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Where the Jobs Are: Recruiting in the VFX Industry

Mary Ann Skweres looks at recruiting trends in the ever-changing world of vfx.

Job Security: Cinesite (Europe) already has projects booked for 2005.

Computer graphics and visual effects are being used in more and more films and television series, even in productions not considered big vfx shows. The trend toward vfx has increased with public demand for realism, the ability to convincingly create scenes that cant be shot and studio safety concerns over live action stunts.

Overall there is excitement at the tremendous career opportunities currently in the industry. There has been a two-year up trend in hiring that looks to continue into 2006. Some of the increase in work can be attributed to the closing of several facilities this past year, but even as they closed their doors, other facilities picked up business. The games industry has also added to the tight labor market requiring many of the same skill sets to produce increasingly realistic 3D environments. According to Patrick Kenney, senior staffing specialist, Sony Pictures Imageworks, less people are doing more work.

The U.K.-based Cinesite recently did some heavy-duty recruiting in Santa Monica, California, to staff up for future projects.

Most of the companies contract artists on a per-project basis or for a specified period of time. Most maintain a small core staff. Imageworks is unusual in that they hire artists as staff. Due to the freelance nature of most vfx/cg jobs, companies have a cyclical recruitment pattern: hire as projects are awarded and lay-off, even if temporarily, as films are completed. Theatrical features heavy on vfx are generally either big summer blockbusters or Christmas season releases. The deadline for postproduction delivery of vfx is determined by the release date. In broadcast, the pilot season, plus spring and fall series schedules dictate hiring. These different production schedules cause highs and lows, but generally the industry is always in need of experienced artists, technicians and programmers to fill positions as they are created.

The recruiting practice most common to all companies, small or large, is obtaining referrals from artists already working at the company. Although international in scope, the vfx community is still small enough to use word of mouth. Jobs and application instructions are generally posted on company Websites. Listings can also be found on Websites that specialize in vfx or animation such as VFXWorld and AWN. The biggest formal recruiting event is SIGGRAPH. Larger companies also sponsor their own hiring events, both locally and in major cities globally. Some recruitment departments keep a database of artists that previously worked at the facility, contacting them, as positions need to be filled. They also track when shows are wrapping at other studios, allowing them to contact artists, as they become available. Many will keep resumes and reels to assign applicants as positions become available.

Only last month, with four to five big film projects slated, Cinesite (Europe) scheduled two days worth of recruitment appointments in Santa Monica, California. They also held an open recruiting evening for artists unable to pre-arrange an interview. To develop relationships for future projects, pre-screened talent was recently invited to a Rhythm & Hues Christmas get-together. Although almost fully staffed, MPC is always on the lookout for talent.

Although fully staffed, Moving Picture Co. always keeps an eye out for new talent.

Sagar is pleased that people knock on our door. Competition for talent has been described by most other companies as aggressive (Zoic); fierce (Cinesite); bigger than ever seen (ILM). Lara Hopkins, senior CG producer/manager of Framestore-CFC admits, Good talent have a wide choice of companies and projects. Incentives are usually offered in order to secure and keep the best talent. Salary is not the only consideration. Health benefits, 401K savings plans, stock options, relocation expenses, car washes, even free lunch are provided. Hammerhead has a swimming pool at its regular facility. In attracting senior talent to lead a project, the type of project and the caliber of the team that they will be working with are a major consideration. Smaller companies can offer more creative control and the ability to expand skills. Larger companies offer more of a social scene but have more specialized job descriptions. Surviving 17 years in the business, Paul Sidlo, founder/ceo of Rezn8, responds, We treat people very well. With intense deadlines and heavy workloads on most projects, all companies expressed the desire to provide a good working environment for their employees.

Certain skill sets are important to all companies when hiring. Candidates should have at least two years of professional experience. Teamwork is tantamount. Understanding the tools by having knowledge of common off-the-shelf programs (i.e., Maya, Houdini, shake, flame) is necessary. All companies offer some training, especially on proprietary software and special plug-ins. Imageworks has a full four to six-week training period for all new employees. Smaller companies desire artists who can cover all the bases, according to Rocco Passionino, digital effects supervisor of Zoic. Barnes adds, We like an expert generalist. Being a boutique, we get awarded a lot of different types of shots, so having a versatile artist base is important. That means competency in several skills such as modeling, texturing, compositing. Companies engaged in R&D count strong programming abilities and a masters degree in computer science among their prized qualifications. Maruyamas ideal candidate has a strong aesthetic sense and understands complex computer technologies.

Recruiting needs change constantly. According to a majority of the companies interviewed, color and lighting technical directors are currently the hardest talent to attract. The demand is high for engineers, programmers and developers. Also in demand are character animators familiar with working not only on pencil and paper, but also within the digital realm.

With the increase in business, the talent pool has increased. Much of this new talent has come out of art schools and colleges. All of the companies interviewed work with entry-level applicants, but some university background in vfx, animation or programming is generally necessary to meet minimum entry requirements at most companies. Rhythm & Hues offers scholarships and a summer intern program in association with several colleges. ILM has an excellent apprentice program for students with a reel showing strong animation skill and knowledge. Zoic will pair a new artist up with a senior artist and then throw them into the fire. If a motivated applicant has no prior experience, Framestore-CFC starts them in a position such as a runner. If they show the right dedication and interest, they will often move into a junior position with hands on requirements [such as] the tracking team or data management.

Opportunities exist at all levels of experience. If you have the talent, secure the training. Be persistent. A position is out there if you are serious about working in the industry.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

trends09_noPhoto.jpg Jeff Barnes, exec producer of Café FX, a division of Computer Café, (Gothika, Master and Commander, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over)

trends01_KenMaruyama.jpg Ken Maruyama, recruiting manager, Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucas Films, (Van Helsing, Star Wars: Episode III)

trends09_noPhoto.jpg Sharon Berlin, human resources director and Patrick Kenney, senior staffing specialist, Sony Pictures Imageworks, (Big Fish, The Polar Express, The ChubbChubbs)

trends03_BarbaraMcCullough.jpg Barbara McCullough, recruiting supervisor, Rhythm & Hues Studios, (Garfield, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, The Chronicles of Riddick)

trends09_noPhoto.jpg Dan Chuba, vp, Hammerhead Prods., (The Chronicles of Riddick)

trends05_RoccoPassionino.jpg Rocco Passionino, digital effects supervisor for Zoic Studios, (Battlestar Galactica, CSI: Miami, Angel)

trends09_noPhoto.jpg Anna Holguin, human resources manager, Cinesite (Europe), (Harry Potter, What a Girl Wants, Buffalo Soldiers)

trends09_noPhoto.jpg Matthew Sagar, human resources manager, The Moving Picture Co., U.K, (Troy, Harry Potter, Wimbledon)

trends06_LaraHopkins.jpg Lara Hopkins, senior CG producer/manager, Framestore-CFC, U.K., (Thunderbirds, Love Actually, Troy)

trends04_PaulSidlo.jpg Paul Sidlow, founder/ceo, Rezn8, (Sci Fi Fridays, Academy Awards)