People in animation often point to the high salaries and stable working conditions that happened in the Los Angeles cartoon business through the middle of the 1990s (now almost two decades back in the rear-view mirror).
People want to know how it happened.
And why it's not happening now, despite large numbers of animation employees working in all corners of the southland's thriving animation industry.
I've been an observer/participant of the biz since 1953, when my background-artist father hauled me down to the Disney studios on Buena Vista Street to meet Uncle Walt and (a little while later) watch the Mouseketeers film episodes of "The Mickey Mouse Club".
With the happy exception of the period extending from 1992 through 1998 (which will be explained shortly), the cartoon business has seldom if ever been a highly compensated sector of the entertainment industry.
When I was born in 1948, my highly-skilled Dad was making $60 per week as a journey background artist at Disney. This was not great money, even in post-war Hollywood. He also painted Christmas cards, did landscape art, and designed beach towels to bring in extra money to afford a 1300 square foot house in La Crescenta.
Father was not an outlier in the Mouse's wage department. Disney animator Don Lusk related that during the '41 strike, he made more money as a liquor-store clerk in Big Bear, California than he did as an artist working on Disney features.
Animator-board artist-director Dave Michener told me that when he was hired by Disney in 1955 as an in-betweener (the way-station for EVERY Disney hiree), he was making so little money that he kept his job as a night manager of a Los Angeles gas station for rent and eating money.
Woolie Reitherman, one of the Nine Old Men and the artist who ran Disney's feature department for fifteen years, related:
"Hell, none of us got rich working at Disney salaries. We're doing good now because we got Disney stock options."
A layout artist once stormed into my Dad's office and said: "How do you people keep working here? Disney pay is LOUSY. And yet you keep working for Walt! WHY!? What's this guy's magic?!" (The artist quit the next day. Most everybody else? They continued to work for Walt.)
At the time, Walt Disney Productions was considered "the country club of the animation industry" ... even though artists made higher wages at many other studios.
Please understand that I don't think the examples above are good. Or right. Or just. But they are examples of the the way things were.
When I started at Disney in 1976, I made $135 per week, which was the scale minimum for the job I was doing. When I left ten years later, I was working as a journey story person ... at $50 above scale.
Low pay stopped being the norm when two live-action executives named Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg entered the cartoon business at the end of the 1980s. Eisner took away artists' stock options, but upper Disney management -- accustomed to operating in the live-action world -- began paying higher salaries.
Then the whole animation industry exploded in profitability. Disney cartoon features broke box office records. Prime time and daytime cartoons pulled down tall ratings, and studios that had never done animation before jumped into the game. Everybody who could hold a pencil seemed to be getting hired, and wages climbed upward.
And the pay rocketed still higher when Jeffrey Katzenberg was laid off from Disney, set up DreamWorks Animation, and aggressively poached artists from his old employer. Michael Eisner ordered Disney Feature Animation to "do whatever you must to keep artists here at Disney." All of a sudden lead key assistants were making four and five thousand a week on three-year-employment contracts.
At the same time, TV animation studios couldn't find experienced staff to work on their expanding slate of television cartoons and hiked weekly paychecks. The owner of a small, sub-contracting facility angrily told me one day: "A director negotiated $2400 a week with me, then came back a day later and said 'I changed my mind. I want $2600.' And I said 'Okay'. What could I do? I NEED him!" (This was 1995).
Warner Bros. Animation, faced with a slowdown in tv production, kept its staff on payroll with virtually nothing to do because it was afraid it couldn't get its staff back if it laid them off. The inactivity went on for months, with full wages. (This was also in 1995).
So. What's different now? Why are pay rates and working conditions worse? Even with more artists employed than ever before? A lot of things:
In the late nineties, mid oughts and early teens, the profitability of feature and television animation declined.
The supply of artists increased as large numbers of art schools, universities and colleges turned out more and more aspiring animators, designers and tech directors who made their way into animation. (And Adam Smith is not necessarily wrong).
The studios, led by Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs, began actively suppressing wages. (This went on until the Federal government ... and class-action lawsuits in which the Animation Guild participated ... cooled their jets.)
The recessions of 2001-2003 and 2008-2009 happened, and animation companies (along with live-action companies) cut wages, expenses and generally tightened their belts. (When a project is over, staff gets laid off. Nobody is held over if there's nothing to do.)
Animation is a global business. Pay and working conditions in Japan, India, France and Canada impact pay and working conditions in Southern California.
Newer animation employees, focused on getting a foothold in the business, worked unpaid overtime. Lots of unpaid overtime. And veteran employees, worried about keeping up with the uncompensated employees, took to working uncomped o.t. as well. As a result, schedules were shortened and workloads increased.
Studios have become more corporate. And conglomerates have swallowed other conglomerates, increasing the corporateness. This has made studios obsess about the bottom line, which has also driven down pay.
Many forces contributed to the working conditions and moneys paid in L.A. animation during the last few years. The high pay of the go-go 1990s was a phenomenon that has (to date) not reoccurred.