The Story of a Disney Animator

The following article appeared in the September 1991 issue of The Peg-Board, a publication for professional motion picture screen cartoonists, and has since been reprinted in the Official Bulletin of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in spring of 1993.

I cannot provide an author credit for the article, since it was published anonymously. Whoever the actual author is, I'd like to thank them for their fine article. I hope they've also had an opportunity to find a better job in the meantime.

In the beginning while I was in art school, the thought of working at Disney Feature Animation in Florida was appealing. When their representatives came to my college we were told that they were looking for only the best artists or "players for the team." This was very exciting to me so with no hesitation I applied for a position.

Several months later my portfolio was reviewed and chosen along with several others. I couldn't believe it! This was the opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity to work in the fantasy place of my childhood dreams, and I hadn't even graduated from art school yet! I was to be trained in the top animation studio by Disney artists and I was told that if all went well after several more reviews, I would have a full-time career with raises and promotions. To top the whole package off, I would be working at the sunny vacation-like atmosphere of Walt Disney World Resort. What more could a young and ambitious artists from a small town want?

I know what I have said so far sounds fine and dandy. But now that I've been there a while, all the pixie dust has worn off and I feel I should share my experiences with everyone in the animation business. This is also a good example of the old saying, "When the cat's away (the union), the mouse will play."

The studio is located in a corner of the Disney/MGM Studios Theme Park and is one of the attractions. The park is jam-packed with tourists each day and so is the "Animation Tour." The studio itself is a very clean and sleek design inside and out, almost to the point of being sterile. The artists, or "cast members," are contained in what we call "The Pit," which is the exposed studio floor that is visible to the Animation Tour. It is here that we sit in our exposed work stations, visible to the thousands of curious tourists that pass through the tour corridor every day, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. The tour is guided by video-projected tour guides Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams. Their images are projected on large Sony television monitors that are suspended from the ceiling inside our work area. The work environment is highly unusual and full of tension and many distractions.

Imagine: you're being pressured by the production manager to crank out a scene that was due the day before when suddenly a tourist's camera flash goes off in your face blinding you for a few seconds, or else you're distracted by a tapping from the other side of the glass by a tourist who wants to get your attention to see if you're real. The worst is when you've had a hard day and you want to just sit and collect your thoughts, and you look up and someone in plaid Bermuda shorts is videotaping your every move. These are conditions that no artists should be subjected to in any situation.

The private offices, furthest away from the viewing windows and the public eye, are where the management and accounting people work, and where our sophisticated computers work that I am under oath not to mention.

Our head studio manager, or "show manager," is a former manager of Snoopy On Ice and, like most Disney managers, is hardly seen on the floor. He is somewhat reclusive and only emerges to escort very important investors, celebrities, and officials through the various departments, boasting the wonders of Disney animation and wining and dining them for their respect. When these VIPs are shuffled past our desk we are made to feel like sheep in a petting zoo.

Second in charge is our production manager. He paces up and down the aisles between our work stations to make sure we have work on our desks and that we are not slacking behind. He reprimands us and encourages peer pressure if we don't put in at least twelve or fourteen hours of work a day in our six- or sometimes seven-day-a-week work schedule. This ex-army sergeant with his old field hat on reminds us that all this is important to "the team," and if you don't play, you lose the game. This was not the animation shangri-la I was sold on. This so-called teamwork sweatshop ethic is what this article really boils down to.

After some research into proper union wages and work ethics, I discovered that my colleagues and I were making almost half of what the standard wages are in the business and that we were working twice as hard. I also found that our medical benefits are substandard compared to those of the Motion Picture Health and Welfare Fund in Hollywood. On a brief visit to one of the local hospitals I developed a case of "Tummy Trouble" when I found out that we are not covered until the minimum two-hundred-and-fifty dollar deductible is paid first.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Disney Teamwork plan is the interns. Every six months or so a new group of interns arrive and I just want to cringe. I know that at least four interns were hired full-time with five-year contracts at the intern pay scale, which is extremely low even by our Florida standards, not to mention what's paid in California. When they first arrive, they boast to all their friends and family that they've been "chosen" to work at Disney. This scene is all too painfully familiar. Those of us who have been here a while can clearly see what is happening. Perhaps the most upsetting part about the interns is that the tactics management uses on them is starting to rub off on the full-time artists.

Recently, we worked double-time hours on a Sunday. The next day we were given the marvelous choice of shifting the hours to the following week's pay period as time-and-a-half, or trading eight hours of double time for a paid day off at straight time. We are often told that we have to come in under budget and that we have to make ourselves look good to the California studio.

And if the wage tampering isn't enough, they tamper with our job classifications as well. A layout trainee from Taiwan does layouts during the day and then must do character cleanup in the evening. When he protests he's told that he has to work both shifts "like it or not," that he has a severe attitude problem and that he has to finish the scene at four a.m. the following morning... "like it or not."

So far, most of the work done in Florida has been on the Roger Rabbit shorts, Tummy Trouble and Roller Coaster Rabbit. The Florida studio handed small chunks of work on the Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast theatrical features, both of which were lacking in character and action compared to the Burbank studio. The most recent project announced will be a major chunk of the Aladdin feature which, of course, will be done under a lower budget than that of Burbank and will probably produce the same quality as the last two.

What is the reward for all this "teamwork?" The Florida unit has been given the green light to expand into a full-length feature unit, producing a feature every two years. It was also announced that the studio might have its own built-in university to train more upcoming Florida animators. This studio has become a side-show novelty for tourists and a sweatshop for young and naive artists fresh out of school.

Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, Local 839
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