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The Digital Eye: The Promise & Peril of VFX Jobs

The Digital Eye tracks the future factors awaiting visual effects artists, animators and production companies as the epicenter of work moves outside of Hollywood.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Theres a lot more visual effects and digital animation work for movies, television, games and commercials being done outside Hollywood these days. And that holds both promise and peril for visual effects artists, animators and production companies.

Promise: Because there are going to be a lot more opportunities for talented professionals, especially in the Bay Area. Peril: Because as weve seen with animation theres no reason your job cant be done by someone in Asia or Europe.

So lets start with the promise.

Lucasfilm leads the list. Reportedly next summer, George Lucas will open the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Franciscos Presidio. Much of the film, animation and game operations will move there.

At the fall Digital Studio summit, Industrial Light & Magic cto Cliff Plumer gave a sneak peek of a studio any mogul would be happy to occupy:

Twenty-three acres, including plenty of unobstructed Bay views. Theaters for film and digital projection, dailies and premieres. A motion capture stage for performance capture and work on virtual sets. A 13,500-square-foot data center housing render farms and storage systems. Fiber everywhere, capable of pushing a gig a second to desktops. IP telephony and wireless computing.

Were building an infrastructure that takes advantage of the convergence of the film and games industry, Plumer said. Our goal is to narrow the distance between our artists and the creative people giving direction, either in the Presidio or anywhere in the world.

Lucasfilm doesnt ever want the Letterman campus 2,000 employees to go home, Plumer joked. So the facilities will have a daycare center and a fitness center. Not to mention more than 1,000 acres of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at their doorstep. (Skywalker Sound and some of Lucas other creative endeavors will remain in Marin County.)

You ready to leave L.A. yet?

While not as dramatic as Lucasfilm, other Bay Area CGI powerhouses are also growing nicely.

At Pixar, chairman/chief exec Steve Jobs plans a 15-year expansion that will nearly triple the size of its campus in Emeryville and more than double its number of employees.

Pixar plans a three-stage expansion costing $325 million that will add 533,000 square feet to its existing 215,000 square feet of campus space and allowing the company to increase the size of its workforce from 730 to almost 2,000.

In Redwood City to the south, DreamWorks/PDIs 370 employees are happily occupying a 120,000-square-foot facility a welcome change from the three small Palo Alto buildings the company once occupied. Nearby Hewlett-Packard, which helped render Shrek 2, has created its own render farms for Hollywood films.

Around the country, states such as Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Utah are creating incentives to attract top CGI professionals and companies to their regions.

All this is good news for top CGI professionals, who now have many more locations around the country to build their movie, TV and game careers.


Gathering at Skywalker Ranch to discuss the startup of Lucasfilm Animation Singapore, are (left to right) Micheline Chau, president/coo, Lucasfilm Ltd.; George Lucas; and Teo Ming Kian, chairman, Singapore Economic Development Board. (Photographer: Dean Bentley.)

Now for the peril. Any CGI company can just as easily hire competent professionals somewhere else in the world. With broadband lines and instant communication, location is increasingly irrelevant.

Here again Lucasfilm is blazing the path. Last August, the company announced plans for a venture with Singapores government called Lucasfilm Animation Singapore to produce digital animation for films, television and videogames that will blend Western and Eastern styles.

Thats a good thing. It will probably mean more Lucasfilm jobs, not fewer, as the companys animation division ramps up.

But Singapores Economic Development Board, which is investing in the project, isnt just interested in doing animation for Lucasfilm. It wants to build a viable animation and visual effects business in the city-state to do battle with its competitors in it Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan.

So does Taiwans government, which is providing incentives to lure U.S. animation and visual effects companies. Just ask E=mc2, the award-winning visual effects company that was acquired by Double Edge Ent. Last month, it announced the creation of a sister animation and visual effects studio, Double Edge Digital, that will expand its staff in Glendale and oversee a digital production infrastructure in Taipei.

Again, no problem. Net job increase for U.S. animators and vfx professionals.

But look at the longer term. How long until studios, advertisers and other consumers of CG content decide they can get more bang for their creative buck by hiring Asian artists and companies just as they are already outsourcing much of their cel animation to Asian companies?

If you think thats impossible, ask some of your friends in the production business how much work theyve lost to competition in Canada and elsewhere. Ask cel animators how easy it is to find work these days. For that matter, ask any big American company whether theyre either hiring or thinking of hiring computer programmers in India, China or other foreign locales with cheaper labor.

Id argue that the same shift of creative resources abroad is going to happen in visual effects and digital animation over the next few years.

Whats that mean for you? It means that youve got to be at the top of your game. Just as cel animators are being replaced by digital animators, the easiest CG work is going to be the first to be outsourced. You need to be the planner, the creative, the designer, the person who understands the cutting-edge technologies.

So grab those great job offers. And keep one eye on the competition.

Michael Stroud has been a journalist for more than 20 years and runs iHollywood Forum, which creates conferences about entertainment, technology and mobile media. He was Bloombergs Hollywood correspondent for five years, Los Angeles bureau chief for Broadcasting & Cable magazine, and a technology reporter for six years at Investors Business Daily. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired News, The Red Herring and many other publications. He began his career as a freelancer, writing about Taiwans technology business. He speaks fluent Chinese.