Mark Kausler describes his impression of Animation Nation's first meeting and discusses why from a historical standpoint this movement is necessary and critical now.
I went to the Great Alliance meeting at the Sportsmen's Lodge on April l, half-expecting the whole thing to be a hoax. It was April Fool's Day after all. Animation artists meeting to help one another? It sounded too good to be true. Raising Valid Points
I read about the event on Charles Zembillas' (pronounced zem-BIL-us) website, Animation Nation, and what he said seemed to make sense. He got into one of my pet issues, overtime, and how it's become the rule in making animated films, rather than the exception. An animation job in the '90s is practically a bond of indentured servitude if you listen to the PAs. He also said some great things about empowering the Union. It's about time somebody noticed that our union, for all the well-meaning efforts of its chief officers, is a weak organization. Its place within our industry is more out of custom than of necessity. It really cannot strike, so its use as a collective bargaining agent is nil. The Union is also not a hiring hall, so even if you put your name on the re-hire list in the event of a lay-off, the Union can't help you find another job. The Health and Welfare benefits are great, but you have to wait a long time to qualify once hired by a Union shop, and jobs usually don't last that long. Getting vested in the retirement pension fund takes thirteen years of service, also not easy to come by. So it's wonderful that some artists are waking up to the fact that despite all the good times the industry experienced during the '80s and '90s, when there's a lull, we don't have anybody to rely on but ourselves. One of the artists who spoke at the function, Lee Crowe, said that this was the first time since 1982 that she's had to go on Honorable Withdrawal from the Union. She also said that she will attend Union meetings from now on. That kind of spirit is commendable, and she should take an interest in her union, but the time to act is not when times are bad, but when times are good. A Time to Act In 1969, strike fever hit the industry, the chief issue being runaway production. There was a lot of work in television and features going on, and the animators were all for going out. "Hit 'em while they need us," was the general consensus. Sadly, the strike was voted down by the ink and paint sector of the Union, who out-numbered the animators. A couple of strikes in the early '80s did nothing to stem the tide of runaway production, which could have been stopped if the artists had acted together in '69. Now the 'World Market' dictates that American animation artists compete with artists in China who are regularly caned by their supervisors when they don't make quota; artists who sleep under their desks in the Philippines because they can't afford the carfare to go home at night; and our brothers and sisters who work 80 hour weeks for pennies an hour all over the world. The Union minimums are pretty low, but at least they aren't 30 cents an hour. However, what we are facing is a wage free-fall domestically, if artists don't work on their own behalf to keep wages up. In bad times, the industry almost always reverts to a cottage industry using piecework; for example, so much for a background, so much for a foot of animation. The Union does not recognize the existence of piecework, therefore it's carte blanche for the producers, who can buy the artwork for almost any price they want. That's why a price guide for freelance artwork must and should be established. The Graphic Artists' Guild has a book of ethical price guidelines; why couldn't the Union or Animation Nation publish one? All Opinions Welcome It was nice to talk with Will Ryan, Jerry Beck, Chuck McCann, Joe Suggs and so many other friends from work. It's too bad this can't happen more often. Milton Gray put out his theory that we should all produce short films for the Internet. An artist from Chile was introducing a friend of his from Spain, who evidently sleeps on a bus bench in Echo Park, as the next Walt Disney. Charles Zembillas turned out to be the proprietor of his own animation training school! In getting the meeting started, he was overcome with emotion when talking about the plight of animation artists, and had to pause for almost half a minute. Some of my fellow workers thought this unmanly behavior, but I was impressed with his unabashed, sincere display of emotion. If only our Union meetings had anywhere near that much passion! I couldn't stay for the entire meeting as I had a work commitment, but I was fascinated by what I saw and heard, and wish Charles well. Artists have tried many times to get more equitable treatment from the industry they work in. Maybe this time it will work. If only we can stifle the urge to call each other "hacks" or "wimps" for voicing our problems aloud, and can recognize the difference between being a film critic and a critic of industry practice, we will all have come a long way. Don't give up, Charles! Long live Animation Nation! With 27 years of experience in the field, Mark Kausler is a veteran animator who has worked for every major studio. He is also a valued animation historian.