Last month at CinemaCon, animation legends Phil Lord and Chris Miller showed off a work-in-progress preview of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” noting that it is the first Hollywood animated feature to have an animation staff of over 1,000 people working on its ambitious blend of comic book palettes and designs.
But as work on this sequel to an acclaimed Oscar winner continues, animation workers are organizing in Hollywood’s latest major labor push. For the past several months, IATSE Local 839, also known as The Animation Guild, has been in talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on a new contract; and similar to its live-action counterparts at IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), the pandemic has galvanized animators to push for what they call a “New Deal for Animation.”
To discuss what that phrase means to them, animation writer Joey Clift (“Spirit Rangers”), compositor Steve Gallant (“Chicago Party Aunt”) and storyboard artist Sadako Leong-Suzuki (“Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight”) joined WrapPRO for a wide-ranging, hour-long panel about the challenges and inequality facing animators.
Among the topics discussed were the gap in pay between animation and live-action workers, particularly for writers, who for decades have been paid on a lower wage scale than writers of live-action productions because they fall under the jurisdiction of the Animation Guild, not the Writers Guild. That discrepancy makes no sense to many veteran animation writers.
“Animation writers, in many cases, make less than half the weekly rate of what live-action writers make for literally the same job,” Clift said. “It’s just morally reprehensible to me that a showrunner and creator on an animated show, the person literally in charge of everything, whose show was their idea, makes less than an entry-level off-the-street writer for a live-action project on a WGA contract.”
Leong-Suzuki voiced her displeasure with studios’ manipulation of episode orders to avoid pay increases for subsequent seasons. Since current new-media and streaming contracts call for a pay bump after two seasons, studios and networks have gotten creative to hold down costs. “The workaround studios do is that internally, they say that we are making two seasons of the show, but they present it as four or five,” she said.
Not only does the tactic deprive staffers of pay increases despite working on dozens of episodes, but it also makes it more difficult for them to get future promotions when their résumé shows that they only worked on shows that didn’t get re-ordered. “Promotions or pay increase usually comes at the end of a season of work,” she explained, “so since there’s fewer episode orders that’s less opportunities for upward movement.”
The panelists believe that these and other issues feed into a widespread feeling of disrespect for what animators do and the value they bring to film, television and streaming. Whether it’s banter at the Oscars about how parents have to endure their kids endlessly watching their favorite cartoon or Netflix executives pointing to “The Boss Baby” as its ideal for animated series while canceling passion projects, these and other TAG members feel that Hollywood’s view of animation is far too reductive and insulting.
“Animation is an international thing, and I think it has a very different reputation in a number of different countries,” Gallant said. “How it is seen by U.S. studios isn’t how it is seen in France or Japan or other places… A lot of culture shifts around how animation is perceived come with giving people space to do new and interesting things in the medium, and that’s always going to run counter to the interests of a streaming service that… would love to have a sitcom run for 30 seasons so they can sell merchandise.”
Watch the full panel on animation and Hollywood labor in the video below.
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