6 Ways 'Sausage Party' Got Away With Screwing Its Artists
If you are reading this, you may be familiar with Sausage Party, which at the time of this writing is on its way to becoming one of the most successful talking-food movies of all time. You might have read some stuff about how raunchy or funny it is or isn't. I don't care about any of that. Whether they made a masterpiece or a turd, they apparently did it by treating their animators like trash.
This is not new or rare, as I mentioned in an article six years ago, but what is new is that we might actually get a shot at getting people to pay attention to it this time. A run-of-the-mill fluff promo interview with the directors had its comments flooded by anonymous animators that worked on the film, complaining about unpaid overtime, threats, and being cut from the credits. While news outlets have contacted and verified some of these people as genuine ex-employees, every single one was too scared to give out their names, because blacklisting is a real thing in the industry.
I did not work at Nitrogen Studios (the studio in question), but I have experienced pretty similar horror stories from my time at another Vancouver CG shop (now defunct). Unlike those animators, I don't work in the industry anymore. So I will say what I saw and vouch for these people not being isolated cases of disgruntled animators. Here is my IMDb page; please spell my name correctly on the blacklist.
Actually, Mortal Wombat was my birth name. I changed it to avoid marsupial hiring discrimination.
(Note: The company called Rainmaker Entertainment today is not the same organization I worked for; that part was sold off. Also, the other studios in my history aren't part of this rant -- some of them being union shops probably has something to do with that.)
Here's what all the fuss is about:
If you've just seen the headline/image macro version of the story, it might have come across as, "Some Animators Didn't Get Credit On Sausage Party," and you might have thought, "What's the big deal?" because there's a couple of misconceptions about screen credit:
1. Lots of people get left out of the credits. If they put everyone in there, credits would be impossibly long!
Check the credits of any Pixar or DreamWorks film for all the tangentially related HR/accounting/security people included. Inclusion is default. Removing credits is a deliberate decision. Space might be an issue in big VFX movies with multiple VFX vendors (Matrix, Batman, etc.) where each VFX studio gets a certain amount of space, but an in-house animated production pretty much has only its own staff to credit.
Probably they were so consumed with laughter over how hot dogs kind of look like penises, they just forgot.
2. Credits are just a cute vanity perk to show friends/family and boost your self-esteem.
For someone in VFX/animation, credits are your resume. They prove you did what you did (like that you were really a supervisor or team lead) when you go job hunting. And you're always job hunting. Few studios offer "permanent jobs." The life of a CG artist is nomadic, wandering from job to job, from Canada to Australia to Singapore to Los Angeles, whenever your six-month or one-year or one-film contract is up. (I was put on a series of three-week contracts that they would keep renewing one to two days before expiring.) You don't want a year-long black hole on your resume (a year that might represent some of your best work) when you're trying to nail that cool new gig working on DC's dark gritty talking food blockbuster.
He'll be back in time to form the PB&JLA, no worries.
Looking through the complaints, it's not even just the disgruntled animators that were cut from the credits. Even people who left on amicable terms after fulfilling their contract talk about going to see the movie and being shocked at the end to see their names erased.
Nitrogen is very coy about their production budget, but according to the interviewer, the figure being reported is $20 million. Wide-release animated features generally cost somewhere in the $80 million to $150 million range these days, so despite Greg Tiernan (the studio head) saying the savings come from being "well organized, and you have your mind set on the goal of what you want to do, and you get the job done with a small, determined crew," it doesn't quite seem like a little corner-cutting and organization is enough to shave 75 to 87 percent off a budget.
A more likely answer is in the first sentence of the first comment:
I am not a Canadian labor law expert, so I don't want to tread too far here, but apparently many people say that it's somehow easier to avoid paying overtime to CG and tech workers in Canada than it is in the U.S. This, coupled with generous tax incentives, is probably why studios have moved a ton of production to Canada (and other countries), and the U.S. job market for CG work has shriveled up.
Sony (Hotel Transylvania, Angry Birds, Guardians Of The Galaxy) moved to Canada, Digital Domain (Deadpool, X-Men) has a branch in Canada, Illumination (Minions) is in France, and Lucasfilm and ILM are pushing as much work as they can to Singapore. Even studios still based in the U.S. routinely outsource large chunks of work to India. Every year a U.S. studio shuts down (Rhythm & Hues, right after their Life Of Pi work won an Oscar) or moves to another country.
It's hard to follow the money when they won't let you near where the money goes.
Anyway, it's pretty normal to have "exempt" status as a CG artist in Canada, which sounds misleadingly positive but means your employer is "exempt" from having to pay you overtime. You get a fixed amount per year, or for the length of your contract. And, sure, it's my fault because that's what I signed up for, but when you signed the contract expecting eight to 10 hours of work a day (as I did) and one day the VFX supervisor gets yelled at by his boss for being behind, and he turns around, yells at you, and says you're not going home tonight or any other night until you get things back on schedule, and after some begging you end up working 14 hours a day, and they don't give you any more money, or food, or even say thanks, that seems extraordinarily dickish, even if it's technically legal.
If being forced to work, while starving, on a movie starring sizzling bacon isn't torture, what is?
And being technically legal is apparently the best defense Nitrogen can put forward. Nitrogen CEO (and spouse of Greg Tiernan) Nicole Stinn can only say, "Our production adhered to all overtime laws and regulations, as well as our contractual obligations with our artists." Apparently they felt unable to claim they treated the crew well or respected them, without having it ripped to shreds. These seem like the kind of words you use when you take advantage of legal loopholes to treat people like shit. You can't claim you didn't shit on them, but at least you can claim it was legal.
Nitrogen employees complained about poor organization and management but didn't give a lot of specifics. But from the reported budget, Tiernan's comments in the interview, and the fact that the studio's previous claim to fame was the Thomas The Tank Engine TV show, you can feel pretty certain this is a guy who will begrudge every 5-cent Canadian coin he has to spend. (Canada doesn't make pennies anymore.)
Sure, they just copy-pasted one face onto each train to save money, but they did
give each unique eyebrows. That ... probably cost something.
He sounds a lot like my old bosses. People like this are very proud of how much money they save in immediate and short-term decisions, and they completely ignore any long-term or downstream or human effects. For example, my team had four people but only two computers. Math wizards among you might think the obvious solution is to buy another two computers. Not so. Clearly the correct solution is to split the team into shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. This wreaks havoc on team communication and personal lives, but what else are you going to do, pay $2,000? What are we, Paris Hilton? (Paris Hilton was big back then.)
"We already bought you ingrates couches you better not use much or you're fired -- what else do you want??"
Or take our choice of rendering software. They could have used Pixar's RenderMan, the production-tested software most strongly supported by the animation software we were using, or a new renderer that our animation software had experimental support for. Since RenderMan licenses cost about $2,000 each and the new renderer was maybe $400 or so, it was an easy decision for them. They did not ask whether one renderer could render more at a time than the other, but the answer was yes.
So we had crowds of up to 20,000 people in various scenes, and our renderer could only do 200 at a time. So we had to do a ton of renders and stitch all the pieces together, and our technical guy had to come up with a way to make sure all these pieces cast shadows on each other correctly, and it was all very stupid. We saved a few thousand dollars up front, but it was all worth it to spend multiple times more later fixing the problems.
Then again, much of the resources spent to fix the problem were just employee overtime hours, which are actually free, so I'm sorry, these people are geniuses.
Although blowing deadlines left and right was probably not part of their master plan.
Threats And Blacklisting
Another Nitrogen animator talks about private threats behind closed doors:
When I mentioned above how being cut out of credits can hurt your career, you might have thought this was an unintentional side effect resulting from Nitrogen management not realizing how important credits are. But nope, career-threatening looks like a very intentional part of the plan. The plan to keep artists in line and punish those that won't cooperate.
I know this behavior pretty well. My job involved setting up simulations and then running them. When my computer was running sims on all cores, I couldn't open the program to do any work. So I would sit there and monitor the sims and surf the web.
I explained this to my boss, and he got it, because it's common sense. Several months later, however, when his bosses started coming down hard on him for delays, he called me into a room one-on-one and talked about how he was extremely disappointed with me and listed a number of my failures, including a "poor work ethic" (this is after my 14-hour days) and "refusal to take notes" (follow orders) and internet surfing. I had no idea what was going on and said I thought we talked about this months ago and that he was OK with it.
First rule of Boss Fight Club: Do not imply Boss is ever wrong.
He shifted to talking about my attitude and not respecting authority, and the only examples I could think of were when I told him something was not possible in the specialized software they hired me as an expert in, which I thought was my job. He said that he was the supervisor, and I was just a subordinate, and my only job was to do whatever he said. Soon I realized this was a demonstration. He was saying that if I gave him any trouble, this is the story he would bring to his bosses -- that I was always rebelling against every order and spent all my time on the internet -- and, of course, they'd believe him over me.
Have you ever been alone with a person who tells you they could crush you like a bug? And shows you how they could do it? And there's nothing you could do? If it's never happened to you, you have no idea what it's like. I went to the roof and cried after, but not there. Because you can't afford to show weakness.
When I eventually left, he wanted to shake my hand and say, "No hard feelings." I wanted to do something else with my hand but I shook his hand and pretended everything was OK. Because rule No. 1 in CG is you don't burn bridges. Because if you do, this wonderful art that you love to do, that you have dreamed of doing since you were a kid, that you work long hours and travel the world for, will be gone, cut off from you forever. So you shake hands and "take notes" and pretend everything is OK.
The shittiest part is: To him, everything was OK, everything was always OK, and everything will be OK forever.
I don't know why, but it seems like in these small studios, the leadership seems to think they are prison guards and the artists are prisoners who are just aching to kill and eat the leadership the first chance they get. When there's a problem, they don't spend a lot of time trying the carrot before going right to the stick, because artists only understand force, you see.
On our production, the "in-group" liked to gather in an office behind closed doors and gossip about how shitty the artists were (this kind of thing leaks eventually). They really seemed to enjoy imagining all the artists were against them (which became true eventually -- I mean, self-fulfilling prophecy) and coming up with ways to take them down a peg.
It seems like Nitrogen has its own in-group. One persistent commenter on the Cartoon Brew interview keeps bashing all the anonymous artists and calling them "whiners" and a "vocal minority" that everyone remaining is "laughing at":
Even if you don't know the situation, this seems like a pretty good indicator which side is the dicks'. You know this guy had a great time in that locked office talking shit.
And here's one more fascinating quote. It's in response to another commenter saying, "Nice try, Greg," and adding that Greg is not good at animation:
This is clearly not Greg (because he said so right there), but it is someone who is very concerned about defending Greg's animation abilities and knows the other commenter is jealous because he is not as good as Greg.
If it did happen to be Greg, though -- holy shit, there ain't no two sides to this story.
Whenever you write these kinds of articles, there's always this contingent of people that are like, "Oh, so I'm supposed to feel sorry for you?" with a list of reasons why your story doesn't measure up to their pity criteria. These people seem to think they're on a panel of judges on some reality show and you and other internet woe-tellers are desperately competing for their pity like some kind of grand prize, and they will magnanimously dole it out to the most deserving contestant.
"'Worked on Mr. Peabody and Sherman' should be enough to bolt me right to the Cracked semifinals!"
These people can get fucked. I don't want pity. Like I said, I'm not in the industry anymore, and my employer treats me pretty darn well. I don't think these animators are looking for pity either. I think they want their credits, but beyond that, I think we want the people running these studios to be seen for what they are. This torrent of complaints popped up in response to an article painting Nitrogen as a lean, mean, boundary-pushing studio making great art on a small budget because of their efficient, clever techniques, and their leadership as visionary pioneers.
That was probably the last straw -- this guy bullies you, makes you work extra for no pay, removes your credit, and then gets praise from reporters and the public for the work you did.
Greg didn't make that champagne bottle look like that woman's giant dick, and how dare anyone imply he did.
I don't believe in harassing or bothering any individual, no matter how bad (their families don't deserve it even if they do); I just want to make sure he doesn't get a reward for it. All I ask is that every time you see this guy in a DVD making-of feature or a PR interview talking about his creative vision or latest animation techniques, you don't think, "Those CG wizards working their movie magic!" but "Hey, it's that shithead."
Learn the brutal rigors of being an animator in 5 Dark Realities Of Animating Shows Like 'The Simpsons,' and see how often Pixar gets ripped off in The 6 Most Psychotic Ripoffs Of Famous Animated Films.
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