Thursday, July 16, 2009

Human Resources

Updated below.

There was a time when companies owned the resources they used to produce their products. A company was its factories. However, in more recent times, companies have rebelled against the idea of overhead, so they simply contract out their needs to suppliers. In the past, the onus was on the company to keep factories and workers busy or they faced the possibility of financial losses. With subcontracting, companies only pay for the work they need when they need it, and it is the subcontractor's problem to meet overhead. You could say that companies have downloaded their overheads to subcontractors.

When companies owned the means of production, they were not necessarily better behaved. The movie studios of the 1930s treated their employees so poorly that they unionized in self-defense. The concentration of production in Hollywood, with its high overhead of buildings, cameras, lights, props, costumes, etc, gave workers some degree of leverage. It was not financially viable for studios to relocate any time there was a labour problem.

Subcontracting has been a financial boon to the studios. Where they once owned everything themselves and were stuck with fixed costs, they now have several companies bidding to supply what they need and the competition forces prices down. Subcontractors have their own overheads to meet, so they cut their margins as low as possible to attract work.

Subcontracting has allowed studios to do business over a larger geographical area, which has reduced worker leverage. While it was difficult to relocate a movie studio to escape a labour problem, it is simple to redirect work to a subcontractor somewhere else.

The Los Angeles Times has an article about local suppliers who are suffering as the studios redirect work to other places in order to save money. By no longer employing these people directly, the studios feel no obligation to insure their survival. Governments outside California want to attract film and television production to their locales and Hollywood studios are only too happy to take advantage of financial incentives governments offer them. If that results in hardship for local suppliers and workers, that is not the studios' concern.

Still from Live Music

The New York Times has an article about a 5 minute cgi animated short called Live Music, produced by Mass Animation. The short was crowd sourced. Mass Animation supplied software to interested contributors, who competed to get their shots accepted for the film. Each accepted shot earned $500. The short has been picked up by Sony for release in front of their feature Planet 51 on November 20.

(You can see the trailer here. The story looks to me like a rehash of the Silly Symphony Music Land.)

17,000 people downloaded the software but only 51 people had shots accepted. The Times doesn't report how many of the 17,000 actually submitted a shot. It is impossible to know how many uncompensated hours were spent to create the film or how many minutes of footage were created to arrive at the final five.

(If only 5% of the 17,000 submitted a shot, that's 850 people. Subtracting the 51 who were accepted, that leaves 799 people who worked for free and it means that roughly 85 minutes of animation was created and 80 minutes was thrown away.)

The Times also reports that the budget for the short was $1 million. Unfortunately, the Times doesn't say how many shots are in the finished film. If we assume that the average shot length is 3 seconds, that would be 20 shots per minute or 100 shots in the film. At $500 per shot, that's a total of $50,000. That figure does not cover overhead, script, board, soundtrack, modeling, rigging, or any post-production costs, but I'm a little suspicious that animation and lighting cost only 1/20 of the budget. That suggests to me that the animators were underpaid.

Where studios once had subcontractors competing for work, they now have individuals competing. Furthermore, while a subcontractor only had to create a bid (and perhaps a sample), the individuals have to create finished shots.

I'm in favour of artistic collaboration and the idea of crowd sourcing a film over the internet is exciting. However, the long term trends disturb me. Animation production, which was already too fragmented for my tastes, is now more fragmented than ever. The 51 animators who worked on Live Music come from 17 different countries. Corporations continue to use their leverage (the fact that they have money that other people want) to externalize their costs and disperse work ever more widely. The one constant is the drive to pay as little as possible. In this case, the majority of the animation created was done for free.

I haven't seen Live Music. I have no idea how good it is or how the people who competed to work on it feel they were treated. While the internet presents unprecedented opportunity for creative collaboration, it is also the ultimate tool to divide and conquer. I worry that individuals won't have the knowledge or the strength to protect themselves from companies focused so singularly on the bottom line.

Update: A former associate of mine had a meeting with Yair Landau, the founder of Mass Animation, and was given different figures than the N.Y. Times used. Here's what he told me:
2,500 Maya downloads (vs NY Times 17,000). This was 60 day license
200 different animators (vs your 850 guesstimate)
107 shots (winners) pared down to 97 in final edit (vs your 100 guesstimate)
50 different winners (vs 51 NY Times)
Obviously the winners did an average of 2 shots each.
He said the average number of submissions per shot was about 4.
(so about 400+ submissions) Cutting ratio of 3:1
Other: animators did NOT do lighting.
Lighting, rendering, compositing and editing was all done at ReelFX who didn’t get a mention.
The above figures make the production a lot less wasteful than what the N.Y. Times implies. It also looks like typical Hollywood hyperbole is at work here in terms of the number of downloads. It's interesting that fewer than 10% of the people who downloaded software actually submitted a shot. I wonder how big a pool of downloaders would be necessary in order to do a feature?

I would also point out a comment by gregizz, who was a contributor to Live Music and who offers his thoughts on the process.


Peter Saumur said...

Is that $500.00 a completed shot (approved and rendered)? What happens if you get notes? The animator at that point is totally losing money.

Mark Mayerson said...

I would love to hear from someone who got a shot accepted as to what the experience was like.

Did the producers give notes? I don't know. Maybe with (I'm guessing) a 17:1 footage ratio, they just picked their favorites and plugged them into the story reel.

Michael Sporn said...

I'm concerned with character animation. Without the chance to do a number of scenes in the film the animators are unable to develop their animation into anything more than movement.

That, of course, seems to be enough for most films made today, but there is little difference between this and sending it to a number of outsourced companies. Send part of the short to India, another part to Taiwan, some to the Phillipines and more to China. Actually, that situation is better than what Mass Animation has done. One person one scene - no connection to any other scenes. At least, the Indian studio will handle several scenesand, presumably, a professional will be doing it (with the possibility of adding character).

Animation is truly a dying art. John Lasseter looks better every day.

Sean said...

as a young animator i find this to be one of the more frustrating aspects of breaking in any where and actually learning from people who know what theyre doing and able to teach it to us, who are younger and want to learn. who wants to do one shot while they are unconnected to any feelings derived from other scenes or motivated by the script as a whole, by yourself in front of a computer. no fun. thanks for taking the time to write all you do. both mark and michael.

gregizz said...

Hi and first of all thanks for this really cool blog full of interesting resources.
I'm one of the animators who got shots accepted for the short. I'm already currently working in a company and I must say that at the time I considered it more like a fun excercise and a way to animate something else. 500$ is not that much indeed, but considering I spent a total of 2 weeks of effective work and I had 3 shots accepted plus a Grand Prize brand new computer I wouldn't say I was losing money.(total 3350$)
On another hand I also think it was a chance for a lot of beginner animators to participate to a big project. On what I experienced, the people animating on Live Music had a lot of fun doing it and didn't really feel they were used or something. I think at the end everybody was winning, on both sides. Because even those who didn't got any shots accepted still probably learned a lot. It's like an art contest.. it's not because you don't win a prize that you wasted your time on doing your work.
Concerning the connections I agree that it was a little hard, but we could still see all shots in progress and try to match. On the second phase we worked with the directors to make the transitions work the best way possible.
Well sorry for my not so great english (i'm french) and these where my "inside" thoughts on the subject.

Pete Emslie said...

I really hate this modern day way of creating animation in such a piecemeal manner. The old system was better when every animation studio created everything under one roof, keeping on as many of their animation staff as long term as they were able to. By maintaining a set group of people working together, every animation studio had a collective "personality" that showed through in the resulting films.

Nowadays, with every animator being employed on short term contracts for the duration of each particular project, they're all moving around from job to job too often, with the result that no studio really has any distinctive style or personality anymore - they all are pretty much the same. And, yes, character animation has suffered greatly for it. It's no wonder that we old farts keep turning to our Disney and Warners cartoons for solace. Nothing being created today seems built to last.

JPilot said...


Short term contracts are the story of my life from as far back as 25 years ago, and same goes for the majority of animators in my generation.
Long term contracts under one roof has always been the exception, not the rule. Big studios stay, animation artists keep traveling along.
Working from home offers some sort of stability, the freedom to work professionally without some insecure paranoid production micromanaging peon leaning over your shoulder at every frame you make (Every breath you take, I'll be watching you...)
The plan for producing "Live Music" is not ideal, but the work that is rejected is akin to the animation tests the studios used to give out "in the old days" to eager hopeful candidates looking for a job, working on scenes they know they would never get paid for, in a bid to get employment, and that didn't just start happening nowadays.

Nowadays, it's just the same old same old.

Pete Emslie said...

Jpilot, I think you're taking my term, "Nowadays" too literally. Yes, I am fully aware that the situation of contract work has been going on for many years now, and that here in Canada where our commercial animation industry is comparatively far younger than in the U.S., this is probably the way it has always been.

What I'm getting at, is the fact that in the golden age of Hollywood cartoons the major studios would keep a fairly consistent group of artists together under one roof for not only years, but some for decades. Just check out the end credits to any of the Disney shorts or features, or the Warners cartoons where each director's unit remained pretty consistent in its personnel. I do realize that there have also always been journeyman animators, mostly second stringers who wandered from studio to studio, wherever there was some work to be had.

But this seems to be the rule today, where nobody is assured anything more than contract work. At least in the old days, those lucky guys that had consistent employment at a studio could put down some roots and raise families. How does anybody do that today if staying employed means picking up and moving to where the next work is every time one wraps up on a project?

By the way, I agree with you on the absurdity of the so-called animation "tests" that you guys are asked to do in the slim hopes of getting hired. I'm even convinced that in some cases the tests are actually small bits of production work that are getting done for free by unwitting animators. I can't say whether that's a fact, but I've heard rumours to that effect from friends in the business. Regardless, I think it's terrible the way animators are exploited and seldom end up with a job after completing one of these "tests".

JPilot said...

Pete Emslie:

I actually got in studios with animation tests I had done on the premises. And these animation tests were mandatory for relative newcomers unless you knew someone inside with influence (ah,nepotism!)
But the "send the test over by mail" routine sent by an unseen and unmet employer was, and still is, a soft brush off. They don't want to hire you when this happens, as opposed to getting someone to do a scene for free that will end up in the project. Everyone usually gets sent the same test.

I think that what you refer to as the Golden Age studio system of decades past can be said of many industries. It's how corporate culture has evolved across the board. If you want a steady job for years in one place nowadays, you have to become an accountant.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Mark and as one of your former students and someone that almost had the knee jerk reaction to participate in this "venture" of a sham, live music, I must say you articulate very well the slippery slope that this short film has ramped up. In my personal opinion, hoodwinked started alot of this mess (well, not directly but it certainly opened the floodgates) to cheap labour and maximum profit. Lets be real now; it is all about the profit. And why keep as many animators as a studio can when you can pay one or two leads and farm out the rest of the work for 500 bucks a shot? Most people would love to work on something featured on the big screen and be damned the cost. With the schools turining out record numbers of animators, there will always be good to decent ones to pick from every year and when they get too good and want a raise; go with the cheaper and younger. Much like baseball, I suppose. It is much the way some of Chris Landreth's movies were made too with the NFB. With movies like hoodwinked and transformers 2 even (both critically lambasted but commercially successful) becoming a studio trend to bank on and the people not demanding quality, just quantitiy, and everyone and their mother making a CG animated film (go to future shop or loblaws and look at how many no-name knock off cg movies there are) is it that long before all the good animated movies dry up (if they havent already?)??

P.s. Isnt one of the guys throwing this thing together the same guy affiliated with the ani-boom/ fox make a holiday special contest? Anyone not see where this is going??

Anonymous said...

Sorry to clog up the comment section but I found one more article that I think articulates a great point as to the ethical view of this whole mass animation thing.

And why didn't they farm out the lighting, rendering, texturing and modelling? I quote the immortal jeff goldblum from Jurrasic park " Your too busy wondering if you could, you never stopped to think if you should".......

Anonymous said...

This is nothing more than sweatshop work for appallingly low fees and appears to violate several labour laws. Of course who can enforce them when they're done on the Web?