What the questionable treatment of the 'Sausage Party' animators says about the industry at large

A controversy over a hit film about a hot dog has brought to light an issue plaguing the booming animation industry — the treatment of its workers.

Some artists who worked on “Sausage Party,” a computer-animated comedy produced by Annapurna Pictures and released by Sony Pictures, have alleged that they were denied overtime pay, pushed to hit unrealistic production goals and stripped of their credits for complaining about work conditions at Vancouver, Canada-based Nitrogen Studios in order to meet the movie’s thrifty $19-million budget.

The complaints, which first emerged in the comments section of the animation blog Cartoon Brew, have dampened what would have been a celebratory week at Nitrogen. The small, 13-year-old studio just saw its first feature film become a surprise box office success, grossing $41.4 million worldwide to date, and recently went into production on the Guillermo del Toro show “Trollhunters” for Netflix and Dreamworks Animation.

Nitrogen is one of several studios that have benefited from the trend of Hollywood productions outsourcing animation or visual-effects work to countries with either cheaper labor forces, favorable tax incentives or both, such as Canada, the U.K., France, India and South Korea. Just as animation is becoming an increasingly lucrative medium — driving four of the 10 highest-grossing movies at the box office so far this year — animators say their working conditions are worsening.

“You have young crews working long hours for minimal pay because they just want to be in the industry,” said Steve Hulett, who sits on the board of the Animation Guild. “You have lowball bids, tax subsidies and enormous pressure to bring things in on deadline and as inexpensively as possible.”

The problems mirror those in the visual-effects industry, which has a heavy overlap with CG animation and which has seen several L.A.-based companies leave or file for bankruptcy.

In the case of “Sausage Party,” a group of animators signed a letter demanding better treatment and paid overtime in December, which Annapurna ultimately paid.

Nitrogen Studios Chief Executive Nicole Stinn disputed the workers’ complaints.

“These claims are without merit,” Stinn said in a statement. “Our production adhered to all overtime laws and regulations, as well as our contractual obligations with our artists.”

One issue that has rankled many on the film is the withholding of credits, a career boost which often helps make long hours and low pay palatable. One “Sausage Party” artist who did not want to be identified because of fears of professional repercussions said he was surprised to be omitted from the final film credits.

“I'm not sure why I missed out,” he said. “In this industry ... companies are not obligated to give film credit. However hardly any company ever exercises that.”

Others who worked on “Sausage Party” said though the production was challenging, the group expressing frustration represents only a small part of the crew.

“Some of these artists who were complaining were only here a short while, they didn’t perform well and then they left at the height of production,” said Laura Brousseau, head of lighting at Nitrogen. “Some met their [production] quotas and some didn’t. And some people took [performance reviews] as a threat to their job.”

Production on “Sausage Party” coincided with Sony Pictures Imageworks moving from California to Vancouver to take advantage of generous tax credits provided by the Canadian government, and some “Sausage Party” animators left at the height of production to work there, which angered some who stayed at the studio.

“A big, shiny studio rolled into town just as animation for ‘Sausage Party‘ was gearing up, and offered more money,” said Ellery Van Dooyeweert, an editor on the film. “They left their friends and teammates behind scrambling to keep the project together. Most animators left believing ‘Sausage Party’ would never finish, and would be a garbage flick. Now that it's the talk of the town, they are wondering where their credit went.”

One L.A.-based animator who has worked on projects for Nickelodeon and DreamWorks Animation but did not want to be identified because of fear of professional repercussions said the controversy over “Sausage Party” hit home for him.

Outsourcing, he said, has weakened the union in L.A. and made the animators who are still here increasingly timid.

“Artists feel like if we stand up for ourselves, the jobs will go elsewhere,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older and settled down, I have more to lose. There’s just not a lot of other options.”

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter for more movie news: @thatrebecca

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