The Coming Revolution

A paradigm shift is about to occur in entertainment. There are many indications that signal a significant change about to unfold that will dictate the course of this business for many years to come.

A revolution is taking place in our industry and we are going to embrace it. We are not going to sit around waiting for our bosses to lead us into this promised land. We intend to prepare ourselves for this new era and position ourselves appropriately, and we have no intention of taking the old system, as we know it, with us.

One of these signals is the rapidly developing change in attitude among animation artists from one end of the industry to the other. Artists are becoming increasingly restless and outspoken about the problems they have to deal with which I've been describing thus far. The system that once worked so effectively to keep our community weak, off balance and in place is showing cracks in its foundation. The biggest one being the willingness of animation artists to stand up and speak frankly and openly to each other about what's been going on.

This kind of dialogue is certainly nothing new in our community, the difference now being the tone with which artists are speaking out and the subjects which they are discussing.

The community is no longer willing to put up with things the way they are. Artists are no longer willing to accept a system which subjugates them economically and creatively and which provides very little reward or opportunity for a job well done other than increased insecurity for the majority. They do not believe there is a future for them as things now stand and they have lost what little faith and confidence they had left in the pseudo-producers. What makes this new dialogue so interesting is the fact that the discussion has passed through the anger and rage phase and has entered the realm of possibilities. It is not reactionary. It is solution oriented. It is pro-active.

For many years, animation artists have pondered the possibility, indeed the inevitability of of a revolution in the industry. One which would allow them greater control over their lives, work and collective destinies once this revolution was manifested and implemented. The plausibility of the revolution increased over the years as executive management continued its misguided tradition of suppression. Talk of the revolution was temporarily set aside as Golden Age #2 was in full bloom. Many artists thought that the Second Golden Age was the manifestation of this revolution, but it wasn't. This latest round of layoffs has dismissed that myth permanently.

The much anticipated revolution is happening now. Artists can feel it in the air. It's thick like the smell of prey in the nostrils of a hungry tiger. It's electric and it's exciting. It's our future and the possibilities and opportunities that we know will be presenting themselves to us.

The modern day animation studio is a "lumbering machine that's outdated", to quote a friend of mine who offered his perspective. It has several layers of management that make it difficult to make quick, timely decisions. At some of these large studios, artist recruitment is slow and cumbersome. Animation tests that have been used to see how potential artists will do are lost or misplaced. Those seeking employment as production artists, many times do not get the results of their tests, verbal or otherwise. There are no training programs in place. Creative decisions take far too long to be made. Millions of dollars are lost to an overbloated infrastructure that cannot operate efficiently. Projects get finished, but the cost is very high and a slowdown like the avoidable one we are presently experiencing occur. The newcomers to the industry can't get in and find themselves competing with seasoned veterans for available positions.

In the March 1, 1999 issue of Daily Variety, Peter Bart makes some interesting comments about the prospects of large studios. Although he is referring to live action houses, the same holds true for animation houses. He maintains that "the question being quietly debated is...whether the studios per se have much of a future." He goes on to say that "there's clearly a diminishing need to maintain sprawling organizations within the studio."

The successful animation studio of the future will be much more of a lean and mean machine. One that is able to keep ever increasing production costs in check by eliminating a major source of that increase, the false need for an overblown, non-creative staff.

In the past, it was very difficult for animation artists to compete on a level with the pseudos. Most of the doors open to new projects were closed to artists. Corporate America had little difficulty initiating a character licensing franchise. Artists had, and still do to a lesser degree, enormous obstacles that they had to overcome to achieve the same opportunity within their own industry. Artists lacked the extensive financial resources to compete with large corporations. They were subject to the bigotry of executive management. They were constantly dealing with the very real threat of the theft of their intellectual properties once they were pitched.

Large, outside companies were able to come into the industry with half baked ideas that had no problem sailing since there's millions of dollars willing to back up the franchise. The properties of many animation artists are subject to a different level of criteria, which has led to a pitch process that has evolved from showing a few presentation pieces to actually producing the animation itself before it can have a realistic chance of getting picked up.

Even if there was interest on the part of a studio or network, animation artists were forced to go to other industries for a chance at playing the animation game. If you wanted to make a cartoon that aired on television, you had to go to the toy industry or into publishing. Toy designers and comic book artists had a much better chance of seeing their intellectual properties become animated entertainment than animation artists did. The few artists that succeeded had to sign away virtually all of the rights to their property and in the case of one artist who had a hit on his hands, he was actually fired from his own show and enjoyed no equity participation.

Compare this to a well known comic book artist whose series was produced and was sharp enough to manufacturer and market his own toy line.

Animation artists are forced by the industry to completely develop a concept with regards to pre-production before a studio will seriously consider that concept for production and get the ball rolling on a deal. This is a substantial amount of work that the artist has to generate involving many significant aspects of pre-production design, just to get an executive to see what any artist can easily see with much less material as far as the viability of the concept is concerned. If anyone is going to go to the trouble of actually getting a production under way, even on such a modest scale, to convince an executive that it has entertainment value, why not keep on going no matter what he or she says?

Time was when the production of a short little pilot for a pitch meant setting up a small production unit involving hand generated ink and paint, booking a camera service, getting hundreds or even thousands of drawings transferred to animation cels, etc. It was extremely expensive and difficult to do. About the only ones around who could afford it were pseudo-producers and they sent it overseas. Then came the era of desktop, digital animation production and the scene changed for good. The resources that were available to a select few became accessible to anyone at a fraction of the cost of the traditional process and at a much higher quality. Production was liberated from the control of the elite. It became possible for animation artists to generate product on an entirely self sufficient basis, right from their own homes. Animation in entertainment and commercial production exploded. The digital revolution made it possible.

Every advance in computer technology means another big step forward for our industry and our ability to produce independently and compete with the lumbering machines. There is a 500 channel future in sight. Television as we have known it is changing. The Internet is preparing to go broadband and the next generation of personal computers are being manufactured for the purpose of taking advantage of the new Internet technologies for video streaming and virtual environments. For the first time in history, it will be possible to produce and distribute entertainment independent of the traditional broadcast and theatrical systems. Some independent producers have already made use of this technology and Internet entertainment divisions have been established at many large companies in anticipation of the new medium.

A whole new market for animation is opening up and no industry anywhere on earth is better suited to compete in it than ours. We must prepare.

There are legions of young people who would love to work in animation. The industry can grow even bigger than it is now. Animation is integrated more and more into our daily lives. Advances in computer technology is making it increasingly affordable.

The revolution will not take place with raised fists, radical slogans and picket signs. It will take place quietly, but perceptively. It may not happen in a day, a week or a year, but it will happen. It will be fought with patience and perseverance. It will be fought with briefcases and business plans. It will be fought with professionalism and with an eye towards efficiency. It will be fought with a quality product that is the result of a new system. One that encourages creative expression, innovation and experimentation and which won't create an obstacle to the development and production of new ideas coming from our community. A system that rewards those who work hard and contribute to its success.

The revolution will be competitive, yet defined by a new cooperation between animation artists. It will be manifested by collaboration within our community. While the lumbering machine looks for trends to follow, the revolution will be creating them. While they look at far away places to send their work, we'll be looking and doing more of ours right here at home.

The revolution will be fought with a great big safety net. One that will be large enough to catch our people when hardships befall those who are subject to layoffs and downturns. A network of animator owned studios that will help create stability in our industry and competition for talent. A new system where the legions of young people who want to enter animation have an opportunity to do so and be properly trained and educated for it. And who knows which of this studios will grow to be the majors of tomorrow.

The revolution is a revolution in thinking. It begins in the mind. Its manifestation begins in our attitudes towards each other. It will be built upon a new foundation of cooperation and support among us.

Charles Zembillas © 1999
No commercial distribution of this material is permitted
without the expressed written consent of the author.