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« Elsewhere | Main | Comment-Spam Update »

March 21, 2004

Business and Craft in Animation..and the World

Michael:

I just read a story in the L.A. Times of March 21 that gave me amazingly mixed emotions. “Out of the Picture” discusses the significant cutbacks in the L.A.-based animation workforce. (I planned to link to this story, but unfortunately, this content seems available only to paying L.A. Times subscribers who are willing to go through a lot of rigamarole. Sorry.)

While there is no shortage, apparently of animation work, particularly for television, a lot of animation now involves CGI 3-D animation (and a different set of skills). In another negative trend, jobs in ‘traditional’ animation are being outsourced to shops in cheaper international markets like Australia, Korea, Taiwan and India (for a cost savings to the studios of around 50%.) The net effect over the past three years has been a loss of around 1,000 jobs, representing roughly 40% of the American animation workforce at its maximum.

Naturally, this has resulted in a lot of bitterness among traditional animators who have been tossed into the boneyard. One who is profiled in the story is Eddie Goral, now working at the checkout counter at local grocery store Trader Joe’s:

“Before this?” he’ll explain, if you press him as he runs bottles of “Two-Buck Chuck” through the price scanner. “I was an animator.” Suddenly whimsy drains away. Anger flashes in its place. “Until Disney got rid of all of us.” Once upon a time, not so long ago, Goral worked “cleanup” on a variety of big-screen Disney products—from “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Great Mouse Detective” in the ‘70’s to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Mulan” in the ‘90s. He averaged about $1,200 a week, not high-end animator money, but Goral had no complaints—he was doing what he loved. But then worked slowed, eventually dried up, and Goral joined the growing ranks of the newest displaced Los Angeles employee—the out-of-work animator.

It’s impossible not to feel for these people, since it is clear that collapse of Disney animation, at least, was hardly the fault of its lower-ranking employees. The Eddie Gorals of the animation world didn't screw up. No, clearly, the ‘suits’ are to blame here for bad business and artistic decisions (like the last four or five Disney animated movies, with the notable exception of “Lilo and Stitch.”)

And yet, is it really fair to blame the ‘suits’? Is it really the responsibility of the ‘suits’ to ensure that the Eddie Gorals of this world are employed at reasonably well-paid salaries doing what they love? Isn’t part of the problem that the Eddie Gorals of this world want to beaver away at their craft, and don’t want to be bothered to think about raising money and launching new projects that would ensure that they stay employed?

I know the tradeoff Eddie thought he was making—the ‘suits’ would get the big bucks and he would settle for a middle-class life-style coupled with a steady-stream of craftsmanly job satisfaction. But that didn’t take into account the more-or-less inevitable outcome: that the suits (to whom Eddie had effectively outsourced the ‘business’ issues he preferred not to focus on) would screw up! It took them awhile, but they managed it. And he (not they) paid the price.

So again, I return to my perpetual cry in the wilderness: to wit, you can’t trust the suits. Any suits. You can’t ask other people to do the messy ugly ‘business’ work in the world while you focus lovingly on your craft. Life (or at least life in a capitalist economy) just doesn’t work that way; contrary examples are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. And trying to live as though this weren’t the truth only ends up giving you less security and smaller financial rewards.

In the end, in a capitalist economy, the ‘entrepreneurial’ task—peering into the future and placing bets on how things will work out—falls on everyone. Avoiding that task rather than tackling it doesn’t really work, and leads to…jobs at the checkout counter of local supermarkets.

Wage-slaves of the world, disabuse yourselves of your illusions. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Cheers,

Friedrich

P. S. OK, I’ll grant you, this ‘law of gravity’ has been suspended in the world of very big corporations and in the world of very big government and its gatekeeper professions (law, medicine, accounting), but that’s the subject of another post.

posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2004




Comments

Ugh, an ugly tale, but you are quite correct. I'm in perpetual wage slavery in a grotty plastics factory as punishment for my inability/refusal to learn how to market my skills.

Unfortunately there are many people like me- rather geeky IT sort of people that don't have the personal skills to sell ourselves properly. And that is essential to getting ahead in this world.

Alas, I went to a state School in Australia where the very notion of 'selling yourselves' was anathema (and getting ahead in the world wasn't exactly encouraged either.

No doubt I will get there in the end, but if I ever have kids, one of the things I will drum into them is the 'entrepreneurial' task.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on March 21, 2004 10:59 PM



In the end, in a capitalist economy, the ‘entrepreneurial’ task—peering into the future and placing bets on how things will work out—falls on everyone. Avoiding that task rather than tackling it doesn’t really work, and leads to…jobs at the checkout counter of local supermarkets.

You can't really blame the guy for not predicting the end of traditional animation in the 70's. How was he supposed to predict that CGI would take over, when no-one even had a personal computer back then? He was just unlucky in his job chice, as many people are. It seems like you're blaming him for not predicting the future.

Posted by: SC on March 22, 2004 01:25 AM



SC--

The story makes it clear that the switch to CGI animation has been 'writing on the wall' for a number of years now; long enough for Mr. Goral to have retrained (quite a few animators have done so.) But as the story makes clear, there is no actual shortage of traditional animation work; what has happened is that many of the large animation employers have chosen to 'outsource' those jobs. If Mr. Goral had either moved to an employer that wasn't outsourcing, or himself become an employer that wasn't outsourcing (an option that is being pursued by other animators) he could have had plenty of work. But this would involve, as I mentioned, figuring out where the action was going to be in the future and going with that guess. Mr. Goral seems to have invested far too much faith in the ability of the executives of his long-term employer, Disney, to find him enough work. That decision is not simply 'bad luck.'

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 22, 2004 03:46 AM



The bottom line for any business simply has to be to make a good profit--the more the better; that's why someone is in business, and that's why businesses must cater to shareholders.

Part of anyone's job today is to ensure that that thought process is factored into their position within a company. Bottom line for job seekers? Be as valuable to your employer as you can be, whether it is through talent, ideas, or cost savings. Not a guarantee, but it's gotta be figured into the equation for achievement of personal success.

Posted by: susan on March 22, 2004 07:31 AM



By the way, didn't mean to be flippant above, merely concise. I don't know the answers, and I sure ain't so smart--with a husband who has worked for United Technologies as a design engineer for twenty years, but only half a dozen of them directly. He's adjusted to computers from drafting boards, and has worked on P&W drawings from mainly an outsourced position. Thinking we had the bases covered, I own my own small business and pursue writing. You can write a book with software doing the major portion of the thinking these days, and you can order a print, select a frame and matting online and have it delivered to your door. The physical work is done by your local framer through a framing franchise, but now he has to pay to own the territory from whence his customers come. Neat, huh?

Posted by: susan on March 22, 2004 08:41 AM



I'm confused. If he had enough of a "craft" that he "loved it" and was making 50 grand a year at it---there are no transferable skills except to the check out line at the supermarket? No graphics design or publishing work or nothin'? What was this "craft"? A couple of additional classes at the local community college couldn't turn his art skill into something else?

Your post seems to say two things: (a) he should have seen the end of his current road coming and done something (I agree) and (b) that he should have cooked up some other project for "the suits" to make money at. Less realistic. One of the reasons the suits "always" fail is that they don't listen to the likes of him. "Suits" fail not for "lack of help" or "lack of input" but precisely because they ain't askin' for help or input. Goes with the territory of bein' a suit.

Posted by: annette on March 22, 2004 10:02 AM



Annette:

The article is explicit that some laid-off animators have successfully banded together to produce their own projects. I think this was more what I had in mind.

Incidentally, Mr. Goral is also painting murals today (he painted one for the store he works in). He eagerly solicits commissions and keeps a resume and portfolio handy to push this line of work. So even he has assumed (perhaps a bit late in the game) an entrepreneurial stance.

Also, regarding an earlier post of Michael's, it appears one reason he is relatively happy as a check out clerk is that he receives health insurance benefits, which I suspect are thin on the ground for free lancers and temps in the commercial art field.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 22, 2004 10:53 AM



Annette is right about suits. What information that does flow in a corporate structure (most of it fragmentary and at the last possible moment) flows down from the suits. It doesn't flow up to them, except perhaps the misleading happy talk they always seem to like, which isn't really information anyway. Often the people actually doing the work can see one looming disaster after another long before the suits, but it simply can't be communicated to them.

Posted by: dude on March 22, 2004 01:19 PM



While we indeed can thank unfettered (okay, lightly fettered) capitalism for our present high-living lifestyle, I suspect that many would trade a substantial portion of that lifestyle for security - specifically the knowledge that your (business) life can't be ripped away at a moment's notice by forces beyond your control.

For most, happiness requires at least the illusion of security (it's hard to be happy when you don't know if you have a job tomorrow...), so until we're rich enough that the job no longer matters, trading security for wealth isn't likely to increase our happiness.

Of course, it's a no-win situation. We're generally happiest with little change and nobody much richer and poorer than ourselves. But once the first person drives by our mud hut in his BMW, we suddenly realize we are poor, and won't be happy until we've traded everything else that makes us happy (free time, security, family, relationships, etc.) to obtain that same level of wealth.

At least then we can pay for therapy to find out why we're still unhappy :-).

Posted by: Tom West on March 22, 2004 03:29 PM



Bye-bye, buggy-whip makers!

Posted by: Jason on March 22, 2004 06:23 PM



Good point about entrepreneurism -- not just in the animation biz but throughout the entire economy. Employment is rapidly being decentralized, though not (it would seem) prosperity.

BTW, as far as dependence on animators vs. corporate suits goes, Lilo & Stitch was the only recent Disney project to come directly from the animators themselves: Chris Sanders provided the story as well as the voice of Stitch, co-wrote the script and co-directed the film (with another animator, Dean DeBlois). The film touted its watercolor-wash backgrounds -- something not seen in a Disney animated feature since Bambi -- and old-fashioned hand-drawn character animation. Judging from the film's $150 million domestic gross, audiences were very much in the mood to see those old buggy whips in action.

Lilo is also the least expensive of Disney's recent theatrical features (I'm not counting second-string fare like Return to Neverland and Jungle Book 2), which may account for the auteur-like nature of the project.

The real outrage, at least from a business standpoint, is that the suits at Disney didn't run with the not-so-new direction Lilo & Stitch proposed for hand-drawn animation. Lilo proved that smaller, quirkier stories in which animators had a free hand with stories, screenplays and characters, could make a big box-office splash, especially with the all-important family market. Instead, Disney opted to eliminate its animation studios altogether, and concentrate on CGI features.

Big mistake, now that the House of Mouse has lost Pixar. Disney has tried its hand at in-house CGI features, with 2000's Dinosaur. The film proved a critical disappointment and a budget-buster; its box-office was respectable (about $140 million domestic), but came nowhere near recouping its cost. Video sales haven't been spectacular, either. If this first effort is an indicator, the studio may have no better luck with 3-D animation than they've had with their recent 2-D efforts. Maybe the suits can rent the guys at "Big Idea!" to make some more VeggieTales ...

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 22, 2004 11:50 PM



Yeah, Disney's suits seem to think that it's the CGI people are responding to in Pixar's films, and not the stories...

Posted by: jimbo on March 23, 2004 07:31 PM






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