When Studios Conspire...

Before I get into today's post, I was contacted yesterday by Zack Lovatt, a very talented motion graphics designer and all around cool guy. He and a friend have started to organize a monthly get together in the motion graphics/animation community. Everyone is welcome to come out, you can find more information about it here. It’s at the Rovoli starting at about 6pm.


It sucks when you find out one of your heroes isn’t the person you think they are. Everyone who works in CG owes a debt to Ed Catmull. His list of accomplishments is staggering, he invented texture mapping, anti-aliasing, and subdivision smoothing. He was a key figure in the development of digital compositing and was a very important part of the the Renderman team. FX Guide has a great podcast featuring him talking about Renderman.

He was one of the founders of Pixar. You can hear him give a talk at Stanford talking about nurturing creativity and guiding the amazing culture at Pixar. On top of all of that, he came out with a book this year, Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. His list of accomplishments and honours goes on and on, it truly is amazing.

And yet he was involved, along with several other tech companies, in artificially suppressing his worker’s wages. You should click the link, it's a good story if you haven't heard about this.  I’ll give you a bit of backstory.

When one company hires away a worker from another company, it’s often referred to as ‘Poaching’. Let’s say you work for Company A, but then Company B contacts you and offers you more money, so you leave Company A. You would have been taken, or ‘poached’ from Company A.

From what I can tell (and keep in mind, I’m no employment lawyer), poaching is mostly legal. There was a big court case involving poaching that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. This webpage summarizes it as such:

“There is no general duty to not compete with a former employer. Short of the existence of fiduciary duties, restrictive covenants or misuse of confidential information, the decision reached in RBC permits an employee to seek new employment with any employer, whether or not they are in competition with their pervious employer.”

Your employer can try to make you sign a non-compete clause, but they are generally viewed unfavourably by the courts. They have very strict guidelines, you can read about them here if you’re curious. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t break a contract, so if your contract says you’ve been hired on for six months, after two weeks you’re not suppose to walk out and quit.

I’m getting away from my point, which is that according to court documents, Ed Catmull was a key figure in a very large plan to limit tech workers in California from being recruited by other companies. This kept their workers wages artificially low. The documents and testimony that Catumull provided in court is quite damning. From one of his emails:

“While we do not act to prevent people from moving between studios, we have an agreement with Dreamworks not to actively pursue each others employees."

And from his court testimony:

CATMULL: Well, them hiring a lot of people at much higher salaries would have a negative effect in the long-term.

Q: On pay structure?

CATMULL: Well, I’m just saying that if they — I don’t know what you mean by pay structure. The — for me I just — it means the pay. All right? If the pay goes way up in an industry where the margins are practically nonexistent, it will have a negative effect.

It’s hard to believe that companies like Dreamworks and Pixar, hugely successful studios that have brought in billions of dollars wouldn’t be able to compete for talent in the open market. Honestly, I’m kind of outraged by this. If that’s what their employees were worth, they should have either paid it, or found someone else to do the job. It certainly takes people like George Lucas (who was involved as well) and Ed Catmull down in my eyes.

The court case is ongoing.  The companies want to settle for 324 million, about 10% of what they would have paid out if they hadn’t conspired against their workers.

To me, this is another example that you have to always look out for your own best interests. You can’t rely on the kindness of companies to do right by you.