The Problem With Executives

The current recession that the American animation industry is experiencing is the result of chronic mismanagement on the part of animation executives who act and maneuver with virtual impunity. They are free to do whatever they like and if they fail, the artists pay the price. The worst that can happen to an executive as a consequence of the improper use of their authority is that he or she makes a lateral jump to another studio where they are empowered to make the same mistakes over and over again. If a production succeeds, they take all the credit. If it fails, the creative community must pay the price.

The hostility, anger and outright contempt which most animation artists hold towards the lords of the business is at an unprecedented high. The artists' disgust is compounded by the insensitivity with which their feelings, opinions and attitudes are held by their employers. At one major studio, an artist overheard an executive speaking about the employees of that studio, referring to them as nothing more than uneducated simpletons. In fact, animation artists are extremely educated and a highly specialized labor force. Artists view the non-creative executive as idiotic by virtue of his or her lack of artistic expertise as well as a complete ignorance of some of the most basic aspects of film making, to say nothing of the poor strategic decisions they make.

At another studio, the executive head of a television animation division was being briefed on the progress being made on the development of a direct to video project by the project's art directors. When this fellow was told that a particular scene would incorporate a basic camera move known as a "pan", he responded with the remarkable comment, "What's a pan?"

These individuals eat up an enormous amount of production capital. They are almost always the highest paid bodies on the production budget, have an extensive support staff and enjoy a variety of benefits and perks, yet play no significant role in production. They can't draw, they don't paint, they don't know what they are talking about half the time, yet they wield extraordinary power over our lives, careers, the industry and on entertainment in general.

What are the qualifications for someone to be an animation executive? How many animation artists have the opportunity to rise to that level, much less train for it? Does the world really need them in commerce? What do they do? Why are they here? Does anyone actually think the industry will wither and die if the position was eliminated from the budget? Does anyone really believe that animation would cease to exist if they just went away?

The modern day animation executive, especially in television, is a holdover from the glory days of the "psuedo-producer". His or her worth is usually measured by their connections to overseas production studios. Very few if any artists have risen to that level in the industry. The ones that have gotten close turned out to be disappointments to their colleagues, getting caught up in the ego trip of having an office and a personal parking space.

My question to the animation community is simple. Don't you think we can compete with them?

A valuable lesson can be learned by studying how some video game companies conduct themselves when it comes to production. Naughty Dog Studios is located in Santa Monica, California. They are renowned for creating the "Crash Bandicoot" video game series which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. The two principals of the company are both video game developers and can be found at any given time sitting at their computers alongside their staff.

At Insomniac Games here in Los Angeles, the same holds true. The owner of the company is actively involved in the production process. In fact, both of these studios pride themselves on the issue that they really don't have any executives in their organizations.

Last August at The Animation Academy in Burbank, California, an up and coming animation school, Klasky Csupo Studios subcontracted the school to produce 41 scenes of character layouts for a Christmas special that aired on CBS at prime time the day after Thanksgiving. The work was complex as it involved combining animation with live action. Three students and two professionals handled the majority of the work. So much progress was being made that they were told to stop being so thorough as the overseas studio would have nothing left to do.

The work was delivered on budget and a day early, at a much higher quality than the client expected. The show aired and became the top rated program in the country for its time slot. All without executives.

We are the world leaders in our field. Don't you think that we can compete? Don't you think we can do at least as well as any single animation executive can, given the same or comparable resources?

Charles Zembillas © 1999
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