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a conversation about unpaid internships, part II

A few weeks ago, the comments section  of the site pretty much lit up over postings for unpaid internships by Toronto’s guru studios.  The readership here really got involved, something that I’m always really proud of, and the discussion was generally very constructive.  Guru responded and explained that the posts were a clerical error, and they apologized for the confusion.  Some commenters didn’t appear too satisfied with their response.  On that particular aspect of this conversation, I want to state simply, that to the best of my knowledge, there are currently no unpaid internships at guru that contravene any existing legislation.  The intern that I am aware of there is getting paid.

But clearly, there’s a larger conversation to be had here.  Some commenters suggested a union, or at least some kind of representational body for our community.  I’ve had many requests to keep the thread open so that the conversation can continue, so that’s what I’m doing.  This site was created to provide a destination for our community, someplace we could all safely discuss topics just like this, so I invite you all to do so.

Unpaid internships are a problem in many sectors, not just ours.  The conversation is split.  Clearly, there’s merit to a system of internships.  But such a system can be easily abused.  We discovered in the last post that there’s a very straightforward set of conditions that define an unpaid internship, and many readers spoke highly of the experience as an early means of getting a foot in the industry door.  So it seems that we’re saying, in theory, the notion of unpaid internships isn’t inherently bad, as long as it isn’t abused.  But how do we protect against such situations?  Is a union the answer?  I have my own thoughts on unionization, but I’d rather let the community speak for itself.  Have at it gang.

(here’s the previous post and comment thread)


  1. undisclosed undisclosed February 24, 2012

    Want to keep the animation business rolling in Canada? Going union won’t do that IMO.

    A large part of why Canada is a destination is because the government and industry have created a model that attracts the business through co-productions and service based tax credits. That is our advantage. Go union, drive up rates and it wipes out the advantage.

    How about studios do the right thing and treat their employees with respect. Be upfront about staffing, rates and hours and let the free market dictate the outcome? If studio has a great project that pays a decent rate then everybody should win. If a studio offers work for no pay then the artists have to take part of the responsibility for taking the “job” in the first place. Nobody is pointing a gun to the artists head to take the unpaid position.

  2. Paul Paul February 24, 2012

    This is a very interesting conversation, only brought to my attention a couple of days ago, which is surprising considering I work at Guru. I feel I don’t need to defend the studio, as I do not want to speak on their behalf. I will however speak from personal experience. It has been an absolute pleasure working in house here for the past 6 months. Guru is a smaller production house, without the financial backing of most large corporate powerhouses. I have been a cough in the production wheel of several of those studios, and personally I prefer to be a recognized voice rather than an invisible pawn. I feel the work environment at Guru is positive and creative, with the opportunity for everyone to have a say in what they do and how they do it. I get paid for what I do, and expect to after 11 years in the industry. I have however, definitely slugged it out not without working for free, or very little money at times, and in all honesty I am very grateful for this. It has enriched me with a good work ethic, and the ability to recognize a good healthy work environment that I am very grateful for. I do not agree with people being taken advantage of or not being compensated for their work. I have indeed been a victim of this and have felt the sting. In my experience here at Guru, I have not personally witnessed this. Furthermore, if people enter a mutual agreement where they are aware of their situation, then it is up to them to take it or leave it. I think internships are a fantastic way to get a foot in the door. I personally know many that have gone on to pursue successful (paying) careers through this method, again I do not condone people being taken advantage of. I think we are in the midst of a fruitful time in this industry. There are currently numerous studios hiring for paying jobs in varying facets of the production pipeline. If someone chooses to pursue a non paying position to perhaps further their academic growth, it is their prerogative. If you can’t find a paying job in animation at the moment you either aren’t looking hard enough, or you just don’t have the chops. I have found in the past few years, student’s come out of school expecting the world. They are blog superstars, or big fish within their academic institutions, and egos to match. I have seen these “whiz kids” crumble to pieces after a month on the job..or else be entirely unable to replicate the work they produce on their blogs, or in their portfolios. I feel this is a failure on the schools behalf, blowing too much smoke up these kids ass’. Again, an internship is a great way to learn how things really work throughout the production process. This is just my humble opinion, I hope I haven’t offended anyone or stepped on any toes. My heart goes out to anyone who has been taken advantage of under misleading circumstances and things should be done to prevent this, however in my experience here at Guru, I have not witnessed this.

  3. Peter Heppel Peter Heppel February 26, 2012

    Guru fell into the “It was a clerical error” only after they got called on it and the issue was brought forward on this site and in plain view of the animation industry. The reason I don’t buy that is simple. They’ve done it before. Check your own old JOBBY posts..I’m sure there’ll be some old postings from GURU trying to get a free ride. I’m sure I remember reading those more than once. And I think they’d do it again if they thought they could get away with it. (They probably still do..but just won’t be so blatant about it.)
    It’s rather obvious that internships are valuable for up and comers and there’s no point going into that any deeper..but its a whole of matter to have proffesional work being done for free.

    The money studios save by getting interns to do it for free goes directly into the producers pockets. I have to say..thats creepy low.
    Personally I don’t like unions much…but nonsense like this unfortunately opens the door and I wish they’d just be up front and post something like…HEY!! COME WORK FOR FREE! Which is basically what they do anyhows.
    I’m sure Paul (ABOVE) has tanned his nose sufficiently to feel good about showing up on Monday and good for him. Thanks Mr Valiquette for keeping tabs on these antics that are getting to pervasive in this industry.
    Shame on them.

  4. Crazy Crazy February 27, 2012

    I knew how bad this would get, I saw it coming.

    So instead of going through the Sheridan mill to end up slaving for one company or another, I decided to put together my own education out of various ateliers, art workshops and independent teachers with the intention of learning how to make my own films. And when you’re learning, it’s your own practice and discovery on your own time that increases your skills the most anyway. You don’t have to pay a school 30 grand to say “Life drawing and sketchbook” three billion times.

    I get by teaching and performing as a musician and get paid for freelance animation to supplement.

    I’m looking to get on the other side of this equation and get funding to hire animators, layout people, etc. and pay them properly. To me, the more discussion there is about that, the better.

  5. Elliot Elliot February 27, 2012

    I feel compelled to reply to the comments of ‘undislcosed’. One: these are the mantras of management (or the Toronto Sun), not employees. Two: Canada’s/Ontario’s tax incentives have less to do with keeping the industry alive than do immigration laws. That’s true for every Western economy. It also helps to have a weak dollar. Three: Unions do not “drive up rates”. They guarantee, or stabilize rates. They only appear to go up in relation to what studios desire to pay. Storyboard rates have been both capped and depressed over the last ten years, which means the rates are going down as the cost of living dramatically rises. In a free market, wages are a commodity to be traded, and studios will always trade for the lowest wages they can get. I know an Assistant Director who was listed as a board revisionist on payroll because the studio didn’t want to pay extra for her maternity leave. There’s respect for you. Software like Toonboom is allowing some studios to demand animatics from board artists without remuneration. I’m sorry, but as soon as you cut the soundtrack, or adjust a panel, that’s picture and sound editing. And they want you to do it for free. And you know what? You DON’T have a choice if you want the job. Forget about the film editor who is losing their job because of it. I am currently negotiating with a studio for two weeks work. The sticking point is whether or not they want to pay me to work. I could have the work in a heartbeat, if I was willing to work for free (which was the original offer).

    I’ve worked 20 years in the Toronto animation community and respect for the artist is a rare thing. This industry is not subject to the Labor laws of Canada. They have no legal obligation to ‘Be upfront about staffing, rates and hours’. I have never signed a contract in 20 years because I’ve never been offered a contract that gave me any kind of rights whatsoever. I’ve seen ‘deal memos’ that claim exclusive rights to my talents for a certain period of time while reserving the right to fire me at the studios’ discretion without notice or cause. That’s not a contract. Rates are not set by the market, but by producers who bargain for the lowest wage possible.

    There’s a perfectly good reason why history is so poorly taught, and labor history not at all. As gas prices threaten to hit 1.50 this summer and the Harper conservatives are floating HST on EVERYTHING, wage earners need to protect themselves, and the artist community in the animation industry in Canada, most of all. Being able to work is becoming a privilege, not a right. If studios respected artists, they would offer us professional, legal, and mutually beneficial contracts that guarantee fair treatment under the laws of the Dominion, and nothing less.

  6. Mike Magnan Mike Magnan February 27, 2012

    Hear Hear!!!Crazy and Elliot!
    You’re hearing the beat! The Brown nosing and exploitation is such an insiduous element in this industry. At Least Mike called em on it. I agree with Heppel as well..Call em out.
    It’s about time artists stop acting like frightened children and brown nosing (See above) just to stay alive.

    Good on you folks!

  7. Mike Magnan Mike Magnan February 27, 2012

    Oh,Crazy Peter and Elliot!!! I’m not sure wether I know you or not…but I want to meet you if I don’t. I ..for some reason can’t place you..

    See? This place does good stuff too!! haha.

  8. David David February 27, 2012

    I just wanted to reply and disagree with Paul’s comment “If you can’t find a paying job in animation at the moment you either aren’t looking hard enough, or you just don’t have the chops.”

    I started working in the industry in 2006 and of course as a beginner it started off slow. But for the last 3 years I’ve been working consistently from job to job and have suddenly found myself without one for 6 months. I know a lot of people in the industry and have emailed and talked to just about every one of them. I’ve been to the job fair at Siigraph in Vancouver, the job fair at the Ottawa Film Festival, repeatedly talked to recruiters, trolled the internet and company websites for job postings and applied to every one I found, and still nothing. I’ve obviously been trying, so do I just not have the chops? I’d like to think that’s not the case. Companies have hired me steadily and no one has told me I suck. So here I find myself wondering why I can’t get a job. The internship issue could play a part but I think a more serious one is the general issue of companies wanting to pay as little as possible for our skills, and if they can’t find people willing to work for so little, the work is going overseas.

    As an example, I have been speaking to a recruiter at an animation company for months who was hoping to bring me on board once a certain project began. I know things are never a lock when you are dealing with a future project but it sounded promising. It kept getting delayed (which is normal in this industry) but in the end, I was told the work was probably going overseas. There is no way to compete when it comes to that.

    I think there are many more reasons that myself and other people are out of work other than not looking hard enough or not being good enough. Unfortunately, from this side of the fence, I don’t see the “fruitful time” in the industry. At least not in Toronto for animators. The last posting on this site for a 3D animator in Toronto was from Guru back in December. I’m no trying to attack your opinion Paul, I just think it was a bit too generalized.

    Oh, and I did apply to Guru back in December, so if you’ve got any pull, help a guy out! LOL.

  9. Elliot Elliot February 27, 2012

    I missed that nugget from Paul. After 20 years in this biz I have no idea how to get work anymore. I lobby with HR, I lobby with producers, I lobby with directors, I cold call, I stay in touch, I work months ahead of production start dates, but there are simply no guarantees. Paul’s comment is callous and worthy of the GOP. Paul’s comment also displays no real idea or real experience working in this industry. “No Hire” lists exist. “Black lists” exist. I had a great experience working for Guru, and did some of my best work in years, but I was totally passed over when they crewed up last summer despite lobbying both the producer and director months in advance. There are so many factors other than talent and hard work in getting a job and keeping one in this business (such as allies in HR who champion your work). To think otherwise is to have no real sense of how the economy has changed in the past 12 years.

  10. Paul Paul February 28, 2012

    David, I truly apologize if I offended you with my statement in any way, it was certainly not my intent. I just wanted to recount my personal experience with this studio and veered off on a tangent. I am definitely an advocate for industry comradery, which is what compelled me to express how I feel about what I think is a decent studio. I know Nelvana and 9 Story were recently looking for board artists, and Elliott is currently accepting portfolios for the same. There is some stuff in the pipeline at Guru (from what I hear), but I won’t be there for much longer so stay on top of them. If anything else comes to mind I will be sure to keep you posted.
    Good luck

  11. David David February 29, 2012

    Thanks for the reply Paul. No hard feelings. Just thought the statement you made was a generalization and could be taken the wrong way. The work environment you describe is exactly what I want to be a part of again as I have been in the past.

  12. Angrybird Angrybird March 1, 2012

    Here’s an idea: If students had an idea of what their future worth could be, couldn’t they drive the prices up? The problem in Toronto and elsewhere is that the VFX/animation industry lacks good business people and lawyers. If a game like Modern Warfare 2 can generate 400 million dollars in the first 24 hours worldwide, what the hell are we all doing working on contract for such low wages? The team behind the game couldn’t be that large…

    What I am trying to get at is, we work on contract, we aren’t promised full time positions; draw up proper contracts and make deals that make sense. You know how much money your employer makes directly because of you. Ask for more…we should be treated like athletes at least for the profits that are being made, this is ridiculous.

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