There's No Money in Animation

There’s no money in animation. You might as well know that from the start. While it’s true a handful of our colleagues have made a few bucks over the years, I assure you they’re the exception, not the rule. This is not a complaint, however. Making money in the cartoon business was never a goal I eagerly sought. As a matter of fact when my compensation was being discussed at the Walt Disney Studios back in 1956, I barely heard a word spoken. As personnel director, Bob Millard detailed my salary and monthly increases, my mind was already wandering. I could honestly think of nothing else than the fact I had just been hired by the Walt Disney Studios and it was the best day of my life.

Of course, the pay was meager, and most artists had to tighten their belts in order to get by. Artist, Elizabeth Case was getting child support and my pal, Dave Michener had to keep his part time job at a filling station in order to pay the bills. That’s the way it was in the old days. No normal person wanted a job in the cartoon business because you couldn’t live on the (dare I say it) Laughable salary. No, we were in the animation business because it was simply something we had to do. It was our love, our passion and for a good many of us, a life long career. Back in the fifties, no one could ever conceive of animation paying a decent salary. A good number of our early Disney class bailed out to take better paying jobs in other industries. Remaining in the cartoon business appeared foolish and it was little wonder many considered what we did for a living little more than a silly hobby. For those of us who hung in there, we began to see our salaries increase over time. By the early sixties I felt I was making a pretty decent living and was quite happy with my job. One day, I accidentally spotted a directing animator’s payroll check on his desk and I couldn’t resist having a quick peek. The amount of money on the check wouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eye today, however, the thousand dollar weekly check caused me to audibly, gasp! How could anybody earn that much money, I wondered? And, what in the world would you do with all that cash? Remember, this was the early sixties and a paycheck that large was viewed as a king’s ransom. In time, I realized the paychecks amounted to very little. It was the Disney stock options that made some of Walt’s chosen few, very rich men. 

Unfortunately, I never had any smarts concerning money or investments. My pal, Jim Fletcher took his meager paycheck and loaded up on Disney stock. I remember fellow artists laughing at Fletcher and the money he spent. However, the laugh would be on us. This was the nineteen fifties. I’m sure you can imagine what his stock would be worth today. Eventually, I moved upstairs to Walt Disney’s coveted story department to work on The Jungle Book. However, no salary increase came with this promotion. My boss, Andy Engman said that working with the Old Man would be worth more than the money. Of course, Andy was correct. It would be difficult to put a price on the opportunity given anyone to actually work with Walt Disney. However, deep down inside, I knew that the studio was still being tight with a dollar.

Decades passed, and one day I realized that Walt Disney Studios finally had a “million dollar animator.” There was no envy here. Rather, it was a cause for celebration. It would appear that the cartoon business had finally made its way out of the “animation ghetto” and had become a viable medium like the rest of Hollywood motion pictures. Soon, there would be other top animators earning salaries we could only have dreamed of back in the fifties. And, before long, the salaries of all in the animation industry began to rise. Truly, we had entered a Second Golden Age of Animation, only this time around, the creative staff would share in the bounty. The artificial affluence was short lived because the cartoon business was about to change. The arrival of CGI and the digital production pipeline changed the way animation was produced. However, it also changed the business model as well. No longer were animators unique, highly sought after professionals. There was no longer a need to employ a supervising animator with decades of experience when a recent graduate from Cal Arts could do the same job. Before long, the animation boom was over and the Second Golden Age had ground to a halt.

As I said, there’s no money in animation. Back in the fifties, many of us dreamed of the day we would enjoy a big payday. Unfortunately, that day never came. A few of our colleagues did okay as long as they saved and invested well. They, however, were the exception. I confess my heart goes out to the many retired animation artists I’ve encountered who were just getting by. Their work had made millions for the studios that once employed them. Yet, the artists would never see a dime of the considerable profits their art helped to generate. However, this is a story you already know. Finally, I can honestly say I don’t regret a day I’ve spent in this amazing business. It’s been fun, inspirational and creatively fulfilling. It’s just too damn bad there’s no money in it.

Of course there's money in animation. These executives are doing great.

Of course there's money in animation. These executives are doing great.