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Shifting the Paradigm:
Charles Zembillas' Animation Nation

an interview by Heather Kenyon

In a matter of hours it seemed everyone in Los Angeles knew that "Some kind of event is going on at the Sportman's Lodge on April 1. It has to do with artists' rights..." Then came the questions, "What is it? Is it a joke? Who is this guy? What's the point?" E-mails poured into Animation World Network from as far away as New York City and Canada. A nerve had definitely been hit.

This winter in Los Angeles was exceptionally dry, not only due to la niña, but also due to wide ranging layoffs. While spring has brought an upswing and many veterans are grumbling about newcomers overreacting ("In the old days there was only work six months a year...and you were lucky to get it!"), Charles Zembillas (pronounced zem-BIL-us) still held a meeting one month ago that drew close to two hundred animation artists together to talk about the state of the industry. They spoke frankly about executives, the Union, layoffs and working conditions. Here Charles speaks about what this movement is, why he is doing it and what he hopes to accomplish.

Heather Kenyon: You are suddenly in a very prominent position in the L.A. animation scene. A lot of folks are wondering who you are. What is your background and what do you do now?

Charles Zembillas: I've been working as an independent character designer in the American animation industry for many years. I've also worked as an art director and I've done some producing as well. I've stayed independent for the better part of my career as I found myself early on getting restless after six months at the same place.

I started teaching animation related art courses in 1985 and continued to teach over the years at a few different schools. In January of last year, I started my own school, The Animation Academy, in Burbank. It's been growing steadily and takes up almost all of my time.

HK: How do you stay so in tune with the industry?

CZ: Well, when you've worked the way that I've done for so long, going from studio to studio and project to project, it's easy to make connections. I've developed friendships and professional relationships with people from many aspects of animation. I stay in touch with friends and colleagues and they stay in touch with me. Running an animation school also helps. The school is something of a communications center. News about what's happening makes its way to me.

HK: Why did you feel now was the time to hold such a meeting as the one you did on April 1, 1999?

CZ: The roots of the April 1st meeting go back almost 15 years when I first started speaking my mind about problems in animation. I've always felt that animation artists faced many inequities in this industry. There were a few years during this decade when there was growth and stability, but when I first heard about the layoffs in January, I became upset. For one thing, it appeared that animation artists were the only ones getting pink slips. Nobody else on the management side of production that I knew of was being affected by this slowdown. They weren't losing their jobs. Contracts with artists weren't being renewed, yet animation was at the peak of its popularity. It was very unfair and hypocritical in my opinion.

I started to hear all sorts of stories about workplace abuse and hostile, disrespectful attitudes on the part of animation managers and executives from a variety of different sources. Frustrated, angry artists were coming to me and complaining about it. I got tired of hearing everyone gripe, so I decided to do something. I started the Animation Nation website and organized a meeting.

When I made the personal commitment to bring the situation in animation to the attention of our community, I was looking for a way of making the most effective statement possible. Since I am of the very strong opinion that many, if not most, of the problems the industry faces are caused by poor management and strategic planning, I decided to do it on April Fool's Day in honor of the people responsible for causing such unnecessary hardships for our community.

HK: What are your goals?

CZ: My goals are to get animation artists in Los Angeles much more involved in solving the problems that we collectively face. I'm tired of the whole Union vs. non-union issue and the divisiveness it causes. I'm tired of seeing so many strategic decisions being made by an upper management that includes virtually no input from animation artists. I'm tired of this system that routinely excludes animation artists from being involved in any long term planning. I'm frankly fed up with animation artists being forced to bear the entire burden of any economic slowdown, much of which is caused by the poor planning to which I am alluding. I think we should be much more aggressive in preparing ourselves for the future of this industry and I would like to see us in positions of far greater influence once that future is manifested.

HK: It sounds like you are trying to shift the entire paradigm of the current animation industry. On your website, you are taking on executives, the Union, and common marketing schemes that work when trying to attract the attention of the mass audience. Do you think your movement can do this? How?

CZ: If a paradigm shift means empowering artists, then I'm all for it. As far as executives are concerned, what I have to say about them is nothing new. George Lucas has made his thoughts on the subject very clear on several occasions. Animation artists from one end of the industry to the other are saying the same thing. All I'm doing is shouting from the rooftops what animation artists have been talking about among themselves for years and years.

Very few executives have risen from the creative rank and file of our industry. I simply don't see how it would mess things up if we had managers who were better qualified than many of the ones who are currently running the show. I also think that the industry would be much better served if artists were integrated into the decision making process.

It's no secret that the Union has problems. The Union tends to blame non-union artists for the problems within their own system, yet some of the worst studios in the industry to work at are Union shops.

The marketing of animated properties is also an area that has many of us in the creative community frustrated. Most of the major studios look for pre-sold concepts to produce as animation. In other words, they actively search for concepts that are already on the market in mediums such as comics or toys. Original ideas generated from within our industry have a very difficult time seeing the light of day. The audiences for animation are not going to suddenly disappear if studios started producing more original ideas from within our community. I think things would improve as far as the mass marketing of animated entertainment is concerned.

In my opinion, animation is being held back. Perhaps this movement can play a small part in helping to expand our medium and its audience. The current situation in the industry took a generation to evolve. The shift is not going to happen overnight, but it will happen if artists get themselves together, use their collective power and start thinking differently.

HK: Critics of your movement point out that most artists in the animation industry have it pretty good in relation to other industries here in the States. Most, at major studios, make way over $1,000 a week and enjoy full benefits. What do you have to say in response to that?

CZ: I'd like to see their statistics as far as other industries are concerned. Even so, what does that have to do with what we face in our own industry? There are many artists who are well paid and are happy at their work, and there are a great deal of them that are not. A lot of artists do not have full benefits and many of them are constantly dealing with temporary employment while their counterparts in management face no such situation.

For instance, if a Union artist suffers through a long stretch of unemployment or has to take a non-union job, the union benefits that he or she has paid for and accrued are lost after a certain amount of time goes by. I think it's a year. Is that fair? How can an artist control this situation when there's no Union work available?

Have you any idea how much animation executives get paid? And for what? How about people working in artist recruitment departments when a studio isn't hiring artists? Are they let go? Of course not. I know of a lady who started working at an animation studio as a copy girl and wound up staying with the company for 13 years as an executive. Every accommodation is made to absorb a management employee within the studio system if there is a problem with their employment status. With animation artists, an arbitrary decision is made to let them go if there is any sign of a slowdown. I feel that this is patently unfair and discriminatory.

HK: Are executives really the root of all evil? The current system has delivered several blockbuster feature hits this year and an ever expanding number of networks and cable channels that are featuring more and more animation. Isn't this helping animation artists by giving them the opportunity to get more work?

CZ: There's no doubt that the market for animation is growing. I'd like to give credit where credit is due. Show me one project where a single executive has contributed as much as one cleaned up animation drawing, or has painted one single, solitary background in one of these blockbuster features. Show me one character design model sheet or a single panel from a storyboard generated by the hand of a non-creative executive overseeing a television series.

These folks find themselves in control of a lot of money that allows them to organize a production around an extraordinarily talented group of professional artists. Many of them get into animation to play out their Walt Disney fantasies, or they use their position as a stepping stone into live-action. It makes no difference who is at the helm of a studio staffed by world class talent. Quasimodo could walk into Disney or DreamWorks Feature Animation and wind up with a hit. You have to actually try and mess things up with the kind of talent and resources that would be at your disposal. The way that some of these executives run their operations, it seems as if that is what they are trying to do.

In my opinion, most of them have been doing a thoroughly mediocre job and I think that it's high time that our community calls them on the carpet for it. The market for animation is growing because of the quality and integrity of the work that animation artists generate, not because of executives. Executives see the demand, they smell the money, then they jump in and take credit for it.

Whenever executives get their hands into something too deep, disaster follows. Look at what happened with Quest For Camelot, Histeria and the tragedy of DreamWorks TV Animation. Each one of these colossal blunders failed because of the executives heading up the operation.

If anyone or any group should be receiving recognition and credit for the expansion in animation it should be the animation artists themselves and Steven Spielberg for having the courage and the foresight to produce An American Tail back in 1986.

HK: How do you think the meeting went?

CZ: I think it went much better than I realized. It seems to have created a bold new dialogue in our community. It's helped artists see that we should not view each other as the enemy, and that if anything is going to change, it has to begin with us.

HK: What future activities or actions do you have planned to keep the movement going?

CZ: I'd like to see animation artists in Los Angeles producing more independent projects. I'd like to see the establishment of new animation studios owned and operated by animation artists. That's the direction I'd like to take this movement toward. I've been receiving suggestions about organizing an event to bring independent distributors and producers together. Perhaps do something along the lines of a seminar that will help artists who are interested in developing and producing their own concepts, or establish some sort of confederation that will give us the opportunity to bring our projects together and market them collectively.

I'd like to see the Union get much more involved in encouraging start up studios. I'd also like to see them get aggressive about weeding out workplace abuse and the practice at some Union studios whereby artists are forced to sign illegal employment contracts before they can get paid.

HK: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

CZ: Many people think that this movement is about executives. It's not. It's about us. It's about animation artists and the issues that affect our lives, our careers, and our art. I am very optimistic that our community will rise to meet the challenge I've described. There are a lot of motivated artists not just here in Los Angeles, but all over the world who face similar situations. I believe that in time, we'll be able to position ourselves in such a way that many more of us will have the kind of influence that animation audiences are longing for.

I'd also like to thank Animation World for conducting this interview and for helping animation artists in L.A. share their views with their international colleagues.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.