Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bottom of the Food Chain

There seems to be a misconception of what it means to be at the bottom of the food chain. Let me explain it to you. As a boy, I had a summer job at the County Fair grounds. It was after the Fair was over cleaning out the livestock stalls. A mule eats grain and hay, passes it through its digestive track and drops what he doesn't use out the back end onto the ground. That's the bottom of the food chain! I got paid minimum wage to shovel it up. I shoveled a LOT of hog, sheep, cattle and mule shit. And I shoveled it fast. I did that so I could get this hideous job over quicker. You see, I had hay fever real bad. Amongst all that foul smelling crap was a lot of straw, hay and grain dust that I inhaled along with the fragrance. My eyes swelled up, my nose ran and I could barely breathe. The worse I felt, the faster I shoveled. The rest of the young men who were smoking or resting when the boss wasn't around told me to slow down! I was making them look bad. The boss loved me. If I was fifteen pounds heavier and two years older, I could have been running that gang. But who would want to?

Welcome to animation, Pilgrim. Here's your shovel. The lowest paid job in animation when I started was Apprentice Inbetweener. That's the bottom of the food chain. I got paid less than minimum wage to shovel it up. Here's how it worked: the Animator did rough drawings (eight) of all the key poses in an action and gave them to an Assistant Animator who cleaned up several drawings (2), did several new drawings (4) then gave the rest to me (24) to finish. I did the most work and was paid the least.

There were six of us working in that converted one bedroom apartment. Tex sat by the window in the front near "Looney", the world's slowest and most meticulous assistant animator. "Sunny", the veteran assistant, sat in the kitchen and "Aussie", who had the exalted position of Layout Artist, sat by the door. I sat in the back by the hallway. The bedroom was reserved for "The Don". The Don was a regal looking Spanish Art Director who had an elegant moustache and wore an ascot. He didn't mix with the rest of us much. He was Feature production. We were television drones.

After a month, I had to join the Union. Their one time enlistment fee was a whole weeks salary! It was more money than I was earning! I brought this up, reluctantly, to my boss who begrudgingly brought my pay up to the legal lowest amount. A wise investment because I shoveled fast. I found out how fast when a month later I was "promoted" from Apprentice Inbetweener to Journeyman Inbetweener! This was a mind-boggling jump of 12% in my pay! Of course there was a "catch" to this generosity. My Boss expected me to bring my production quota up to 200 ft. per week.

Footage. Now there's an antique term! In the time before pixels and recording tape, all animation (in fact all motion picture production) was measured in footage. The end product that went to market ended up photographed onto celluloid film. Oddly, the width of film was measured in metrics but the length was measured in feet. A foot (12 inches) of 35 mm film contained 16 frames or images. Each scene of an animated film was measured by length. How much work you did was recorded the same way. My new quota was 200 ft. per week. This worked out to 2 minutes and 13 seconds of animation. I thought I shoveled fast but this was twice as much as I could do! I put in more time. I came in early, stayed late and worked on Saturdays. Even with all that, my best week was 156 ft! Finally, my supervisor, Sunny, asked me what I was doing and I told him of my quota. He told me quotas were in violation of the Union contract. The most work any of my peers, including him, were doing was 85 ft. I was being taken advantage of by the Boss and making the rest of the crew look bad! So, I stopped working on Saturdays and cut back on the free overtime hours. I settled in at a comfortable pace of 120 ft. per week. The Boss never complained. Heck, he knew dang well I shoveled fast!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Free Trapper versus Company Man

Just about all the worthwhile guides I have known have been Free Trappers at some point in their careers. There seems to be some confusion about this term so I'll explain it out. A Free Trapper is not a Free Lancer...necessarily. A Free Lancer is an individual who works completely on his own out of the direct supervision of a Factor (union representative) or Booshway (crew boss). He sells the product of his talents "per piece" rather than as contract labor. The more he produces, the more he earns. If you're a young, talented buck and don't prefer a warm fire to an icy stream, you can make a good living this way. Now, a Free Trapper does the same but makes a contract, in advance, to a specific company for his total production that season. Because the Free Trapper is on his own without the benefit of an organization behind him, he learns a lot about who pays the highest prices, where the best quality product can be found, what's the best technique to use to make the most efficient use of his time and talent and, most importantly, those he can count on in a scrap.

Contrast these men to the Company Man. He is hired by a major company for a contract wage. Everything he produces, some say every idea he has, is company property without additional compensation. The benefits of this arrangement is a guaranteed wage with regular meals, union law to settle disputes and health benefits in case you get stove up. Of course, you won't get rich if you don't take risks, but you'll stay off welfare more often than not. I was a Company Man in my youth while I was learning the trade. I had a regular, full-time, night woman I was hitched to and she wanted a lodge of her own. Soon there were more mouths to feed and Company pay didn't stretch far enough. It was then I turned to "moonlighting" to bring in more income to meet the need. "Moonlighting" was frowned upon in the trade. The Union hated it as you didn't pay them a percentage of your "take". The Company hated it because you were aiding their competition. I was bred to loyalty. I give my word and the deal is set in stone. Whenever possible, I'd do my "moonlighting" for the Company that paid me a daily wage. This kept me away from the competition and allowed the Union to retain the illusion of control.

I've worked for the Company and I've worked for small, aggressive competitors. The Company offered more security but limited the money a man could make. The smaller guys (the Opposition) paid more and allowed greater creativity and opportunity. If you want the broadest range of creativity and the faster track to advancement, sooner or later, you move to the Opposition. Of course, the risks are greater and the danger of the Opposition failing or being absorbed by the Company are high. Some day you could find yourself working as a Free Trapper running your own crew because the options have disappeared. That could break you or make you into something they tell stories about. This journal is my story.