Problems with the American Animation Industry

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?

5 comments on “Problems with the American Animation Industry

  1. At least we can beat them on quality, unlike the auto industry where the U.S. has been soundly whipped by foreign competitors.

    > Can anyone start a studio that could be successful in the American market
    > against the cheap bids from China and India?

    Wait until the USD sinks against the Renminbi (CNY). Your bids will stay the same but the Chinese will need to raise their prices just to break even. 🙂 This scenario seems like a reasonable possibility, considering how our government is spending its way to infinity and beyond. The strong USD devastated many U.S. industries and jobs, for example American icon Levi Strauss closed their last remaining North American manufacturing plant.

    Feature animation production is still too expensive for startups, especially in 3D, unless your last name is Spielberg or Katzenberg. Look at the media saturation bombing involved in today’s feature animation marketing campaigns. It will always be difficult to compete for viewer eyeballs against the majors. They spend as much money on marketing as they do on production. Even WB had limited success in feature animation: “Iron Giant, Quest for Camelot, Cats Don’t Dance, etc.” Cute flicks, but the Disney label was needed at that time to persuade parents to drag their kids into theaters.

    If you want to form your own studio, it might be best to begin with Internet productions, TV commercials and contract work. If you can sell a noticeable quantity of DVDs or land a Cable/TV series you may attract the kind of money needed to produce a feature. For example NEST made their nut on Bible videos, and parlayed this into the “Swan Princess” feature.

    Perhaps you will find yourself like Walt Disney eating beans out of a can and sleeping on the studio floor. Or bankrupted like his first studio, Laugh-O-grams. Don’t allow any of this to dissuade you. If your destiny is to build an animation studio then you must fulfill it.

  2. CAN we beat them with quality? The American industry is so out of practice. Who is teaching the classic techniques these days? What work is there for the recent graduate who can draw and/or animate? The industry is actually a bit hostile to them.

    Japanese quality used to be suspect in the 60s. Now look at what Japanese studios do – it’s way beyond. The same for Korea, later on. China and India will improve. My point being that when all the American money goes into these markets it’s just a matter of time before smart clever, talented people in other countries rise to the occasion and deliver really good work. They have to so they can stay competitive with each other for the big US dollars.

    All the while the American studios refuse to hire, train, and support our own clever, talented folks.

    It’s all a mindset. Feature animation is only too expensive because the “development” process at the studios is so lengthy and unfruitful. Both Bill Plympton and Nina Paley have made feature-length animated features pretty much on their own-some. If an American studio had the guts to fund a small project – and the smarts to keep middle-level managers and useless development people OUT of the process – who knows what they could do?

  3. > CAN we beat them with quality?

    Quality is a subjective and somewhat ineffable measurement, but like art, you know it when you see it. The heart of any studio is its people, and yes there is tremendous talent in the U.S. Everyone you need is here, writers, animators, voice talent, musicians on aisle 7 for 50% off. I’m not just talking Animation Checking issues… broader qualities such as entertainment value and global box office appeal. We’re good at profitably straddling the line between art and popular culture. If you bring the right people together virtually anything is possible. You just have to believe in magic. 🙄

    Globalism is a fundamental shift in human history, dangerous to ignore, possibly even futile to resist. Unfortunately creative works-in-progress are fragile and easily damaged in transit. If quality and reliability are valued, there is much to recommend a “xenophobic” local production.

    The meddlesome middle manager (MMM) is often a frustrated would-be producer who is anxious to “leave his mark” on each project which crosses his desk. The changes which he proposes provide him a sense that he has made a creative contribution to the project. Thus he can boast to his girlfriend over dinner:

    “You know that character ‘Myra?’. It was my idea to make her a teenage girl with pert breasts. The animator wanted a frumpy old woman. You would not believe how stubborn and ungrateful the animator is. Without my help this show would never have been made. Also I knew my little Niece would be the perfect voice actor for ‘Myra’.”

    Tim, your views remind me of Matt Groening and the torture he endured at Fox. Here is a quote from his interview with Mother Jones magazine:


    MJ: You did a recent sequence in your comic strip “Life in Hell” mocking some of the horrors of doing business in Hollywood. Were those inspired by your experience getting “Futurama” on the air?

    MG: Yes. It has been by far the worst experience of my grown-up life. Just as far as business, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because this is how everyone is treated. But I thought I would have a little bit more leeway since I made Fox so much money with “The Simpsons.”

    MJ: Describe the process of getting from the idea for a TV show to getting it on the air.

    MG: I spent way too much time — a few years — researching science fiction and making long lists of things I wanted to do and characters and ideas that I wanted to explore. After I assembled a few hundred pages of ideas, I got together with David Cohen, one of the writers and executive producers on “The Simpsons,” who is also a lover of science fiction and has a great knowledge of science and mathematics. He was excited and he had a lot to do with the thrust of the show and the direction, so he and I developed this thing together, and took it to Fox. They’d been begging me for years for another show, and in the meeting — which lasted about three hours because we had so much to talk about, we just knew the show inside and out — they jumped up and down and ordered 13 episodes on the spot. And then, that’s when the honeymoon was over, after that. The second they ordered it, they completely freaked out and were afraid the show was too dark and mean-spirited, and thought they had made a huge mistake and that the only way they could address their anxieties was to try to make me as crazy as possible with their frustrations.

    MJ: They made lots of demands about changing things?

    MG: They tried to. I resisted every step of the way. In one respect, I will take full blame for the show if it tanks, because I resisted every single bit of interference.

    MJ: So you got the show you wanted?

    MG: Yes. I just had to spend way, way too much time in pointless battles with the network.

    MJ: Is Hollywood really a cesspool?

    MG: You can’t believe what babies people are. It’s really like being in junior high school. [With] the bullies, and every step of the way, any time I’ve been gracious, that has been — it’s seen as a sign of weakness. And every time I’ve yelled back, I’ve been treated with respect. That’s just not very good psychology. The other thing is, it’s just astonishing to have this lesson repeated over and over again: You can’t expect people to behave in their own best interest. It’s in Fox’s best interest for this show to be a success, but they’d rather mess with the show and have them fail, than allow creators independence and let them succeed. “The Simpsons” obviously is a huge success and Fox has nothing to do with its success, with its creative success, and as a result they don’t really like the show. They don’t like “The Simpsons” at Fox.

    MJ: How does this manifest itself?

    MG: A complete lack of support for any of the extraneous aspects of show business. I mean, it’s no big deal, but an utter lack of enthusiasm for the show when we are nominated for Emmys, or when we win — and it’s amusing. It’s not everybody at Fox; I’m treating Fox as a monolithic entity and obviously there are some very nice people there. There are some, you know, people whose — well, anyway…

    MJ: No, please go on. Is it a situation where there are lines of executives whose purpose in the company is to just prevent things from happening?

    MG: Well, I’m pretty well beyond that, but there are in Hollywood, film, and TV, whole battalions of junior execs whose job seems to be saying, “Hmmm…no.”


    P.S. I would just like to add that Matt’s career began with a crudely drawn, self-published, xeroxed comic book “Life in Hell.” Which seems to prove there is always hope for the struggling animator with a good sense of humor. At least a chance in hell.

  4. What’s the point of even trying to be an animator in America if most of the work is done overseas for cheap?

  5. It’s a good question, Anthony. I would contend that it ISN’T being done overseas for cheaper in lots of cases. Have you seen the rate of retake for a typical show sent to China? It could be as high as 40% very easily. That often spurs the execs to send folks over to China to supervise production. The bid still stays the same, of course, but the real costs of the production just went into overdrive.

    India and Thailand are always options, of course, but the quality issue is a real problem.

    I’ve always felt that you could get a good show up and running using US labor right here in America if you only knew what you were doing. The fact that some studios, like Renegade, hold on and continue to do just that is some evidence that the economics are possible. I’m not saying everything Renegade does is the best practice, but they’re still in business, they do shows entirely in Glendale, and they treat animators better than SOME other shops do. So not only CAN it be done, it IS done.

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