Animation Is No Longer Immune to Hollywood’s Labor Unrest

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The field had previously been spared, but now actors’ voices will go missing, threatening an increasingly important source of streaming and box office spending

Will Elio go on strike?
Will Elio go on strike? (Image: Pixar/TheWrap)

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Amid all of this year’s upheavals, the animation sector had been an island of calm, thanks to the field’s distinctive structure within Hollywood. Now that SAG-AFTRA has gone on strike, Hollywood’s wave of labor unrest is swamping it too.

Animation artists and writers have their own union, the Animation Guild, separate from the WGA, and its contract runs through mid-2024. But voice actors fall under SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction, and strike rules forbid voice-over work — which threatens to stall animated work at a critical point in production where artists sync up images and the spoken word. The disruption comes as digital animation has hit record market share, providing a full 25% of industry box office, according to The Numbers.

Digital animation theatrical market share, 1995-2023 (The Numbers)

Spared from the effects of the WGA strike, animation has functioned in something of a bubble for most of 2023 — and a largely profitable one. Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, for example, were still able to promote projects like “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and the revival of their animated series “Clone High” for Max. (Both are outspoken supporters of the WGA strike.) Pixar and DreamWorks Animation both opened big animated features. Filmmakers breathlessly showcased new projects at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in June. And the biggest film of the year so far has been “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” produced by Illumination and Universal, which has amassed $1.34 billion worldwide since opening on April 4.

As animation writers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller were able to attend a promotional event for their film “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” in May. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

Actors not being able to record dialogue will offer unexpected complications for animated features set for release later this year and next, disabling a finely honed production pipeline that often sees performers recording (and re-recording) their dialogue almost up until release. The “Into the Unknown” documentary on the making of “Frozen II,” available on Disney+, showed just how unformed the movie was weeks before the movie was set to open — which it did, grossing $1.45 billion worldwide.

Now studios are faced with an impossible challenge: Either they animate what dialogue they have, often based on earlier versions of scenes that have already been endlessly reworked, or attempt to wait out the strike and hastily animate then. In the current computer-generated pipeline, animation that matches the performer’s vocal performance is one of the first elements to be finished, before the scenes then go through processes devoted to background and effects (which are often produced concurrently) and the like. Animators might be able to rejigger that pipeline to accommodate the new realities, but that in itself could prove timely and costly.

Performance-capture or voice-only roles that currently dot live-action movies could be affected as well: Think Bradley Cooper in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Daveed Diggs in “The Little Mermaid” or Jared Leto in Disney’s upcoming “Haunted Mansion,” out at the end of July. Such characters might have to be edited out of productions that mix animation and live action — or the whole work might get stalled, if they’re too critical to the narrative.

For animated projects currently in production, the strike’s effects depend greatly on the exact stage of work they’re in. The biggest upcoming animated feature is probably Paramount’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” out in August. That movie is done: It screened at Annecy. But the rest of the animated features coming this year are a little fuzzier.

Disney’s “Wish,” opening this November and serving as the end of the company’s grand celebration of its first 100 years, is mostly done but there could definitely be some pick-ups and changes before that Thanksgiving launch. Ditto Universal and Illumination’s “Migration,” about a family of ducks traveling to Jamaica, out this Christmas. That is probably also mostly done. Both projects can probably be completed with minimal fuss.

Netflix has Aardman’s “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” due out by the end of the year, which given the time-intensive process of stop-motion animation, is probably good on voice-over work. Ditto “Leo,” an animated project starring Adam Sandler as an old lizard, also due out this year.

Beyond that, though, things get a little more complicated. Pixar’s next feature, “Elio,” isn’t due out until March. And “Inside Out 2,” with some new actors replacing the original voice performers, is coming next summer. That’s a long time. And with the fluid nature of animated features, they will definitely be tinkered with until the bitter end.

According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Pixar went out of its way to bank recordings in advance of the strike. But the same source noted that, should the strike go on long enough, productions will be affected.

Next spring sees the release of DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda 4” and Sony Pictures Animation’s “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse.” Also next year is Netflix’s “Ultraman” (timing to be determined) and a photo-realistically animated sequel to 2019’s “The Lion King” called “Mufasa” next summer. All of these projects — and many more — are very much works in progress, undoubtedly requiring more voice work before release.

The SAG-AFTRA strike will also mean that Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, “The Boy and the Heron,” set to be released this weekend in Japan, will appear in the American market without an English-language dub, since that is also prohibited in the actors’ union strike guidelines. (Famous actors from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Michael Keaton have contributed to localized versions of earlier Studio Ghibli classics.) While this probably won’t worsen the movie’s Oscar chances, it could limit its American box office.

And this is to say nothing of the dozens of animated television shows that air on linear channels and across streaming each and every week. Streamers are spending billions of dollars a year on animation. Everything from “The Simpsons” to “Big Mouth” to “Teen Titans Go!” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” will be affected. Considering how important these shows are to their respective networks and streaming services, this has the potential to greatly upset the apple cart.

Since artists and technicians are represented by the Animation Guild, Local 839 of the IATSE union, the industry could well try to soldier on with the voice-overs they have, but that work will be difficult. It’s one more obstacle for a sector of the entertainment industry that has often struggled to get a level of respect that matches its financial returns for studios. With a sister union on strike, though, animators are no longer on their own island.

“I don’t know what to say other than we stand in solidarity,” said one animation veteran. “I wish that the guilds regarded animation as equal to live action, but regardless we support SAG-AFTRA to get fair compensation.”