The Dreamworks Layoffs (2015)
It increasingly dissapoints me that animators, visual effects artists, and really anyone who works behind a computer for a living, are all getting a really raw deal as of late. Visual Effects house Rhythm and Hues had to close its doors because they were never paid their wages after working day and night on The Life of Pi. Warner Brothers’ The LEGO Movie didn’t get it’s due recognition at the Oscars this year, even after having broken new ground in digital animation techniques and creativity within the computer. And now nearly 400 animators, storyboard artists, and other craftsmen could be laid off from Dreamworks due to poor turn-outs and under-performances at the box-office.
Now you might think that this latest issue is at least understandable, but if I could be completely honest, I don’t think it is.
Dreamworks has stated that they underperformed on both Rise of the Guardians, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Turbo, and on The Penguins of Madagascar. Now truth be told, if you want to base success and failure of a Dreamworks film solely on the high numbers they received for How to Train Your Dragon 2, then yes, Penguins severely underperformed, only grossing back $75 million domestically, which is really all that they look at when it comes to making their money back: it all must come from the home country. Even if they make another $200 mil world-wide, it somehow doesn’t matter, perhaps because far less of that money actually comes back to them in the end. I really have no idea. Turbo only made $87 million back domestically, and Peabody & Sherman made back $111. But whoa, wait? $111? Isn’t that… good?
Well yes, in a normal, everyday world, it should be. The problem is, every single Dreamworks movie since Flushed Away has cost the company between $130 and $175 million to produce, with Monsters VS Aliens having been the most expensive to date, according to the available numbers.
Now it would seem to me, that since animated features almost always don’t make as much money as the live-action films do, that you would aim to spend far less money–around $100 mil or less–in the hopes that you can at least break-even every single time. The problem is that Dreamworks seems dead set on sticking to this margin of $145 million per picture, with no lee-way in sight. And so in order to cut down on their costs, their plans are apparently to cut down on the number of available staff. Which is a really strange choice to make, considering that Dreamworks intends to release a new animated film at least twice per year. Isn’t that ultimately shooting themselves in their own foot? You’re practically laying off an entire movie’s worth of staff in this business move. You could have made a sequel to Over the Hedge with that amount of artists.
When it comes to animated features–of any kind, 2D or 3D–, my question has always been “where does all the money go?” Like seriously, where does it all go? On a film set, you have to pay every single staff member on board the film, and you have to do the same for everyone on an animated film as well; and in some cases the exact same people. But on a live-action film, a large portion of the budget goes into production materials, costume materials, location permits and rental fees, surplus equipment and replacement parts if something breaks or gets beat up, and plenty of C-47s. In the world of animation, the most you’re going to get as far as materials are concerned is paper for hand-drawn storyboards, ink and paint for the traditionally oriented design artists, clay for the design sculptors, and then disposable hard-drives for those folks who might work from home and transport their work around (if security isn’t necessarily tight knit that is).
The majority of the work is done inside of computers: computers which do have to be maintained, trouble-shot, and perhaps replaced, but computers none-the-less. Those things will last at least 3 years without an enormous upgrade. And render farms are often an in-house necessity as well. So no need to literally farm it out to a completely different location or studio.
So then what ultimately costs so much when it comes to animation budgets? Well I would wager a guess that it’s the voice cast: which these days is filled to the brim with celebrities. And those celebrities are likely not asking for less money than their live-action film work, even though it’s just their voice, which means that the animation medium does not get a cheaper price then others would when hiring them on. So what’s the purpose of bringing on Celebrities?
I couldn’t honestly tell you. It’s not like anyone can tell it’s them. It’s not like anyone went to go see How to Train Your Dragon 2 because Jay Baruchel flew on a dragon, or Gerard Butler reunited with his long lost wife, and (Spoilers) died. You went to see it because Hiccup grew a closer and more intimate bond with his dragon, Toothless, and then you cried when Stoick died and was put out to sea in a boat to go to the afterlife. You went to the movie for the CHARACTERS, not for the ACTORS. They don’t even try to advertise that certain actors are in these animated films anymore. When was the last time you went to see any animated film because a celebrity was in it? Huh? Did you go see Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs because SNL comedian Bill Hader was the star, or to see Hotel Transylvania because Adam Sandler and all of his SNL friends were in it? Likely not. More reasonably I think we all went to see those films, and plenty of others because of their characters, their stories, their character design, and their animation. The voice cast was the least important thing on our minds going in. Quite often we might leave a film absolutely adoring a particular voice and wondering who it is, but even if it was an unknown actor it’d still be cool to find out who they are. But at least I personally never go to see an animated movie because of the voice cast. It never once crosses my mind.
So why are companies like Dreamworks and Pixar still casting live-action A-list and B-list actors? Maybe it makes their casting job easier in some cases, and I could sort of maybe see that. But ultimately that’s a lazy excuse, since plenty of TV shows have to cast unknowns or lesser-known Voice-actors all of the time, and they do their job with stellar results. The fact is, animation in the movies has always been dominated by known actors to some degree. But it wasn’t until Robin Williams played the Genie in Aladdin that everyone started to take notice of the star power that could be utilized. Then suddenly every animated feature had to have its star voice. Every animated feature had to be filled with known A-list and B-list actors, with professional “voice-actors” only getting to fill out the background characters.
But, if you were to simply remove all of the famous voices from the cast, and put actual “voice-actors” in there, I bet you nobody would know the difference, especially the kids; and it would likely chop off about $60-$70 million from your budget right there, wouldn’t it? Which means Dreamworks would still be able to make all of their films, they’d have a much more reasonable chance of making their money back every single time, and they wouldn’t have to lay off the people that actually know how to make their films.