Vancouver's Animation Industry
A Research Project on Jobs, Employers, Schools & Unions
About This Project
This research project is intended to investigate the current issues facing artists in Vancouver's animation industry, problems that are highly relevant to anyone working (or planning to work) as an employee or contractor in a large-scale production studio environment. The project also examines the reasons why these problems exist in the first place and gives some possible solutions, including unionization of the studios.
Please post any comments or questions you have in the Discussion section at the bottom of this page.
What are some of the current issues facing artists in Vancouver's animation studio industry?
Long hours.Animation artists work long hours, particularly near deadlines, with lack of time to spend with their families or on leisure, and often lack of sleep. 60 hours a week is common and there are people who work 100 hours per week.
Unpaid overtime.Many artists are forced to work overtime in order to meet tight production deadlines, but they are contracted or paid in such a way that they essentially work those extra hours at their regular rate of pay, rather than the standard time-and-a-half overtime pay. This is one of the more pervasive and unfortunate problems with Vancouver's animation industry.
For example, animation artists in Vancouver, particularly 3D artists, are commonly designated by their studios as "high technology professionals" under British Columbia's Employment Standards Regulation. With this designation, certain provisions of the Employment Standards Act don't apply, including standard overtime hours, statutory holidays, minimum daily pay and hours free from work each week. The designation also allows employers to set work weeks greater than 40 hours and adjust employees' work schedules without notice.
The government's "high technology professional" designation is worded in a way that identifies people like scientific researchers, computer programmers and information systems analysts, but not artists. Frustratingly, local animation studios have illegally (2) managed to stretch their interpretations of this designation to cover digital artists too, which basically allows them to exploit artists to work much longer for far less money.
Normally, workers would be paid regular wages for their first 8 hours in a day, then time-and-a-half afterwards (1.5x regular wages). For "high technology professionals," however, time-and-a-half pay would begin after having worked 12 hours in a day instead of the usual 8. The difference, for someone earning $25 per hour working five 12-hour days per week, would be a loss of $50 each day, equal to $1000 each month or roughly $13,000 each year, not to mention the loss of payments from overtime wages into Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan.
Lack of human interaction.All studios use instant text-messaging software for internal communication because it's faster than going over to a coworker's desk to talk in person or calling that person over a telephone. However, this can create feelings of loneliness and isolation, as people have more interaction with their computers and reduced face-to-face time with each other.
Physical strain.With most animation being produced entirely digitally, artists find themselves working at computers all day long. In addition to lack of exercise due to the sedentary nature of their jobs, workers may experience physical injuries and discomfort such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and back or eye strain because their workstations are not always ergonomically adjusted.
Limited benefits.Few studios provide their artists with benefits such as extended health and dental insurance, most do not. Even fewer contribute to their employees' Registered Retirement Savings Plans. Artists may be contracted as "freelancers," rather than as employees of the studio, and this is one way studios justify not paying for benefits.
Too many artists.The animation job market is flooded with hundreds of young animation graduates every year, nearly all of whom are willing to work for very low pay. In Vancouver, these students come from Vancouver Film School, Emily Carr University, VanArts, Capilano University, Visual College of Art and Design, The Art Institute and many others. With limited employment positions available, this creates a race to the bottom for wages and sets a standard that animators are cheap and easily replaced, rather than highly skilled specialists.
Difficult to start a family.Senior animation artists who want to own a home and start a family really do need things like health insurance, overtime pay and reasonable hours. And when studios can hire multiple young animation graduates for less than the cost of one experienced industry veteran, it can be hard for those senior artists to meet their goals.
Complain and get fired.Because there are so many animation artists in Vancouver, if any one employee at a studio were to complain loudly enough about the working conditions and try to propose changes, he or she could easily be laid off and replaced by someone else. That person could even be blacklisted from future employment. This has caused a culture of fear in which artists do nothing to act on these issues because they don't want to "rock the boat" and risk losing the careers they love.
How can these issues get resolved?
Individual animation artists can try to negotiate with employers for improved pay, benefits and working conditions on their own. Negotiation is a useful tool in the hiring process that can allow people to obtain things they need that may not normally be offered. However, these negotiations may not be successful because employers can find someone else to hire who is willing to work for less.
To resolve many of the issues listed above for everyone in the industry, a trade union would be necessary. A trade union would help ensure fair work for all animation artists by allowing them to negotiate together. Although the voice of one person can be loud, the voices of many people together will always be louder, and this is the basic premise of trade unions. An individual could risk his or her job by proposing changes to the working conditions, whereas a union would allow all employees to join together to make negotiations as a group. Unions operate on a democratic basis in which members vote on various topics such as bargaining agreements, union leadership and whether to go on strike to obtain concessions from the employers. For example, a union could work to resolve the issues listed above, making agreements with employers to stop unfair practices like unpaid overtime and setting standards for salaries and benefits.
Why is there no trade union for animation workers in Vancouver?
Vancouver doesn't currently have an animation trade union because one hasn't been organized yet.
Another reason why there's no union here is because people are afraid of change. Some artists fear they might get paid less if there was a union. Others fear that a union would drive their salaries and wages up, which would increase costs for all animation production in the city, leading to studios downsizing, moving elsewhere, closing, or outsourcing much more work to Asia to reduce costs. And everyone is afraid of "rocking the boat" by standing up for themselves and their peers. Whether these concerns are legitimate or not is debatable; regardless, the sense of fear is an obstacle to unionization.
If there's no animation union in Vancouver, how come there's one in Hollywood?
Hollywood, Los Angeles and Burbank, California are collectively known as the "media capital of the world" because so many major film, broadcast and animation studios and distributors operate there. Some of them — such as Disney, Universal and Warner Brothers — were started in the area nearly a century ago and are still headquartered there today. These studios are so deeply invested in the city, its massive pool of talent and the established resources, and connected to each other, that to leave and move elsewhere would be unthinkable. Because these companies have basically no other options, unions have been a longstanding part of Hollywood media production, with a notable strike happening at the Walt Disney Animation studios in 1941. The current union for animation in Hollywood is The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839.
Vancouver, on the other hand, is in a very different position. The animation studios here have not been around for a century, are not as large as the ones in Hollywood, are not as numerous, and are not as heavily invested in the city and its talent. Although there have been big-name studios in Vancouver, like Sony Pictures Imageworks and Pixar Canada, they are smaller branches of the main studios in California. Often, they are here simply to take advantage of British Columbia's 17.5% tax credit for employing local artists to produce animation, among other credits. And, as evidenced by Disney's recent closure of the Pixar Canada studio on October 10th, 2013 (which had only been open for 3 years), they have no shame in leaving town without a word of notice to anyone, including their own employees, in the interest of saving money.
"I want to be an animator so I can work my way to the top, make a lot of money, and have people see my name in the most popular movies and shows."
Becoming an animator is not the same thing as "breaking into show business" and is not a path to "becoming a star." An animation artist does hard work behind the scenes, and audiences who view the finished product will never know the amount of effort he or she put into it, nor what his or her exact contributions were. The main people to gain status and reputation from the finished work are the directors. There are very few directors, and few people will have the rare chance to become one, resulting in the role being highly coveted.
It is common for people to enter the field of animation wanting to get something out of it that isn't necessarily as easily-obtainable as they think. There are a quite lot of people, for example, who want to direct, but there simply aren't enough director positions for all of them. The same thing goes for those who want to have their own animated series on TV — there aren't enough time slots in broadcasters schedules. People assume that by working hard enough, their goals will eventually be obtained, and this is true. However, they may not realize what "working hard enough" actually entails in the animation industry; with so many other people aiming for the same goals, and the international nature of the business, the competition is intense. Such people need to understand the enormous amounts of time and dedication required to succeed, and ought to consider whether it would be truly worthwhile for them and whether achieving their goals would be satisfying.
Desire for fame, praise and gain can consume people's minds, making them do things they normally wouldn't, or that aren't good for them. Studio managers are aware of artists' ambitions, and may use this to their advantage by increasing workloads and tightening deadlines beyond what can realistically be done, knowing the artists will do anything to succeed. The stress eventually causes artists to burn out from having worked like factory machines.
Don't the animation schools teach their students about these things?
Schools have the best opportunities to change the animation industry by teaching students about the issues they will face in the workforce, their rights as workers, and when to say "no." However, schools don't want their animation graduates to become known as hard bargainers, so they don't place much emphasis on teaching students to stand up for themselves when looking for employment. They want their graduates to be well known in the industry for being easy to hire. The result is highly favourable for the schools' reputations and studios' budgets, but unfavourable for the students, who are likely to accept the first contract a studio offers them without negotiation, or to work longer hours and take on more tasks than they should, simply by not knowing any better. It is in students' interests to familiarize themselves with the topics in this document not only so they can be better prepared for negotiations when applying for jobs, but also so they have a clearer understanding of the value of their time and energy.
Analysis & Conclusions
Without unionization, what can animation workers do to protect themselves?
Don't accept low pay.Although it is easy to accept whatever salary or wage a studio offers, animation artists should always try to negotiate their rates of pay for a higher amount. Like when people buy cars or homes, and the standard practice is to make an offer lower than the listed price, artists should similarly make offers for higher pay rates. If more animation artists learn to negotiate with employers for higher pay, then the value of all artists increases, helping to fight the idea that animators are cheap and easily replaced.
Don't work for free, even in an internship or to get experience. In British Columbia, unpaid internships are against the law. By giving out his or her professional skills for free — to companies, individuals or even friends — an animator is reinforcing the idea that all animators everywhere are cheap and their skills are not valuable.
Avoid working as a "high technology professional"under BC's Employment Standards Regulation. The designation is for scientists and computer programmers, not artists, yet studios have illegally interpreted it to their advantage so they can exploit artists to work long hours for far less money than normal. During the interview process for a job, artists should ask if they would be designated as a "high technology professional" and, if so, either negotiate for a job without the designation or refuse to work for that studio. The fewer artists who accept working under the designation, the less able the studios will be to continue abusing it in a competitive job market.
Ensure contracts include benefits.If benefits like health and dental insurance, as well as employer contributions to a Registered Retirement Savings Plan, are not included in a contract offer, artists should negotiate for them or look elsewhere for employment at a studio that does provide benefits.
Know where to draw the line.Artists should have a clear understanding of the value of their time and energy, and know how far they are willing to go to fulfil their employers' needs. Studios will always pile as much work as possible onto each artist without ever holding back, but it's the artist's duty to know his or her own limit and when to say "no."
Without unionization, most of these measures are unlikely to produce any change that would affect everyone in Vancouver's animation industry, but they can help individuals to improve working conditions for themselves. Employers may not be willing to negotiate on certain things, though, because they know there is no shortage of other people they can hire who are willing to do more for less, including hundreds of young animation graduates who will accept low pay with no benefits. Workers therefore need to have a great deal of leverage in order for their negotiations to be successful.
What could a Vancouver animation trade union do to protect workers?
Support the artists.With the backing of a union, artists could propose changes to their problems and working conditions without risk or fear of being punished by employers for complaining and "rocking the boat." For studios, it would no longer be an issue of dealing with one individual employee who complains, but rather the entire union of employees together.
Negotiate with studios.A union would negotiate with studios on behalf of its members for fair pay and other improvements. Things like 100-hour work weeks and unpaid overtime would be gone. Health and dental insurance, as well as retirement contributions, could become universal for all artists at every studio due to the union's negotiations. A union would set minimum standards that employers must meet for all workers, but workers would still be free to negotiate individually for even better pay and working conditions.
Protest to obtain concessions.If the union's negotiations with studios went unsuccessfully, and all other options had been fully exhausted, then under certain circumstances the members could vote to go on strike to protest their employers' unfair practices by refusing to work until the employers concede. In the animation industry, with so many productions on very tight schedules, a strike would be devastating for the studios because every single day and person is necessary in order to meet deadlines. Studios that produce content for TV broadcast can face fines in the range of $200,000 for missing an air date on a 30-minute program; a strike that lasted more than a few days could rack up millions of dollars in losses for studios that don't take out strike insurance. There are risks in striking though; studios may choose to hire replacement artists when the strike happens, leaving the strikers without jobs, among other concerns.
Change perceptions of artists.Overall, a union would change the perception that animation artists are cheap and disposable workers who tolerate unacceptable conditions, instead becoming people who firmly stand up for themselves as being professional artists with valuable skills.
How can Vancouver animation workers become unionized?
Employers and managers usually react negatively to talk of forming a union and will do anything to stop union organizing. A union is seen as a threat to their power and their ability to save costs by exploiting employees. Often, they will retaliate by claiming that the people organizing will be fired, that the business will close and move elsewhere, or that people's hours will be cut. These scare tactics are all illegal. The BC government Labour Relations Board can provide legal advocacy to the employees when employers make such threats. In fact, employers are required to continue "business as usual" both during the organization process and for 4 months after the union is formed.
Animation workers can become unionized by seeking help from the existing union for motion picture productions throughout BC and the Yukon, IATSE Local 891. To begin the process, employees at an individual, non-unionized studio would need to discuss the benefits of a union, then organize and seek assistance from IATSE 891 to help unionize their workplace. According to the BC Labour Relations Board, in order for their union application to be approved, a majority of employees at a studio (45% or more) would all have to agree to unionize, each signing a "representation card" to formalize this, and submitting the cards to the Labour Board. The cards remain confidential between the union organizers and the Labour Board, and the employer has no direct way of knowing who is or isn't in favour of starting a union. After a final vote is passed on whether or not to unionize, the union would then make contract negotiations with the studio on behalf of all the employees. This whole process could be repeated for each studio in Vancouver, gaining increasing momentum as more become unionized.
IATSE 891 has already been making preparations for animation unionization. Anyone working in a studio can begin signing confidential representation cards now to voice support for a union. The more who sign, the better the chances that a union will form. Since the cards are only valid for 90 days, IATSE 891 recommends that employees sign one every 90 days as well as when starting a new job. By joining IATSE 891, animation artists would have significantly more power and support than they do today.
Calculate the difference in pay between a normal worker and a "high technology professional" by filling in the boxes below. This is an estimate only.
For those paid a weekly average instead of an hourly rate, use this calculator instead.
Hourly pay rate
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