The “Get Animated” book could only be so long. As it is, I confounded my editors by turning in an initial rambling manuscript that was apparently 30% longer than what they were willing to publish! Fortunately this blog can handle any of the overspill from those earlier drafts. Though I weeded out all the dross for the print version, I also left out all of my crazy ranting. After all, who wants to read all that?
Apparently, more people than I thought.
The American Animation Industry
Some of you may read “Get Animated” in an attempt to catch up on current industry practices. Indeed, there are lots of them to be found in those pages. But some of the methods described there are ignored or abused in studios all over. Though the book describes some of the best and most efficient practices possible, many of which are general knowledge amongst artists and animators, they are not universally used in production animation.
To explain why, first you must understand a few things about the American Animation Industry, and why it is so terribly mismanaged. Practices which would seem perfectly reasonable are routinely bypassed to cut costs. Planning is eschewed in favor of miscommunication, mishandling, and misappropriation of resources and funds. Most of this confusion can be traced to one single vector.
Animation, like so many American industries, suffers from a proliferation of MBAs, middle-level managers and “executives.” It is a common belief in America that one should never pay the “workers” anything, and the management classes have a duty to farm out the labor for any enterprise to the lowest bidder. The MBA hopes this labor will be in another country (hence “global,” which is supposedly good, but really means no work at home) and will, because of economies of scale, be many times cheaper. This is because managers hate to pay labor any amount of money, and consider employees and craftsmen as bothersome but interchangeable units that can be hired, fired, and laid off whenever the profits dip below their “proper” levels.
This style of management has one very damaging effect. It stifles creativity and imagination as it creates the perfect environment for confusion and mediocrity.
I was once employed by an animation company (the name is not important because they are all guilty) that demonstrated this in the most obvious manner. The manager above me was given incentives to push my crew’s deadline sooner than expected. Instead of the week it took us to deliver a certain amount of material, could we make it four days? Three? Why the mania to push the work through faster when the deadlines for the network were the same?
Well, if he succeeded in pushing us harder, he could lay us off sooner, and then he would collect a bonus for saving money. If we played ball with him, working harder because we felt like we were helping out the team, the money we would NOT be paid for a week’s worth of labor could go straight into this manager’s pocket. He was pushing us to work harder for less so that he could get the money.
Under such a system can any good work be made?
The history of production animation will show that labor has been farmed out to Mexico in the 50’s, Japan in the 70’s, Korea in the 80’s, and now China and India in the 2000’s. Antarctica may be next if we can only train the penguins to use a mouse.
The MBAs will tell you that Americans cannot do the job for the money, and that we MUST use foreign labor. Yet no one really knows if an American animation studio can be run using 100% American labor because no one has done it in 30 years. Everyone says it will be too expensive, because we will have to pay those pesky premiums like living wages, insurance, union dues, and benefits. Of course with foreign labor you get all kinds of problems, including extremely high retake rates, language barriers, loss of quality, and money spent sending executives overseas to oversee the operation. Untold thousands are spent on FedEx charges, plane tickets, and other band-aid solutions – money which does not go into training an efficient staff to do quality work at home.
Can good animation be done in the US with local labor? Anyone who says “no” is in the camp of the enemy and cannot be trusted. The correct answer is “nobody knows,” because no one is doing it. Animation is tough work that needs many hands to accomplish. It requires thousands of individual frames and hours of labor by skilled technicians. It costs money to do it on a large scale, and everyone knows this.
One of the big problems with American entertainment has been the shift away from the work itself and onto the process of getting money, distributing it, and collecting profits. All those aspects are important, but if there is no care as to the quality of the product the art form suffers.
Yes, I do realize it is possible to receive a Master’s of Business Administration and not be stupid, thoughtless, arrogant, and ineffective. I fear I have maligned someone in your family, or some nice person you know who would never act so carelessly. Perhaps you, yourself, have such a degree or work in a position similar to that which I’ve described. If that is the case, then hooray! Maybe you can learn about what you should be doing, and how you can help creative projects get underway.
What do you think? Does this sound xenophobic? Is it a pipe dream to consider making cartoons without sending them overseas? Can anyone start a studio that could be successful in the American market against the cheap bids from China and India?