Thursday, July 16, 2009

Human Resources

Updated below.

There was a time when companies owned the resources they used to produce their products. A company was its factories. However, in more recent times, companies have rebelled against the idea of overhead, so they simply contract out their needs to suppliers. In the past, the onus was on the company to keep factories and workers busy or they faced the possibility of financial losses. With subcontracting, companies only pay for the work they need when they need it, and it is the subcontractor's problem to meet overhead. You could say that companies have downloaded their overheads to subcontractors.

When companies owned the means of production, they were not necessarily better behaved. The movie studios of the 1930s treated their employees so poorly that they unionized in self-defense. The concentration of production in Hollywood, with its high overhead of buildings, cameras, lights, props, costumes, etc, gave workers some degree of leverage. It was not financially viable for studios to relocate any time there was a labour problem.

Subcontracting has been a financial boon to the studios. Where they once owned everything themselves and were stuck with fixed costs, they now have several companies bidding to supply what they need and the competition forces prices down. Subcontractors have their own overheads to meet, so they cut their margins as low as possible to attract work.

Subcontracting has allowed studios to do business over a larger geographical area, which has reduced worker leverage. While it was difficult to relocate a movie studio to escape a labour problem, it is simple to redirect work to a subcontractor somewhere else.

The Los Angeles Times has an article about local suppliers who are suffering as the studios redirect work to other places in order to save money. By no longer employing these people directly, the studios feel no obligation to insure their survival. Governments outside California want to attract film and television production to their locales and Hollywood studios are only too happy to take advantage of financial incentives governments offer them. If that results in hardship for local suppliers and workers, that is not the studios' concern.

Still from Live Music

The New York Times has an article about a 5 minute cgi animated short called Live Music, produced by Mass Animation. The short was crowd sourced. Mass Animation supplied software to interested contributors, who competed to get their shots accepted for the film. Each accepted shot earned $500. The short has been picked up by Sony for release in front of their feature Planet 51 on November 20.

(You can see the trailer here. The story looks to me like a rehash of the Silly Symphony Music Land.)

17,000 people downloaded the software but only 51 people had shots accepted. The Times doesn't report how many of the 17,000 actually submitted a shot. It is impossible to know how many uncompensated hours were spent to create the film or how many minutes of footage were created to arrive at the final five.

(If only 5% of the 17,000 submitted a shot, that's 850 people. Subtracting the 51 who were accepted, that leaves 799 people who worked for free and it means that roughly 85 minutes of animation was created and 80 minutes was thrown away.)

The Times also reports that the budget for the short was $1 million. Unfortunately, the Times doesn't say how many shots are in the finished film. If we assume that the average shot length is 3 seconds, that would be 20 shots per minute or 100 shots in the film. At $500 per shot, that's a total of $50,000. That figure does not cover overhead, script, board, soundtrack, modeling, rigging, or any post-production costs, but I'm a little suspicious that animation and lighting cost only 1/20 of the budget. That suggests to me that the animators were underpaid.

Where studios once had subcontractors competing for work, they now have individuals competing. Furthermore, while a subcontractor only had to create a bid (and perhaps a sample), the individuals have to create finished shots.

I'm in favour of artistic collaboration and the idea of crowd sourcing a film over the internet is exciting. However, the long term trends disturb me. Animation production, which was already too fragmented for my tastes, is now more fragmented than ever. The 51 animators who worked on Live Music come from 17 different countries. Corporations continue to use their leverage (the fact that they have money that other people want) to externalize their costs and disperse work ever more widely. The one constant is the drive to pay as little as possible. In this case, the majority of the animation created was done for free.

I haven't seen Live Music. I have no idea how good it is or how the people who competed to work on it feel they were treated. While the internet presents unprecedented opportunity for creative collaboration, it is also the ultimate tool to divide and conquer. I worry that individuals won't have the knowledge or the strength to protect themselves from companies focused so singularly on the bottom line.

Update: A former associate of mine had a meeting with Yair Landau, the founder of Mass Animation, and was given different figures than the N.Y. Times used. Here's what he told me:
2,500 Maya downloads (vs NY Times 17,000). This was 60 day license
200 different animators (vs your 850 guesstimate)
107 shots (winners) pared down to 97 in final edit (vs your 100 guesstimate)
50 different winners (vs 51 NY Times)
Obviously the winners did an average of 2 shots each.
He said the average number of submissions per shot was about 4.
(so about 400+ submissions) Cutting ratio of 3:1
Other: animators did NOT do lighting.
Lighting, rendering, compositing and editing was all done at ReelFX who didn’t get a mention.
The above figures make the production a lot less wasteful than what the N.Y. Times implies. It also looks like typical Hollywood hyperbole is at work here in terms of the number of downloads. It's interesting that fewer than 10% of the people who downloaded software actually submitted a shot. I wonder how big a pool of downloaders would be necessary in order to do a feature?

I would also point out a comment by gregizz, who was a contributor to Live Music and who offers his thoughts on the process.

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