Tom Sito’s article on AWN got passed to me this week, and I couldn’t let this one go by. Now Tom is highly qualified to talk about animation’s history and its current state of affairs. He’s also a genuinely nice guy who is passionate about what he does. I have some disagreements and points to add.
“No industry expert then could see that The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo or The Simpsons were coming in the future. Yet despite all the naysayers, my fellow graduates and I entered the field and scrambled from gig to gig. We were called the Animation Gypsies. Groups of rootless young artists migrated from city to city, even country to country — wherever there was a project that looked like it would have real potential.”
That’s not a life for everyone. Read that carefully: “rootless.” Consider very seriously whether becoming a traditional or even a digital animator is worth that to you. We are living in nomadic times, when studios are spread far apart, and the loss of a job may mean leaving town for good. It has happened to me, and to my friends, and it could happen to you.
“Yeah, well you say downswings happen, but the industry has never seen such conditions — the switch to digital, the work going to India. In 1979, the Hollywood Animation Guild was at its peak membership of 1,789 members of whom 55% were ink-and-paint artists. In 1994, ink-and-paint was down to 8% yet our roster hit an all-time 3,000 members. Cartoon studios have been outsourcing since 1959 when Jay Ward had Rocky & Bullwinkle drawn and painted in Mexico City. Animation folks walked picket lines in 1979 and 1982 to try and keep work from leaving L.A. but to no avail. Of course, these numbers are no comfort to the artist whose category has been eliminated. This is not to belittle the personal pain any artist is going through now to find work. ”
Which is precisely why most students should not pursue this degree right now. I sharply disagree with Sito that the best time to get into animation is when the industry is restructuring itself. Most of the labor, and many types of labor, will not be needed in future productions. If the traditional industry continues at all, it will be far more streamlined. Will there be room for you, student of the arts? It remains to be seen. During many of the periods of difficulty Sito cites in the article, newcomers were not brought into the studios. There are large gaps in age between generations of animators, look into it, it’s fascinating reading. During those gaps, animation knowledge sometimes didn’t get passed down. There are also likely going to be far fewer productions for quite a while.
“For young people, now is probably the best time to enter the field. The old power structures are breaking up and everyone is looking for the next big names in the business. Just look at all the movies that made it without being connected to old large studios — Ice Age, Jimmy Neutron, Triplets of Belleville and more. We are on the cusp of change, from the paper and paint to the all-digital studio, and the ones to succeed will be the ones most open to new ideas. Studios are always willing to give newcomers a break. We want their energy, their enthusiasm and the suits like that they work cheap!”
This is the troubling paragraph. I might say “don’t worry” if the average animation student education was free or even affordable. But if you are taking on the burden of a massive student loan (say, from CalArts) you’re setting yourself up for a fall. It’s very easy to be a struggling nomad when you don’t have to pay off your education. It’s no picnic when you have one. Please ignore the success of Triplets of Belleville. It was not made in this country, and it only had an art house run in the states. As for the other two, good reasons to focus your energy on 3-D. Ask yourself if “working cheap” is going to be satisfying for you, and for how long. Many friends of mine are still working for the same rate of pay they started in the business at.
“But all I do know is what the Golden Age generation taught me and they have one last lesson to teach us — ‘it was ever so.'”
Yes it has been “ever so,” but knowing that shouldn’t give you comfort, it’s a warning flag. Animation history is a bloody story, leaving many fine artists lying in pools of depression in its wake. For every Frank and Ollie who survived (by avoiding the union and towing the company line, by the way), there were animators like Bill Tytla, Art Babbitt, John Hubley and the names that won’t be remembered. Adapt to the situation, study the type of animation that studios are looking for, don’t get into debt for it, and fight the system by being your own master. Don’t rely on it unless its your only passion in life. Strive to be the very best of the best. Otherwise, good luck to you.