Reports of conflict between the producers of CGI-heavy films and the VFX artists who bring those effects to life bubble up every few years. Recently, effects artists protested the 85th Annual Academy Awards, where Ang Lee failed to mention effects house Rhythm & Hues—which had filed for bankruptcy days before—in his acceptance speech for Best Director for Life Of Pi. Now a new, and more difficult to verify, controversy has arisen around the making of the R-rated “adult animation” comedy Sausage Party.
The trouble started with an interview with directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan on Cartoon Brew, in which Tiernan, a former Dreamworks director, discussed the challenges of making an animated feature on a relatively dirt-cheap $20 million budget:
[W]hen Conrad pitched the movie to us, and we made our pact and vow to Conrad, and to Seth and Evan, and eventually to Megan Ellison at Annapurna and to Sony Columbia, we knew damn well that we could deliver a movie that looks like a $150 million movie for a fraction of the cost … 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.
Almost immediately, people began chiming in in the comments, charging that the reason why the movie was made so cheap is because animators at Vancouver-based Nitrogen Studios were forced to work unpaid overtime under threat of termination, and that they were only paid for that time after submitting a petition to Annapurna Studios. Further, they alleged that of the more than 80 animators who worked on the film—poor conditions allegedly led to high turnover over the course of production—only 47 of them received screen credit for their work.
Now, until any Nitrogen Studios employees are willing to step forward and make these same claims outside of an anonymous online forum, these allegations are nothing more than rumor. The public faces of Sausage Party—directors Tiernan and Vernon and producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Megan Ellison—have also yet to respond to the allegations. But considering the very public conflicts between management and labor that have been going on in the animation and VFX industries over the past few years—and the (also anonymous) reviewers echoing claims of inexperienced management and high turnover at Nitrogen on the company review site Glassdoor—it’s a troubling story that will most likely continue to develop over the next couple of days.