Sausage Party became a surprise box-office hit last weekend, but behind the scenes the film’s animators have feuded with Canadian production company Nitrogen Studios over the lack of overtime and allegations that they were pressured to work extra hours for free.
A letter sent in December, a final draft of which was reviewed Monday by The Hollywood Reporter, alleges that “unfair pressure tactics” were “used against the team: intimidating staff into working past official studio hours, disciplinary measures utilizing fear tactics that demotivate and cause distress (such as threatening to terminate employment), implying that other departments are working overtime ‘voluntarily’ as a reason to deny compensation.”
Sausage Party, produced by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and released Aug. 12 by Sony Pictures, grossed $33.6 million in its opening weekend. Sony has said the budget for the film was $19 million, making it far less expensive than most CGI-animated films.
In the letter, the animators paint a picture of an oppressive production schedule. “These issues are breaking people’s ability to focus on animation and are making for an unrewarding and frustrating work environment,” the letter continued.
Not all animators on the film said they got a raw deal, but several senior artists who spoke to THR felt a sense of solidarity with those who got left out of the credits. One animator on the film estimated that 30 animators signed the joint letter.
“There were countless hours of free time,” one uncredited animator said in a phone interview. “So, it was a consensus. We don’t need to put up with this.”
The film’s co-financier Annapurna Pictures declined to comment. Sony, which did not produce the film, referred queries to Nitrogen, which said the claims about the film’s work environment were false.
“These statements are without merit,” Sausage Party director and Nitrogen chief creative officer Greg Tiernan told THR by phone, neither confirming nor denying receiving the joint letter. “Our production adhered to all overtime regulations and our contractual obligations to our artists. Any time that any concern was brought up, it was handled appropriately.”
After the letter was sent to Nitrogen management, Annapurna stepped in to ensure that overtime rates were paid and that meals were provided for people who stayed late to work on the film, two sources said. These sources say back pay was not provided for overtime worked before the letter was sent to management.
The letter also prompted Annapurna to minimize the interaction between the directors and animators in an effort to prevent further labor disputes, a decision that muddied the workflow and left artists confused, sources said. Standard daily review sessions were conducted via email instead of in person.
“It’s as if live action directors would direct his actors via text messaging,” an artist wrote in an email to THR.
Nitrogen is said to have responded to the letter by asking signatories if they wanted to remove their names, leaving many in the animation department feeling intimidated and nervous about their jobs.
The alleged mistreatment surfaced on the eve of the film’s opening last Friday in the comments section of an interview with Sausage Party directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan published on the website Cartoon Brew. After the helmers discussed how they came in significantly under the production budget for the film, the comments section lit up with complaints from users who self-identified as uncredited animators and credited allies.
“We knew damn well that we could deliver a movie that looks like a $150 million dollar movie for a fraction of the cost,” Tiernan said in the interview.
Skimping on labor costs and withholding screen credits are accusations commonly levied in the world of animation, where the labor is highly skilled and union memberships are coveted.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Steve Hulett, who sits on the board of the Animation Guild, a labor union for animators, said by phone. “And it’s unlikely that this film came in so far under budget. There are enormous subsidies available in Canada. The taxpayers are very generous there.”
Jennifer Moreau, vp of Unifor Local 2000 in Vancouver, which represents around 1,200 local media workers, said her union monitors Vancouver animation studios for work code violations. Moreau said Nitrogen hires local animators on temporary contracts, which is typical of the local industry.
“The problem with contract work is you’re in a perpetual probation period. Employers know this and will hold it over the animators, suggesting they won’t get called back for the next contract if they don’t pull through when crunch time hits,” she told THR.
“That often means working long hours and doing unpaid overtime. Employees at Nitrogen complain of high turnover and a lack of stability, which to me, suggests problems with management,” Moreau added.
Said one Vancouver-based artist: “Look at the voice cast — Seth Rogen, James Franco, Kristen Wiig, Salma Hayek. The budget for Sausage Party didn’t go to Nitrogen.”