It was the mid nineties. Warner Bros. had launched a second animation studio to make feature films. Fox had opened a fully-equipped animation facility in Phoenix, Arizona. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the driving force at Disney Feature Animation from 1985 to 1994, was charging full speed ahead with big-budget animated features at a new company named DreamWorks.
And the dear old House of Mouse? It had multiple projects in development.
Demand for experienced artists and designer far outstripped supply, and salaries (unsurprisingly) went up.*
At the same time, animation on cable networks and in syndicated packages on over-the-air TV was steadily expanding. And salaries for television animation jobs were also going up. So it was unsurprising when one of the Hollywood trade papers noted those facts:
Animation talent continued to enjoy a seller’s market in the past year, with rates for union staffers generally rising to record levels, according to an annual survey by the industry’s cartoonists guild.
The survey, conducted in April, showed especially strong increases in the median average salaries for story sketch artists, visual development designers and lead key assistant animators.
The median average for lead key assistants, for example, jumped from $1,370 a week in 1996 to $1,900 a week this year. The minimum in that category was $1,435; the maximum, $3,815. ...
If you didn't live through the L.A. animation boom in the middle 1990s, you can't fully understand the buoyant feelings that permeated the business. Jeffrey Katenberg and Michael Eisner, hating each other, opened a bidding war for feature animation talent. Katzenberg, recently of Disney Feature Animation, had the phone numbers for Disney talent and lured a lot of artists away to upstart DreamWorks with higher salaries. Michael Eisner ordered DFA management to keep animation employees in place "whatever it took." This resulted in elevated paychecks and signing bonuses. Long-term contracts with generous terms were offered to Disney assistants. Disney layout artists and (of course) Disney animators.
Warner Bros. Animation (tv branch) kept its entire staff on weekly salaries for months with nothing to do because it was worried that it wouldn't get laid-off employees back after production resumed. Everyone would have gone to other busy studios. The owner/operator of a smaller union studio told me:
"I had a deal with a board artist for twenty-two hundred a week. The guy comes back to me yesterday and says, 'Twenty-two hundred isn't good enough. I need twenty-four hundred.' What can I do? I told him I'll pay twenty-four hundred. I NEED him. But I'll REMEMBER this. ..."
Artists knew that times were good. Some of them even told me that union minimums had become irrelevant: "I'm making double union scale! I don't know what we even need minimums for."
High pay (along with lots of jobs) went on into the late '90s. But no boom time lasts forever. Syndicated animation became less lucrative, hand-drawn features got eclipsed by CGI features, Art schools and universities turned out hundreds (then thousands) of young artists eager to plunge into the cartoon industry and the suppply of talent caught up with demand.
And weekly checks steadily shrank.
Adam Smith wasn't wrong. Markets do go up and down. Fat times are followed by lean times (and the reverse). Today animation is a bigger business than it's ever been, with CG and hand-drawn product, with animated visual effects, with video games and television graphics and animation on the internet. But there is also a huge pool of talent that spans the globe. (Thouse art schools and colleges have been busy.) Plus, our fine, entertainment conglomerates are tight-fisted. For these reasons (and Ed Catmull's earlier handiwork?), the high wages of the 1990s has not been replicated.
* Dr. Catmull, happily, was not yet in a position to collude in the suppression of wages. That would come later.