In Mouse in Transition, the prequel to this book, Steve Hulett told the story of his ten years at Disney Feature Animation. Now Hulett recounts his next twenty years in the animation industry: as a union representative for the Screen Cartoonists Guild.
When, in 1989, Hulett was elected as the business represenative of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, Local 839, IATSE, he may have discounted the stereotype of vulgar, cigar-chomping, two-fisted union negotiators pitted against merciless, reptilian corporations.
It was all true.
Steve Hulett was plunged headfirst into the ferment of the animation industry as it strugged to evolve from paint to pixel, penury to prosperity. Digruntled animators, deceitful executives, hard-nosed union guys from "back east", and a cutthroat us-versus-them culture combined into a titanic, at times existential clash in which Hulett fought daily to wrest from Disney and other studios fair wages and fair benefits for the screen cartoonists in his union.
Along the way, Hulett recounts from his insider's perspective the rise of the Los Angeles animation industry, spearheaded by Disney, from a sleepy backwater to the multi-billion-dollar industry of today.
Chapter 1: Back to Animation
Chapter 2: Filmation Crashes in Flames
Chapter 3: Disney Rockets to New Heights
Chapter 4: Back to the Animation Industry
Chapter 5: L.A. Animation Lifts Off
Chapter 6: The Mouse Ascends
Chapter 7: The Competition Grows Stronger
Chapter 8: Ever-Expanding Cartoonland
Chapter 9: The Twin Summits of Disney Feature Animation
Chapter 10: The Cartoon Landscape Beyond Disney
Chapter 11: Studios Sprout Like Mushrooms
Chapter 12: Life in the Animation Trenches (1993–2003)
Chapter 13: Hand-Drawn Animation Loses Altitude
Chapter 14: The Writers Guild of America Organizes Animation…And the Screen Cartoonists Negotiate
Chapter 15: CGI Surges to the Fore
Chapter 16: Jeffrey’s High-Wire Act (Part I)
Chapter 17: The Yellow Family Goes Union
Chapter 18: Trouble in the Kingdom
Chapter 19: The Lingering Death of Hand-Drawn Animation
Chapter 20: The Hazards of Union Blogging
Chapter 21: Directors Come, Directors Go
Chapter 22: J. Katzenberg’s High-Wire Act (Part II)
Chapter 23: The Mouse Flies High
Chapter 24: Animation Today
Appendix A: From Animation Writer to Unionist: Q&A with Steve Hulett
Appendix B: A Selection of Players in the Animation Industry
With Mouse in Orbit, Steve Hulett begins the second part of his reminiscences on his career in Hollywood, much of it as the business agent of the Animation Guild, Local 839, I.A.T.S.E. He became our business agent during a period of unprecedented growth and transition not just at his former job at the Disney studio, but for all the animation business itself.
While I was an animator at Walt Disney and Dreamworks, I had the pleasure of serving with Steve Hulett as president of the Animation Guild for nine years. We battled in negotiations together, walked picket lines and demonstrated together, represented Hollywood animation at national conventions together.
Characteristically, Hulett downplays his own role in events, but he came into union management during a crucial time. Since the big strike of 1982, our union local had shrunk to a point where not many were even aware what a union was or did, except demand to be paid dues. Many of our aging union officials, being of the generation who built the movement and understood what it was like before, grew tired of lecturing newcomers why they needed to support it. They mostly withdrew to their offices, smoked cigars, and handed out fines if you didn’t pay your dues. The media portrayed unions as ignorant thugs who were in the pay of the Mob. This attitude alienated many up-and-comers like myself. Our New York local business agent once told me: “You kids would sell yourselves for peanuts if I let ya.” By 1985 the New York animation local had disintegrated, our old Chicago local not even a memory, and the LA local was in none too better shape. Young Steve Hulett defeating the old incumbent business agent seemed like a new chapter had been turned, the old guard at last yielding to the new.
The old saying in town is, “ It’s not called Show Art. It’s Show Business.” Movies and TV production have always been a for-profit business with pretentions to being art. Animation in particular encouraged young talents to feel like they were special, coming out of art schools propagating a lot of post ’60s art-for-art-sake platitudes, then seating you in an assembly line to crank out footage with mechanical monotony. For every person who wanted to make art, there were ten others who wanted to make money off you while you made art. You spent your life striving to be the best artist possible, then you were supposed to sit down with a corporate attorney and negotiate a good rate for your work? Something he spent his time in business college striving to be the best that he could be at? That you, alone, could take on an entire corporation, thinking your drawing skills entitled you to some kind of special treatment? That is what unions were for. That is why writers, directors, ballet dancers support their guilds. The generation that preceded us learned this concept in the school of hard knocks called the Great Depression. They experienced first-hand the positive results gained by collective action. But we Baby Boomers, the Go-For-Yourself Generation, needed to have it explained to us why our talent alone was not enough. Remember, Rembrandt and Mozart died broke.
Steve Hulett understood this problem, and it was something that he excelled at. It became his life’s work. Like a missionary, he went from studio to studio, desk to desk, patiently listening to members’ problems. It was mostly a thankless job. No one ever calls a business agent just to say how happy they are with everything. Like an emergency room doctor, there is an endless stream of people with problems. They want everything done for them, and want to sacrifice nothing, nor suffer any consequences. One time a staff animator at one studio was moonlighting for another studio and charging both studios for 40 hours. When his grift was discovered and he was fired by the non-union studio, he actually asked Hulett to file a legal grievance for him!
Steve was the right man at the right time. He had an excellent bedside manner with our animators, and he also did an excellent job representing our animation local to the larger entertainment unions that made up the International Alliance. We did a lot of good things for our members. Today, thanks to 839, Los Angeles still has the best standard of living in the animation world. Other cities, even other countries, refer to our contracts when trying to promulgate working conditions at their own animation studios. I am proud of the things we accomplished together, and Steve continued the work long after I had moved on to other pursuits.
But Mouse in Orbit is not just some dry litany of wage scales and time-and-a-half regulations. In the 1990s the art of animation went from an ignored, tangential part of show business to a central role in creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable blockbusters, like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Toy Story, The Simpsons, South Park, and Spongebob Squarepants. And all the movie visual effects that could not be possible without animation, such as Titanic, Jurassic Park, the Star Wars movies, and Lord of the Rings. And don’t forget interactive games like Tomb Raider, Pokemon, Digimon, and Grand Theft Auto. Before 1990, if an animated film just broke even, it was considered a hit. Starting in the 1990s, animated films began to earn billions of dollars around the world. This period was also the Digital Revolution, when we made the transition from pencils and paints to pixels and bytes, and we shed the idea of celluloid film itself, a thing people would have said was impossible just a decade before. It was a revolution every bit as dramatic as when Hollywood went from silent movies to sound. In 1995, when Steven Spielberg predicted all animation studios would soon be paperless, we traditional animators collectively shuddered. Change was happening whether we liked it or not!
So enjoy Steve Hulett’s recounting of these heady days of Hollywood animation’s Second Golden Age. Go backstage with him as he recounts the backroom decisions, missteps, outsized egos, and exceptional talents behind some of your most beloved cartoon characters and shows.
Born in southern California and also raised there (he has mixed feelings about that), Steve Hulett spent ten years at Disney Feature Animation, writing features and featurettes under the watchful eyes of Disney veterans Woolie Reitherman, Larry Clemmons, and Burny Mattinson. (Hulett’s background-artist father Ralph worked at the same animation facility for thirty-five years, 1938–1974.) Hulett chronicled his time at the studio in the previously published Mouse in Transition.
After Disney, Steve Hulett worked for Warner Bros. Animation and Filmation Studios (where he finally learned the art of career survival) before taking the position of business representative for the Animation Guild, Local 839, IATSE. Under his leadership, Local 839 grew from 700+ members to over 4000. He retired from the job on December 6, 2016.