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Artist RightsStop Motion

It’s 2017, And L.A.’s Stop-Motion Artists Still Don’t Have A Union

Stop-motion animation is seemingly as popular as ever.

Four feature productions in the last two years have earned Oscar nods – Kubo and the Two Strings, Anomalisa, My Life as a Zucchini, and Shaun the Sheep Movie – while on the small screen, Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, is heading into its ninth season, and streaming services are picking up their own series, like Amazon’s Tumble Leaf, Netflix’s Buddy Thunderstruck, and Crackle’s Supermansion.

But in Los Angeles, despite the consistency in productions, stop-motion artists are mostly left to fend for themselves when it comes to negotiating their employment agreements with the various studios. No stop-motion animation artists are represented by a union.

Most feature and tv animation studios in L.A. such as Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network Studios, Titmouse, DreamWorks Television Animation, Bento Box Entertainment, Hasbro, and Marvel Animation are union shops, so why are stop-motion artists treated so differently? Would union representation improve the working conditions of stop-motion artists? Do the working conditions of stop-motion artists differ dramatically from those of other animation artists?

Cartoon Brew spoke with multiple stop-motion artists, a stop-motion producer, and a union representative to learn more about why stop-motion studios in L.A. haven’t unionized yet.

The producer we spoke to, who has dealt with unionization on a major studio stop-motion feature production, said that one of the problems with unionizing a stop-motion house is the nature of stop motion itself. On the feature production, the puppet fabricators were claimed by one union, the animators by another. With two or more unions negotiating different contracts for their members, disparate benefits among same-level staff complicated negotiations and lengthened the production schedule.

However, an Animation Guild I.A.T.S.E. Local 839 representative countered that live-action features deal with multiple union representations on every production, yet they manage to churn out hundreds of movies and television productions every year. Not only that, but, as the Writers Guild pointed out in their recent contract negotiations with the Motion Picture Association of America, the studios are doing very well financially. “This somehow seems to be working out,” despite union contracts, the union representative said.

Indeed, artists have considered unionization multiple times at several Los Angeles-area stop-motion houses, including Bix Pix, producer of Amazon Studios’ Emmy-winning series, Tumble Leaf (pictured above), and Stoopid Buddy Studios, production studio for Adult Swim’s sketch comedy series, Robot Chicken. None of those efforts have succeeded.

One former Bix Pix artist said that in November 2015, due to concerns about working conditions – among them medical insurance, pension plans, and scheduling issues – a strong consensus arose among the production staff that they would vote to unionize.

But Kelli Bixler, the president of Bix Pix, upon learning of the unionization effort, took the initiative and met with the artists. According to the artist who was there, she admitted there were issues, listened to their concerns, and made efforts to address them. That, coupled with rumors of layoffs at a rival studio, convinced the crew to vote the union down.

The major concern among producers is that unionization would increase the price of production. The producer we spoke with said it could lead to a decrease in jobs, adding that unionization typically increases the budget of a production by 20-25%. Part of this cost though traces straight back to why artists often choose to unionize in the first place: medical insurance, pension and welfare, and accrued time off.

The Animation Guild contact emphasized that “costs are one piece of it,” but more importantly, there needs to be a balance among all the parties involved, both management and the labor force. An individual artist is in a weakened negotiating position against a studio unless she bands together with fellow artists. A union brings balance.

Another attempt at union representation was made at Stoopid Buddy Studios in the fall of 2016. As covered previously by Cartoon Brew, working conditions there had not significantly improved, despite an earlier effort to unionize in late 2015. And by late 2016, with votes scheduled among the crew, the studio again stepped up and met some of their crew’s demands, including, according to an artist we spoke to, allowing for 8-hour workdays rather than the customary 10-hour day, with further improvements promised.

Once again, the mere threat of union representation improved the deal for each artist. The artists have learned that improvements in working conditions occur only when studios are forced to make them – and that unions, directly and indirectly, provide that force for change.

What is not clear, however, is when the stop-motion industry in Los Angeles will catch up to the rest of the business, or whether it will provide its workers basic benefits and protections currently enjoyed by other L.A. area animation workers. As stop-motion continues to grow, these are questions worth asking.

  • Dawn Brown

    If Local 839 could potentially represent the animators, what is the other union wanting to represent the fabricators? Is it Local 44?

    • Anna Glanton

      Your probably looking mostly at the local 800 also know as the art directors guild which covers model maker, prop makers, puppet builders and every thing art department.

      • Actually, all of those are Local 44 positions.

    • Anim8Clay

      This is one of the areas that’s causing issues. The art department ends up getting split up to multiple unions. There was discussion on just having everyone join 839 at one point. We ended up speaking with 44 but it was clear they didn’t quite understand, most of the builders end up filling several roles that are typically handled individually in live action. There are also builders who float between departments and that was causing issues. Some work as animators or painters. The painters who are considered part of the art department would go into scenics or another guild, not 44.
      There wasn’t a discussion about local 800 but maybe there should be if unionization comes up again.

      • If I recall how those discussions went, there was also interest from crew members in joining locals that best represented their work. Local 44 has traditionally covered model and puppet fabricators, and the conversation with their business representative was much more informative than is represented here, by my recollection.

  • Tim McCracken

    And they can blame themselves.
    Its not like the union doesn’t want them to organize. Its not like there haven’t been consorted efforts for them to organize. I’m a union member and I’ve drafted messages to organizing groups on Facebook that they ultimately ignored and took the “deal” their studio offered them. A union member friend of mine who worked at one of the studios that had an organizing effort underway told me “how can you rationalize with kids whose last job was as a barista at Starbucks? They are young and don’t know their worth.”
    Oh well. Let them learn down the line. I’m not going to wring my hands over kids who spend an inordinate amount of time on social media but can’t find a few minutes to look up the corporate profits of the conglomerates they provide content for.

    • $toopid77

      It’s not like the “kids” didn’t try. A lot of the younger people at the studio were interested in unionizing, but were unfortunately outnumbered. Don’t discredit people just because they are younger. They went to the union information meetings just like everyone else did to try to make an informed decision and because they were thinking about their futures.

      • Anim8Clay

        Yup, If anything the kids are the ones who started the most recent attempt at stoopid and the older generation pushed for it not working out. With the rapid growth that’s happened we’ve hired way more younger inexperienced workers into the studio who don’t have an understanding of how rare this amount of work is. Its the elders who have heavy ties to the company who are the first to speak against unionizing, telling horror stories and how wonderful the higher ups have treated them. If you want to place blame on anyone don’t put it on anyone, its a much larger issue than kids vs adults.

        • There should be absolutely no finger pointing or blame assignment to what has happened. The law states that an overwhelming support is necessary for the process to move forward, and there wasn’t one. This is part of the process and it’s best to have an informed work force that faces negotiations with their employer than one acting rashly.

          I look forward to working with stop motion artists again, and hope they look forward to working with me.

    • $toopid77

      Also if you’re wondering what many of the younger employees think: http://disq.us/p/1cysbyo
      (from the article on Stoopid Buddy trying to unionize in 2016)

    • Anna Glanton

      It’s not just young kids who don’t know better. Unionizing a stop mo studio is alot more complicated than other studios due to the nature of the profession. Unlike 2D or CG you don’t have a big studio with a direct distrabution to lean on. The first studio animation studio to unionize was Disney and that was a hell of a fight. It is alot easier to unionize a small studio when your industry leaders (and dstributor) are unionized. This issue is alot more complicated for stop motion and CG. Honestly, its very akin to getting a visual effects studio to unionize.

      • While I disagree about how complicated a process it is, I agree that it is akin to organizing visual effects. The issues are not complicated, and concessions are going to have to be made for an industry that hasn’t had union representation before. Those are typical and the IA has proven our ability to do just that.

  • Lauren Brown

    The big question is, do you fight for better benefits and conditions, adding to the cost, which then threatens the entire existence of the production, and sometimes the studio? Stop-motion is expensive and the margins are often thin. It has to compete with other animation methods that can reuse what they have already bought and do not need as many people to produce the same length of show. Historically, there hasn’t been copious job opportunities in stop-mo, so people took what they could. It’s hard to fight this attitude. Also, it is a small community, and people are often friends with the heads of productions. I do think it’s important to fight for what you are worth and for your safety, but it’s a complex problem.

    • Anna Glanton

      While Stop motion is more expensive than 2D it is cheaper than CG due to the fact that you will always need more people behind an animator in CG so really it is about the studios negotiating with the networks for larger budgets. But is the fact that studios like Frederator, Titmouse, and Starburns are unionized stopped networks from working with those studios
      They could go look for a cheaper studio to work with but they don’t because they know these studios will produce good work on time so the accept the elevated cost. While the issue of stop.motion unionization is waaaay more complex than this article made it out to be it not just production budget.

      • Lauren Brown

        Oh, I know its not all about production budget as I stated above. If it was only that, unionization would have happened already.

        In regards to your comment on budget though, I think cost depends a lot on the nature of the production, but the cost to revenue ratio in stop-motion is usually less than with other mediums, for whatever reason. Less revenue can give you less leverage.

    • What makes you think that a union agreement would add to costs? Let’s assume it does though. What makes you think putting a union agreement in place that adds to studio costs would do so immediately? Further on the point, how would placing overbearing costs on a stop motion employer so that they would be forced out of business benefit the working stop motion artists and technicians who reached out for representation?

      The cost arguments are valid, but proven false regularly. If stop motion margins are thin, that is something the stop motion studios need to address with *their* employers and not pass down to the people that work hard to make their products. The fact that stop motion studios in town “listened” to requests from their crews and “adjusted” their working conditions proves that creating better working environments is possible even within those “thin margins”.

      The problem becomes that those adjustments are completely at the whim of the studios, and can (and WILL) be changed without the consideration of the crews that requested them. That wouldn’t happen if an agreement between the crews and the studios was formed.

  • Troy

    Hm, if general public actually puts effort for the stop-motion studios that can significantly warrant a thought.

    “The producer we spoke with said it could lead to a decrease in jobs, adding that unionization typically increases the budget of a production by 20-25%. Part of this cost though traces straight back to why artists often choose to unionize in the first place: medical insurance, pension and welfare, and accrued time off.”

    So medical insurance, pension and welfare, and time off are partly of 20-25% of I’m guessing job security. Sheesh talk about a delicate balance if any of those got higher in cost. Well based on the interviews from this article, at least studio heads did have the decency to address the issues from the workers. It doesn’t seem directly hard to actually have the option of making a union, but for the most part it is rather complicated to know whether having a union is good for the industry if doing more harm than good outweighs the benefits.

    • I think it’s hard to say that unionization is “bad” for the industry considering how long the entertainment industry has been unionized, and how well it’s doing. The balance you speak of is accurate, and in a union agreement discussion, needs to be respected and addressed. What is currently out of balance is the lack of a voice in the workplace stop motion artists and technicians have. Setting union agreements in place gives them the ability to address their concerns on a regular basis with their employers.

      • Troy

        Like I said it is rather a complicated issue, that does not automatically mean that it is bad as the article states that the stop motion industry has quite a few wires crossed with different unions that have their own rules. Lack of voice can mean a number of things like newcomers having no idea without experience, veterans attempted to get ahead, upper management actually addressing issues, studios trying to NOT tip the balance that could immediately end them, there were no issues to begin with in a case by case, etc. Whether or not the artists wants a union is entirely up to them as there is no discernible evidence that prevents them nor any issues with going straight up to management, so it is pretty much a matter if they can have more benefits and forming a union is one option, but not enough to warrant a difference.

        • I’m a bit confused by your statement. There weren’t “different unions” with different rules. There was a concern about which Local would represent which craft.

          Your lack of voice sentence has me scratching my head. Can you rephrase that?

          • Troy

            “There was a concern about which Local would represent which craft.” is what I am referring to. “There weren’t “different unions” with different rules.” poor choice of words on my part in perspective of not being in a union nor any knowledge.

          • Gotcha. There was a lot of discussion regarding how the locals represent the work here in Los Angeles. While some people were confused about the topic, I recall others being comfortable with the fact that they could be represented by a local that offered them the opportunity to transition easily into other parts of the industry.

            Ultimately, we would offer representation that best fits the craft. If a new local was needed, we would charter one. In Los Angeles though, that would be a difficult argument to make.

  • Anna Glanton

    First off the stop motion community is much smaller than the other animation communities with unions. Most studios in LA are barely 100 or 150 people at the height of production. Many of the artist who work the LA studios will also work in studios in Portland or England meaning the community is rather mobile between both studios and location to make a living, the animators more so than other staff. Laika in Portland is one of the biggest empolyers in the community with about 450 to 500 people at the height of production but empolyment there has yet to be continious.
    So your looking at a community that relies on having a good relationship many studios. If they get labeled as a trouble maker or unionizer at one studio they could loose a big chunk of their income and because it’s such a small community news spreads like wildfire on the grapevine.
    The other issue your looking at is the iatse guilds are regional based. If an LA artist goes to Portland they will not get the iaste backing for pay and benefits negotiating. The dues are expensive and hard to justify if your are spending every other year or 6 months out of the LA jursdiction. You also have the same problem if you hit a dry period between the sudios.
    Portland’s film unions are less indavidulized with one union covering all film jobs except for lighting and directors. If you want to unionizes stop motion it would be best to go after the biggest studio that doesn’t have issue of negotiating with multiple studios.

    • Anim8Clay

      Personally I think it will take more that just the biggest studio. You’d need a couple of the big ones to flip at the same time, which really means all of them then since there’s so few. If a single studio flips on a project i’d bet after that project ends the studio will close its doors then move elsewhere or re-open under a new name and hire non union/low wage people. All of them flipping would cause a rise in price across the board and there’d be no cheaper options to turn to.
      The traveling/portland issue is a major concern but if work continues to increase with streaming based companies supporting our craft there’s a good chance we won’t need to do that any more. The studios need to learn to stagger the production of work more fluidly so it would allow for more of us to be employed year round with less of a chance of large amounts of down time.
      I don’t think this article properly illustrates how much goes into trying to flip us.
      What if we started a stop motion union?

    • “It would be best” to start wherever the artists want representation. We are willing to work with crews and management from any studio, at any time. Further, the notion that there has to be some contentious battle between the artists and the studio over a union agreement is false. As the IATSE representative who would be helping the artists, I can tell you that it isn’t my intention to “fight”. I would rather work with both the artistic staff and management to forge an agreement that fit everyone’s needs. While I don’t see someone who is considering their federal right to create better conditions for them and their peers as a “troublemaker”, I can see how an employer might considering the cost factor. The IATSE has a long history of working with employers to meet the scale and scope of production while still providing better working conditions for our members.

      Locals in the IA are typically bound by region, but not all of them are. Should stop motion become unionized in Los Angeles, where there are multiple locals that represent multiple crafts, we would work with the working stop motion artists and technicians to help them identify which local fits best for them, as well as within our standard jurisdictional definitions. In Portland, there is a “studio mechanics” local that could represent working Laika artists and technicians. However, it would be something those people would have to want. The option of chartering their own local would also be considered.

  • LAstopmotioner

    After meeting to discuss the pros and cons of unionizing, we decided to sit down with the studio owners for a discussion. Our concerns were addressed almost immediately – all without paying dues, waiting for negotiations, or risking our jobs. Unionizing is unnecessary when the owners are approachable and the conditions are agreeable.

    • Which is great at that studio. One of the other things unionization of the industry would bring is a portable set of benefits. Currently, leaving your studio means you leave the meager benefits they threw at you to quell your efforts to do better for yourself. When you land a gig at another studio, those benefits are different and you start from scratch.

      • LAstopmotioner

        Before sitting down with them, we drew up a list of issues that we wanted to discuss with the owners and agreed that if our concerns were not addressed in a timely and satisfactory manner, we would return to the union idea. They have earned trust and respect from many of us and we feel comfortable approaching them and working as a team to solve problems.
        Your use of manipulative language to minimize our efforts and turn us against our employers is only effective in thickening the barrier between sides.

        • I know you did. I helped draft them. I’m glad the studio addressed your concerns and you took measured steps to address them. It underscores the point that acting collectively gets results.

          How are my words manipulative? What am I manipulating? The changes you made are not yours to maintain. The studio can adjust those working conditions at any time, and without your consideration.

          • tigerlily93

            How did you “help draft them”?

    • Great to hear! It’s terrific when people act the way they should all along, and wars don’t need started as Unions vs. Studios. That’s the way it should be, and it’s wonderful to hear news of such.

  • TheIndistryisSick

    Neither do ANY of the other animators outside of the special little LA bubble ;)

  • Jack Rabbit

    Union organization is necessary for every industry. From McDonalds to Motel 6. Animation included, the workers are separated from the organizers by ‘listening’ to their concerns. Gone is the American Way, the most valuable part of The New Deal. Big biz has chiseled and reduced the workers to ‘at will’ and the studios let them on their dime, mandate legislation across the country that benefits big business for the consumers sake of bringing low-cost products. And the studios gladly incorporated the mandates into their own working model, and now, most artists can no longer depend on a 40-year career. It will be broken into bits if even lucky enough to accrue 5 years for vestment qualifications.

    If all the the movie industry were covered by all of the members, as we are seeing by the numbers in the actors guild election right now, putting an end to these “low number” industry factions that go into making the same movies that are distributed world-wide in theaters that you have to pay an arm and a leg to get into (never mind that your average McDonalds worker cannot afford such a luxury so that you can stuff your ever-fattening-face with their cholesterol-ladden animal-by-products), then the stop-motion and VFX animators wouldn’t be bringing this issue to the perrenial forefront. And likewise, the union that covers even the biggest of signatories wouldn’t be so weakened as to offer the majority of its members a career much-less-than 40 years.

    But then, Mellenials really have no idea. Just a lot of energy to be tapped from.

  • anim_8

    Maybe we should point the finger at the major animation studios. Remember, they are the ones commissioning the stop motion guys for work. Can you see those guys adjusting their budget formulas for that? Nope. I say, let the stop motion studios join forces, set their own rates and say “NO” to low budget projects from the fat cat studios. Maybe then, they can afford to unionize.

    Sadly, that won’t happen because of competition and desperation for work.

  • Hopefully they can work towards a better future where unions are unnecessary, as should we all. Unions are a fine/average stop-gap for people being taken advantage of, but the solution (the real SOLUTION) is to have companies not taking advantage of people in the first place, and that starts with both employers and employees working together rather than as enemies. We’ve had the band-aid of Unions on this festering wound for so long people believe they’re the only option, which is a sad thing. The wound isn’t healing, it’s just getting more and more infected. Unfortunately curing the wound, while possible, is difficult, and most do not want to give up their own profit/comfort/security for that healing. And so here we are, believing unions are the savior. Believing it so badly we take up arms.

    • I agree. It would be great to live in a world where unions were obsolete, as employers and employees are expected to sit and negotiate working conditions and benefits terms as a matter of habit or law.

      Since we don’t, and since you seem to be familiar with the animation industry, I’m a bit confused as to how you think the union caused problems. This may not be the forum for this discussion though. If you’re in Los Angeles and would be open to the conversation, lets meet and discuss. If not, feel free to email me and lets chat: skaplan at iatse dot net.