The raunchy comedy "Sausage Party" scored with audiences, but it wasn't exactly a dream come true for some Vancouver-based animators who worked on it.
The R-rated movie follows a crew of talking hot dogs, bread products and other grocery store staples who are horrified to find out what human teeth are capable of. It opened last weekend to stellar reviews and hauled in $34 million.
But when the animation news site Cartoon Brew published a Q-and-A with directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, the comments section turned into an anonymous vent-fest for animators who complained about the conditions of working on the film and the fact that dozens went uncredited.
Six animators who worked on the comedy, both credited and uncredited, talked to The Post about the working conditions on the film, though none would speak on the record, fearing that it might hurt future job opportunities.
Not getting a credit is unusual. According to one animator, over the course of his 20 years in the industry, "Sausage Party" was the first time his name didn't appear in the credits. But that was hardly the only issue. According to another artist who was credited, "the emphasis [in the comments section] is mostly on the credits, but that was just the last straw. I don't think people would have complained or put it out so much if it wasn't for the credit."
Two of the animators said executives at Nitrogen threatened to damage their reputations after they put in their notice, and the other animators said they heard about such threats.
"Getting blacklisted is a very real concern, which is why it would make a convincing threat," the uncredited veteran said.
That jibes with the recollections of another former Nitrogen employee, who has been in the business for a decade. He wasn't credited for his work, either, and said via email that he quit the project after the stress became too much for him.
He was one of dozens who left. Many landed at Sony Pictures Imageworks, leading to what became internally known as the "the Sony migration." He recalled that the people who walked were told "that those who are leaving and making this whole situation are the cancers of this company and we will have bad reputations that will trouble us in the future."
In an emailed statement, Nitrogen's chief executive, Nicole Stinn, said, "The allegations are completely unfounded and the claims are without merit. Our production adhered to all overtime laws and regulations, as well as our contractual obligations with our artists." She declined to respond to specific follow-up questions about why some animators were credited while others were not.
The animators interviewed complained of enraged outbursts from Tiernan, the director (who runs Nitrogen with Stinn, his wife), as well as micromanagement and unpaid overtime. That's why the comments section was so colorful after Tiernan talked to Cartoon Brew about keeping costs low. He wouldn't divulge the production budget, which is reportedly around $19 million, but said, "After working in the L.A. industry for many years, I could see so much money just needlessly thrown down the toilet in making a lot of these movies. It doesn't have to cost that much money when you're well organized, and you have your mind set on the goal of what you want to do, and you get the job done with a small, determined crew."
"The production costs were kept low because Greg would demand people work overtime for free," read one comment from "uncredited supervisor." "If you wouldn't work late for free your work would be assigned to someone who would stay late or come in on the weekend. Some artists were even threatened with termination for not staying late to hit a deadline."
None of this sounds far-fetched to the Animation Guild's business representative, Steve Hulett. The guild represents L.A.-based animators and sees similar stories coming out of the independent studios like Nitrogen that bid for work, promising quality animation for little in return. It's unclear what Nitrogen bid for the "Sausage Party" job, but the comedy was the studio's first feature film; they're known mainly for their work on the children's show "Thomas & Friends."
"This kind of thing happens with depressing regularity in the animation and VFX industries, particularly when it's a non-union job shop that has (likely) low-balled its bid to get the job in the first place," he said. The guild has an agreement with major studios such as Dreamworks Feature Animation, Warner Bros. Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios to guarantee certain wages, hours and working conditions.
Hulett added, "As to withholding screen credits from some staff but not others, unless there were limitations on how many screen slots there were, this seems simply a d—ish move on the studio's part."
After the first wave of animators quit in the Sony migration, another group wrote a petition at the end of last year. At that point, according to the credited animator, Annapurna Pictures, a production company bankrolling the movie, stepped in, paid overtime and guaranteed that workers who stayed late would get food.
"The studio is located in a s—– part of town — like drugs and prostitution all around," the animator said. "There's nowhere to eat after 6. If you didn't bring food, there are no options. None. And sometimes you don't know if you're going to stay or not."
At that point, the interactions between Tiernan and the animators ceased. Generally, artists meet with the director to go over scenes and get feedback every day. But from then on, everything was done via email. (When asked about this claim, Stinn said she had no comment.)
That situation led to an uneven finished product, the animators said. The scenes that were collaboratively refined looked good, while the others looked lackluster by comparison.
Animators are used to long hours. There's almost always a crunch time near the end of a project, and unpaid overtime is par for the course, the 20-year veteran said. Although four of the top 10 money-making movies of the year are animated films (and the others have animated elements alongside the live action), the artistic technicians don't expect to get paid much for their heavy workload. The median salary for an animator in Canada is $56,000 according to Glassdoor, but that factors in steady gigs at big studios. Many animators work on contract.
Even at a place like Pixar, which pays well compared to the benefits-deficient freelance wages most animators get, the stories about stress are legendary. The book "The Pixar Touch" recounted an anecdote from the making of "Toy Story 2," when one animator was so overworked and out of sorts that he left his infant in the car when he went to work rather than drop the baby at day care. (Luckily, the baby survived.)
"All these things happen in other studios," said the credited animator. "At Nitrogen, it was just amped up. It was like on steroids."
The animators interviewed wanted to make it clear that this was strictly a management issue at Nitrogen and that they have no complaints about the movie's writer-producers, Seth Rogen (also part of the voice cast) and Evan Goldberg, or the L.A.-based director, Conrad Vernon.
Still, the experience left a lasting impression for some artists.
"It was the worst job I ever had," the credited animator said. He would never work for the studio again. "Unless I have no other choices. I would rather wait tables or work at a bar."