SIGGRAPH: Artisans face transient nature of biz

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Considering a career in animation or high-end visual effects? You might want to make sure you feel very comfortable living out of a suitcase.

Leading firms in both industries are increasingly looking outside of California when it comes time to expand -- hoping to make the most of a global economy and find a location where they can do more for less. In some cases, that means operating state-of-the-art facilities in cities such as London, Sydney and Wellington, New Zealand; in others, it means taking advantage of lucrative tax incentives in places as far-flung as India or New Mexico and building facilities in those locations.

Either way, the realities are sending plenty of crafts professionals packing. Today it's not hard to find young talent who already have lived and worked in three or more countries. The adventure can be exciting for some, less so for others, but it's certain to be a topic of conversation at the 2007 edition of SIGGRAPH, which opens Sunday and runs through Thursday in San Diego.

The newly transient nature of the business is cause for alarm for many artisans. Mark Driscoll, president of Hollywood's Look Effects, explains how it directly impacted a friend and former colleague: "He went to work at Weta Digital (in New Zealand), then Animal Logic (in Australia), and now he's in London at Double Negative. He just chased who was hiring for projects.

"For the young, able bodied person, sure, why not, but I think its harder and harder on people with families," he adds. "There are supervisors we talk to who are turning down big jobs because they have a family, and they just don't want to go overseas for 18 months."

Still, the trend is unlikely to abate anytime soon. National and state governments are regularly one-upping each other with programs designed to lure production dollars to their region, and that siren call of significant savings is too strong for most houses to resist.

"For us, the landscape is changing as a company because there are a number of tax incentives offered around the world that are making the playing field uneven," says Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks. "Since this is a global market, we should not turn our head to the rest of the world and the advantages being offered there. Mexico offers a very competitive tax incentive; India has very competitive rates with some very skilled workers there."

Imageworks is already taking advantage of these opportunities. The company maintains Imageworks India, which is expanding in Chennai, and it recently announced plans to build a facility in Albuquerque, N.M., that is expected to house an estimated 100 jobs. Sarnoff openly acknowledges that the city was selected "because the benefits are better, and the talent is either already there or can be grown."

He cautions, though, that the company is not about to pull up stakes and leave California: "We are not looking, at any given time, to move all of our facilities somewhere else," Sarnoff says, pointing out that the company has developed a satellite strategy so that sites such as Novato in Northern California can house six-to-10-person boutiques without the overhead of a full facility. "We believe there is a value to having a front door to where the talent lives and where the clients are."

Imageworks is not the sole U.S. operation with ties to India, however. Rhythm & Hues already has a base in the country, and Technicolor Content Services has a majority stake in Bangalore-based Paprikaas Animation Studios, which is planning a major expansion of its business -- including doubling its staff with 150 new jobs.

Outsourcing and collaborating with other Technicolor businesses such as the Moving Picture Company in London is part of the plan.

Similarly, Mumbai-headquartered facility Prime Focus acquired London-based companies VTR, Clear and the Hive in 2006 to form Prime Focus London. The idea, executives say, was to have a base in London but retain the ability to send work back to the Mumbai facility -- where Prime Focus employs a significantly larger staff that can finish jobs on a tighter budget.

The company already has said that it is looking to acquire a company in the U.S. for the same purpose.

Foreign work can bring with it favorable exchange rates and a cheaper labor pool, many members of which are often trained by Los Angeles-based professionals. "There are people being sent to India to teach (local staff )," says Academy Award-winning visual effects innovator Richard Edlund. "In the digital world, if you have someone with talent working on one or two shows, you will have talent base in that country. I think it happens remarkably quickly; people become proficient on (the tools)."

"When you look at (the population) in India -- and China, who are gearing up -- the likelihood is 4-to-1 in finding talent," Edlund adds.

That increased pool of talent only underscores how important it is for visual effects and animation professionals to be willing to go where the work is. Laika president and CEO Dale Wahl admits: "We have found people who are willing -- and a few who are not willing -- (to relocate)."

Director Henry Selick's upcoming Focus Features' stop-motion animated 3-D film "Coraline," set for release in 2008, is currently in production at Laika's new Portland, Ore., campus, which is now under construction. Eventually, the facility could expand from its initial 18-acre footprint to a total of 30 acres, and it will house facilities capable of producing a CG feature.

Vancouver's Rainmaker Animation also is expanding. The company is producing its first computer animated feature, "Escape from Planet Earth," a planned 2008 release from the Weinstein Co. about a family of aliens that tries to break out of Area 51, and execs recently revealed plans to produce an animated feature trilogy based on the CG animated TV series "ReBoot."

"Our business in Vancouver has been enhanced by the government incentives, but it is becoming more of a level playing field with incentives in the U.S.," company CEO Warren Franklin explains. "But once you established your talent pool and ability to handle large projects, people want to work with you."

The good news for animators, though, is that there are more jobs to go around thanks to the onslaught of CG features heading into production. "That's one of the challenges that we do face," Wahl says of the employment shortage. "There are more animated films coming out. We all need 200-250 production people per film."

The day-to-day challenges of tight budgets and shrinking schedules also is significantly impacting the visual effects industry -- with technicians under the gun to complete more shots of greater complexity for big-studio blockbusters. Just look at Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." The final reel of the film contained more visual effects work than the entirety of many effects-driven features -- the maelstrom sequence alone was comprised of roughly 360 shots.

"The visual effects industry has always been a difficult business proposition," Imageworks' Sarnoff says. "For the most part, it is work for hire, and you are budgeting the work without all of the information. You are held to the bid, even as the work may change. It's a recipe for disaster for many companies."

Adds Industrial Light + Magic's John Knoll, who was the visual effects supervisor on all three films in the "Pirates" franchise: "It's very cost-competitive, and doing work that quickly is difficult to do inexpensively. Now, so much of the work has to be done on overtime and weekends. It can't be scheduled in an efficient manner."

Bidding comes with other dangers in the form of competition. "If a company does not have a mandate to be profitable this year, it can work below costs," Knoll points out. "There are companies that are willing to do that, but it makes it very difficult for companies that have to be profitable. The margins have become razor thin. The studios depend on high-quality work from us, but seem to resent even the implication that we might be profitable."

Successfully navigating these waters, Knoll and Sarnoff agree, is about having an experienced team. Of course, larger projects can require more shots than any one house can deliver, which is why so many companies are partnering on major features. Studios and VFX producers are really managing these arrangements, according to Mark Miller, president of Digital Domain.

"There's specialization everywhere, and they are really picking their spots for where the work flows," he says. "They are coming to us for what we do best, and going to smaller place for what they do best. What changes for us is instead of pursing whole shows now, we are pursing the meaty work of these shows.

"Certainly with globalization," he adds, "that's not going to change."


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