Tale of Titmouses

Though they share the same name and the same owners, there is a wide starting salary gap between the two Titmouse animation studios that operate in Los Angeles and New York City. While wages for artists in the New York TV animation industry have historically been lower than their Los Angeles counterparts, the gap appears to be widening.

Cartoon Brew decided to investigate after learning that some New York Titmouse animation artists who are working on Disney’s upcoming TV series Motorcity are earning as little as $400 per week. If not the all-time lowest, it ranks as among the lowest wages ever earned by an American artist working on a Disney animation production. By contrast, an artist doing the exact same job working on the same show at Titmouse in Los Angeles would earn no less than $1,055 per week under the studio’s union agreement.

Titmouse Inc., founded in 2000 by the husband-and-wife team of Chris and Shannon Prynoski, opened a Manhattan studio in the summer of 2010 to support its growing West Coast operation. Prior to launching the studio, Mr. Prynoski, a veteran of MTV Animation in New York, created the TV series MTV Downtown. The company’s emphasis on quality has helped them to expand from a mom-and-pop operation into a major producer of animated programming, including shows like Metalocalypse, Superjail! and The Venture Brothers. In an interview published this week on Cold Hard Flash, Prynoski said that his company now employs over 250 people.

The company has recently been producing two shows for Disney’s action oriented XD channel: Motorcity and Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja. In order to receive its sub-contract deal from Disney, Titmouse signed a union contract to satisfy Disney’s requirements in the IATSE Basic Agreement. Titmouse didn’t want to convert its entire Los Angeles studio into a union shop, and thus created a wholly-owned subsidiary called Robin Redbreast. The new company is the signator with the Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839, though it shares the same ownership and managements of its parent company, Titmouse.

The decision to split Titmouse into two separate companies was not an uncommon tactic for a company in its situation, Cartoon Brew was told by union officials in Los Angeles. Under the contract, Titmouse must pay union scale wages to artists in Los Angeles who work on Motorcity, but has the option of subcontracting work to non-union companies where it can pay lower salaries. While the studio sends work on the show to multiple places, including Canada, it chose to subcontract the Motorcity cleanup to its New York studio, along with some of the show’s animation. A staff of nearly twenty clean-up artists works in New York, where they are responsible for cleaning up the drawings of the animators in Flash and coloring scenes as well as doing occasional animation edits.

Cartoon Brew has learned that some of the animation was being cleaned up in the Los Angeles studio as recently as last October, when Titmouse decided to shift the entire clean-up operation to New York. An artist in the New York studio was told by his supervisors that the reason for the shift was because the quality of work by the Los Angeles artists was considered sub-par. Chris Prynoski declined to comment on the reasons for why the clean-up work was transferred to the New York studio.

Cartoon Brew interviewed four New York artists working on the series. Though Titmouse offers group health insurance, none of the artists interviewed in the clean-up department could afford the option with their current salaries. Many of the hirees are recent graduates from animation schools and could barely manage living expenses, much less begin to pay off student loans with their $400 per week salaries.

The artists’ feelings about their salaries ranged from satisfaction to complacency to frustration. One artist, a recent graduate of a four-year animation program, was pleased and said that he “never felt overworked or taken advantage of.” When questioned if the wages were unfair, he responded that he didn’t mind working for these wages because it kept the work in the United States. He said he’d rather work here than at Foxconn, referring to the Taiwanese manufacturer of iPhones that installed suicide-prevention netting at its factories after a spate of employee suicides.

Titmouse, in large part, has thrived on both coasts for creating a laidback artist-driven studio run by people who are passionate about animation. The studio offers unique perks to artists, like after-hours availability of Cintiqs for personal projects and independent freelance projects. The studio has made some positive impacts on the New York animation scene, particularly in the way that it deals with interns. The New York animation community is rife with stories of illegal internships at other TV studios like Augenblick Studios and World Leaders. Titmouse has committed to employing interns for no longer than one school semester, and by all accounts, makes a sincere effort to hire those who exhibit competence.

Titmouse’s operations in New York are expanding. The studio recently completed a move from its lower Manhattan office space to the Chelsea neighborhood, where they occupy two entire floors of a building. One artist told Cartoon Brew that the new offices were much much larger and fancier. “The last place was a dump compared to this place,” the artist said. New Cintiq workstations are continually being added, indicating that the studio plans to ramp up further.

Prynowski declined to answer any specific questions about the wages that he pays employees at his studio, but provided a written statement to Cartoon Brew in which he said that, “The rates we pay span a wide range – all based on merit and experience. Many of the experienced artists earn above the going rates. Everyone has an opportunity to advance if they have the drive and desire.” He defended his company’s approach, telling Cartoon Brew that:

“I really feel that giving young New York talent practical work experience is something that has long term benefits. As these artists learn and develop, they have opportunities within the studio for promotion. We encourage artists to pursue positions in which they have interest. We hope to help these artists develop into the next group of great animators, designers, and directors. Right now our NY studio is in its infancy. As it grows, the talent will grow with it. As the talent grows, the talent base grows not just for Titmouse, but for the New York animation community in general. I refuse to see this as a bad thing.”

The question remains, however, about why there is a nearly $700 weekly gap between starting wages for Los Angeles and New York artists working on the same show. New York has the highest cost of living in the United States (Los Angeles, by comparison, is ranked ninth), yet the studio’s starting salary for workers in New York is only $20,800. That figure ranks below New York’s average starting wages for unskilled laborers like doormen ($25,680) and sanitation workers ($27,842).

It is a fact of life that New York animation artists will make less than unionized workers in Los Angeles. However, wages haven’t always been this low. Speaking with New York animation veterans, Cartoon Brew learned that a fresh out-of-school starting salary for an animation artist in 2001 at Nickelodeon was $900 and included health insurance and 401k. In 2006, a starting salary out-of-school on a cable TV series at an independent production company was $800.

As the famous jazz pianist Hampton Hawes once wrote, “I’ve tried not to low-rate my market price because once your meat is down, they’ll always try to buy it cheaper. I said, I know what I’m worth, but I don’t know how much I can get. Just don’t embarrass me.”

But it’s easy to be embarrassed if you’re an animator starting your career in New York City.

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