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!

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