1) They’ll never pull it off, and 2) They shouldn’t pull it off.
Last Wednesday, the New York Times proved me wrong on the first count. Mass Animation’s five-minute short, “Live Music,” (trailer) will open for TriStar Pictures’ feature-length animated film “Planet 51” on November 20th.
But my second charge—the ethical one—is still in tact.
How’d They Do It?
Through Facebook, Mass Animation distributed the story, soundtrack and 3D assets (created by Dallas-based Reel FX) for “Live Music” and asked animators to submit scenes, which were then voted on by a jury for inclusion in the film.
Mass Animation received thousands of submissions from around the globe, but only 51 made the final cut. According to the Times, each of the animators will receive on-screen credit and $500 for their efforts.
Why Mass Animation Won’t Work
Despite the seemingly earnest intentions of its creators, “Live Music” will ultimately be remembered as a brilliantly orchestrated publicity stunt. Right now, the spotlight is shining on Mass Animation and its corporate backers—which include Intel, Dell, Autodesk and others—largely because of the novelty of the Mass Animation production model and the fact that it gives them all a reason to toss around buzzwords like “social networking,” “crowd-sourcing” and “open-source.” A second short film produced in the same way would garner much less attention.
Mass Animation, of course, understands that. And so they’ve set their sights on creating a feature-length film. Feature films, though, require much larger budgets than the paltry $1 million drummed up for “Live Music.” And with larger budgets come expectations of a concrete return on investment—not just good PR.
Feature films also demand complex story lines, nuanced character development and the ability to work and re-work scenes dozens of times over. The Mass Animation model is essentially a gigantic net thrown wide across the ocean of the web. It pulls up a dazzling array of beautiful fish, but when you need a very specific fish for a very specific purpose, you’re out of luck.
Of course, you could hire experienced animators who’ve spent years perfecting their craft, but then you’d be straying from the “democratization of animation” that Mass Animation embraces. (Apparently, traditional animation is an oppressive regime of the elite?)
The Future of Spec Work
From the perspective of the animators, this is the menace of spec work writ large. Spec work is “any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing.” (Source: No!Spec).
In the case of “Live Music,” only 51 animators made the cut with just $500 awarded to each of them. While it’s probably rewarding for them to see their name in the film’s credits, that’s hardly enough money to live on. Mass Animation doesn’t need to pay them more, though. There are thousands of other animators waiting in line to do it for the same amount—perhaps even for free.
And that hurts all animators. The fundamental problem with the widespread creation of spec work is that it undermines the economic incentives driving competition in the creative workforce. In the short term, it seems like a win-win for everyone involved. Played out to its logical conclusion, however, a spec model of feature-film creation sacrifices quality for quantity.
It also relegates animators to mere cogs in a machine. There’s no real dialogue between director and animator, there’s only a mandate for more.
One More Turn of the Screw
I find it interesting that the filmmakers decided to farm out only the animation portion of the filmmaking process. Were this truly an open, democratic approach to filmmaking, wouldn’t all aspects of the film be crowd-sourced? The script, character design, voiceover, lighting—all the hundreds of roles it takes to successfully create an animated movie—would have been created by thousands of participants, right?
No, that obviously wouldn’t have worked. That would have been Mess Animation.
To executives, though, character animation is the most mechanical part of the process, the most easily produced. After all, animation has long been outsourced to India and China. Perhaps there’s a way to do it for even cheaper.
As long as animators are willing to toss themselves into the ring for $500 a try, it would appear so. The promise of being a “Hollywood animator” is still too great for many to pass up. As one commenter on Mass Animation’s Facebook page wrote, “Awesome idea of working with independents. I hope it catches on.”
Make no mistake: These aren’t “independents” that Mass Animation is working with; these are lowest-bidders. To be sure, some are professionals with spare time on their hands, but none of them could sustain themselves on projects like these. (Mass Animation, however, is going to be just fine.)
The (Rotten?) Carrot on the Stick
One popular rebuttal to all this is that while the winning participants in “Live Music” may not have been paid much money, their involvement in this project will open up doors for them. It’s their big break, in other words.
This idea is predicated on the notion that the traditional model of production will remain the dominant form, while ventures like Mass Animation will simply function as talent scouts. If that’s true, it severely limits the “democractic” model. If all film production were crowd-sourced, there’d be no such thing as a “big break.” There’d be no reward of making it to the big time, just more $500 gigs that you may or may not win.
What Do You Think?
I don’t mean to paint Mass Animation as a bunch of bad guys. I really think they believe in what they’re doing; but I also think the basic model raises some serious issues and may do some lasting harm.
What’s your take on all this? Are you a no-spec purist? Or do you agree with Mass Animation that this is the dawning of a new age of distributed creativity?
For those attending SIGGRAPH in New Orleans, you might want to check our the Mass Animation panel. More info here.
Feeling feisty? Join the ANTI-Mass Animation Facebook Group.