Digital Domain CEO John Textor (pictured above with his wife) envisions big things for his company’s new feature animation studio in Port St. Lucie, Florida called Tradition Studios. While we’ve written about the studio’s ambitious feature film plans, what wasn’t known until recently is how Textor intends to create the films. His plan is to convince students to pay Digital Domain to work on its films for free.

The blog VFX Soldier has obtained a speech that Textor gave last November to investors in which he revealed how the company’s new animation school Digital Domain Institute will be integrated with the Tradition studio. Textor told the audience:

Classes starting in the education space, what’s interesting is the relationship between the digital studio and the college.  Not only is this a first in a number of ways that we’ve talked about, but 30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, it’s going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.

Now this was the controversial element of this and the first discussions with the Department of Education, ’cause it sounds like you’re taking advantage of the students.  But we were able to persuade even the academic community, if we don’t do something to dramatically reduce costs in our industry, not only ours but many other industries in this country, then we’re going to lose these industries .. we’re going to lose these jobs.  And our industry was going very quickly to India and China.

Students, in other words, will pay up to $105,000 for the “privilege” of working on Digital Domain’s features, the first of which will be The Legend of Tembo. As VFX Soldier points out, “It’s one thing to work for low pay, it’s another thing to work for free, but it’s unfathomable to be expected to pay to work for free.

If all of this sounds a little fishy, that’s because it is. The Animation Guild in Los Angeles is exploring whether Digital Domain might be in violation of state and federal labor laws. They’ve tried to communicate with multiple Florida government agencies, including the state’s Department of Education, with no luck yet. Federal labor laws, however, would appear to be in favor of artists as they clearly stipulate that interns cannot “perform productive work” (i.e. work on the production of a film) without being compensated with at least minimum wage and overtime pay. (Minimum wage, by the way, is $7.67 per hour in Florida.)

As animation education programs proliferate around the United States and competition intensifies for a finite number of jobs, studios find themselves in a position to exploit young artists more aggressively than ever before. Whether it’s Titmouse relocating its studio nearly 3,000 miles away to avoid paying its employees union wages or Digital Domain making people pay to work on its films, there are plenty of legal loopholes that studios can exploit to save a buck on the backs of their production crews. And some studio CEOs are so proud of themselves that they’ll publicly boast about how they’re getting away with it.

UPDATE: John Textor’s “Free Student Labor” Comments Have Staying Power

UPDATE #2: John Textor Made $16 Million In 2011 While Digital Domain’s Revenue Dropped

UPDATE #3: Digital Domain CEO John Textor Caught On Video: “Free Labor is Much Better Than Cheap Labor”

(Photo of Debbie and John Trextor via

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