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Sausage party studio investigated for making animators work for free

October 18, 2016

animation-protest-poster-2016-sep-1-00

We are told that if we had to watch sausages being made we wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of them—the same may also be true of animated feature films about sausages.

Today (October 18) I read in my morning newspaper that the B.C. Employment Standards Branch is reviewing a complaint lodged on August 23 by the media union Unifor Local 2000, on behalf of the non-union animators working for Nitrogen Studios Canada Inc.

The complaint alleges that Nitrogen Studios forced its animators to work unpaid overtime during the making of the hit 2016 animated feature film Sausage Party, which was released August 12. and had a boffo box office (in U.S. dollars) of $132.2 million, against  a paltry cost of only $19 million.

This story reminded me of something that I’d seen over a month and a half ago in an East Vancouver back alley. It was a hand-scrawled poster addressed no one in particular—an anguished statement about unpaid overtime and Canadian animators.

A sign of distress in the local animation industry

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Riding through an East Vancouver back alley on the first day of September, my eye was drawn to a sheet of weather-stained white paper that was cello-taped to a wooden utility pole.

This was a black and white photocopy of a hand-lettered message, written with the offhand skill of a professional illustrator—or animator, as it were.

The message was unusual, not because it was hastily hand-scrawled but because it wasn’t advertising the loss of a cat or a dog or of property stolen out of a motor vehicle (“Please return—No Questions Asked”). Neither was it offering moving services. And there was no row of strips bearing a phone number across the bottom of the poster for people to tear off and keep. The message included no contact information whatsoever.

The message was this:

“Animation is nothing without Canadian animators. We are skilled. We are essential. (we work so much unpaid overtime, we didn’t have time to make nice posters.)”

For all its casualness it was emphatically stressed in all capitals and there were design flourishes marking it as professional work. There was the considered way that the lines were broken; the way the word “nothing” was headlined and surrounded by an oval and the suggestion of a maple leaf behind the word “Canadian”—echoing an iconic beer label in these parts.

And for all its expressed angst, the message was very properly punctuated. Professional work, like I said.

The poster was located within sight of an animation studio located in the 100 block of 8th Avenue and I naturally assumed…

But I was wrong.

While I was clicking away with my camera a young male voice from behind me asked jokingly why I was photographing “that”.

“Don’t photograph it!” another voice ordered in mock outrage, as I turned to face the owners of the two voices along with a third companion.

The three of them—I was not surprised to learn—all worked at the animation studio on 8th Avenue and they all contributed to heaping cheerful scorn on the poster which, they said, had nothing to do with their shop.

They declared that it the work of animators from Nitrogen Studios, which was located on Powell Street, far on the north side of False Creek, in downtown Vancouver—well over 3 km away, as the car drives.

The attitude of the three animators toward what was a clearly a heartfelt message from one of their peers was notable. There was no real hostility in their reaction but no sympathy or solidarity either. There was just the cheerful good riddance of one race-runner to another who has fallen behind, with a hint of the dismissive contempt reserved for someone who couldn’t keep up.

It suggested to me at the time that competition for jobs in the local animation scene must’ve been pretty fierce.

Employers will always try to divide and conquer

To what degree exactly animation in Vancouver is a seller’s market, with too many applicants vying for too few jobs, I cannot say.

However, as this morning’s Province newspaper reported, animation work in B.C. is all non-union, which makes it an exception in the heavily unionized B.C. film industry.

And like most B.C. animation studios, Nitrogen Studios hires local animators on temporary contracts, according to Jennifer Moreau, vice-president of Unifor Local 2000.

Moreau spoke publicly about the allegations of forced overtime against Nitrogen on August 16, after the Hollywood Reporter obtained a copy of an internal letter of protest addressed, in December 0f 2015, to Nitrogen management, on behalf of an estimated 30 of the animators working on Sausage Party.

Hollywood Reporter quoted the letter as alleging that “unfair pressure tactics” were:

“used against the team: intimidating staff into working past official studio hours, disciplinary measures utilizing fear tactics that demotivate and cause distress (such as threatening to terminate employment), implying that other departments are working overtime ‘voluntarily’ as a reason to deny compensation.”

Numerous media outlets, including Variety and the Washington Post have also published first-hand accounts of how Nitrogen management coerced countless hours of unpaid overtime; threatening and punishing animators with the career-damaging sanction of being denied a film credit, as well as the ultimate threat of being blacklisted from getting future work at Nitrogen, or in the industry, period.

Sausage Party reported an astonishingly low budget of USD$19 million—less than a third of the USD$69 budget of 2010’s Despicable Me and a ridiculous fraction of any Pixar film budget.

Given the film’s miniscule budget, the question that I have is this: After paying the film’s high-priced voice cast, of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Kristen Wiig and Salma Hayek, how much was left over and how else could Nitrogen Studios have possibly manged to get feature film-quality animation done, except by shortchanging and stiffing its animators? Click the images to enlarge them.

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