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When you work in animation, there’s just no avoiding those Pink Slip Blues

When you work in animation, there’s just no avoiding those Pink Slip Blues

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It was late summer 1958 and things had been going well. The mad rush to wrap the animated feature film, “Sleeping Beauty” was finally succeeding, and the film was well on its way to completion. Taking a break from the drawing board, I headed up to the second floor of the Animation Building to have a look around. As I checked out the cool layouts pinned to the storyboards, Ray Aragon, Vic Haboush and a few of the Disney veterans were engaged in a conversation.

“What are you going to do after the layoff?” inquired one of the artists seated in a Kem Weber lounge chair. Suddenly, a dozen questions went through my mind, but I was reluctant to speak up in this group of veteran Disney artists. I was already regarded as one of the “young kids,” and I didn’t want to appear even dumber than I was. I left the room and headed back downstairs to get some answers. I had been employed at Walt Disney Studios for over two years and this was the first time I had even heard the word, “layoff.” I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I had a feeling it wasn’t good.

Freddy Hellmich was our boss. He was leader of our crew as well as my Disney mentor. Freddy explained to all us kids gathered in his office that layoffs were a regular thing at Disney. Animation crews ramp up when a film is in production and conversely they’re downsized once the movie is completed. That means a number of artists can expect the dreaded “pink slip” as the film winds down. Those lucky enough to make the cut will continue working on whatever is in the production pipeline. However, the vast majority of the crew will have to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

It was as though a bucket of cold water had been splashed in my face. After nearly two years of basking in the warm glow of pixie dust, I was confronted with the cold, hard reality of the animation business. In my naiveté, I assumed that -- once scoring a job at the Mouse House -- I would be employed until I decided to leave. Life had become a little more difficult, and I seriously wondered about length of my animation shelf life.

Young animation artists work on a Disney animated feature
These young animation artists could pretty much expect a pink slip once production
wrapped on a Disney animated feature. Most were wise enough to save their money.

My fears were unwarranted. As this feature film wrapped, and the layoffs began, another job offer came my way. It was a government job, and the United States government insisted I take it. The letter even began with the word, “Greetings.” All of a sudden employment was no longer an issue as I began my stint in the military.

The years quickly passed and before I knew it I was back at the Disney studio helping the crew complete the newest animated feature, “101 Dalmatians.” Naturally, once the movie was finished there was another round of cutbacks. I was left with mixed feelings concerning this particular layoff. Veteran animators such as Don Lusk, Hicks Lokey, Bill Keil and Amby Paliwoda were shown the door while I kept my job. It was all a matter of economics, of course. The veteran animators drew a much larger paycheck, and young guys like us were much more affordable. I had managed to escape my second layoff, but what else waited in store for me?

After a series of layoffs, Disney’s animation department was finally down to a workable size. Those of us lucky enough to have survived the many cutbacks counted our blessings. Oddly enough, there were some who opted to leave the studio anyway. The growing medium of television began demanding more and more product. New studios opened their doors, and the need for animation professionals began to grow. The fledgling animation houses offered more opportunity for young animators, and a number of Disney artists handed in their resignations. If Disney wanted to downsize, the outside competitors were certainly willing to harvest the available animation talent.

Disney artist Jim Fletcher worked in Ward Kimball's unit back in 1958
Artist Jim Fletcher survived the “Sleeping Beauty” layoff by scoring a job with
Ward Kimball's unit back in 1958. Most artists were not so lucky.

By the seventies, Disney’s animation staff began showing signs of age, and a new crew of eager young kids had already arrived. Guys like Glen Keane, John Lasseter and others were beginning to push animation in a bold new direction. However, layoffs were not yet a thing of the past. Once completing your assignment, even a young artist might find him or herself the recipient of the dreaded pink slip.

Flash forward to the bountiful nineties, and the second Animation Renaissance. Films such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were raking in big bucks, and there was an incredible demand for animation. Walt Disney Feature Animation was enjoying a series of hit feature motion pictures, and an ever-increasing need for additional animation artists. It would appear that layoffs were finally a thing of the past as new projects followed completed ones. I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief knowing we would never have to face another animation layoff.

Sadly, such was not to be. Much like our experience on “Sleeping Beauty” over fifty years earlier, animation artists continue to be impacted by the economics of the business. There are no good guys or bad guys in this scenario, it’s simply the nature of the beast. Back in 1959 the Old Maestro himself had to listen to his business-minded brother who said, “downsize the animation department, or risk losing it all.”

Even with increased production, steady employment in the cartoon business remains a challenge even today. Yet, for those of us who truly love this crazy business, we’re willing to ride out the rough times should it be required. Because in the animation business the good times continue to outweigh the bad.

Disney animator on the rooftop of the Animation Building
No, he's not planning to jump off the roof of the Animation Building. Rick went on
to a new career as a talented character designer at Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears


Did you enjoy today’s cautionary tale? If so, I should probably let you that Mr. Norman currently has several books on the market that talk about many of the amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had while working in the animation industry.

Floyd’s most recent effort – “Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age” – just became available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman’s original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" – is still available for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo.

And if you still haven’t had your fill of Floyd, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.
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