Paid Internships (The Other Kind)

I’ll add my voice to the chorus decrying Digital Domain’s ridiculous scheme of using significant amounts of student labor as unpaid work on for-profit projects. Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the Reverse Paid Internship. But hey, the students will get exposure and experience. They’ll pay for it with their money, their labor, and the future degradation of the field they are about to enter. The money quote from Digital Domain’s CEO John Trextor:

30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, it’s going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.

I’m barely a part of that field. I’m an independent animator who does small projects, a lot of personal work, and none of it is remotely related to the film world. I haven’t done a job at a studio in years. My work, my field is only tangentially related to theirs. And I do understand that it’s a competitive field with growing competition from other countries with lower salary rates and lax labor regulations. So why am I talking about this? Because it comes back to the same thing I see in my own life – clients paying you anything but money for work from which they stand to make a profit. I wrote this a few months ago, and I think it applies double to this situation:

If you’re a client, take note: offering exposure in lieu of payment is simply promising that, someday, someone will pay the artist to do what you want him or her to do now for free. If you’re a freelancer, take note: in a very real sense, this enables the client to directly profit while leaving you to fend for yourself, waiting for another client to treat you like a professional.

I don’t know what the solution to this is, to be honest. I’m not so reductive as to boil everything down to bosses vs workers. Unionize, perhaps? That may be a good way to counterbalance the powers involved. I think that unions can be, at their worst, corrupt and short-sighted as well, though I don’t know what other recourse workers in that industry have.  Maybe something else? Something has to give at some point. This business model at DD further degrades the dignity and opportunities of workers in the animation and vfx industry. Not only are these workers (and let’s be honest – these are workers in this situation, not students) saddled with tens of thousands of debt from college, they are not seeing a dime from the company for which they are toiling. That company, by the way, will be able to undercut any of their competition that don’t follow them into this flagrantly awful practice. And 30% of the labor force who might have worked for wages will be out of a job because what can be cheaper than workers who pay their bosses? And so the race to the bottom continues among those who will run it.

Some may wish to remind us that these kids are getting valuable experience and hopefully a credit on a major film. So, you know, experience and exposure. Why does that sound so familiar? Ah yes, that’s how most jobs are pitched to creatives. Only for some reason, the bigger the company perpetrating the scam, the more respectable it seems to be. But it’s just like the guy on Craigslist offering experience and exposure to work on the pilot he wants to pitch to Fox. He’s a nut who doesn’t understand the value of the work he’s requesting. Of course, to be fair, there are some major differences between the nut on Craigslist and Digital Domain. Digital Domain understands the value of the work and the guy on Craigslist isn’t asking you to pay him for the privilege.

I write about my own experience. It’s useless to try to do anything else, because even the more abstract stuff I write about is directly informed by my experience. I don’t work at a large company. I have zero interest in working on anything larger than I can get my arms around. If folks like me were to unionize it would have to be a very loose union indeed. So, assuming you’re in my position as an independent creator who does freelance work for clients to pay the bills, what can you take from this? I think it should remind us that the kind of thinking that enables crowdsourcing and exposure-as-payment is alive and well in all corners of our industry. All of it is simply a way of getting something from you for nothing, and then selling that something for profit. All of it is targeted at your desperation, a way of making it a privilege for you to work for them. And when they start boasting about it to shareholders, when large sums of money begin changing hands, it begins to take on legitimacy in the public sphere. Scam big enough and it isn’t scamming anymore. It’s funny how definitions are so often a matter of scale. These compromises, these short-sighted things artists do because they are afraid, they build up. And sooner or later someone wises up and turns it into a business model. Right now, that someone is running a business in a competitive market with 1/3 of their labor off the payrolls. That wouldn’t be possible if people refused to do it. In this way, when you say yes to degrading and unethical conditions you say yes for everyone. We are getting the industry we deserve.

What we can do is refuse. It’s as simple as that. And we can support one another as best we can, support companies that support artists, and refuse to support (much less work for) companies that do not. I can’t tell people who work for companies what to do any more than I can tell my fellow indies what to do. In some ways our experiences are very different. All of us, however, seem to be dealing with the same scam right now. And it should be a bigger deal than it is. To quote It’s A Wonderful Life:

Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains.

There’s an addendum to this post here.

For further reading:



  • 03/31/2012 at 12:51 pm // Reply

    Great post! I am in the exact same boat as you, able and willing to work on projects smaller projects that I can get my arms around, and as a tangent to the studio level business. But one thing seems to be popping out as an imperative for anyone involved in media creation – BUSINESS SKILLS.

    We, as artisans, manufacture valuable goods… goods that business people want/need to create profits. Artists must get better at defining their role and their value proposition. Simple, yet effective methods include backing up and looking at the bigger picture from a common sense business perspective:

    – What business is the client in?
    – How do they make money? How much money? How much of that is profit?
    – What impact on the above profit will my artistic content have?

    Answer these and you can set a valid price – Take it or leave it, but you will be speaking the clients language if you have identified these basic needs and have definite answers to those questions. Otherwise you are in the dark, and the client will want to pay you nothing if possible.

    Example: Client is in real estate, but they bring in $5k-$10k profit a month with 10 employees. You cannot show up asking for $10k, unless what you are providing is going bring in $20k or more in new business in 30-60 days and you have confidence in saying that. (ie. Do your homework).

    Example2: Client sells products globally – $2million a month profits – 150 employees. You MUST identify how much money they expect to make by adding your content to the mix? They probably will not tell you an accurate figure, so probe by asking how they do business and what their biggest success was/is currently. Your $2k content could be worth 10x that if you make a valid business case… and you NEED to KNOW and PROVE that they CANNOT go anywhere else to get what you are offering.

    All artists need business skills in today’s market, or they WILL FAIL.. Don’t expect a studio to take care of you… they are not much better at business than your are right now.

  • 03/31/2012 at 1:19 pm // Reply

    If you are a vfx worker and a studio gives you the call/email:

    “We are in need of , are you available?”

    This is a ridiculous and condescending question, aimed at the most desperate of candidates – YOU the “artist” (ashamed to call yourself one, because it is an open statement that invites skepticism/critique of your talents)

    The truth is, you know what you are capable of, what you have worked on, and how good you are… and you do NOT WANT to brag about it… this is the main reason us artists let others do the talking … and we ACTUALLY answer the question!!!! “Yeah, I am available” (looking at our completely open calendar)

    What we should say is:

    – “Is this for film,TV, Web?
    – “How many artists are required on this project?”
    – “Can you tell me whom I’ll be working with and who I’ll report to?” (Important to your success!)
    – “How long is the project?”
    – “How many total shots are in this show?” (Divide above with amount of days – Tell you what you are in for)
    – “How many shots would be assigned to me?” (Do the math, understand the scope)
    – “What is the name of the project?” (They will never tell you, ask anyway)
    – “How much money is budgeted per shot? (This is a big deal, and they will never answer this either, again probe!!! – It shows that you are a professional that understands that there is a budget, and that time is money.)
    – “Is there any opportunity for this project to lead to full time employment?” “Do full time employees get medical/dental benefits?”
    – “How is overtime paid?”
    – “What is the pay period/time frames?”

    The sad fact is that asking these questions is widely viewed as “being difficult”. But good talent IS actually scarce. Be a good business person, be honest about your maximum output capability, and let them know in advance that you will need to find new work towards the end of a project, not after it is over. Be confident, have integrity, and be professional and have a matter-of-fact attitude.

  • 04/03/2012 at 5:11 pm // Reply

    Bravo to you, Scott, for so eloquently explaining what many, many animation artists don’t seem to get. That 30% should be directed here PDQ.

    As a non-animation union artist I find it astonishing anyone would even work for free, let alone consider paying their employer. Unionization is most certainly your answer; with organized labor under organized attack across the country, it couldn’t be a more appropriate move.

    • 04/03/2012 at 8:13 pm // Reply

      Thanks! Maybe it is the solution. I don’t know. I really hope this whole bruhaha will push workers and managers in the direction of a constructive solution, and that we out here in our own orbits can learn a thing or two from it.

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