Chapter 18: Why Prague, For God’s Sake?
That was the question I constantly had to answer while isolated from my old colleagues, and hunkered in this distant and seemingly God-forsaken communist-gripped misery. This chapter answers the question. Was I a pinko? A spy? An enemy agent? A CIA man? Or did I just happen to fall into something too good to be true?
Jules Feiffer once did a book he called "The Explainers." In my early years in Prague I was constantly needing to explain to my family, friends and American colleagues what I was doing here. In the 60's and 70's the Screen Cartoonists Union was inflamed with what they called "runaway animation." Today it is the norm that most TV program animation is farmed out overseas. The Simpsons is animated in Korea... and so on. But having found myself in this outcast country, I did worry about being thought of as a pariah and traitor to my animation union colleagues in the States. During that period there was a high unemployment rate for cartoon union members, and they strongly resented what they called "runaway" animation.... especially to a communist country!
As usual, there was more to this than met the eye. The Screen Actors Guild had long since established residual payments to their members, so that they would be paid every time their voice or face was aired in a commercial. Way back then, my friend Allen Swift walked into a New York recording studio, and within five minutes read the line, "Winston tastes good, like a cigaret should." It may have been ungrammatical, and for a bad cause, but that single line made Allen a rich man, as it was repeated on the air over and over until everyone gave up smoking.
The Screen Cartoonists Union lusted after the same kind of deal for animators. However, an actor is a single person - animated films are made by a group. Who would get the residuals? The inkers and painters realized it wouldn't be they. In the union they were the vast majority, and they voted for higher pay scale now. So that's what the union went after. TV commercial work could support the higher wages, but programming material could not. Programming producers were forced to go where wages were lower, and so it is to this day. In a letter to the Cartoonists Union in April, 1971, I wrote:
"In my view, any good, well-made animation films produced anywhere in the world helps to promote animation in general, and thus provide work for all of us. It seems to me that the real "iron curtain" is between TV commercial production, and all other forms. The fact is that the current US animation pay scales are based on the high-spending economy of TV commercial production. TV-entertainment, theatrical entertainment, and teaching film economies can hardly afford top-quality animation production in an industry dominated by the big spenders in the blurb business...
"The fact is there is very little, if any, "runaway" TV-commercial animation being done. The films I am doing in Prague (story films for children) would not be made at all if it were not possible to produce them abroad. Thus your union would not get this work anyway.... The future need for animation films of all kinds will be overwhelming. There will be room for all, and world production and competition can only raise the standards of our work and increase our effectiveness. More cultural contact and exchange of work is needed between peoples, not less!"
Today the boom in primetime animation programming has provided work for anyone who can animate! I do think my 1971 letter was somewhat prophetic.