How the "Sausage Party" gets made: Why Seth Rogen's talking-food cartoon's labor controversy matters

Anonymous allegations of pressure to work through unpaid "crunch time" show how vulnerable animators' jobs can be

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 2, 2016 2:39PM (EDT)

 (Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

“Sausage Party” is a surprisingly smart, visually creative comedy that has been rightfully praised for its satirical take on organized religion. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie is currently wrapped up in a labor controversy that, if it is grounded in fact, could convince potential viewers to pause before spending their money on the film.

“Sausage Party” currently finds itself in an unflattering light because of online reports that Vancouver-based Nitrogen Studios, which produced the movie’s animation, did not pay its employees for overtime hours and created a hostile working environment in which employers could threaten crew with termination if they didn’t meet excessive demands. Because British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act has an exemption for “high technology professionals,” companies like Nitrogen may be claiming that animators are high-tech professionals to justify not paying them overtime. (High-technology professionals are defined as individuals who use specialized knowledge and professional judgment on tech-related issues for at least 75 percent of their work time, so that could apply to animators, although it depends on where the line is drawn between strictly tech-related work and activities that are more artistic and creative in nature.)

The studio denies the claims. “Nitrogen Studios followed all employment regulations, so the claims being made against Greg as well as the studio are unfounded. Nitrogen also fulfilled all of its contractual obligations with its employees,” said Nitrogen President and CEO Nicole Stinn in a response to Salon. “These allegations are without merit and Greg has had an overwhelming amount of support from current and past employees in the last few weeks.”

Nitrogen’s claim that Tiernan has employee support is difficult to dispute, as it’s hard to put real names and faces on the workers’ allegations. According to Jennifer Moreau, vice president of Unifor Local 2000 (which has offered to help the “Sausage Party” animators), “People in this industry are very nervous about speaking out. They don’t want to be blacklisted, they don’t want to be denied a job on the next contract.”

Moreau points to how the animation, visual effects, and video game industries are structured to explain the reticence, and why she thinks the issue goes beyond claims made about one animated film.

“What we’ve heard is that people do a lot of overtime unpaid. There’s a sort of emotional blackmail or intimidation factor at play in some cases, where the employer will pressure people to do the unpaid overtime when crunch time for a project hits,” said Moreau. “The message they get is, if you don’t do this, you’re not getting hired on the next contract.”

The video game industry is particularly notorious for exploiting its animators and other low-ranking employees. “Video game development is an artistic passion, and as such, those who engage in game development have an unstoppable drive to design, create, and build interactive experiences — much in the same way that writers write, painters paint, filmmakers perfect their films and so on,” said Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. “Historically, many companies in the game industry have been known to take advantage of that passion, and expect a certain ‘above and beyond’ level of employee engagement for long periods.”

Like Moreau, Edwards identified the concept of “crunch time” as a tool used by employers to pressure workers into unpaid overtime.

But cinematic animation studios and video game developers aren’t the only parts of the industry affected by labor issues. “Where I see abuses is more in the television area, not so much in the theatrical area,” said Steve Hulett of the Animation Guild, which represented the animators for the TV show “Rick and Morty” when they staged a walk-off in 2014. “They were not paying overtime to crew and the crew went and organized with us and we threatened a job action and we were actually able to get a contract pretty quickly.”

Indeed, even though “Rick and Morty” co-creator Justin Roiland initially made headlines for denouncing the union (albeit based on how they handled their grievances rather than the actual grievances themselves), Roiland has made it clear that he sympathizes with his industry’s behind-the-scenes workers. “I believe that artists who work tirelessly to bring animation to life should not have anything to worry about financially or medically,” he wrote to Salon. “They are the unsung heroes of the industry and I can honestly say that I would go to battle to protect my crew."

Roiland’s sentiments are laudable, but more importantly, his assessment of animators’ importance is absolutely right. Animators and other crew members may not be the main creative forces developing video games or movies like “Sausage Party” or TV shows like “Rick and Morty.” They may not appear before the cameras or develop separate careers as celebrities. But they are as essential to the process of creating our popular entertainments as the directors, writers, and actors. Without their skill and ingenuity, we’d be missing out on a lot more than the opportunity to see Seth Rogen voice a talking hot dog.

Socially-conscious consumers should take behind-the-scenes labor conditions into consideration when deciding which projects to support. While we may not know all of the details surrounding “Sausage Party” specifically, there is good reason to believe that labor exploitation is an industry-wide problem among animators and visual effects artists in film, TV, and video games. This presents audiences with a critically important question: To what extent are fans responsible for allowing these kinds of adverse labor conditions to flourish? Consumers who care about economic justice have a responsibility to pay attention to the conversation around how their entertainment properties are produced. 

Most importantly, though, consumers need to recognize that the passion which inspires creative and tech savvy individuals to work in animation or visual effects warrants respect. It appears that in these industries, animators are concerned that they can be treated like disposable cogs in a machine rather than full participants in the creative process. Just as advocates of social justice would rightly refuse to see a movie or play a video game that worked behind the scenes to marginalize women or people of color, so too must advocates of economic justice consider whether to support products that are revealed to have not treated their workforces fairly. While the full story isn’t yet known about “Sausage Party,” it has opened a door for on-going conversation about labor practices in the industry. If evidence points to worker mistreatment in this case or in others, consumers will be ethically responsible, too, if they continue to reward the companies and the entertainers who allow it to happen.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Animation Cartoons Labor Movies Sausage Party Unions Video Games