Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome for animators

Cartoon Brew reported on a piece in the New York Times about unpaid internships. Specifically, that they may be illegal. The piece called out Little Airplane, makers of Wonder Pets -

"At Little Airplane, a Manhattan children’s film company, an N.Y.U. student who hoped to work in animation during her unpaid internship said she was instead assigned to the facilities department and ordered to wipe the door handles each day to minimize the spread of swine flu."

In the comments in the Cartoon Brew piece, many came on anonymously not only backing it up but making out that things are far, far worse. Unpaid interns being completely mistreated, psychologically abused. Workers being treated like children. If there's any truth to the stories there, it sounds like people are expected to work in hideous and demoralising conditions. For little or no pay.

I actually hope the stories aren't true. I rather like Wonder Pets. It would be terrible to think something so pleasant comes from a place like that.

Little Airplane aren't alone. Other companies are brought up in the comments of the Brew piece, some not paying people for years. Not paying for the work they are getting. Like whole departments of slave labour.

But that wasn't the most horrifying thing of all.

No, there is something much worse buried in the comments of that Brew piece - Stockholm Syndrome for animators.

Many people are taken on as unpaid interns, put to work on productions and not compensated in any way, if any of them are like the allegations aimed at Little Airplane, they are taken advantage of.

And the victims not only accept it. They are grateful.

Grateful for being exploited.

From some Brew comments -

"As the work experience I gain allows me to be hired there or elsewhere", "don’t write off the value of the experience", "the unpaid intern spot got me a foot in the door", "couldn’t an internship just be viewed as a training session or a really long interview process?" and more.

Yes, it's hard to get your foot in the door. Harder still to make a steady living in this industry.

And, if you work for free or very little, you are part of the problem.

You are sabotaging your own craft, your own end of the industry, your peers and your co-workers both old and new. You are setting the value of your work at zero. You are setting the value of your co-worker's work at zero. Those new kids who are having a hard time getting a foot in the door, you can be damn sure you're setting the value of their work at zero.

You are part of the problem.

It's hard enough in this business. The power and the money is in all the wrong places. Most people accept the situation as normal but many of these people being exploited or working for very little are more talented than the people doing the exploiting. But those people at the top have the money and the control, creative and otherwise.


Because they won't do a damn thing for free. They don't allow themselves to become victims. And, in cases like these, you can be sure the people at the top, the slave drivers, are laughing their asses off and are getting paid damn well for it. They're getting what they want. Don't kid yourselves that they wouldn't take anyone on if they weren't getting them for free. Anyone who has had anyone hanging around for work experience knows that having a new kid around is often far more trouble than it's worth.

Which means only one thing - to retain these people for any length of time, they need the positions filled. They need the work done as part of their production. The Brew comments point to whole departments in some places being filled with interns.

The people at the top get what they want and make damn sure they are paid for it.

Creative talent, on the other hand, can be discarded and moved aside with no problem because the creative people will work for free, will work for almost nothing. They are willing victims.

And that's why it's so god damned hard to get your foot in the door.

Don't accept that.

Don't set the value of your work at zero. Stop making it harder for every single other person in your end of the business. Stop being part of the problem. Stop accepting the exploitation.

Stop working for free.

And please, stop being grateful to your captors. It's not right when it comes from a sex slave who has been kept in a box for years and it's not right from creative talent.


Andy Latham said...

Wow, a damn fine post here Bitter. I'm extremely lucky that I got a decently paid animation job, but I would probably have been willing to work for nothing when I first started. I'm glad I didn't!

Red Pill Junkie said...

Yes, the Bitt(ch) is back!! ;)

Nice post. And I can completely relate.

"In the comments in the Cartoon Brew piece, many came on anonymously not only backing it up but making out that things are far, far worse. Unpaid interns being completely mistreated, psychologically abused. Workers being treated like children. If there's any truth to the stories there, it sounds like people are expected to work in hideous and demoralising conditions. For little or no pay."

More than 10 years ago, on one of my first jobs, I was able to land a position at one of the most important architectural firms in all of Mexico. I was ecstatic! it was like being an animator and having a job at Pixar. This was going to be my ticket, baby!

Then... things began to get sour. I slowly understood that what was required of me was to be a mindless drone. At one meeting they made it pretty clear to me that they already had the positions of 'dreamers' filled (by the head of the firm and his son), and that our job was to bring those dreams to completion. Like I said, I was a drone inside a beehive.

Not only that, but I also heard many stories detailing the abusive character of the boss. He was very fond of yelling to his employees, often times causing them to break down in tears for the simplest mistakes; the employees were also expected to stay up 2-3 hours after the 'official' closing time, in order to finish the projects.

The pay? you don't want to know.

And to make things even worse, many times I was asked to do menial things like working at the copy machine. This apparently was one of the things that got me axed: they explained to me that when I was sent to do this chores, I was showing a clear dissatisfaction —yeah, like I should be static that all those years in college were finally put to good use making copies!

It's like we're supposed to accept the fact that the world will always tax us more for the privilege of doing creative things. And I can't stand it anymore; I'm tired of it. At 36 years of age I'm fucking exhausted of paying.

And yet I'm fully aware that I'm part of the problem.

Unknown said...

I've got a question.
Does anyone believe that there is a time and place (age and education level) for an unpaid intern?

I'm a high school teacher and one of my students is working as an unpaid intern at a local production shop. I whole-heartedly believe in the view expressed here, but I'm wondering if it's a system that has become abused by those people at the top, because I wouldn't expect a high school kid to be compensated just to be trained. His time there will literally be all learning and when he graduates this spring, he's gonna be going off to college to learn some more (and pay for that training).

Am I part of the problem sending this kid to go "work" for free for a couple months?

Red Pill Junkie said...

Well Kevin, maybe it would be best is inpaid interns would be relegated to NGOs or something like that.

Here in Mexico we have something called 'social service'. Basically, by your final year in college you're obligated to work for a minimum of 6 months at some NGO or other social organization which has a deal with the school, in order to get the necessary credits for a diploma. It would be the equivalent of an internship.

Bitter Animator said...

Kevin, that's a difficult question to answer. I think there is a difference with school children, with their age and more about their level of skill.

Many of those being taken advantage of in the animation internships are well-trained and would be capable of taking an entry-level position with training to quickly become a valuable member of staff.

From the stories, it seems many of them become part of the main animation production process.

That is difficult, if not impossible, for a child coming out of school who is untrained and, let's face it, just a kid with a lot of growing up to do. As I mentioned in my little rant, taking on new people is often more trouble that it's worth. Definitely so in the case of most school children.

With that in mind, often those who take in school children are actually providing a service for them. Are giving them a real idea of what it's like out there in the workplace. That has value. In ways, kids need to see it to at least have some idea of what to expect.

So, no, I don't think you're wrong to send children out into that at all.

It's hard to know where to draw the line. Do they need a couple of months of it? Would they get it in a shorter time? The big thing, as you mention, is if it becomes abused by the people at the top. Nobody, children or otherwise, should be treated poorly no matter what level they are at. There should be no demeaning tasks that simply exist to demoralise the child (and that does happen, I don't know why).

And, if it turns out they actually add value, if their work there contributes positively, yeah, I think they should be paid.

susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
susan said...

I had a long post but took it down, I am sorry Bitter. But it comes down to this. I've been an intern and I've been thrilled to have an intern or two.

It boils down to that old song by Aretha Franklin. RESPECT. I treated my interns with respect, even treated them to lunches and what not, and never made them feel like the work I was giving them was baby sitting busy work, or treated them like children. In return I got respect and they loved working for me and wanted to please me.

I got treated like the dirt on the bottom of your shoe when I was an intern. (Plus I got sexist comments made, but that is a different topic).. I would come home often in tears crying on my mom and/or dad, which is probably why I stayed so long in uni and got so many degrees so I wouldn't have to work in the real world, which scared me.

Treat people with respect and the way you want to be treated, or the way you would want your sister, brother, boyfriend/girlfriend or child treated. It's that easy. And in return, you will have someone who will go to the wall with you and you've just mentored and touched someone for life.

Red Pill Junkie said...

Well, re. susan's comment, it has been proven statistically that the more insecure an employer is about his own skills and experience, the more he will rely on abuse to treat those that are below him.

And, IMO, the scarcer the privileged positions in an industry/company, the more threatened seniors will feel about newcomers.

Maybe it has a deep evolutionary explanation. Every tribe needs to have what we call rituals of passage: a period of hardship which you must endure in order to become 'one of the pack'. Either you go and kill a couple of members from the enemy village across the river, or you put up with having to go out and buy the manager's mocchachino.

I remember a movie by Kevin Spacey, 'Swimming with Sharks', which illustrates this adequately.

Anonymous said...

RPJ - I'm glad somebody else has seen that movie. I have always been annoyed that people LOVED The Devil Wears Prada and they haven't even SEEN Swimming...

Bitter Animator said...

I haven't seen Swimming With Sharks. I'll check it out.

Yes, the more threatened someone in a position of authority feels, the more of a bully they seem to become. And, of course, so often it completely backfires - I'm sure most of us had the odd crazy teacher in school who had absolutely no control and the more they shouted the funnier it got.

At my age, I've even seen that to some degree in the workplace (not recently, thankfully) and it's no less funny. But when I was younger, intern-age, I imagine it would have had quite an effect, especially if I was the one on the receiving end of such treatment.