Editorial: Working = Money, right?

From the publisher: (Mike!) Yesterday’s big story here, and on a few other like-minded sites, was the new business model being espoused by Digital Domain CEO John Textor, whereby students at their new government-funded school are paying tuition to work on the feature films their new animation studio, Tradition Studios, is producing.  In his own words, the students are going to “be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films“.   It’s a brilliant plan, and might be illegal, and is making me, and a lot of other people in our field, very angry.  One of those people is our very own Rebecca David.  Rebecca is our Social Media Ninja, so really, I have no idea what she does.  Rebecca is also a hard-working cog in the giant machine that is the animation industry.  So today I’m going to get out of the way and let you read someone else’s opinion.  Go easy on her, it’s first article.

...I didn't event get my change back...

"Aren't I Supposed To Get The Money?"

Hey guys, it’s Beccy.  Whether you’ve noticed or not, I am the resident Social Media Ninja around here and since we’re going to talk I thought I would introduce myself.

I am a recent graduate of the Traditional Stream of the Animation Program at Algonquin College. Previous to that, I took the Pre-Animation program at that same school. Suffice it to say, I worked myself through 4 years of post-secondary education. I held a part-time job the whole time, living at home with my parents (for the first 2 years) and sacrificing nutrition, sleep and a social life in order to get out of school and into “The Industry” with as little debt saddled on me as I could.

Mine is a modest success story so far, I graduated in May 2011 debt-free with a demo reel and a lot of hope. Within 6 months I landed my first, and current, job as a Character Builder on the PBS show Wild Kratts.  Not everyone can say what I can say, that they work on a show they like, that they work under their childhood heroes (come on guys, Kratt’s Kreatures? Zaboomafoo? My head spins some days) and they get to have weekends off. But when you have a job, there are things that everyone ought to be able to say. The most important of those statements is this:

I get paid to do my job. 

And while we’re on this thread, let’s name a thing that you should never say about the work you do:

I pay someone for the privilege of doing my job. 

That sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? I mean, the whole point of a job is that it makes you money.  In exchange for your services and time, you are compensated.  Now, around here we have opinions on unpaid internships. I don’t like them. To be specific, I do not like it when eager students take positions where they do work that is part of actual production that then goes on to turn a profit. I get all shake-y and incoherent just thinking about it. Now, let’s turn things up to 11.

Digital Domain is charging students tuition dollars to work for them. They have opened up a school of sorts, where in exchange for student funds and government subsidies, they will allow you to work on their films.

This is happening down in Florida, where it’s being portrayed as a magical happening. And it sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Go to Florida State University, pay them all the money you don’t have for tuition and then some extra for food and shelter while you’re there. Then go meld yourself into a workforce at Digital Domain, where they let you work to your little hearts content on Ender’s Game or some other project (they apparently have many). Think of the opportunity! The connections! The work experience! The projects you can put down on your CV!  The EXPOSURE you’re going to get.

This is not okay. It’s not okay at all. Now I’m going to tell you why.

1. You’re taking work from people who want to get paid.
If you’re paying to work, then you are a taking a seat from someone who would like to be working to get paid. That could be someone who has been in the industry for a decade, or someone who just graduated and is looking to pay off their student loans with their brand-new skill set.

2. You’re teaching ‘the suits’ that they aren’t required to pay you.
Business folk are business folk, it is their job to make as much profit as possible. If you remember junior high math:

Profit = Revenue – Cost

Cost is things like rent for the building, the rights to whatever content you’re producing, the software for the production, the hardware for the production, and the crew that makes all the wheels spin. That’s you. You are part of the cost, so if they can pay you nothing they will. Except now you aren’t just free, you’re counting yourselves amongst their revenue. So now the equation looks a little more like this:

Profit = Revenue + Your Tuition + Government subsidies – Cost.

The suits of the world knows how profitable it is. They’ve picked out Digital Domain Media Group as a business to keep an eye on, with their potential profit margins.

3. The education system will indoctrinate you into thinking your work is not worth any money.
In fact, it’s teaching you that you are worth negative money. You are in debt to these people for being permitted to work for them. We exist in a market where people are constantly trying to undervalue our efforts. They think because you’re doing something you love that money doesn’t matter. They don’t understand the process of the work, so it must be easy, why would they give you a living wage?

My teachers were wise, they told me never to work for free, to always get a contract (even though that won’t always save you) and many other things so that I would be prepared for when someone tried to screw me out of money I deserved. Instead, this program will teach you that you aren’t worth paying for. They won’t tell you directly, but it’ll be there, under your skin.  So when you graduate, you’ll hop on over to an unpaid intern-ship with the promise of paying work in the future, only maybe they forget to pay you ever.

4. You’re skewing the curve for the rest of us.
The one thing that could be said for this program is that I guarantee you will learn mighty fast. They can coach, lecture and tutor you all you want, but in an industry like this one they aren’t lying when they say that nothing beats hands-on experience. I learned more about ToonBoom Harmony in my first 2 weeks of work than I did the 2 years they taught it to us in school. It has nothing to do with the competence of my teachers and everything to do with the fact that if you do something every day for 8-16 hours a day and it has to be done right because it’s going to be shipped somewhere else, you’re going to pick it up quick because there’s no other choice.

So you’ll graduate with all these skills, and a studio will pick you up for a (gasp!) paying gig. You’ll be great at it, but they’ll pay you half of what you deserve because you’re a fresh graduate. You will take the job, because you’re a graduate and you like eating. As a result, maybe that studio won’t hire a graduate from another school, and their skills go un-nurtured. They go work at EB Games for 10 years. The notion of what a graduate should be able to accomplish is hiked up, so an industry already wary of investing in the fresh-faced and shiny will lean even further into their rut of hiring only people who’ve already been working for 5+ years (and you, they’ll hire you. And they’ll pay you. A bit.)

In my indignation, it’s easy to read about what’s happening and think of all the evil business men sitting around in their fancy suits. They tent their fingers and chuckle, “Oh those artists. We got them. Who’d have ever thought we could convince them to not only work for free but to give us money for it?”. Their cackles echo through their board room, and then a shapely woman in a red dress brings them a round of Scotch.

Sorry, that’s a bit dramatic. It would actually probably be easier if that’s how it worked. The more likely situation is that this happened in baby steps. I bet a lot of people firmly believe that they are helping students out by having them make up 30{f2e86ea6af82e2bb048871abf045622abf0ed27fb513932dc1ee8c05a54cbefd} of a workforce in a studio. No one individual thinks they’re doing anything wrong when someone who is eager to work is allowed to do so. Supervisors are not unlike teachers, so what’s the problem with paying tuition to learn things that I’ll have to learn eventually.

But you know it’s wrong. It’s reflected in every time someone takes an unpaid internship. Every time the people with the money ask us to make their show Disney quality for Flash prices. Every time a big-deal company runs a ‘contest’ for free spec work instead of paying an animator/graphic artist/studio team their due. It is directly reflected in the fact that the CEO of Digital Domain is walking around bragging about it like he’s the smartest man there is!

Something needs to be done. When I say ‘something’ I do not mean ‘sit around on Twitter and bitch about it’. I mean writing emails to anyone in any position of power so they know we don’t like it. I mean contacting anyone who might matter, so that any person functioning under the impression that this is a good thing gets their minds changed. I mean telling everyone about it, so that we are immunized against this kind of thinking.

There is one final way to start fixing this:

Do not enroll in this program. 

The current round of classes sits at 20 people, but they are building a new complex and are projecting attendance in the thousands. If no one goes, they will have to cease. This is easier than refusing low-paying work, because you are saving money. We cannot continue to let ourselves be taken advantage of.

Nothing speaks louder than the Almighty Dollar.

– Rebecca David
Social Media Ninja

Special thanks to VFX Solider for calling this to my attention with their article

The legality of their entire venture is also already being called into question, which TAG has addressed in their own article.

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