Recently I read a blog on AWN regarding the rampant outsourcing of visual special effects work to 3rd world countries. The blog, written by Richard Kerrigan, offered a clear and informative view of the current VSX landscape and as I had read it perhaps a week after it had been posted, a good many readers had already offered comments and voiced their concerns over the situation.
Then yesterday a friend stopped by to discuss a project and in the course of our conversation he told me that his visual effects jobs had all but dried up. He was still keeping fairly busy with 2D/3D animation but he said that he couldn’t get his visual effects bids low enough to be competitive with other bidders using offshore production houses. Both of us being about the same age and with similar experiences we quickly agreed as we talked, that the loss of VSX work was nothing new, or as Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s just like déjà vu all over again!”
So what does that mean if you are a computer digital effects artist and are worried over whether your job will still be there in a few years if work continues to flow away?
The first thing it means is that you are better off being aware of what is happening than sticking your head in the sand. Even if you can’t stop the trend you can at least ensure that you’re not caught by surprise and that you have made some preparations just in case.
Next, take a look at history – this is nothing new in our industry and there are some lessons from looking back, as well as looking forward.
In the early 70’s U.S. animation studios began sending work to Australia, Canada, England and Mexico. The ostensive reason was that there were not enough artists (in Los Angeles) to do the work on schedule but the lower costs were highly attractive and more than a little tantalizing. Within a very few years Korea and Taiwan were knocking on the door and soon no one could stop the slow but steady demise of jobs for thousands of American animators, inbetween/ clean-up artists, layout and background painters. Along with them went jobs for cameramen, ink and painters and Xerox workers as well. What remained were commercials, feature films (in other words, Disney) and a scattering of industrial and medical films that had budgets the size of a walnut.
Everyone was mad as hell and fought the migration of work with grit and determination but it was to no avail. The union (Local 839) was treated like a redheaded stepchild by IATSE and without its support or the Teamsters, it was just railing against the wind – the producers (except Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott) had just discovered a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and they weren’t going back no matter how much their artists screamed.
Of course this didn’t all just happen at once. Not everyone was laid off on the same day or even in the same year. The offshore studios needed time to hone their skills; set up their systems, assimilate our cultural nuances and learn how to deliver work at an acceptable quality level. The producers were happy to assist their new suppliers by sending instructors and artists to teach the overseas staff how to produce useable work. This was the beginning of the ‘overseas supervisor’ era where a good number of American and Canadian artists and production staff were sent by the producers to offshore studios and literally took up residence in cities throughout Asia.
Quickly time passed and the offshore studios perfected the lessons they needed to learn and as they did the industry began to morph and reform itself to conform to the new reality.
And this new reality became a Renaissance of sorts… the quality level of animation which originally dipped when first send abroad, began to get better and better as the producers demanded more and more of their contractors. And as the animation got better, the networks wanted more and more of it and knowing that the producers were enjoying a tremendous cost savings by sending their shows offshore, they also began demanding higher quality from the producers.
Now, if you doubt this, go and look at any of the old series work that was done solely in house, then compare it to the same show done later overseas (Try a Scooby Doo for instance) and decide for yourself which is better.
Am I trying to argue that the overseas studios were more talented or creative? No, not at all but they did have far more detailed and better executed pre-production designs, models, direction and even better scripts because a part of the money being saved by sending the animation away, was then needed to be put back into other parts of the production to meet the new higher standards set and demanded by the networks. All of a sudden we had far less animators but a heck of a lot more sheet timers and storyboard artists and sluggers and character and prop designers and colorists and background artists.
The networks had proved to be just as opportunistic as the producers, they weren’t going to settle for the same old animation with a body and two eye blinks held over six feet of dialogue anymore.
Is there a lesson here? I think so. We did lose a lot of jobs but by the next decade the industry was employing more people than it ever had before in its history. We had gone through some tough times but we had adapted and we had survived.
We are going though some similar times now. If there are lessons to be gleaned by this they are that there is no use in shaking your fist and barking at the moon unless all you want is an emotional release. You cannot stop producers from using lower cost labor if the end product is the same or only negligibly different unless you can regulate them, and you can’t. The steel industry, electronics and a lot of other industries tried and failed. So wouldn’t it be better to fight battles that can be won? Our cultural and creative landscape is always in flux. What is in demand one day is stale the next. Whether it is gaming, films or TV animation the one thing you can count on is that it will change and this is where offshore studios can never stay ahead of the curve. They have never been able to duplicate is our limitless imagination, creative vitality and the freedom we derive artistically from being part of the world’s most truly blended society.
We need to focus on what we can do and where we excel and not get mired in self-doubt and bitterness. We need to do what we always have, find new avenues for our creativity and talents, and as always the world will follow.