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Hiring Trends: Ride the Wave

Dariush Derakhshani talks with recruiters and other industry insiders about hiring trends to help you ride a new career wave.

Write yourself a ticket to a new career. Courtesy of

When I entered school to get into the CG industry, there was a tremendous call for artists; it seemed that everyone was clambering to get their hands on people who could create CG for films, television and games. SIGGRAPH was abuzz with studios looking for talent, schools were losing students to jobs, and almost anyone with a mouse hand could get an interview. But soon after that, perhaps within the following two to three years, there began a slowly bursting bubble; hiring slowed to a crawl and projects were tougher and tougher to get on. Interviews were more difficult to get, and unless you were already well experienced, jobs were tougher to get.

Now, almost 10 years later, there is again a wide push to hire 3D artists, and, this time, as much in games as in film and TV. Add to this a migration of some high level CG people from film to games, and you have a very exciting hiring field again, at least for now.

It seems fair to say that there is a current upsurge in the hiring market for CG artists all around, but how long could this last? It comes down to the basic tenant of business: supply and demand. Studios will turn out CG features as long as there is a healthy audience for them. But to this you can add a scale factor. Within the last 10 years, creating CG has become easier and cheaper, if not a little faster, and the pool of artists trained in the language has become larger and stronger. These, in turn, push production costs lower than in the early days of CG, making it more likely for a CG heavy film to recoup its costs faster.

As Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, AWNs Career Coach, puts it: A few years ago when Lion King made more than $300 million at the box office, suddenly everyone wanted to get a piece of that action and lots of companies built up their traditional, classical 2D animation divisions and put out some movies Since there were failures, they turned to 3D for the answer, as there has been enormous success with some 3D films (e.g. The Incredibles, Shrek and Shrek 2). So there is a boom in the market for people who know computer animation and hiring is not great for traditional animators right now it seems that money is being invested mostly in 3D projects.

The same hiring buzz can be said of the gaming market. The top gaming console makers are poised to release their next bigger and better platforms, promising much higher game play reality, creating a demand for better in-game and cinematic CG and at higher resolutions. Even though game consoles are about to hit HD, PC games have always had the higher resolutions, so that may not exactly be the impetus driving the market so much as it is the growing processing power. Game engines are becoming extremely vivid and have more rendering abilities than before, especially with normal mapping becoming the new buzz term. These engines are able to output a far greater range of detail that needs to be created by artists.

In a market that hits the mid $20 billion dollar mark in worldwide revenues and is forecast to break $30 billion by 2007, there is serious attention being paid here for top quality content.

Helping fill that need, there has been a migration of talent spanning top names such as Habib Zargarpour (now with EA Canada and formerly with ILM) to entry level production artists from the film industry toward games, a flip from the general sentiment about six to eight years ago when CG artists avoided game jobs to try to stay in the film market.

SpinOff Studios Jake Carvey sees film animators migrating to gaming, where the demand for top talent is growing.

Games companies are definitely having to search the film pool for talented hi-res modelers, character sculptors and texture artists, offers Jake Carvey of SpinOff Studios in downtown L.A. This is a direct correlation to the methods used to create next-gen games: very detailed models with extremely high production values are required to generate the normal maps, which create the intense detail found in upcoming titles such as Gears of War.

But this will last as long as games and consoles continue to do well in the marketplace. As we saw with a dip in the market about six years ago in CG films and effects, game hiring can level off and drop as sales plateau and recede themselves. One recent MBA Fellows analysis authored by Nik Shah and Charles Haigh at the Glassmeyer/McNamee Center for Digital Strategies at Dartmouth University suggests that the core of the gaming industry (the core hardware and core software markets - i.e. gaming machines and games) may be hitting its maturity, at least in terms of venture capital potential, and would not represent the best value in venture capital.

This roughly affects the CG market by suggesting that new opportunities for gaming titles may not be as prone to increasing as they have been in the past few years. Could this current increase in game hiring be short lived? There is no doubt that there will be a downward cycle for both games and films in terms of CG jobs, though the frequency of the cycle is always up to the bottom line for the film studios and game makers.

Brian Begun, a compositor with Digital Domain, puts it very well: The film business runs in cycles and [as] a pendulum. When it runs in cycles, you will get periods of a lot of work and then periods of drys-ville. As for the pendulum, you have two conditions (this is industry wide) based upon the cycle. (1) You have too much work and not enough artists to handle it. (2) You have too many artists looking for work and not enough work to give them. If you [are in] condition one, you will get more opportunities for newbies to get their foot in the door. However, if you have condition two, even the most seasoned artist will have problems staying employed.

The trick here is, for the job seeker, to capitalize as much as possible on the up trends to get as much experience and credits as they can stand to get while the getting is good.

It is at these times that it is important to pick the right projects to work on, since it is effectively then that you are building your reputation and skill set to make you more marketable when the pickings get slimmer. The fact is, no matter how much schooling you have earned, experience is still and will always be king in the CG industry.

Recruiters, like Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, have helpful tips and tricks to giving you a leg up on the competition.

There is just so much to know in a production that bringing in talented, but as of yet inexperienced people, can be devastating to a show. Artists who have experience are very valued and bring not just knowledge of technique with them, but an unquantifiable sense of how a production lives and breaths. [The] toughest jobs to fill are those which require the most skill and education, adds Thompson. For example, great character animators are always in demand due to the breadth of knowledge required. And this is hands down as true as it gets.

Having needed to screen and hire several artists myself, I know first hand how important it is to have a seasoned team. The most effective studios are those that can manage the cost of experience with the buildup of raw trainable talent, and that is a difficult rope to walk. Adds Carvey: No matter how good a persons reel is, to work in a professional environment, they need to have enough experience to estimate how long it will take to implement an assigned task to a particular level of quality. It also takes experience to know how to interact with team members regarding critiques, direction and sheer communication True production experience is hard to find. Our core team is pretty tight, and we all expect freelancers to work really hard, and live up to their claims of speed and quality.

And this is just the crux of the matter here: and live up to their claims of speed and quality. Your experience is measured in reputation. Referrals are the number one way to get your foot in the door anywhere, especially in film and TV work. A hiring manager will feel much better knowing the person is referred to them by someone they know. As such, I find referring students or colleagues of mine a very serious matter that can have a negative impact on my own word and reputation. Referring a slacker is as bad as slacking off in your own job, so it is of the utmost importance to maintain a solid reputation with your fellow students and colleagues, and most definitely any teachers you may have who are working professionals. This is a strong point Sean Wagstaff and I tried to make in our book, Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People (Sybex Inc.).

Like Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, there are lots of books available that have good tips.

I know that I personally affected the hiring decisions of quite a few students and colleagues that I was impressed with or heard good things about. Personally speaking, I have gotten every single job I have maintained over the past nine years through the referrals or recommendations of my peers. But the flip side of that double-edged sword is as every bit sharp when you fail to impress, or worse, disappoint.

This is an incredibly tight-knit community; word gets around about your reputation faster than you would believe, especially when its bad. In one amazing case, I heard about an incident involving a job applicants serious misstep through the grapevine before my good friend had the chance to tell me about it that night on the phone. And while memories fade over time, you never want a bad rep to follow you anywhere for any amount of time.

I also find that a lot of my students tend to want to jump straight into the glory jobs right away; almost everyone wants to character animate for example, or lead composite on huge movies. This simply isnt a possibility in most cases, and I frankly find it suspect that a fairly inexperienced student may be able to get in on the ground floor of a studio as a lead, only to find out how difficult it is to keep the quality of work high and stay on track and within what must be a miniscule budget, not to mention the quality of the project and its little to no impact on furthering a solid demo reel. This is a very serious thing to watch out for, and being able to gauge your own level of experience and expertise and being honest about it is important, especially if you are looking for upward movement. This, as we will explore later, only comes with experience and dumb luck.

But capitalizing on an upward hiring trend means being able to get into a position, no matter how low, with a studio that is working on extremely good content. That means taking the offer to be a roto guy on a serious film like Spider-Man 3 over a composite lead position on a straight to video piece that would not look as good on your reel. These jobs will always be out there, and you will inevitably find yourself in one at some point in your career (believe me on this!), but being able to get on to top shelf content when the hiring is open at any level is key to building a reputation and reel that will get more noticed no matter how low the hiring market gets. True CG generalists who are capable of delivering phenomenal work on all levels will always be able to find work, affirms Carvey. Getting that level of work on your reel is the hard part, and when the industry gets as busy as it is now, that is the prime time to get that experience.

And what of those looking for upward movement? This is truly a hard question to grapple with since this is a really strange industry. As I mentioned before, moving up involves having the experience that will make a producer or supervisor confident that you will not screw up their shots. So getting good at what you do will definitely help you move up. But, and heres the kicker Yossarian would be proud of: If youre good at what you do, why should a studio want you to do anything else?

Brian Begun has ridden the industry pendulum for years, collecting credits when times were good, which helped him keep afloat when times were bad.

A lot of upward movement in this industry involves moving laterally as well. In most cases, Id say, you need to move out to move up, a diagonal shift, if you will. Making the jump from a CG artist to a lead may not be too difficult in one place that has the work in-house, but getting yourself on set as a supervisor or manager is when you need to think about relocation. And this again points straight back to your reel and experience. And as Begun suggests, finding the next higher position [is] a little bit timing, a little bit luck and who you know (although I believe that we are capable of making most of our own luck). My own diagonal movements have come from as much luck as they have my work to date. People need to know who you are before they can trust you with the responsibility of putting together and leading a team, unless you already have a proven track record for it. Without that under your belt, its up to the folks you already know if youre up to the rather hefty challenge of supe work, and that is no small step for any hiring manager to take.

But if you take anything away from this, remember these words: Who you know. You have to be able to impress the ones you work for and with to stand a chance of being able to move up and around. The best hiring market is your circle of colleagues and the news on the street. Its the people who are first starting out that have the most difficult time because they have little to no connections.

Eric Keller, a CG artist who recently relocated to L.A. from back east, admits that having an in as well as experience is really important: A good demo was all you needed a few years a go, but now every company has stacks and stacks of unwatched demos on their desks. Plus the reality of work is very different from the experience in school; therefore, experience tends to make a huge difference I just relocated to Hollywood so I still have a lot of people to meet. Keller has been finding short-term freelance work starting with a few referrals from the couple of folks hes known out here, and is slowly but surely building his credibility.

So if you dont have a tight network to draw from, where can you find other hiring markets? What happened to the troves of recruiters and booths at SIGGRAPH looking to pluck talent out of the masses? Its been a declining roll for SIGGRAPH the past few years, especially as a venue for finding jobs (although Disney Feature Animation just proclaimed that it would be actively recruiting CG talent at this years SIGGRAPH). So it still holds promise; its just in a different flavor now. At SIGGRAPH, companies are inundated with reels, Thompson suggests. Savvy applicants send their work to companies several months before SIGGRAPH so they will have an opportunity to review it When professionals wait to submit their reel during SIGGRAPH, they are doing themselves a big disservice as thousands of reels are being submitted at that time. But SIGGRAPH can be a good place to make connections and meet people. There just doesnt seem to be a traditional way to find out about jobs aside from online postings, so that is the best place to look, if you do not already have a network of people to hear about jobs through.

Dariush Derakhshani has written a slew of articles littered throughout the Web, wrote the book Introducing Maya: 3D for Beginners and contributed to Maya: Secrets of the Pros, Maya 5 Savvy and Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People.