artist whose category has been eliminated. This is not to belittle the personal pain any artist is going through now to find work. It sucks, I know. But just imagine being one of those animators who worked in a big studio in the Golden Age. Remember Frank & Ollie were not always white-haired old masters. Frank was 26 when he animated on Bambi. On Snow White, Ward Kimball referred to 47-year-old Grim Natwick as, The oldest guy we ever saw. Despite the self-produced hype, most studio animators did not stay 50 years in one place and retire rich with stock.

Many animators who in their twenties were drawing Bugs, Tom & Jerry and Pinocchio, were doing TV shows like Magilla Gorilla and Superfriends when they reached middle age in the 1960s. The Hollywood they knew in their youth of big studios led by cigar-chomping moguls who danced at the Coconut Grove every night, by 1970 had disappeared and been replaced by small low budget TV production houses working for cereal companies and east coast networks. They coped with the big changes and now its our turn.

We have to let go of the way things were and adapt. Maybe now instead of thinking of ourselves as year-round plant workers, we must think of ourselves like jazz musicians, going from gig to gig.

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Independent films like Jimmy Neutron and Triplets of Bellville signal a sea change in how movies get made. © 2001 Paramount Pictures and Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved, and © 2003 Sony Pictures Ent. Inc.

For those of you who are students about to enter the business dont worry about all the talk of animation being in trouble. For young people, now is probably the best time to enter the field. The old power structures are breaking up and everyone is looking for the next big names in the business. Just look at all the movies that made it without being connected to old large studios Ice Age, Jimmy Neutron, Triplets of Belleville and more. We are on the cusp of change, from the paper and paint to the all-digital studio, and the ones to succeed will be the ones most open to new ideas. Studios are always willing to give newcomers a break. We want their energy, their enthusiasm and the suits like that they work cheap!

I dont think traditional skills of drawing and painting will ever go completely away, just like photography did not eliminate painting and synthesizers and drum machines have not eliminated symphony orchestra and jazz quartets. But in the short term it will be increasingly difficult to make a career without some computer knowledge.

If I have any advice for those starting out, it is that ours is a small business, and we all know each other. You always work with the same people, only the producers change. If the last two years have proved anything, its that loyalty to one company is no longer respected. No one project, no one company is worth going against the interests of your fellow artists. I could fill a book with the names of animators who thought they were so vital to a companys power structure; they felt they were so indispensable that they were virtually part of management. Then they get laid off like everyone else.

That is the hardest adjustment of all. Ive learned to give my loyalty to one company or a logo, but to be loyal of the Art of Animation and my fellow artists. Your professional discipline requires you to give your all to complete your project in as high a quality as you can do, then take with a grain of salt the smiling execs giving you free baseball caps and promising big things for the future.

Just remember for all our passion for the art of animation, for others it is just another high-stakes business. Artists should keep their eye on the prize but their head out of the clouds when it comes to the money. Like a random star cant be seen by the Hubble Space telescope but a cluster of stars in a supernova can, so the needs and dreams of one artist wont be noticed by some conglomerate film division, but artists united will be heard. When the project is over, the studio folded, the film you sweat blood over just another DVD on the shelf, you will still have to look your friends in the eye. Do it with respect.

Also remember that not every animator comes out of school and immediately is put in charge of the next Samurai Jack or Beavis & Butt-Head. Never turn your nose up at any project waiting for your ship to come in.

The Duke of Wellington once said that the secret of success is being able to guess what lies beyond the next hill. I wish I could tell you where the animation business is going next, but that is beyond my humble powers. But all I do know is what the Golden Age generation taught me and they have one last lesson to teach us it was ever so. The business will go on, one year is good, one its bad, but just wait, it will come around again. One of my mentors, a career animator and assistant named Jim Logan once told me: Once you are in animation, animation takes care of you. There were some days when I never knew how I would make the next rent payment, then the phone would ring.

I wish you all success in the future.

Animation director Tom Sito, part-owner of the Hollywood-based company The Gang of Seven, teaches at USC and UCLA and is resident emeritus of the Hollywood Animation Guild Local 839. He is writing a book on the history of the labor movement in American Animation 1914-2004.

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