On Jan. 5, Twitter user Chai posted a screenshot of a September 2022 leaked message from animation studio SpindleHorse Toon’s Discord. In the message, production supervisor Adam Neylan shared the rates for the season finale of the studio’s A24 collaboration, Hazbin Hotel, which premiered on Jan. 18 and is the third most popular show this week on Amazon Prime.
In the message, Neylan said the rates would be “$35 for a second of rough animation” with the opportunity to negotiate based on shot complexity and to earn more money down the line. Hazbin Hotel was mostly animated in twos, requiring 12 drawings per second of animation.
Chai, a vocal critic of the studio’s founder and CEO Vivienne “VivziePop” Medrano, called the pay “slave wages,” telling Passionfruit they received the Discord screenshot from “a current SpindleHorse employee.” The tweet accumulated over 7 million views.
“I felt it was important to share what I shared because not everyone feels they’re in a safe position to speak out,” Chai added.
According to Neylan, the message was taken out of context and was only for a job in clean-up, which involves tracing and cleaning up rough animation work in one of the last steps in the animation cycle. Though Neylan couldn’t share specifics, he did confirm its legitimacy.
“The job was voluntary, nobody was being forced into taking less money,” Neylan said. “It was entirely something where we said, ‘This is what we have to work with, and this is the project that we’re working on. And if you want to take it, great, and if you don’t, we understand, and we’re willing to work to keep you employed and working on another project.”
The complaints towards SpindleHorse, however, go far beyond this one viral tweet and indicate a much larger story about the challenges of scaling an indie YouTube studio. Passionfruit spoke to a dozen current and former employees and contractors, most on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Medrano or her fan base. While some described their experiences as “positive” and “sometimes idyllic,” others felt the studio was “disorganized,” plagued with “very tight deadlines,” and offered low but “industry average pay.”
A Helluva Time
SpindleHorse founder Medrano (who we contacted via email but declined to comment, according to business partner Neylan) has used her social media status, with nearly a million followers on X and nine million YouTube subscribers, to fund her projects like the pilot for Hazbin Hotel and the ongoing YouTube series Helluva Boss.
With over 3,700 Patreon Patrons, merchandise sales, and the YouTube ad revenue generated from hundreds of millions of views, she was able to found her own SpindleHorse Toons. Established in 2019, according to California Business Records, it is noted as a “gaming” company. According to the sources we interviewed, it uses only a handful of on-staff roles, while most of the hundreds who have worked on the series are freelancers who mainly communicate through the online chat program Discord.
“This was my first major project,” Medrano told The Hollywood Reporter about the Hazbin Hotel pilot earlier this month. “I only had very, very minimal experience working with a team. It was kind of my first time working with other people, slowly developing.”
Hazbin Hotel’s pilot immediately became a viral sensation, and by August 2020, A24 announced that it had picked up the show. Amazon then bought the series, and it has already commissioned an additional season. (A24 and Amazon did not respond to our request for comment via email.) Helluva Boss, which released its pilot shortly after Hazbin’s premiere, would start releasing 15+ minute episodes every two weeks. So the newly christened SpindleHorse needed freelancers to keep the content coming — open calls for artists and animators went out on Twitter and Linkedin.
In these early days of SpindleHorse, the freelancers Passionfruit spoke with described an environment of creative freedom and opportunity to learn in multiple departments. One artist said, “It was like a ragtag team of artists where we would all sit in Discord calls and joke with each other and talk and watch movies together.” Another added, “SpindleHorse had to quickly shift from being a group of mostly friends working on a passion project together to essentially a full-sized studio in a very short time.”
According to a former staff member and Neylan, there is no dedicated HR person. Neylan, who had written multiple episodes of Helluva Boss and is Medrano’s personal friend, is officially SpindleHorse’s production supervisor but performed HR duties like coordinating and firing freelancers. Neylan said, “I’m doing that work, but it’s something we’re looking to fix.”
“We are always trying to do right by our artists, and we attempt to have an open and honest conversation with them about what’s going on,” Neylan told Passionfruit.
But SpindleHorse was doing better than ever. By 2021, Hazbin Hotel’s full series had entered into production, and Helluva Boss, whose episodes were regularly getting tens of millions of views, was gearing up for its second season. According to one freelancer Passionfruit spoke with, to keep up with the demand, the studio started working with overseas animators like Bento Box in Australia and Toon City in the Philippines (Bento is co-producing Hazbin Hotel with A24.) The first episode of Helluva Boss had 50 named credits, according to IMDB, while the seventh episode of the second season had 258.
Some freelancers told Passionfruit that work became “tighter and more impersonal” but more “professional,” though “disorganization” could sometimes lead to workflow problems. Two freelancers who worked on the tail end of the animation process during this period shared that they were given “broken assets” and “missing media elements” that caused them to crunch to reach deadlines.
When asked, Neylan said that it’s “unfair to characterize them as tight deadlines” as non-full-time freelancers are given only how much they can say they produce in a month.
“There’s nothing that I’ve seen that constitutes anything close to abuse or mismanagement in terms of how we handle the artists outside of the fact that at the end of the day, we are an indie studio that primarily works in freelance and with that comes [with] some issues,” Neylan told Passionfruit.
Many of these artists Passionfruit spoke to started working at SpindleHorse Toons fresh out of college, working long hours on a “passion project” making around $20 an hour. While the studio grew over time to accommodate more animation, Medrano and her lead’s lack of experience sometimes allegedly created a difficult work environment that some former employees have been afraid to speak up about.
“I put my best into this, I really wanted to do my best, but it wasn’t enough because nothing would ever be enough for her,” one anonymous artist said about working with Medrano.
One freelance animator told Passionfruit that they took the $35 because when Helluva paused production so Hazbin Hotel could be finished, they had “no time to look for another way of income,” but the “stress that I went through to finish the shots … with such little pay and such little time was not worth it in the end.”
“It’s lost its fun indie luster and is more like the standard big studio experience except still maintaining mediocre indie pay,” another freelancer told Passionfruit.
According to Neylan, SpindleHorse Toons is a complicated business where animation usually requires six different roles: board artists, character designers, background artists, rough animators, clean-up artists, and compositors, all working in tandem. Some freelance animators who “hold up to their standards” and “work at an efficient pace” are paid on a higher scale of $1,000 a week to “give them a reason to stay and not wander around someplace else,” according to Neylan. Others get the lower rate of $20 per hour.
One second of animation, according to Neylan, usually averages out to “around $20 an hour” or about $65 per second of animation. Other roles work on different pay metrics: Two prop designers that Passionfruit spoke to said that they are given a list of props and paid for each one based on its complexity, making $25 for something as simple as a spoon or bottle or $65 for something more complicated like a gun or knife.
“If this job doesn’t work for you, if the pay doesn’t work for you, don’t accept the job,” Neylan said. “Nobody’s forcing you to.”
Every freelancer Passionfruit spoke with agreed that the rates were low but not out of the ordinary for the animation industry, especially on an indie production. Animation studio Chimera Bunny recently put out a listing on X for storyboard artists that paid “$15 an hour,” and animation for the YouTube series Monkey Wrench offered about $21 a second for clean-up.
“Indie animation is not something people get into to make a ton of money,” one freelancer said. “The main reasons to join are out of a passion for the project and want to see it happen without a studio backing it financially, or as a stepping stone to get some experience and portfolio content to work towards a more consistent and steadily paying job in a union-based industry position.”
Since the pilot of Hazbin Hotel’s release, only a handful of those who have worked on Medrano’s projects have come forward with their stories publicly on social media. Three shared their statements as well as new information with Passionfruit in a DropBox, writing, “The cases of unstable and abusive working conditions under Vivienne Medrano have been piling up for years. … This serves as an opportunity for those who were victimized, to no longer suffer in silence and to finally come forward with their experiences.”
Erin Frost, an animator who worked on Helluva Boss, wrote in now-deleted tweets and Tumblr posts that she couldn’t meet deadlines and had difficulty working with Medrano and her clean-up lead, eventually causing her to resign. Frost told Passionfruit that members of the fandom called her a “liar” or insisted she “was somehow a novice who got in over her head” for telling her story.
One month after Frost came forward in 2022, a lawyer representing Medrano sent two letters claiming that Frost had broken her “confidentiality agreement” and that she had worked with a YouTuber in violation of her “[work-from-home] agreement.” According to Frost, nothing ever came of these, and they were “meant as a scare tactic.”
Two other artists, Ken Cook and Nicholas Jordan, claim they had poor experiences with Medrano around pay and credit on the Hazbin Hotel pilot, leading them to take a step back from the animation industry. Cook came forward with their own document in May, while Jordan has only shared their story in the Dropbox and to Passionfruit.
“The rampant bullying and victim blaming from the crew and incredibly toxic fanbase that constantly demands evidence of mistreatment, yet needs no evidence to fall for victim blaming, have led me to avoid talking about my time on the production publicly,” Jordan told Passionfruit.
Not Easy to Make it in Animation
In 2021, Disney shuttered BlueSky Studios, and in 2023 it closed the animation divisions of Lucasfilm and ILM. Cartoon Network, a staple of 90s children’s television, moved out of its historic Burbank location in July to merge buildings with Warner Bros.
Adult animation is an even tougher racket as most shows that aren’t “Rick and Morty,” “Family Guy,” or “The Simpsons” struggle to last multiple seasons. Netflix has notoriously canceled most of their adult animated projects, leaving hundreds of artists without jobs. All of which is to say, the state of animation is in dire straits. But YouTube could be its saving grace.
Storytime animators like JaidenAnimations and sketch comics like Hunter “MeatCanyon” Hancock have been able to excel on the platform, though they have a much smaller team than those at SpindleHorse Toons. Creating an entirely new medium of adult studio internet animation is no easy task, and Medrano and her collaborators certainly have a lot on their plate. As a woman in an industry that’s notoriously been male-heavy at the top, she’s managed to create a unique business and shows like Hazbin Hotel that have both helped and hurt artists along the way.
“Viv has been placed in a historical position that should bring so many people together, this is the first time we’ve had such an indie production produced at such a high level,” one freelancer said. “But there’s been a bit of a relative abuse of the title she’s unofficially been given by her fans and now Amazon.”
And though there are artists who have had bad experiences, some freelancers Passionfruit spoke with had a positive time working at SpindleHorse Toons. One freelancer said that it was a “professional atmosphere” where “other artists were always supportive and encouraging.” Another said that “supervisors and colleagues on SpindleHorse art teams have been some of the nicest and most supportive people I’ve ever met, along with other workers having the sort of passion for a project.”
“There have definitely been some ups and downs, but a job isn’t always going to be fun and easy, and you aren’t going to get along well with everyone either,” one artist told Passionfruit. “But since I have to make money somehow, I’m glad I’m able to do it here.”