Pay people enough to take money off the table

Paying animators per frame is not only a little unfair and unethical  but might be bad business. The assumption about paying animators per frame is that the frame is the most useful unit of splitting up a film. I’ve been involved with these deals, and there are times that it looks like it makes sense. There might even be some scenarios where it is the best method. But I’d like to talk about how it doesn’t work, how it undermines what we’re really trying to do: make great animation.

The problem with paying an animator by the frame is that it assumes that every frame is nearly equal. This is never the case. One section of animation might take an entire day to figure out. While a simple camera move might take only a few minutes. It’s not uncommon for a simple camera move to develop a problem and end up taking twice or three times as long, for no good reason. Paying by the footage would make sense if animation was a mechanical task. Sadly animation is not. Animation takes skill, planning, and thought. Every department in animation requires making choices and thinking.

By putting a price on footage you’d think we incentivize animators into animating faster, and taking on more footage. Dan Pink, in his talk about motivation, talks about the nature of monetary incentives and work.

“They do the test. They have these incentives here’s what they found out. One as long as the tasks involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected. The higher the pay the better their performance okay that makes sense. But, here’s what happens but once the tasks call for even rudimentary cognitive skill. A larger reward led to poorer performance now this is strange right a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

The research shows that these types of incentives only work for very menial tasks, and animation isn’t one of these. While this system looks like it intends to stretch the productivity of every single artist, it instead backfires. It creates a burnt out workforce that on top of their deadlines have to deal with the stress of whether or not they’re making a living wage in the end.

So what can be done about it? What’s the best way to pay the artists and production staff who work in animation? Again Dan Pink may have an answer to that.

“Money is a motivator at work but in a slightly strange way. If you don’t pay people enough they won’t be motivated. What’s curious about there’s another paradox here which is that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work”

Pay people enough to take money off the table. This way artists have the privilege to worry about their work rather than their rent. This is what most artists want to do. We love worrying about making good art. Studios, instead of thinking in quotas, should think in benchmarks. What is an industry standard rate for production? If a production is behind is that a sign of lazy animators, or sign the pipeline isn’t working? We can reimagine how we run animation productions.

I’ve been in the place of trying to wrestle with rates for animators. You want the most you can get for the budget you have. What we are learning about business is that efficiency isn’t enough. Creativity, and dedication pay off. The way we structure our productions often wastes the creativity of the team. Animation productions in the future might have smaller teams, but with better technology and clear communication we can still produce great animation. We can do all that while making animation better for every stakeholder, including animators and artists.

RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us


Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.