If you are reading this, you may be familiar with Sausage Party, which at the time of this writing is on its way to becoming one of the most successful talking-food movies of all time. You might have read some stuff about how raunchy or funny it is or isn’t. I don’t care about any of that. Whether they made a masterpiece or a turd, they apparently did it by treating their animators like trash.
This is not new or rare, as I mentioned in an article six years ago, but what is new is that we might actually get a shot at getting people to pay attention to it this time. A run-of-the-mill fluff promo interview with the directors had its comments flooded by anonymous animators that worked on the film, complaining about unpaid overtime, threats, and being cut from the credits. While news outlets have contacted and verified some of these people as genuine ex-employees, every single one was too scared to give out their names, because blacklisting is a real thing in the industry.
I did not work at Nitrogen Studios (the studio in question), but I have experienced pretty similar horror stories from my time at another Vancouver CG shop (now defunct). Unlike those animators, I don’t work in the industry anymore. So I will say what I saw and vouch for these people not being isolated cases of disgruntled animators. Here is my IMDb page; please spell my name correctly on the blacklist.
Actually, Mortal Wombat was my birth name. I changed it to avoid marsupial hiring discrimination.
(Note: The company called Rainmaker Entertainment today is not the same organization I worked for; that part was sold off. Also, the other studios in my history aren’t part of this rant — some of them being union shops probably has something to do with that.)
Here’s what all the fuss is about:
If you’ve just seen the headline/image macro version of the story, it might have come across as, “Some Animators Didn’t Get Credit On Sausage Party,” and you might have thought, “What’s the big deal?” because there’s a couple of misconceptions about screen credit:
1. Lots of people get left out of the credits. If they put everyone in there, credits would be impossibly long!
Check the credits of any Pixar or DreamWorks film for all the tangentially related HR/accounting/security people included. Inclusion is default. Removing credits is a deliberate decision. Space might be an issue in big VFX movies with multiple VFX vendors (Matrix, Batman, etc.) where each VFX studio gets a certain amount of space, but an in-house animated production pretty much has only its own staff to credit.
Probably they were so consumed with laughter over how hot dogs kind of look like penises, they just forgot.
2. Credits are just a cute vanity perk to show friends/family and boost your self-esteem.
For someone in VFX/animation, credits are your resume. They prove you did what you did (like that you were really a supervisor or team lead) when you go job hunting. And you’re always job hunting. Few studios offer “permanent jobs.” The life of a CG artist is nomadic, wandering from job to job, from Canada to Australia to Singapore to Los Angeles, whenever your six-month or one-year or one-film contract is up. (I was put on a series of three-week contracts that they would keep renewing one to two days before expiring.) You don’t want a year-long black hole on your resume (a year that might represent some of your best work) when you’re trying to nail that cool new gig working on DC’s dark gritty talking food blockbuster.
He’ll be back in time to form the PB&JLA, no worries.
Looking through the complaints, it’s not even just the disgruntled animators that were cut from the credits. Even people who left on amicable terms after fulfilling their contract talk about going to see the movie and being shocked at the end to see their names erased.
Nitrogen is very coy about their production budget, but according to the interviewer, the figure being reported is $20 million. Wide-release animated features generally cost somewhere in the $80 million to $150 million range these days, so despite Greg Tiernan (the studio head) saying the savings come from being “well organized, and you have your mind set on the goal of what you want to do, and you get the job done with a small, determined crew,” it doesn’t quite seem like a little corner-cutting and organization is enough to shave 75 to 87 percent off a budget.
A more likely answer is in the first sentence of the first comment:
I am not a Canadian labor law expert, so I don’t want to tread too far here, but apparently many people say that it’s somehow easier to avoid paying overtime to CG and tech workers in Canada than it is in the U.S. This, coupled with generous tax incentives, is probably why studios have moved a ton of production to Canada (and other countries), and the U.S. job market for CG work has shriveled up.
Sony (Hotel Transylvania, Angry Birds, Guardians Of The Galaxy) moved to Canada, Digital Domain (Deadpool, X-Men) has a branch in Canada, Illumination (Minions) is in France, and Lucasfilm and ILM are pushing as much work as they can to Singapore. Even studios still based in the U.S. routinely outsource large chunks of work to India. Every year a U.S. studio shuts down (Rhythm & Hues, right after their Life Of Pi work won an Oscar) or moves to another country.
It’s hard to follow the money when they won’t let you near where the money goes.
Anyway, it’s pretty normal to have “exempt” status as a CG artist in Canada, which sounds misleadingly positive but means your employer is “exempt” from having to pay you overtime. You get a fixed amount per year, or for the length of your contract. And, sure, it’s my fault because that’s what I signed up for, but when you signed the contract expecting eight to 10 hours of work a day (as I did) and one day the VFX supervisor gets yelled at by his boss for being behind, and he turns around, yells at you, and says you’re not going home tonight or any other night until you get things back on schedule, and after some begging you end up working 14 hours a day, and they don’t give you any more money, or food, or even say thanks, that seems extraordinarily dickish, even if it’s technically legal.
If being forced to work, while starving, on a movie starring sizzling bacon isn’t torture, what is?
And being technically legal is apparently the best defense Nitrogen can put forward. Nitrogen CEO (and spouse of Greg Tiernan) Nicole Stinn can only say, “Our production adhered to all overtime laws and regulations, as well as our contractual obligations with our artists.” Apparently they felt unable to claim they treated the crew well or respected them, without having it ripped to shreds. These seem like the kind of words you use when you take advantage of legal loopholes to treat people like shit. You can’t claim you didn’t shit on them, but at least you can claim it was legal.
Nitrogen employees complained about poor organization and management but didn’t give a lot of specifics. But from the reported budget, Tiernan’s comments in the interview, and the fact that the studio’s previous claim to fame was the Thomas The Tank Engine TV show, you can feel pretty certain this is a guy who will begrudge every 5-cent Canadian coin he has to spend. (Canada doesn’t make pennies anymore.)
Sure, they just copy-pasted one face onto each train to save money, but they did
give each unique eyebrows. That … probably cost something.
He sounds a lot like my old bosses. People like this are very proud of how much money they save in immediate and short-term decisions, and they completely ignore any long-term or downstream or human effects. For example, my team had four people but only two computers. Math wizards among you might think the obvious solution is to buy another two computers. Not so. Clearly the correct solution is to split the team into shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. This wreaks havoc on team communication and personal lives, but what else are you going to do, pay $2,000? What are we, Paris Hilton? (Paris Hilton was big back then.)
“We already bought you ingrates couches you better not use much or you’re fired — what else do you want??”
Or take our choice of rendering software. They could have used Pixar’s RenderMan, the production-tested software most strongly supported by the animation software we were using, or a new renderer that our animation software had experimental support for. Since RenderMan licenses cost about $2,000 each and the new renderer was maybe $400 or so, it was an easy decision for them. They did not ask whether one renderer could render more at a time than the other, but the answer was yes.
So we had crowds of up to 20,000 people in various scenes, and our renderer could only do 200 at a time. So we had to do a ton of renders and stitch all the pieces together, and our technical guy had to come up with a way to make sure all these pieces cast shadows on each other correctly, and it was all very stupid. We saved a few thousand dollars up front, but it was all worth it to spend multiple times more later fixing the problems.
Then again, much of the resources spent to fix the problem were just employee overtime hours, which are actually free, so I’m sorry, these people are geniuses.
Although blowing deadlines left and right was probably not part of their master plan.