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From Humble Beginnings to the Makings of Superstars

Steve Hulett of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists' Union (MPSC Local 839) reviews animation wages of the past, present and future

Illustration by Tom Sito. © Tom Sito.

In the Seventies, when Gerald Ford was president and home computers were just gleams in Jobs' and Wozniak's young, forward-looking eyes, "film animation" was pretty much the same as it had been since the Twenties--cartoon characters drawn on paper, painted on cels, and then photographed against a painted background by a film camera mounted on a heavy metal stand. The animated product was, as it had been for decades, divided between television animation, which was, in the mid-Seventies, still done predominantly in the U.S., and theatrical animation, which basically referred to Disney's animated features, turned out at the rate of one fully animated, 82-minute film every two to four years. Way back then, weekly salaries were relativelycutand dried. If you were starting out, you worked at a union minimum rate that ran from $200.-$400. per week, depending on the job. If you were a veteran, you worked above scale, maybe even $200. or $300. above minimum per week! But nobody was making a huge killing, not even those "stars" of animation that had worked with Walt since the Hyperion Studio days. My father, Ralph Hulett, a Disney background artist, began his Disney career in the Thirties, and by the time of his death in 1974, had negotiated a princely salary of $500. per week. Top Disney animators were making a few hundred dollars more per week. Long-time company staffers did not get rich from high salaries. They got rich, or at least comfortably fixed, from company stock options.

Ralph Hulett animating on the left, with a colleague at Disney Studios, 1939.

From the Twenties and Thirties onward, folks who worked in animation had never been high-salaried Hollywood employees. Top live-action Hollywood writers might pull down from $1,000. to $5,000. per week in the late '30s. The big talents at Disney, like Fred Moore, Bill Tytla and Art Babbitt, earned $300.-$400. each payday, and considered it big money for animation, which it was. Many employees at Disney made fifteen dollars a week. Art Babbitt, in fact, was so upset that his assistant was making only $25. per week that he supplemented the man's salary out of his own pocket. Young Ralph Hulett, all of twenty-five years old, pulled down $15. every payday.

The Union Comes to Town

The coming of labor unions to Hollywood had a large impact on the pay envelopes of many animation workers. It's seldom focused on, but when the Screen Cartoonists Guild organized the Disney studios in 1941, the lowest-paid workers saw their salaries double overnight. The paltry $15. pay-checks were suddenly $25. or $30.

But in the late thirties and early forties, the heavy-duty cash in cartoon-land was not being paid in California. The place where animators, assistants and layout people lived like kings was in the sun-kissed city of Miami. The Fleischer brothers had fled south to Florida after their New York Studio had been unionized. The irony was, while escaping "exorbitant" union minimums and working conditions, the brothers were forced to pay big money to lure artists to Miami. Assistants were paid the outlandish sum of $100. per week. Inbetweeners and breakdown artists made double or triple what they would have pulled down at Disney.

That first Golden Age lasted until the Fleischer studios closed during the war, a victim of the lackluster performance of its second animated feature, Mr. Bug Goes To Town, and Paramount Picture's reluctance to foot the studio's escalating bills. When the war ended, artists were mustered out of the service and back to their light boards. Once again, pay rates fell back into their regular ruts.

Art Babbit. Photo courtesy of MPSC.

The New Golden Age

Which brings us to the new golden times in animation--the high-flying present. Cartoon-making has always been a roller-coaster industry, moving upward in wages and employment when huge successes like Snow White roll down the tracks, and dropping like an overloaded ore bucket when a movie bombs. In the late fifties, Disney's $4 million opus, Sleeping Beauty tanked at movie box offices, and the 1,200-person Disney animation staff was cut to 200. If Hanna-Barbera had not been gearing up to supply a steady quarter-century of television animation employment, many artists and technicians would have been permanently out of the cartoon industry. Shortly thereafter, an equilibrium developed between feature and television animation that lasted for the next twenty years. Television rose as theatrical work leveled off or fell and it helped to keep wages at a steady, but relatively low, altitude. Low, that is, until the animated market place exploded in the late '80s.

And why suddenly the big ka-bang? Two things happened during Ronald Reagan's last term to blast animation wages through the roof, for the first time since Fleischer moved to Florida. Television animation expanded and then expanded again, driven by the success of syndicated cartoon shows in afternoon time-slots and the voracious appetite for product by expanding cable networks. Even more importantly, with the release of pictures like An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Beauty and the Beast, theatrical animation suddenly became a high-profit center for Disney and Steven Spielberg. Animation producers discovered, to their amazed delight, that not only did they rake in big bucks with their theatrical releases, but when the films were distributed on video-cassette, every eight-year-old in America had to have one. The corporation that owned thMay 17, 1941. The Schlesinger lockou latest animated blockbuster could almost open its own mint.

Photo courtesy of Ben Shenkman.

Animation was suddenly "hot" in ways it had never been before. Companies who had never contemplated cartoon production were suddenly falling all over themselves to get into the game. DreamWorks, Warner Bros. and Fox were anxious to grab the ball away from the large, wealthy mouse named Disney. Unfortunately for them, and ultimately Disney, there was a limited number of qualified artists in animation. Adam Smith's laws of economics were just as iron-clad for cartoon studios as car part factories; when supply is low and demand high, prices rise.

So, Who's Making What?

As I write, wages for experienced animation workers are at an all-time high. Not too many years ago, key assistant animators were earning a scale of $950. per week. Today, they often make twice that. Lead key assistants were once happy earning $1,100. or $1,200. each payday, now they feelcheated if they're only making $2500. Animators take home anywhere from the current $1,170. scale up to $6,500. per week. And a few high-falootin' tyros--supervising directors, lead animators, art directors, key designers--earn over a million dollars per year with stock options and handsome bonuses thrown into the bargain.

All these wages have come to pass in the last half decade. Some of the higher cartoon pay-rates, frankly, seem slightly ludicrous, but in an industry that pays a former agent $90 million plus for fourteen months of mediocre work, nothing is ludicrous. This is, after all, Hollywood. A place where executives fail and become multi-millionaires. A place where balding actors pull down ten or twenty million a picture, even while their last "blockbuster" goes down in flames.

Caricature of Steve Hulett by Scott Sackett.

The Future's Digital Twist

Where will wages be in five years? Common wisdom would tell us lower rather than higher, but there are too many variables to predict the future with any accuracy. If Disney releases two or three Sleeping Beautys in a row, wages will likely fall. If Disney's competitors find the animated releases from their new cartoon divisions still-born at the box office, departments will shrink and wages will certainly fall. But the steady march of computers and technology will probably enable animators with skills in traditional animation to swing over to live-action epics such as Jurassic Park III and Titanic IV. After all, it's easier to educate an experienced artist to use a Silicon Graphics machine than train a computer wizard the skills of Rembrandt or Picasso.

However, if wages are suddenly lower at animation houses, they might well be higher at various industry effects houses like Sony Pictures ImageWorks, DreamQuest, and Industrial Light & Magic. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers recently published a report stating that over 300 Californian animation and digital effects companies will be needing more than a few trained artists in coming years. I have also been reliably informed that in the year 1996, seasoned computer animators made $4,000. to $7,000. per week working on the Michael J. Fox ghost film, The Frighteners, in New Zealand. It's kind of hard to resist working in a business that pays salaries like that!

So, what will animation artists and technicians be making in 2002? Come back in December, 2001 and I'll tell you. The news will probably be music to your ears.

For a more detailed wage survey, visit the MPSC web site in AWN's Animation Village.

Steve Hulett, currently Business Representative for the M. P. S. C. Local 839 IATSE, was born and raised in Southern California. He worked at Disney from 1976 to 1986, where he labored on The Fox and the Hound, Winnie The Pooh and A Day For Eeyore, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company. He later worked as an animation writer for Warner Bros. TV Animation and Filmation; at the latter studio, he was one of the hardy band of cartoon employees who was present at the company's demise in 1989. He is of the opinion that it's far easier being laid off from a company that is folding than from a company that is thriving but just doesn't want you around any more.