Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Hollywood Club

(Storyboard frames from Prince Caspian, by Mike Vosburg.)
Life as a freelancer is always precarious. I was offered a job last week working on the proposed remake of the James Thurber classic,  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty .  In this slow economy, this was major excitement. However, once I talked with the coordinator, I was told politely that they couldn't  hire me because I wasn't a member of the Local 800, the Hollywood live action storyboard union. Despite my resume and list of credits, I've had this same situation happen a number of times over the years. It's always a source of frustration.

Unions are essential for an educated, talented  and utile labor pool. I was in college when I started my first real job in the summer of 1966 ; I worked at Yellow Truck and Coach in Pontiac, Michigan, making busses.I became a member of the union. When I started teaching school, I became a member of the teacher's union. When I started my comicbook career, there was no union, and despite the attempts of many of the older artists to establish a guild, nothing really came of that venture. I saw firsthand how difficult it was to negotiate with a company on a solo basis. When I moved to LA in l985, I started working in animation and I joined the union and I am still a member.

 (Storyboard frames by Trevor Goring for National Treasure.)

But a few years later when I wanted to move into live action films, I tried to join their union and was told I couldn't join. You had to have a job to get in the union; to get a job you had to be in the union. (You figure out the logic.) If you are a qualified person looking for work you will always be welcomed by a true union, because they understand implicitly that there is strength in numbers and solidarity.

(Storyboard frames from Skycaptain by Anson Jew.)

If you are a qualified worker seeking employment, you are eligible to join the union. The problem that we have with the live action storyboard "union" is that its leadership has chosen not to represent  a large section of its constituency. In the movie Norma Rae Ron Leibman plays a union organizer in the south who runs into resistance from a group of white workers who don't want blacks in the union; his answer was simple and elegant:"Anytime you have a union that excludes a section of the work force, you don't have a union, you have a club."
(Frames by Tom Nelson)

If admission to the "club" was based on a qualified entry process that might be more acceptable.But there is no portfolio review or even apprenticeship in the process. If artists were being  excluded because of race, sex, or age there are fair hiring laws to protect us. Myself and others aren't being blacklisted, as many creative people were in Hollywood in the 50's, we are simply being "non-listed".  The "club" process is supremely arbitrary. If you're in,you're in, if you're not, you're not.

(Storyboard frames by Aaron Sowd.)

The great irony of course, is that virtually the only way you can get in the union these days is by becoming a "scab" and taking a non-union job. The hope is that the project will go union, and you will be "grandfathered" in. The union and their membership always caution us not to take those jobs, since we are hurting their bargaining position whenever we do so. But if you don't take those jobs, you will certainly never be admitted to the union. It is a "catch 22."

(Storyboard frames by Josh Sheppard.)

I used to think I was the only board artist in Hollywood with this problem. Unfortunately, what I have discovered as I have talked to more and more people  in my field, is that there are just as many, if not more, storyboard artists who have both the ability and the experience to do the job but are excluded, as there members of the storyboard "club." And now the Local 800 is currently expanding, seeking to unionize the Previz sector of the industry. But while new workers are being sought out for the "club" those of us who have long sought membership as  qualified board artists are still being excluded and denied representation.

Imagine that you wanted to make a film and cast a John Hamm, Robert Deniro or Mila Kunis, but were told you couldn't use those people because they weren't in SAG, and couldn't join. What happens is that you are creating a product without having access to the all of the best people who are available. For management and the studios the negative side is that there are excellent people available for jobs that you can't use. The positive side for these groups is that in fact you have a large low income labor pool constantly available. And for the Local 800 that means you've lost a lot of clout as you  negotiate from a weakened position.

(Storyboard frame and concept design by Jerry Bingham.)

The job that we do is very competitive. When I was teenager working on my comicbook fanzines with dreams of working as a cartoonist, my competition was perhaps 500 other kids across the country who had the same dream. Now there are at least 500,000 young artists across the world who all want to do this work...and the number of new jobs have not expanded in proportion to the labor pool. The only way you can stay competitive is to continually improve on your abilities and to market yourself efficiently. Now you have the added difficulty of being excluded from the prime jobs.

If you are one of the few in the "club", you can shrug your shoulders and smugly feel secure that you will have job security. But that certainly isn't what a union is about. The Animation Guild has never excluded members, and Local 800 members are always welcome to join if they want to work on an animated film. But when members of the Guild try to apply for union jobs, they are turned away. It is not a matter of us trying to steal  your jobs. The only thing that will protect your job in the long run is your skill level, not a discriminatory practice against those with similar skills.

(More Prince Caspian boards by myself.)

I don't expect this entry to suddenly change the union issue in Hollywood. There are complexities that I am certainly not privy to and don't understand. However, I do implicitly understand from reading history just how ineffective a union stays when it restricts membership, and refuses to represent its constituency. This is particularly distressing when you become aware of how small the number of unionized live action board artists is compared to the actual labor pool.

I'm reminded of Ben Franklin's quip as he signed the Declaration of Independence:"Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or we will certainly all hang separately."

(In all of the artwork I've posted I've avoided specifying which artists are union, and which are non-union since I think the latter title belittles our abilities. Maybe you can figure out why the Local 800 refuses to represent some of these artists.)

(Frames that I did for an independent film called Beheading Buddha.)


  1. Thanks for bringing this post to my attention. There's a discussion regarding the 800 Roster taking place in the comments of one of Steve Hulett's posts.

    I can say that when the subject rear's its ugly head, Steve draws sword and does what he can for the TAG artist. Most of the time, there's not a lot he can do.

    Steve Kaplan
    The Animation Guild

  2. The current system for getting into 800 relies a little too much on chance. A portfolio review and apprenticeship program might serve the union better, and also be a more proactive way of maintaining high standards of craftsmanship within it's membership.

    Anson Jew

  3. While there are many (and I emphasize many) excellent illustrators/board artists in the union, the current system only helps keep the quality low.

    Reasoning: if the only way to get into the union is to be on a non-union film that goes union while in production, many of those "non-union" films start off with little to no actual art budget. Just enough to pay for an art director, set/costume designer, the basics. Usually no story board allowance. You won't see many special effects shots, heavy stunts or car crashes on a zero-budget film.

    The only illustrators who can afford to work on "low/no-budget" films (sans paycheck) are young illustrators right out of school with no experience looking to work on any film just to have it on their resume. When these films "go union" the artists grandfathered into the union are, consequently, not of the highest caliber. These artists have good reason to fear adding competition to the union ranks.

    Again, while there are many excellent union illustrators who have indeed gotten in by virtue of their ability and landing on the right film at the right time, there are just as many or more experienced illustrators who can't get in by virtue of the fact that they have to make a decent LA-style living. They cannot afford to work for pittance.

    My opinion (and you're welcome to it).

    Jerry Bingham
    Professional (non-union) illustrator for over thirty years.

  4. (PART 2...)
    Here is the link to Contract Services,

    the organization that you bring your TV spot days to, in order to get on (first) the TCR-- Television Commercial Roster), then the IER (Industry Experience Roster), which leads to entry into ADG 800. This is a difficult process, but it is possible. There are a few artists that got in this way ( I did, before they even knew what I was trying to do or had this decent webpage explaining the process).

    The other way, much simpler, is to work (on payroll) for 30 work days on a film that later turns union. Far more storyboard artists have gotten in this way, but I think you only have one year to complete the process. I don't actually know exactly how it works, but most newer union board artists I meet seem to get in this way. You can look on IATSE 800's contact page to e-mail them specific questions.

    I was kept out of working in film for years by this unfair system, but I didn't just win some lottery to get into the union. I followed through on every step as I learned about it. It was frankly an ugly and stressful process. I was yelled at by the producers, and or OWNERS at 3 of my 4 main clients. They basically said they wouldn't hire me anymore if I asked to be put on a union timecard. The union timecard means that they have to pay something like $50 extra bucks per day into your PH&W (Pension, Health & Welfare) account. THAT is the only process whereby your day counts toward the TCR, or IER.

    At one point I lost something like 60 work days, in order to keep that client. That was a 2 year setback, but I kept trying.

    So I know how unfair and godless it is that talented, capable artists are kept in some kind of 2nd class citizen status. Look at my drawing of the toilet brush above. That is a toilet brush that I drew many times over, doing shooting boards for years on TV commercials! I'm being funny of course, but I really was stuck for years, unable to get hired on film jobs often where a favorite director had graduated from music videos and TV spots, but instead of continuing our great collaboration, they had to hire a stranger off the union list. I suppose it worked out fine for them. And I got to go back to more practice drawing shiny bathrooms, tennis shoes, grocery store aisles, beer cans, sedans, cat food in crystal goblets, etc.

    I'm not bitter, but I understand where you guys are coming from, and I think you should keep in contact with the union, and all of us artists, and keep the discussion going.
    BTW, what a great random sampling of frames you put together Mike. Humbling indeed, especially those first watercolors! Man, you've earned your place in the Hollywood Club. I'm just sorry they're still keeping you out...
    -Josh Sheppard

  5. (PART1...)
    Hey Mike- Well put indeed.
    FYI my comment here is a shorter version of a comment I wrote on Anson's blog.
    There was an angry, anonymous comment there, that I thought was unnecessarily divisive, so I had to write a longer comment than here. That is one reason why I have so much respect for guys like Mike Vosburg, and Anson Jew. They are talented, experienced (!), available, and yet are not allowed to work on live action films, because they have so far, not been able to get into the union. And yet they are always 100% professional and friendly in all their interactions, conversations, webposts, etc, regarding this very difficult situation.

    Click here:
    to see that full response...

    Bingham makes a really good point. I think there is some truth to the system inadvertently allowing less experienced artists in. What a mess. Anson is right that there should be some system of tests, or probation, or apprenticeship / sponsoring that would allow people to get in. It makes me wonder how other unions with tests, or standards have handled this? You must have to pass a standardized test to be a union electrician, right?
    (See above for PART 2... oops...)

  6. Just one comment I'd like to add regarding Mike's post. Working non-union doesn't make you a "scab" -- crossing a picket line makes you a "scab". It's a pretty inflammatory word, and a lot of discretion should be applied when using it.

  7. My apologies on this. I checked in the dictionary before I used the word, and their definition was one who takes a job that isn't sanctioned by the union.So it is semantics, but nonetheless, inflammatory semantics.

  8. Mike:

    I just thought I'd mention it because there are the occasional non-union jobs that meet or exceed union standards. No shame in taking jobs like that as far as I'm concerned.

  9. The reality is that if they are the only jobs available, non-union jobs are what we have to do. My point is that by refusing to represent qualified artists, the Local 800 is forcing us in a position that we have to take those jobs.

  10. Yes, a good point has been made that by being so exclusionary, they have played a part in creating the "take whatever you can get" labor force that hurts the profession at large.

  11. Also, I think for any days to count, you have to be paid at least $465 per day, or $2100 a week (guild minimums).

  12. I've done the dance. I counted hours then days. Worked on more major motion pictures than I can count, kept track, and after accumulating the time went to the union and was told no, I was third party signatory. Then I get hired and the film goes union while in production and I put in four weeks and was told no, they don't count weekends. Time and again, the dance.

    After 20 long years of picking up scraps and scat that the unions feel beneath them, after all the early and middle years of being hungry and barely able to feed my family, nearly forced out of my home because of the despotic practices of the bully "Committee," I consider "scab" a badge of honor. I take any job offered and I help my friends and don't mind screwing those who try to hurt me. I'll cross a picket line and dare anyone to stop me. —But Mike is a much gentler man than I. Bless him for it.