ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
For at least forty years, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) have been talking about and even voting on a merger. It finally happened and, although this will not have an immediate impact on animators, I imagine it will in time. SAG and AFTRA are the two largest performers unions, and this marriage creates a new 800-pound gorilla in the entertainment industry labor market.
– Brody (Roy Scheider), Jaws, 1975
Let’s be candid. There is only a handful of animation training programs in the entire world that consistently graduate professional-caliber new animators. Not that there is any shortage of schools asserting that they do. Their ads claim that training in the school can lead to a “high-paying job in the exciting computer animation industry”. There has long been a cottage industry built on hawking hopes and dreams to rudderless young people and, generally, the animation industry doesn’t pay much attention because there is already an overabundance of legitimately qualified animators. Well, a new business model for animation schools has arrived, and it has me worried.
Welcome to the Digital Domain Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, the latest spawn of the Digital Domain Media Group that is, in turn, an offshoot of Digital Domain Productions, the celebrated VFX studio. The school is affiliated with Florida State University, but it does not appear that the University is setting the caliber of training at DDI. The Institute is representing itself to be an integral part of the animation industry due to its connection with Digital Domain Productions and, therefore, is inherently of the highest academic standard. According to John Textor, CEO of Digital Domain Media Group, “Students dual-enroll in an accredited BFA program at Florida State University and a diploma program at the Digital Domain Institute. In their third and fourth years they have the opportunity to intern on real projects in a real studio in exchange for college credits.” The studio he is referring to is 3-year old Tradition Studios, 40 miles north of the school. Tradition Studios is also owned and operated by – wait for it – the Digital Domain Media Group. In other words, Mr. Textor’s school is going to train animators to work for Mr. Textor’s animation studio. It gets worse. Mr. Textor was caught on tape last November boasting to a group of investors: “30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, its going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.”
Animators currently on the Digital Domain payroll in California and the new Florida studio were understandably alarmed by this business plan, as was the Visual Effects Society. A media dust-up ensued, during which Mr. Textor said mea culpa. He modified his earlier comments in an open letter to his employees: “I wish I could take that back, but I can’t. I can just apologize to you for it, and assure you that I know interns can never take the place of skilled artists and production professionals.” And that is basically where things stand at the moment. VES and the animators at Digital Domain will work things out with Mr. Textor somehow, but as long as students are paying tuition at his school to work for free at his studio, we have a stinky situation. John Textor has officially tethered an animation studio to a for-profit school, and I worry that he may have pioneered a movement.
The customary modus operandi of for-profit animation schools is to promise only pie-in-the-sky rewards, nothing really concrete. Digital Domain Institute is going to have a competitive advantage, and sooner or later the other schools will try to copy him. What if the owners of animation studios approached for school affiliations view it as easy extra income with zero extra expense? The school owners will not expect a studio to actually do anything except make room for some un-paid interns and allow the studio name to be used in the school’s advertising.
Before dismissing my musings as too cynical, take a look at the website for Digital Domain Institute. In case a prospective student has been living under a rock for the past few years and does not recognize the Digital Domain name, the home page header explains it: “80 Movies, 7 Academy Awards, 1 New School!” The part that is omitted in between “7 Academy Awards” and “1 New School” is the fact that John Textor and his investment group bought the company. This is Mr. Textor’s new school, not a school conceived by Digital Domain’s original founders - James Cameron, Scott Ross and Stan Winston. The actual connection between Digital Domain Productions and Digital Domain Institute is more implied than real. The Digital Domain name is being used to sell a school.
Pixar’s endorsement is also implied in that same header, by a promotional still from Cars II. Lightning McQueen and his trusty sidekick, Mater, are right there on the Digital Domain Institute website, grinning from headlight to headlight. Pictures speak louder than words. The small print caption under Pixar image explains that DDI students will “Learn from the Creatives behind Cars 2”. (I looked it up. “Creative” is an adjective and does not have a plural.) In this case, it appears that the “creatives” is Brad Lewis, co-director of Cars II, along with John Lasseter. How, you may be curious, did Brad Lewis get involved? Well, Mr. Lewis quit Pixar when offered an opportunity to develop and direct his very own movie for – drum roll, wait for it again – Tradition Studios. If he knew he was going to be a "Filmmaker in Residence" at Digital Domain Institute, he has not mentioned it in any interviews I have found. He thinks he is making movies, yet there is his smiling face on the school's website. And he brings with him an implied stamp of approval from Pixar.
This situation makes me sad because I think it devalues the artistry in animation. A school cannot teach talent, it can only encourage it. The schools that turn out industry-level graduates enroll only exceptionally talented students in the first place. The vast majority of applicants are turned away. Digital Domain Institute, on the other hand, recently hosted its first open-to-the-public spring fair ”to get students interested in joining the new program…” (WPTV Channel Five News, April 14th)
I lack sufficient space in this column to provide you with a detailed step-by-step account of how John Textor made this happen, but if you follow the links below, it’s all there. Actually, this story has a plot line that is deserving of its own movie. It would feature guest appearances by director Michael Bay, Florida Governor Charlie Cris, the Visual Effects Society, the mayor of Port St. Lucie, Florida, Galloping Horse Film Company in Beijing and deceased rapper Tupac Shakur.
This is how it all began.
Cartoon Brew’s Digital Domain Coverage: Excellent!
A useful perspective from VFX artist Scott Squires.
John Textor one-on-one interview, FXPodcast, April 11, 2012
John Textor talks about his personal history at TexXThePineSchool, January 2012
Digital Domain Media Group publicly traded stock.
Until next month ...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
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