For those not aware, Sausage Party was produced by Nitrogen Studios and released August 12 that made history as the first CGI-animated feature to be rated R. My last column already laid out my thoughts about the movie, and I won’t bore you with spelling them out again. As a brief summary, I liked more than I thought I would… but it’s certainly not the kind of film I would normally watch, and I have no desire to see it again. That being said, I had hopes that the film would end up setting a new standard for the animation industry. Unfortunately, that hope has turned into fear as more details of the production have come out.
First, my positive expectations. As the double entendre title suggests, Sausage Party is full of crass humor. I would not recommend it for polite company, only for viewers who can stomach the crudest jokes imaginable. Then again, I mentioned before that this is the first R-rated CGI film, and it’s been making money! As of August 8, it’s brought in over $88 million worldwide. Considering it had a $19 million budget (and to put it in perspective, Disney’s smash hit Zootopia had a $150 million budget) that’s turning a healthy profit for the companies involved. Once other companies see that R-rated animation can be profitable, they may begin green-lighting other productions of their own. Unfortunately, in the next few years we may see a slew of similarly raunchy comedies. But what if a company decides to experiment with an R-rated drama? Sausage Party may have opened the door for the animated equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption. Now that ratings are not a barrier, this could be possible in the future.
Now, my previous statement relies on the fact that Sausage Party has been profitable. However, there’s a reason it’s been so profitable, and it’s a rather unpleasant one. CartoonBrew.com published an interview with producer Greg Tiernan, in which he described how they’d been able to make the film on such a small budget. Well, when the interview was published, the comments section began to flood. Apparently, Nitrogen Studios had a very poor HR department — and by that, I mean it had literally none; complaints had to be taken to Nicole Stinn, Tiernan’s wife. Animators were forced to work overtime without pay, and those who complained had their names left out of the credits and were threatened with blacklisting. According to those involved in the production, half of the animators who worked on Sausage Party weren’t even credited. The story has since gathered steam. On August 22, VFX Union UK, a branch of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (or BECTU), published an open letter criticizing the unfair labor practices. It encouraged Nitrogen Studios workers to “all speak to each other, talk about this, and get organized,”and management to “listen and to show leadership” in order to help improve labor standards in the animation industry. Two days later, Local Unifor 2000, a union based out of Vancouver with over 800 members, filed an official labor complaint against Nitrogen Studios. What happens next, and the final outcome of the conflict, remains to be seen.
Now, the animation industry hasn’t been immune to labor scandals. Just in the past few years, a wage-fixing cartel had been discovered between prestigious companies like Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar. But this represents a low that I do not like to see.
Animation is arguably one of the most difficult jobs in Hollywood, and one of the most thankless. The tools of the trade constantly change and evolve as fast as the computers they run on. Hours are spent painstakingly getting everything just right. Yet, few people take the time to say “Yes, the animators did a good job.” Actors and writers and directors get the glory instead. It’s a tragedy; when a single detail is out of place, it sticks out like a sore thumb, but when all the details are correct, no one notices. Animators don’t just create purely animated films either. In blockbusters like Avatar and crowd favorites like The Avengers, all the digital effects are made by animators. They bring us some of the moments we cherish most, and they deserve better. That is why I feel conflicted about Sausage Party: Not just because of its rude and juvenile sense of humor, but because it set two directions. One direction points to more mature animation down the line, which is an artistic benefit. The other direction points to desperate attempts to squeeze workers and cut costs at any price.
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com. Animation Analysis will appear alternate Wednesdays this semester.