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The Digital Eye: Nomads Like Us

In this months Digital Eye column, Peter Plantec looks at the nomadic nature of the visual effects industry.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

This month my eye is on our industry. If youre afraid of change youre in for a terrifying ride. Im going to make some predictions and if Im wrong you can come back and shake my cage, but we all need to be facing the future with our eyes open. This industry has always required us to work in strange ways. Many of us have longed for a post at an established company with benefits and job security and free food and posh offices and awesome equipment and software. Some of the big houses actually offer that stuff I mean, look at Pixar. I know people there for years and they own houses and have families and know theyll have a job when the next project has wrapped. Sounds great, right? Forget it.

We Are Expensive Wanderers

Most of us belong to the semi-nomadic band of wanderers following the work. Were so expensive that few houses can afford to keep us on staff, so they pay us when they need us and dump us after the wrap party. We travel to New Zealand or Canada or wherever else there is need for our awesome talents. Its hard to maintain relationships this way. Owning a house makes no sense a tricked out van might be the closest thing. But then we miss out on the financial stability owning a home can bring. Instead of buying an appreciating asset to buffer our financial position, we rent and fall further behind with each gig. Too many of us are lousy at managing money and spend it as fast as we make it the future looks so far away right?

As a result, too, we tend to be rich, unsettled, lonely and looking for life in all the wrong places. Life what a joke, most of us work so hard and so long that life is something our friends tell us about. We put ours on a shelf somewhere and cant recall where that is. Many of us plan to take off three months and live on money in the bank. Then we freak out trying to line up the next job. For the best of us, that new job started yesterday and theres no time for much beach browsing. Vacation never comes.

Honestly, a lot of us have already burned out and run to the mountains to escape I now live high in the Rockies. We hide in deep forests eking out a living teaching at the local college or making training DVDs, or continuing to develop that fractal landscape software that is so cool; and it feeds us. We dont have to worry about electricity; cuz were off the grid, the cabin is paid for and we dont mind being snowed in for four days. You know who Im talking about.

This is just not a healthy way to live. Its about to change.

Vfx is Changing

Evolution is a funny thing. It usually trends toward the greater good and I think in our case it is. The forces for change come from many directions. For example, if you look at housing trends near our work places youll know we cant afford a house even at our high salaries. You might qualify for a million dollar loan, but forget about anything close. I visited Caligari recently and their big fancy offices in Silicon Valley were nearly empty because most of their employees live far away. Big expensive physical plants are going to slowly disappear. Well still need facilities for practical shoots, but housing 140 digital artists in one building or complex is unlikely. Sure the studios could move to Scuttlebump, Idaho, but too many of us wont go there no Starbucks, no hot singles establishments and the bars have stuffed buffalo heads staring at you. I dont think thats the answer.

Telecommuting is a partial answer. I remember back in the 90s when Katharine White, formidable digital vfx super at Rhythm & Hues, had a child and had to stay at home. R&H needed her so badly that they sprung a coupla grand a month for T1 so she could work from home until it was safe to come back to the studio. Now of course most of us effectively have T1 lines in our homes. But one thing thats missing is the collaborative studio environment. When artists work in isolation in a collaborative medium like film, things can get disorganized and incompatible unless you have a damn great system to deal with it. Ive been an art director in that situation with a system and still there were problems. There can be a lot of time loss and extra steps trying to get all the pieces to fit together as they must. Also, when you think about it, sending your sequence off the render farm goes a lot faster if youre right there and you shoot it off and shoot some hoops while you wait. The average Joe isnt going to have a render farm at home. So horsepower can be a problem. You just never know until you look at that final composite, what a shot is going look like.

Collaborative Work Spaces

So I have this idea about how we need to go forward. I envision that we need a way to telecommute and still keep the collaborative workplace alive. Coming up with a virtual vfx studio where people work together in a cooperative environment seems inevitable. The good news is that the idea of collaborative 3D workspaces is catching on big time. Fortunately, designers such as Caligari are thinking ahead. Their trueSpace7 collaborative work environment takes a lot of human factors into account, from photorealistic Real Time Rendering (RTR) to clever collaborative tools and work-paths.

I believe that collaborative servers now in development will actually improve the workflow over the cubical environment. Expect to see a common ground for artists, art directors and programmers. The whole team will work in one big space, able to go from private projects to the common workspace as needed. The whole environment is conducive to early stage participation by those responsible for the final look. In game development, user testing can come in very early in the design process. They can be at their homes far away and just log into the testing session.

If we can get this new way of working into play, most of us will be able to move out to the burbs, avoid 6:30 pm on the 10 Freeway and think about putting down some roots. Imagine if you could work fairly insane hours at home, yet still have time for a relationship! You could think of having a family and be there for those first steps. Imagine that you still get paid crazy-too-much money because its only fair. After all, the fruit of our minds and talents makes a lot of money for a lot of people. Its only right that we get our nice piece of that pie. Combine that thought with taking your powerful new wireless laptop on vacation well, no, forget that thought. I know way too many of you will do it anyway. I see it all the time.

Each of us needs to learn how to regain a life. It wont be easy. Some of us will need therapy to deal with the dreaded time-on-hands syndrome. The guilt will be enormous. Youll be in your basement woodshop (which you can totally afford btw) bandsawing some rosewood shapes for a complex wood puzzle and thinking: This is so relaxing, I shouldnt be doing it. I need to be working wait: I finished my shots. Im free for a week-and-a- half. Damn I wish I didnt feel so guilty. If you think Im kidding, wait until it happens. Consider drinking less and hooking up with some therapy.

So I see a definite decentralization of our industry. I see artists and technicians able to craft more efficient living spheres for themselves. Honestly, I dont see us all moving to the wilds of West Virginia like fractal co-discoverer Doc Mojo did ( I think most of us have developed a taste for where we work. I know if I worked in rainy Vancouver, Id probably want to stay there. Maybe Id move out to Victoria or better yet, Tofino, where they actually do have broadband! That leaves us room for weekly face-to-face shakeout sessions, where wed bond and keep that sense of team alive.

Peter Plantec.

Consider that studios wont need much in the way of physical plants or expensive offices in Venice or Alameda or wherever, anymore. This might create an even bigger boom in boutique studios or is it possibly going to launch some new kind of mega virtual studios that take on massive 600-1000 shot contracts? I dont know, but if you want to take a look at decentralization in action, go to and take a look around. With a thousand people in 20 countries participating, Alex Lindsay and his teams are spreading digital production training and opportunity around the world. Talent knows no geographical boundaries. If you examine a hand full of your coworkers, youll see they come from pretty diverse places like India, Germany, Indonesia and China. Imagine now that people world-wide could participate in vfx development without the impossible-for-many trip to Hollywood or Bollywood or Bavaria Filmplatz.

Now you see a potential personal downside, but your downside is somebody elses upside. Eventually competition breeds excellence and maybe we could use a little filtering out of those who just dont produce and put us all off delivery. If youre good, youll have a job. With decentralization, your ability to work doesnt have much to do with where you live, or if youre handicapped or if you can drive. Its all about the work coming to the talent and the talent gets a life. I wish you all great good fortune in the evolving world we call vfx. Some of you are going to need it.

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peters latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews. You can visit his personal website.