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Marc Beurteaux Blog
July 17/2007

Marc Beurteaux and Commercial Animation

"Whores. We're all cheap dirty whores."

That's a direct quote from one of my commercial animator friends. Like a lot of commercial animators, he doesn't especially like using his artistic skills to make TV shows of questionable integrity and quality. This guy would rather create art for the joy of it, to express himself and to revel in the creative spirit of the universe. But he can't - the creative spirit of the universe doesn't give out food stamps. So what's an animator artist to do? The answer is to learn how to draw cute little big eyed-children and smart ass talking animals. Then learn how to animate them incredibly quickly so you can meet impossible deadlines. All the while wishing that you were dead. This is the sordid life of the commercial animator.

You don't see a lot of older commercial animators. It would seem at a certain age, usually around 40, the commercial animator has had enough of unworkable schedules, screaming producers and squalid working conditions. Where older animators go, I'm not sure, they just kind of fade away, like a drawing left in the sun. I think some of them move to the country where they can go back to doing their art. How they survive out there I'm not sure - I wouldn't rule out cannibalism.

But I digress. What is working on an animated TV show actually like? Well, first of all, let us define what an animated TV show actually is. When it comes to children's programming, it's all about the commercials. The broadcasters make their money from advertising sales, the TV shows themselves are relatively worthless. Therefore, TV shows are merely the filler in between the vastly more profitable advertisements. This would be ironically amusing except for the fact that a lot of talented, hard-working animators, designers and production staff suffer tremendously to get an animated TV show to the screen. I've always found it odd how serious the business of making fun kids' TV is. The business itself is far from cute. Why is this you may ask? In a word, and no surprises here - money.

Money, a.k.a production budgets: here's how they work (or don't work). The process all begins when some bright spark, after a few hundred attempts, is successful in pitching his or her TV series proposal. The creator sells the TV show rights to a broadcaster and this broadcaster then shops around for an animation production company to make the show. The production company who says that they can do the show the cheapest wins the contract. Here's where the hoo-ha begins. First of all, the production company is lying, they can't really do it cheaper than anyone else, they just say they can. Or if they can do it cheaper it's because they cut a lot of corners and the show is going to look really, really bad.

What it comes down to is the schedule - the shorter the schedule, the cheaper it is to make the show. Therefore, the producer must make his or her small, low paid crew work as fast as possible. To make the crew work fast, the producer needs to hire a production manager without any morals (ex-Gitmo interrogators are good). This production manager will constantly threaten the animators that they will be fired unless they work overtime (without being paid extra) and weekends (at regular pay). The production manager will never say anything good about anyone's work, only negative things, just to keep the animators scared. The equation being: fear=power. I think the Bush/Harper government works the same way.

The producer and production manager will get monetary bonuses if they bring in the production under schedule, hence the need for speed. It's all very odd in that you could be making a kids' TV show about "cooperation" and "thinking of others" and yet the complete opposite is happening during the production. Strangely, a lot of animators become schizophrenic.

Of course, sooner or later something screws up - computers crash, puppets break, people burn out, all of these things slow a production down and chaos ensues. However, the one thing that really slows everything down isn't the fault of the animator, or the production staff or even the producer. This one thing is the most dreaded word of any production: revisions.

A revision is when the client or broadcaster watches a rough-cut of the animation they are paying for and decide changes need to be made. Some revisions are technical, which is fine, others are purely stupid. For instance, on one show I worked on, the client was notorious for watching an unrelated movie at home and then deciding that he wanted his show to look just like that movie. His show was in mid-production and a huge amount of work was needed to do this revision. Of course, this guy wasn't offering any extra money to cover the cost of revisions, he just expected the production studio to cater to his every whim. He got away with this for a little while until the production studio cried foul and the brown whirler hit the fan. Now I hate to be discriminatory, but this guy was from an ultra-right wing Christian broadcaster and, from my experience, they are the worst companies to work with. The scariest people on earth are those who think they are right without a doubt.

Eventually every production gets completed, even though it might take twice as long and cost three times as much. But once you've been paid in full, you've gotten drunk at the wrap party and vomited on the production manager, then all is right with the world. In a couple of months, once your Employment Insurance has run out, you'll be ready for another production and more abuse.

So kids, keep in animation school and one day this experience can all be yours. Of course, you'll need these commercial jobs to pay off your student loan. As for benefits, well, this industry rarely offers 'em. So keep your teeth clean and try not to wear your eyes out too fast by staring at computer screens. Oh yeah, and don't get sick. Of course, there is another job where you'll get paid more and screwed less.... prostitution.

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