Hollywood animators are grossly undervalued

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and live-action productions in the entertainment industry were put on pause, animated productions carried on, providing millions and millions around the world with entertainment, as they have for over a century, while life as we know it was turned upside down. Many of Hollywood’s most beloved, highest-grossing movies and series, in fact, are animated productions. But it may shock many to learn that the talented workers who make Hollywood animation happen have long struggled with gross pay inequity, limited opportunities for advancement, and fewer crediting and residual compensation guarantees than their live-action counterparts represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA). This is why many in the industry are calling for a “New Deal for Animation” as The Animation Guild (TAG) returned to the bargaining table on Feb. 14 to continue working out a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers after talks stalled in December of last year.

In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with David Shair, Rachael Cohen, and Joey Clift about the vital work Animation Guild members do, the glaring disparities in how they are treated and compensated in comparison to their live-action counterparts, and the fight for a “New Deal for Animation.” David Shair is a storyboard artist and writer with eleven years experience in the animation industry, working on such projects as Looney TunesFish Hooks, and Spongebob Squarepants. He was part of the team that shaped the Storyboard Proposal in this year’s contract negotiations. Rachael Cohen is a cartoonist and color designer who worked in collaboration with the TAG Color Designer Committee to raise awareness about wage inequity and unfair working conditions for Color Designers. Joey Clift is a comedian, TV writer, and Animation Guild volunteer. He created the hashtag #PayAnimationWriters, which trended #1 on Twitter in the state of California leading up to negotiations.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez:    Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximilian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have y’all with us.

For so many of us, from the time we spend as kids on the living room floor watching cartoons to the countless hours we spend after work getting lost in our favorite streamed series, some of the deepest, most meaningful attachments that we develop to movies and television shows are forged with love for the animated works that dazzle us, entertain us, make us laugh, and make us cry. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and live-action productions in Hollywood were put on pause, animated productions carried on, providing millions and millions around the world with entertainment, as they have for over a century, while life as we knew it was turned upside down.

But it may shock many to learn that the many, many talented workers who make Hollywood animation happen have long struggled with gross pay inequities, limited opportunities for advancement, and less crediting and residual compensation than their live-action counterparts represented by the Writers Guild of America or the WGA. And this is why many in the industry are caught calling for a new deal for animation, as The Animation Guild, or TAG, return to the bargaining table this week to continue working out a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers after talks stalled in December of last year.

The Animation Guild comprises Local 839 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, and represents thousands of animation and visual effects artists. In the current negotiations, as Alex Press recently wrote in Jacobin magazine, quote, “TAG writers are pushing for pay parity with WGA members. Animation writers make a minimum of $2,064 per week, while WGA weekly minimums range from $4,063 to $5,185 – That comes out to TAG writers making 41 to 52 cents on the dollar per week compared to live-action writers. Whereas experienced WGA writers can negotiate wages well above the minimums, animators have a harder time doing so, with studios refusing to pay above that minimum. Animators, both in television and film, do not receive the same residuals as WGA productions either, no matter how big a hit they create. In addition to the disparity in compensation, there’s the issue of credits. Animation writers get staff writer or story editor credit, but nothing higher, such as a producer credit, until they are running a show. That makes it harder for animation writers to work in live-action without starting over from the bottom, no matter how many decades of experience they may have. Animation writers have long pushed for a change to crediting but say it has been a non-starter in negotiations, as a change in credits would need to be reflected in writer pay as well.” End quote.

So to talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined by three TAG members to discuss the work that they do and what the industry looks like from their vantage point. David Shair is a storyboard artist and writer with 11 years experience in the animation industry, working on such projects as Looney Tunes, Fish Hooks, and SpongeBob Squarepants. He was part of the team that shaped the storyboard proposal in this year’s negotiations. And Rachael Cohen is a cartoonist and color designer who worked in collaboration with the TAG Color Design Committee to raise awareness of wage inequity and unfair working conditions for color designers. And Joey Clifft is a comedian, TV writer, and Animation Guild volunteer. He created the hashtag #payanimationwriters, which trended number one on Twitter in the State of California leading up to the negotiations.

So David, Rachael, Joey, thank you so much for joining me today.

David Shair:         Thanks for having us.

Joey Clift:             Thanks so much for having us.

Rachael Cohen:        Our pleasure.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Now, I want to give a clear disclaimer up top for our viewers and listeners, that since contract negotiations resumed earlier this week, we do not want to jeopardize those negotiations, and we will not be asking David, Rachael, or Joey to be commenting directly upon those negotiations. But we will be bringing y’all follow up coverage on this important struggle and we will also be linking to great articles like the one from Alex Press in Jacobin to give y’all some much needed background on these negotiations.

But to start off, I think that it would be great to hear a little more from each of you all about your own path into the industry, the different work that y’all do. I mean, this is something that we try to do all the time here at The Real News, and on my podcast, Working People. I said it up top. We all enjoy the fruits of the work that you and your coworkers do, but so little of that work is actually visible to us. And it’s really at times like these, when folks need to be showing solidarity with the people who make Hollywood happen, that we start to get a glimpse into what that day-to-day, week-to-week work life is for y’all. So I guess, could we go around the table and give viewers and listeners a bit of an insight into your own path into the industry, the work that you do, and I guess what a “typical” week looks like for you?

Joey Clift:            Yeah. I’m happy to start. First off, thank you so much for that lovely intro. Before I get into my background, I just wanted to stress this is not just an animation writer issue, or a color designer issue, or a storyboard artist issue, or a director issue. This is all of us working in animation, some of the most talented artists around, demanding that we all receive a fair shake, fair pay, and fair treatment from the studios who are making billions and billions of dollars off of our work.

And to get to my background, I grew up really loving animation shows like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, et cetera, were some of my favorite shows growing up. Fortunately, I’m a Native American. I’m an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and I grew up in a closed Indian reservation. And because I didn’t see any Native TV writers or Native animation writers growing up, I just didn’t think I was allowed to work in animation, so instead I went to school for a completely different craft. And fortunately my professors gave me the right compliments to actually move to Los Angeles and give the entertainment industry and animation writing a shot.

This was in around 2010. And I really just spent the next five to six years grinding away, trying to get my in in the industry, doing a lot of live comedy, and I finally got my first freelance writing script in 2014, 2015, after five years of sleeping on couches, working odd jobs to get it. I did various other freelance animation writing jobs here and there over the next couple of years, sometimes going months or years between gigs. And then finally in 2020 I was staffed on my first show for a major streaming service, and I’ve been working on it ever since.

But I just wanted to say that to stress that for a lot of us, these are careers that we spend… For me, I spent a decade of my life working to get into the writer’s room for a TV show. These are difficult jobs to get. And I think that my personal story, being Native, is that because the industry is so hard to get into and because the pay is so low for animation writers when you do get into it, it really puts writers from disadvantaged communities in, I would say, a tough position to make it in the industry. If you’re not born wealthy, how are you going to go two years without work while still focusing on your craft and developing your skills? You can’t do that without taking odd jobs to pay your bills.

And so I think that that’s also what we’re fighting for as a part of these negotiations, and what’s so important about our fair treatment and increased wages is, Hollywood has a diversity problem, and paying people a little bit more and being nicer to people at the entry-levels is a surefire way to improve that issue and make that better.

David Shair:             Yeah. I guess I’ll talk about how I started. I’m from New York. I did some drawing growing up, but I liked it, but just at a certain point it was like, oh, you can’t do animation because you have to be talented from when you were born to do it. And so I was like, oh, I don’t think I’m that good. So I put that to the side and had some other interests I was focusing on like studying animals and things. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, I started doing improv in New York, and that really got me into sort of thinking, and comedy, and just sort of deciding, what do I really want to do? And then I came back to animation, which had acting in it, and which I really liked, and I just needed to learn how to draw better.

Luckily I was able to go to art school and try it out and I realized I could focus on something that’s an art project for 30 to 40 hours. Not straight. That would be insane. You’d have to put numbers on my back like a marathon person. But I was pretty much just… I figured out I could do it. So I learned to draw there and then made some connections while I was in school, just worked really hard, and sometimes recruiters would come up there. And so when I moved down to LA afterwards, after about a year or so of trying, I did the internship at Nickelodeon, and then it was a year after that of just sort of taking tests. It’s like auditioning for a job. Doing some of those, getting better at my craft, learning to draw, doing more portfolio samples, throwing things out that didn’t work. I remember getting decimated during a portfolio review, and I had to just get rid of all my college work and just start anew.

But eventually, I passed my first… It wasn’t my first test. It was like my seventh test by that point, but it was for a storyboarding and writing job on the show Fish Hooks at Disney Television Animation. So I got started there. I did a board for them freelance and then was able to become a storyboard revisionist, which sometimes they’ll refer to as an entry-level job for storyboard but I consider it just as important as a storyboard artist. It’s just someone coming later in the process. They’re the ones who fix the mistakes, sometimes do new acting depending on what the voice actors have done, and sometimes write some – A lot of things. So those are two different jobs in storyboarding. Storyboard artist and storyboard revisionist.

Right now, after about 11 years, I am a storyboard artist and I’m at Nickelodeon right now. So it’s been good, but I’ve been on a couple of different kinds of shows doing storyboards. There’s scripted shows where you get a script prior to doing the storyboard, or there’s outline-driven shows or storyboard-driven shows, they’re also called, where you get an outline – Could be a paragraph long, could be just a page, just saying how the story’s going to go. And then I go in and write as well as draw, write pretty much most of the dialogue, draw it and storyboard it. So I’ve done both of those kinds of shows. So yeah. Love to talk about that, too.

Rachael Cohen:        So I come from a comics background. Usually when people want to work in animation, they think, oh, I’m going to apply to CalArts. I’m going to go straight into a career. I applied to CalArts and I got rejected, which was fine because I couldn’t afford to go anyway. And so I busted my ass. I was fortunate enough to land gigs coloring a few comics that I really love and eventually I landed a job in 2019 on Infinity Train on Cartoon Network.

And I want to talk about what a color designer actually does, because I think it’s such a vague job title. I tell people I’m a color designer, and what I usually say is that I turned doing coloring books into a career. But basically what we do is take black and white line art for props and characters into color. So anything you see on the screen that’s moving was colored by a color designer, and that pretty much sums it up.

And we are facing this crazy wage discrepancy between other design roles where we earn 14.4% less than other design roles for some reason. Actually, I know the reason. It’s because in the past the only role that a woman could take in animation was in the ink and paint department, and those women would paint the cells that the male employees would draw. So it’s historically a female-led role in a male-dominated industry, so that is the root of all this, and that’s what we’re trying to change.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Man. And this is why I love having these conversations. Because even just with the three of you, I’m realizing how little I know about how animation happens. I think back to, God, I swear this was an old Rocko’s Modern Life episode, but maybe something a little more current is there’s this episode in Parks and Recreation, right, where this character Ben, granted, he’s doing claymation, but he spends weeks and weeks and weeks doing this stop motion claymation movie, and he’s so proud of it and he wants everyone to see it. And he’s like, this is going to be the next Titanic. And the thing lasts like 10 seconds. And he’s like, that was months of work. That’s what I think of. I just think of all the frames, all the detail, all the adjustments that y’all were talking about. And so I wanted to maybe just follow up on that and keep that ball rolling, and ask y’all if you could get it even more granular and describe for us the, again, what the sort of work that you do day in, day out entails, and also the other kinds of stuff that are happening behind the scenes to make these animated productions what they are when we as viewers end up seeing them on the screen.

Joey Clift:                So first I wanted to tag off of Rachael’s point about, I had no idea that that was the reason for the color designer pay discrepancy up until, I think, the start of when our negotiation started a few months ago. And it’s wild. It’s wild how our low pay compared to other sections of the industry is rooted in stuff like that. Where it’s just like, hey, we can fix that crazy misogyny pay disparity from 70 years ago.

David Shair:         Yeah.

Joey Clift:                  It’s 2022. We don’t still have to use that as the barometer for why this craft is paid so much less than other crafts, even within The Animation Guild. So yeah, like I got fired up on all color designers’ behalfs upon seeing that. So yeah. Yeah. Pardon my French, it’s way fucked up.

And so what I do in my day-to-day, I’m an animation writer. So I pitch the story ideas, I write the scripts, I help create the characters, I help finesse the scripts farther down the line, joke punch ups and stuff like that. I’m primarily a comedy writer. And I would say that really, as a writer on an animated show or any TV show, regardless of medium, if it’s animation or live-action, is you’re creating the world that the characters live in, and you’re creating the characters in that world, and you’re putting the words in their mouth to live in that world. So it’s like they say. Everything starts with a script. So that’s essentially what our job is.

And something that is so, I guess, infuriating for me in a lot of this is that that’s your job as a writer regardless of whether you’re an animation or live-action. A script for an animation writer looks exactly the same as a script for a live-action writer. Your story break meetings are basically the same. If you’ve got seasonal stories you’re breaking those seasonal arcs the exact same way. It’s just we’re paid, like you said, less than half of what live-action writers make, just based on the medium that we’re on. Even though our stories have the same, and oftentimes more, complexity.

Somebody in the chat mentioned that you worked on Infinity Train. That’s a hugely complicated show in terms of story. All animation writers deserve to be paid fairly, but that’s a story that a lot of heart and sweat and tears went into creating that show, the same amount that goes to any live-action show. So those writers should be paid fairly for that work.

And I would say that outside of when I’m on staff on a show cranking out scripts or outlines or springboards or helping punch up scripts every week, a lot of my job is, this is a freelance industry. It’s not like, you don’t apply for a job and then work at that job for 30 years. You’re on a job anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months to maybe a year or two if you’re really lucky. So a lot of my time when I’m not in the writer’s room is spent developing other projects, writing other scripts, and doing things that I’m not paid for to develop my craft so I can hopefully get the next job.

So it’s an industry where we’re constantly hustling. And I think back to the live-action-animation pay disparity, that’s one of the reasons that live-action writers are paid so well, is that it’s to allow them to weather those storms of months and years between jobs. And because we don’t have the same benefits we often run into the situation of ending a job, and then you don’t get a job in three months so your health insurance ends. So we’re scrambling not just to find work. We’re also scrambling to get more hours so we can get our health insurance back. So the increased pay residuals and all that the live-action writers get are designed to allow us to weather the storm through the lean times. As people working in the animation industry we just don’t see those same benefits. When we should, because we’re doing the same work.

David Shair:             Totally. Yeah. Yeah. Here with that, for sure. My ex-girlfriend was a live-action writer, and it’s the exact same job that everyone’s doing. You’re creating a story, a world, a script. You have a script. You have the same thing at the end there, with characters that exist, and everyone should be paid similarly. People do go from live-action to animation, I’ve seen, and back again. And it’s just sad that there would be such a big discrepancy between animation and live-action that people that work in animation, they strive to go into live-action sometimes to get even just that higher pay. And I think the scripts would potentially be a lot better… They’re great in animation, but I think the people that, say, don’t want to work for that lower amount of money. they’re trying to go up and they consider animation not as great of a gig because of the pay. And the thing is, it’s a great gig. And some of the best shows, highest rated shows on television, are animated and most widely known.

So yeah, that’s definitely something to be corrected. It really makes no sense. Some animated shows in prime time do have WGA rates, but that should be the case for all of them. They’re all making money. They’re all on either cable or streaming and they get viewers. They really get viewers of all ages. The whole family, whereas some shows don’t have that family range. So yeah, that’s, totally agree with that.

And yeah. So in terms of storyboarding, what we do, if there is a script we’ll come in and we’ll make the first visual representation, generally, of what that script is saying. So we’re basically laying down the first drawings, the first in-camera drawings for the entire script. They call it almost like the blueprint of the show. You also can consider storyboarding like you’re building a house. You’re taking the elements of the script and putting it almost in a comic strip form that’s going to be followed by everyone else down the line. As well as the animation studio, whoever’s actually animating it, they’ll follow the actual storyboards. And it’s basically almost a comic strip of the entire cartoon put together using that script as the basis. Maybe the script’s more of a blueprint. Maybe that’s the way to say it. But really that’s the thing.

If you happen to be writing as a storyboard artist you might know how the story goes. You’ll have that outline. If you don’t have an outline you might write one for yourself. Occasionally storyboard artists do write outlines. Depends on the show. Which they should get paid for as well, if they do. And then if they are writing it, they’ll write the dialogue, which they should also get paid for as –

The script, I’ll tell you what. The writing, the thing that the writers are asking for also applies to storyboard artists in lots of cases. In a storyboard-driven show where the storyboard artist is doing the writing, they are making, creating the script. So I think they should be compensated as well for almost doing another job as well as their own job storyboarding. And so the writers and storyboard artists, we have like a connection here in these negotiations that we’re hoping to remedy. As well, storyboard, lately, the storyboard job has, in the past 20 to 30 years, especially with computers coming on nowadays, some jobs that used to exist in animation have been sucked into storyboarding. So storyboard artists are now doing the job of maybe at least three, two other art jobs that used to exist. Character layout is now in storyboard, a storyboard thing. Layout could be a storyboard thing. We are doing very clean drawings that the animators totally, they’ll follow. And we’re doing lots of different jobs. The writing, for instance, that has been in the past.

But basically, storyboard artists do a lot of different jobs and we think that we should be compensated every time we do a different job. We’re also doing even editing now. Editing is part of it because you can time in the storyboard program that they give us, and that’s an editor’s job. The editors should be doing that job. Sometimes shows are asking the storyboard artists to edit animatics, making their storyboard with sound, music, and dialogue, into almost pretty much a cartoon that hasn’t been fully animated yet. That’s a whole different job that we feel like we should be compensated for. So that’s the thing that storyboard artists are running into nowadays.

Joey Clift:                   I just want to cosign that 1000%. and yeah, if this was a live-action show, if somebody was writing on the show and acting in the show, they would get two paychecks. So storyboard artists, you should get seven paychecks.

David Shair:             Thanks, Joey. And you should get a much bigger, a huge, much bigger one. Oh my gosh.

Joey Clift:                 Yeah. We should all get paid way… The studios can afford it. They make billions of dollars off of us.

David Shair:               Totally.

Rachael Cohen:         I saw a number on social media the other day. I think it was like four out of five of the top streamed movies last year were animated. And yet… I would love to see storyboarders making live-action writer money. That would be amazing.

David Shair:                Yeah. It all needs to rise up. We’re making these great things and the profits just aren’t coming to us the way we can to live our lives as they would a live-action person. Especially think about the healthcare you mentioned, Joey. My gosh. You need a certain amount of hours to even get health benefits. And it’s like, if you’re working freelance, which a lot of cartoons are doing that, they’re hiring a lot of freelance people. You might not get… You’re not getting that consistent hours you need to go through the lean times like you said. That’s very important, man. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I think that definitely should be something we don’t have to worry about, you know? It’s tough. Yeah.

Joey Clift:            Oh, yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Well then you throw into there what Rachael was saying earlier, right?

David Shair:           Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:     It’s not like there are great reasons for these disparities. Quite the opposite. And I guess I would encourage viewers and listeners to dig a little deeper into that history, as I was doing to prepare for this interview, and I myself was pretty shocked and horrified by what I found. And I want to dig into that in a second. But Rachael, I wanted to follow up really quick, because you started describing what color design entails. But I guess, again, for the layperson, for someone who actually only knows coloring in coloring books, what does that look like? Are you like Bob Ross with a palette? Are you using these complex computer programs? I guess what goes into all of the color design work that you do?

Rachael Cohen:        Yeah. So I can elaborate on that. So the start of the process is the black and white design department will get all of the props and characters cleaned up into clean line art. And then it gets sent to us and we will color those in Photoshop. And that can mean we get 50 props for one two-week cycle for one episode. But that 50 can be multiplied into however many. You know what I mean? One asset can be multiplied into five different variations based on lighting needs, based on different scenarios that need to take place in the episode.

So another issue we face in this craft is that we are undervalued and understaffed frequently. The last show I worked on had one color designer, when at the end of production we had five people doing color design because we were all doing catch-up for that one struggling artist. So yeah, that’s another issue we’re facing is that productions just don’t value this role because it’s considered entry-level, much like revisionists, who are facing their own problems. Yeah.

Joey Clift:                 Yeah. If you want to see some… This is something that my eyes have been so opened by the work that the Color Design Committee at The Animation Guild has done to get the word out about this. And viewers, if you want to see just some of these horror stories of the amount of work that color designers have to do for the rate that they’re doing, I would definitely suggest checking out the hashtag #equalpayforequalpaint on Twitter. There’s a lot of really good graphics, comics, and things like that that will hopefully educate you about the work that this craft that makes our shows look amazing does for nowhere near the amount of appreciation they deserve for that work.

David Shair:             Totally. Yeah. I don’t know. I’d also want to say that when some of these jobs are described as thinking like an entry-level thing, I don’t think there’s any entry-level job in animation. I think they all take a great amount of skill, professionalism, and hard work to get done. Yeah. I think once you’re on the show and you have a slot there in the cast and crew, I don’t think there’s any entry-level anymore. You’re doing it. Whatever it is, you are doing it, you’re doing it hard, and you’re doing it… You’re even thinking about it in your off-hours, too. You’re not just doing it the 40 hours a week that were scheduled. You’re coming up with ideas in the shower, as you take walks. Things just might spring up. And if you’re in a creative field, that’s when a lot of this stuff comes to you. Sometimes it doesn’t come while you’re working. So this isn’t a job you just leave behind, this is something that’s on us all the time as we’re working.

Joey Clift:              Yeah. If I’m on script and I’m trying to figure out a character issue, I’m not going to stop working just because it’s 5:00 or 6:00. I’m probably going to be working into the night trying to figure it out.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Right. And they know that, right? I mean, the studios know that. They expect that. They bank on that. It becomes part of the model. I say that for myself. I’m speaking only for myself. But I’m thinking of when we interviewed a number of your IATSE siblings a few months ago when there was a strike looming. We talked about all the stuff that goes into set design, all the camera work, all the backroom, costume design, and invoicing, and all that stuff.

There is a sort of taken for granted aspect like there is in a lot of other jobs. I think of academia where I used to be, years ago. They know that you’re not going to turn that clock off. They know that you’re going to keep working on whatever it is that you need to get done to meet that deadline. And it was the same when we were working retail, when we were working at warehouses and factories.

I guess listeners and viewers of The Real News, this probably won’t be that big of a surprise for anybody, but wage theft is probably one of the greatest unacknowledged crimes that goes on every day in this country. That’s what it means in a lot of regards. It is getting free labor out of people. It is expecting people to do that extra work that they’re essentially not being adequately compensated for, or compensated for at all. And the sheer amount of wages that are stolen in that fashion, from blue collar workers to white collar workers, is truly staggering.

And I wanted to thread that together with the point that y’all were just making about the sort of visibility that the work that y’all do has gained during these negotiations, particularly through putting the message out online with these hashtags, with these videos that we’ve been seeing floating around Twitter and Instagram and elsewhere. I wanted to ask, as these negotiations have gone on and as more people have been taking notice of the issues that we’re talking about here, what have you found your average person is most surprised to learn about your industry and the work that you do?

For me, the biggest thing – And I should have known this, but I didn’t – I did not realize how big the disparity was between live-action and animation roles, let alone the history of how that disparity came to be. But it did blow my mind. So I’m wondering for each of y’all, yeah, what have you been hearing from folks as you’ve been getting more interest from them and they’ve been asking more questions, what do you find the average person just doesn’t know about the way that this industry is run and what workers like yourselves go through on a weekly basis?

Joey Clift:            Yeah. I would say that there are a couple of issues – And this is something that the IATSE negotiations of the fall, I think, really illuminated – Is just how hard people in the entertainment industry work. I believe the @ia_stories Instagram account has really illuminated a lot of horror stories of just the amount of work that people are putting in on these productions that can afford to pay us more and treat us better. They just don’t, because of corporate greed or whatever.

And I would say that definitely to your point, a lot of what I’m hearing are people, even working writers, people that work in animation or live-action, reaching out to me and my friends and saying that they had no idea that there was such a pay disparity between live-action and animation. Everybody just assumes that writing is writing and that we all would get paid the same amount of money for this writing. Which in a perfect world, yes, but due to just how our contracts have been negotiated in years prior, union busting by the studios and et cetera, we’re in a position where we’re just not getting that and that’s what we’re fighting for.

And to me a lot of the… I guess what really fires me up about this and turns it into a really strong moral issue for me is that we do this job because it’s our dream job. We love telling stories. We work in this industry because when we were kids this is what we dreamed of doing, even if we didn’t know that that’s what we could dream of doing. And I feel like, like I mentioned, for me, it took me a decade to get my first staff writing job, of just relentless, constant work on my own time. And I think that the studios and people in the entertainment industry use that to exploit us into working for a lower rate while meanwhile they’re profiting so much off of our work.

I think there’s a statistic, I think SpongeBob has made $11 billion for somebody or something like that. SpongeBob has made billions of dollars, that show alone. The CEOs of studios – You can Google it, it’s really easy to see – Saw record profits last year. I think that the CEO of one network got a $40 million raise or something like that. A $40 million raise, or a $40 million bonus in 2021. Meanwhile, color designers are making very low rates. Storyboarders are making very low rates. The writers, the people that are making these shows that are making a CEO a $20, $30, $40 million raise per year are seeing all the money, and the people that are putting their heart and sweat into these things because it’s our dream are seeing none of that and being paid exploitation wages for that.

We broke it down that if you’re writing a freelance script, when you take agent manager and lawyer fees out of it, we’re only making $3 above minimum wage per hour. So it’s such a low rate for what we’re working on. I feel like this is something that people just aren’t getting. And plus just the sheer amount of work and skill and the different kinds of jobs that are in The Animation Guild, which David and Rachael have definitely pointed out, are also just blind spots for people. They had no idea there are all these highly specialized, trained, amazing artists doing this work and not getting compensated well for it.

David Shair:                Yeah. I would say a lot of people, they might not know the pipeline. Basically the thing that they know is, oh, so you draw, make a drawing for 24, for a second, right? You make 24 drawings a second, then it’s animated, and that’s pretty much the thing. And when you go into the actual pipeline of how these things are done, I think they’re wowed by how many different jobs are actually there to make an animated cartoon. There’s so many.

I’m probably going to miss a bunch, but you go from writing, to storyboard – There’s a director overseeing all of this. There’s writing, storyboard. There’s producers and executive producers also overseeing. But writing, storyboard, and then generally after storyboard, you might have some design prior, but it goes to design after storyboarding. And so there’s character designers, prop designers, the people who draw the background designers, there’s background painting where they paint those backgrounds. And then the color designers which are in charge of the color for all the characters and the props and basically anything that aren’t the backgrounds, but they have to match the backgrounds. And that’s, again, like you were saying, Rachael, with all the different scenarios. In a story, we can run into five different ways to light this particular prop. That’s why. You’re taking it into nighttime. You’re taking it into daytime. And these are things that, this is highly skilled work.

There’s also timing directors, retake directors, animatic editors. Editing is a big part of this as well. We’re making a show, and so making people aware of all these steps are like, wow. It opens their eyes to like, whoa, this is a whole crew. This is a whole assembly line of people that are doing this thing and making great stuff. And that’s when it eventually comes to us. And heck, the animation itself. A lot of times it’s not even done in our studio. We’re doing the pre-production. The animation’s being sent overseas or to Canada or someplace to actually get animated. Some of it’s animated here in the United States. It would be nice if most of it was, but generally that’s another thing where the business cuts some corners in terms of pay to get things done in other places. And then it comes back here for post-production, for the retakes and things. There’s also a whole production department, which is production coordinators, and production managers, and production assistants, and the line producer, that are overseeing the budget and making sure that everything gets done on time.

So all these jobs are there and they’re all not getting the wages the live-action equivalent gets. And we’re doing similar stuff, if not a little bit harder, because again, we’re in control of all the actors here. These actors don’t go home. We’re basically, when we’re doing the acting as a storyboard artist or as a writer you’re doing all the characters. You’re in charge of all of them. It’s like, oh my God. So you’re covering a lot of jobs there. Oh, also, the voiceover actors. They’re great. And that’s another job entirely that’s there that is another creative thing that’s brought. But anywho, that’s usually what you have to tell people about is the actual pipeline so that, yeah, then they know. Yeah.

Rachael Cohen:          Yeah. One thing that people always ask me when I bring up my job is how we are doing in the pandemic, being able to work. And that’s like, one of the nice things about animation is that we’re able to work from home, but that also means that these companies are really reliant upon us to produce work, because in the pandemic other media is not so easily made. You know what I mean? People can’t get together and make movies. Other forms of media were put on hold for a long time. But we were still working. And yet we still face these huge wage discrepancies. But it also means that people who were working in live-action wanted to come into animation so that they could continue to work and make money, which would be wonderful. But I have heard stories where the vast majority of the budget goes to those live-action creatives, and the animation people, the people in our union, obviously they’re not making that money, which sucks.

And then, David, you touched on this a little bit, but I want to bring up the even greater discrepancy that the production staff makes so much less than anybody in our union. And I know they have been fighting to become a part of TAG. I don’t have a whole lot of perspective on this, but they are so critical to a smoothly run show. I can’t even begin to tell you the horror stories I’ve heard by… People don’t want to fill these roles because they don’t pay very much. DPAs, PAs. I would love to see them get higher wages as well.

Joey Clift:               Yeah. Just to tag off of that, a script coordinator role for an animated show, you’re doing the job of a writer as a script coordinator, probably also a writer’s PA, probably like six other… Probably product coordinator, probably six other jobs that I don’t even know about. And you’re just paid the one very low rate for doing that. So yeah, I definitely absolutely echo what Rachael said about…

Something that I often say to my friends who are script coordinators is, this fight, we’re fighting so hard now not just for our own generation, but also because we want the future writers, storyboard artists, color designers to be treated well. Because this discrepancy has existed for like 60 years at this point, and I think that our generation, especially with a lot of our efforts with the negotiations committee and also our efforts on Twitter, getting the word out, and just being fired up about it is like, oh yeah, that discrepancy stops today. It’s not okay anymore. It was never okay, but now we’re real fed up about it.

And I just wanted to tag on what Rachael said. Yeah, that’s also a thing that, I think, just speaking from the writer’s perspective, animation writers are devalued even within our own craft. If a live-action writer making WGA rates gets a job on an animated show, they can negotiate for a way higher rate on an animated show than even animation writers who have been doing this for decades can just by virtue of them having worked on a live-action show. Because as we know, the society that we live in is like, the amount you’re paid is directly correlated to your value and worth as a creative. So that’s something that, just as a writer, fires me up, is when I hear of live-action writers who have zero experience in animation writing on an animation show and immediately getting a way higher rate than somebody who’s been working in animation for a decade, two decades. That’s fucked, you know? That’s just total shit.

And that’s not to say that that’s any hate on those writers. Ultimately, they’re making below WGA rates to write on an animated show even if they’re making more than TAG rates. We should all be paid well. It’s just like, that’s an example of how we’re… I don’t know. Yeah. Just mistreated and devalued even within our own craft as compared to other writers.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, and I mean, it’s especially egregious, as y’all have said a number of times, but this, I guess, is a very important, common theme that has come through in so many of the discussions that I’ve had with so many different types of workers here on The Real News, my podcast Working People, and all the news stories that folks have been following over the past year and beyond, is workers have sacrificed. Obviously the different kinds of work that we do means that we’ve all had different experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us were fortunate enough to work from home. I’m not equating our experience with those who were not, with those who struggled for PPE and those who had to brave doing gig work and shopping for people who were comfortably staying at home. I’m not saying that.

What I’m saying is that we all did what we had to do to survive, to get by, but it’s not like we were all as a society collectively suffering. A lot of people made a lot of money over the past two years. And this has been something that we’ve talked about a number of times on The Real News. When John Deere workers went on strike in November, they were saying, we’ve made this company more profitable than it has ever been. When Kellogg’s workers went on strike, when Frito-Lay workers and Nabisco workers went on strike they pointed out the same thing. When Heaven Hill Distillery workers went on strike they said the same thing. They said, when people were staying home and eating and cooking indoors more, demand for Kellogg’s went way up. Demand for Heaven Hill Distillery went way up. And workers are the ones who met that demand.

And yet the same people and companies that have been profiting handsomely from our labor and our sacrifices are not sharing the love. They’re not adequately paying workers fairly for the labor that they’ve done. And I think that thinking about Hollywood and entertainment is another essential part of that. Because for so many of us, especially before there were vaccines and whatnot, how did we get by? We were glued to our TVs. We streamed everything that we possibly could. We depended on the work that y’all and your coworkers do. And in fact, I would go so far as to say it saved a whole lot of us and our sanity and kept us afloat over these past two years. And it has made a whole lot of money for the studios and the people at the very top.

So I say that, this is my long-winded way of saying that we’re not equating the different types of work that people do, but we are saying there’s something fundamentally wrong here, where the people who do the work that creates the products and services and what have you that we all depend on are sacrificing and not getting compensated fairly, while the people at the top are siphoning up all of that profit for themselves. And it’s just really unfortunate. And all the more reason why folks watching and listening should take heed to what they’re hearing and really join that chorus that is getting increasingly loud of folks demanding that animation writers get paid what they deserve.

And I wanted to pick up on one final thing, just so we hit this point. Because Joey, you were hitting on this and I mentioned it at the top, and I wanted to make sure that it’s something that stuck for viewers and listeners. But that question of crediting, and the residuals. This is another fine-grain detail that I think a lot of folks probably don’t understand but are rightly shocked when it’s explained to them. Would one of y’all be willing to just expand that issue before we wrap up?

Joey Clift:              Yeah. I wanted to take a couple thoughts that David and Rachael had and put them together and piggyback on what you just said. Something that’s good to keep in mind is, yeah, people were glued to their TVs during the early stages of the pandemic. And this was a time when it was impossible to produce live-action safely. The heads of studios, the heads of networks, getting tens of millions of dollar raises due to good performance in 2020 for their 2021 paychecks or whatever, that’s on our backs, because animation was the only thing keeping the entertainment industry afloat and alive throughout the pandemic. So that’s something that I think makes all of this burn a little bit more for me, is that it’s on animation writers, color designers, background people, who did not take a break during this insane moment of national, global tragedy that we’re going for. Because, you know, the content mill needs feeding or whatever.

And yeah, to your point about residuals and things like that. So a big part of the issue is that something was negotiated when streaming services were popularized and started up in the mid-2000s, 2008, 2009, whatever, that it was like a… I think it’s called Sideletter N or something like that. That’s like a contract thing that basically said, hey, streaming services are a gamble. We don’t know if they’re going to do well. So can we pay you a little bit less than the union minimum, just with the attitude that this might not be successful and we have to hedge our bets a little bit?

And as a union, at the time, 2008, whatever, we agreed, okay, cool. This does open up a ton of writing jobs and a ton of production jobs and a ton of animator jobs, background jobs, color designer jobs, and et cetera, so it’s a good idea for us as a union to take this deal where people are working a little bit below their minimums to hopefully help this new medium blossom.

So this was in 2008, 2007. 15 years later, streaming services are some of the most popular platforms to watch media and to ingest media. And these streaming services are making billions and billions. I think I saw a statistic somewhere that it’s like, streaming services, up until the third quarter of 2021, made $18 billion in profits or something like that. By the end of 2021, it was somewhere in the $20, $30 billion range. That’s billion with a B. I don’t know the exact number off the top of my head. So streaming services are some of the most popular companies in the world right now, but they’re still getting that Sideletter N deal rate for all of the crafts in animation that basically said, hey, this is a gamble. Well, it’s not a gamble. These are some of the most profitable companies in the world 15 years later, and they can afford to pay us fairly for our work.

And in addition to that, with residuals, that’s something that it’s categorized differently for animation. We get way less than live-action. [In] live-action, you get paid for writing a script for a show, and then if your show airs a rerun you get paid again for the episode because there’s a licensing fee for the re-airing of the episode. That’s just not something that we get in animation. So that’s a form of income that live-action people get that animation writers don’t get even though they rerun our episodes into infinity. The exact same amount if not more than live-action.

And we’re also in an issue because streaming services categorize episode orders differently. Usually if you’re writing for a network show your job is by season. A season is 20, 24 episodes or whatever per show. So basically you’ll be writing on it per season, and then in-between seasons you’re given the ability to negotiate for better rates, promotions, and things like that. In animation writing, especially in streaming services, you’ll get an episode order that might be 100 episodes or something like that. And that’s just categorized as an episode order in and of itself. And after you write it they’ll divide it into seasons.

So you might write one episode order of a show that’s 100 episodes, but maybe that’s going to be five seasons worth of a TV show. So that basically removes our ability to negotiate for ourselves between seasons. And because the studios, oftentimes especially streaming services, will decide to cancel their show after an episode order because they’re like, well, we got five seasons worth of shows. We can just call it here. Part of the reason they do that is they don’t want animation writers, artists, and et cetera to be able to negotiate for better rates when a new season is picked up or when a new episode order is picked up.

So for a lot of us, I’m sure it’s the case across the crafts, but specifically for animation writers it locks us at like, okay, you’re a staff writer for five seasons of a TV show, so how, for the next show that you’re on, are you going to be able to negotiate for a title bump onto your next show? Because they could just be like, well, you’re a staff writer. Since you weren’t able to negotiate for better titles between seasons, we’ll just keep you as a staff writer at this level. And that’s how staff writers are forced to stay at that level for years and years.

There’s also just less titles in animation. A story editor for an animated show is like the second-in-command on the show. They’re a very high title. In live-action, a story editor is one above staff writer. So it makes it very hard for us to move from craft to craft, animation to live-action, while one, getting the pay that we deserve and the level that we deserve for that. And it also just makes it impossible for us to negotiate for ourselves while working on other shows.

So these are things that I think as a union we’re also really passionate about. Just as an animation writer, it’s like, we’re doing the same work. Just treat us the same as the other writers, because we’re all doing the same thing. Give us the same titles. Give us residuals. Give us the same pay. And pay all the other crafts. Pay storyboard artists, pay color designers what they’re worth too. Because like I said, we’re making the studios billions of dollars. SpongeBob was the most viewed show on Paramount Plus last year, and animated shows are driving subscriptions for all the streaming services. It’s on our backs that you’re making this money, so fucking pay us.

David Shair:             Yeah. Totally. Yeah. For sure. And with the writers you’re talking about, that makes total sense. In live-action, you go from, like you said, staff writer, story editor, and then I think you go to like supervising story editor, and then you might get up to co-producer. There’s all these different rankings and then there’s pay bumps that come with those. In animation, those rankings don’t exist, a lot of them, and those pay bumps, as a result, don’t. So crossing the two, going back between them doesn’t quite work in terms of how you want your career trajectory to go and how it should go, where as you get more experience you get the higher pay bumps. Those aren’t built into animation. I think that should be something as well so that you can go between the two of them. You’re doing all the same jobs.

I want to talk about the pandemic and how we’ve all been working at home. You’d think it would make it harder for us to communicate with each other if there was something going wrong, if someone was working overtime when they shouldn’t be or didn’t ask to get paid for it, or something of that nature where they’re doing something that’s doing extra work when they really shouldn’t be. And all of us other artists would be like, hey, you shouldn’t be doing that. They’re not getting that at home from us. We’re all so separate. And so it’s not… To have the strength, the collective strength that we have now in what we’re asking for, amazes me, especially thank you social media for that and the tags that we’re putting together. Everyone’s much more aware and working together to get these negotiations going on our side.

And I think the work’s been tremendous. I can’t wait to see what happens. But you can, even within a show there’s a lot of power that I don’t think a lot of people realize working on their shows. If they can get their crew together on something to really be like, this is what we want, the show’s really going to think about that.

We did this on Looney Tunes. We weren’t going to get credit for our work for writing and drawing the show. We had to fight. All of us storyboard artists got together, all 10 of us and the revisionists, and we’re like, hey. We walked in. We’re like, we need this credit. We should have this credit. We did this work. That’s just credit. I mean, that’s not money. That’s just the credits that appear. And we had to fight. And they eventually were like… And we gave examples. We made it very clear. In the past, you got credit. Why aren’t we getting credit? And so we did. We got “written by” credit. So even that, besides pay, credit is a thing.

But you could also all get together for pay. I mean, even within the show, there’s so much power if you get everybody on board and the show realizes, hey, wait, this is our staff. We are super important. There’s a reason that we’re hired on these shows. We’re not just throwaway, replaceable people. A whole different crew would produce an entirely different show. If you want this show, you need this crew. So yeah. I think there’s power, and I’m so glad that we’re getting this with the way we’re doing right now with negotiating social media. I think there is so much power right now amongst, in animation and the artists and the writers. Let’s hope some good things happen.

Joey Clift:               Yeah. Something I’m hearing from people who have been in the Guild for years and years is this is the most fired up that they’ve ever seen people in the Guild, in the history of The Animation Guild. And that’s cool as shit. That’s awesome. I love that. Here, sorry, Rachael. I feel like I might have cut you off.

Rachael Cohen:         Oh, I actually, I did want to touch on something that you brought up earlier. Sideletter N, which stands for new media, I just wanted to clarify for the audience that that applies to Netflix, but it also applies to Disney, HBO. Anything that used to be on TV but now has a streaming service gets cut a deal. And it’s not like we need to be giving Disney a deal. They have all of the money on the planet. So I just wanted to make sure that was clear.

Maximillian Alvarez:     That’s a very good and very important point. Getting these sweetheart, cheap deals that were hashed out in a global recession when streaming services were still very new and unsure, for Disney and HBO to be getting that in 2022 is pretty bonkers. I guess I’ll reserve my other words for when we stop the recording. But I mean, this is a great lead-in to our way of rounding out. Y’all were just talking about the power that your fellow union members are expressing and the solidarity that y’all are showing with each other, the response that you’re getting on social media. So as always, I wanted to wrap up by thanking y’all for joining me and asking what viewers and listeners out there can do to show solidarity with y’all and your fellow union members and entertainment workers in general.

Joey Clift:                  So I think the best way to support us is really to just be vocal about this. If you see anything about negotiations for animation workers, give us a like, give us a retweet, do a TikTok about us. Getting the word out has been such an important part of this process and any help that you can give as viewers and fans of the shows that we worked on to get the word out is really appreciated.

Some specific action items is, I believe the Color Design Committee, which Rachael is a part of, put together a really great petition basically just asking for people to sign their name. It’s a digital petition to say that you support all workers in the animation industry in our negotiations. I believe we’ve got 7,500, 8,000, something like that signatures on it right now of people who support our Guild. Which is awesome, but every signature is just a signal to the studios that you believe that we should be paid fairly for our work.

So signing that petition, which I believe you can find on the @colordesign839 Twitter account, I believe it’s also on The Animation Guild website, would be hugely helpful in our journey. And yeah, just get the word out and be loud about it, and just let your voice be heard that you also are mad about this. Because one person can be kind of quiet, but if we have an army of people tweeting about us and, like I said, getting us the number one trending hashtag spot on Twitter, people take notice. That’s something that people in the industry notice and see and they learn stuff that they’ve probably never seen before or thought about regarding our industry. And that’s on our followers and allies and supporters helping us spread that message, so please do that.

David Shair:             Yeah. And generally artists will be a bit shyer about this kind of thing, and we are putting ourselves out there for this to be a success. And yeah, following those hashtags, saying how you love animation and how much you love it, and knowing that people work on it and work really hard to make the things that you love and that you enjoy for your entertainment, and making them aware that, hey, they should be getting as much as the people who make something that’s live-action. And maybe even more. I mean, it’s just getting that out there and getting the excitement going and just, like you were saying, retweeting or putting an Instagram post. Whatever you have to do, it’s all very good. And just getting the knowledge out there. And yeah, just showing your support.

Negotiations are going on right now, so this is the time to make… If you want to make an impact, this is that time. So I encourage you to put all the love you can and that you’d like to, and we hope we have been able to entertain you throughout your life, and especially the last couple of years. And yeah. Hope that you feel happy to show it. So thank you.

Rachael Cohen:          Yeah. I remember when I was a kid, and I told my mom that I wanted to do cartoons for a living and I explained to her the process of it, like, to do an animation, you do one drawing, and then another drawing, and then another drawing, until you have a moving picture. And she was like, wow, that sounds really hard. Because it is really hard. And that’s not even the half of it. So I just want people to be aware that these are people working on these cartoons that you love, and to educate yourself, and to hopefully, if you love the cartoons enough, to care about the people who work on them. Because we care about you, and that’s why we make them.

Maximillian Alvarez:     So that is Rachael Cohen, a cartoonist and color designer who worked in collaboration with the TAG Color Designer Committee to raise awareness of wage inequity and unfair working conditions for color designers; David Shair, a storyboard artist and writer with 11 years experience in the animation industry who’s worked on projects like Looney Tunes, Fish Hooks, and SpongeBob Squarepants, and who was part of the team that shaped the storyboard proposal in this year’s contract negotiations; and Joey Clift, comedian, TV writer, and Animation Guild volunteer who created the viral hashtag #payanimationwriters which trended number one on Twitter in the State of California leading up to the negotiations. Rachael, David, Joey, thank you so much for joining me today.

David Shair:           Thank you.

Rachael Cohen:        Yeah. Thank you so much.

Joey Clift:                 Yeah. Thanks. This is great.

Maximillian Alvarez:     And before we break, I would be remiss if I did not make this point. Because as Joey, David, and Rachael explained so beautifully, to bring the products that we all depend on in the entertainment industry as well as other realms of the media industry, so many hardworking folks put their hands on those things. And that is true as much in Hollywood as it is here at The Real News. Granted, we’re a much smaller team here in Baltimore, but we are a dedicated team of brilliant folks who I’m honored to work with every day. I know that for viewers and listeners, you get to see me and our other hosts and content producers, great folks like Marc Steiner, Eddie Conway, Stephen Janis, Taya Graham, Jaisal Noor, Brandon Soderberg. Who you don’t see, though, are all the amazing folks who make our work possible and who we work with intimately day in, day out, and we really are honored to work together. And it is because of the team that we have that we are able to bring you the news that we bring you every week.

That includes folks like our executive director, John Duda, our managing editor, Jocelyn Dombroski. Rosette Sewali, our membership relations manager, our brilliant studio team, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, Cameron Granadino, Daryl and Soldier, who make sure that our studio downtown is kept up to code and kept safe. James Daley, our social media manager, Stephen Frank, our chief audio engineer, Kayla Rivara, our chief of staff, Jonathan Keen, our chief financial officer. I cannot thank all of them enough, and I just wanted to stress to all of you watching and listening that you should please head on over to therealnews.com/support and support the work that we are doing here so that we can keep bringing y’all important coverage and conversations just like this.

For The Real News Network, I’m Maximillian Alvarez. Thank you so much for watching.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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