While directors, top studio brass and other big-name animation players have been moving to Internet firms such as Shockwave.com, Mondo Media and Stan Lee Media for the last year, the rank-and-file animators had not followed suit. Until now.
The trend is being fueled by staff cutbacks at studio animation houses and rising pay at Internet firms.
In June, Stan Lee Media wooed nine animators away from the Walt Disney Co. to work for the Encino startup in its Squnkwurx Internet development division. Meanwhile, savvy talent manager Michael Ovitz has teamed his Artist Management Group with San Francisco-based Shockwave.com. The two companies are creating a development fund for AMG’s clients, paying the animators to create animated programming that will be distributed on the Internet by Shockwave, with both companies splitting the profits.
“The days of the studio are dwindling,” said Peter F. Paul, co-founder of Stan Lee Media. “We’re able to attract top talent.”
While studios are still considered the cream of the crop in terms of animation jobs, those spots are becoming harder to find. It’s less expensive to buy animated programming from other countries, particularly Asian shops, and keep their in-house animation divisions staffed to a bare minimum. For local animators, that has meant a shift to the Internet.
“It’s a migrant worker population,” said Sarah Baisley, editor of Animation magazine, a trade publication based in Agoura Hills. “They go where their work is, and now it’s on the Internet.”
Tom Sito, president of the Motion Picture and Cartoonist Union, Local 839, said that while overall animation production is at an all-time high, the union’s membership has dropped to 1,700 down from a benchmark of 2,700 in 1998.
Studios have begun hiring animators on a freelance basis rather than employing them full-time. Faced with little choice, many animators have decided that now is the time to switch career paths, Sito said.
Union members have begun to take classes in Internet software like Flash to keep up with the latest technology.
“The problem with the Web sites now is, they don’t pay well enough to sustain a professional,” Sito said. “That being said, cable was once the same way. Everyone is aware of the fact that the Internet is growing.”
And as it grows, the pay scales at some shops are rising. Paul said Stan Lee Media is paying its animators on par with what the major studios are offering, though he declined to give specifics.
Studio jobs themselves now generally pay just slightly above union scale, Baisley said. That means a range from $1,100 a week all the way up to $3,500, depending on the job. Aside from salaries, though, the studios are still able to offer perks (such as daily, catered lunches) that few Web companies can match.
“Conditions are still a lot better working at a studio, and they’re going to stay that way,” Baisley said.
Still, the perks aren’t always enough to keep staff from fleeing to dot-coms, where many animators say they have more freedom to spread their artistic wings.
“Artists are driven by what they like to do, rather than by their business portfolio,” Baisley said. “The lure is, the type of show or project (on the Internet) may suit their taste better.”
Jim Strader, a partner at Animanagement, a personal management agency that represents 140 animators, said many newer and younger animators look to Internet companies because they allow artists to work on edgier types of programs.
Because the typical budget for an online animation project is between $10,000 and $20,000, the cost of failure is lower than it is for studio productions, allowing artists more opportunities to try new things.
While Disney still has plenty of appeal, Strader said it doesn’t allow animators as much freedom to experiment because hundreds of millions of dollars and the company’s brand name are on the line for its animated features.