Bringing the Force to Singapore

Lucasfilm training goes global.

When George Lucas launched Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore in 2005, he felt that working within Asia’s anime culture would help foster the look he wanted for his Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated television series, which airs in the U.S. on Cartoon Network. To achieve this, the series spun from Lucas’ Star Wars saga required an overseas talent ramp-up that the Jedi entrepreneur had not attempted before.

Steady streams of visiting veterans from Lucas’ Northern California headquarters have helped incubate the Singapore start-up, but Lucas’ long-term vision involves building a regional talent base that will collaborate remotely with his home base. According to Lucasfilm’s Colum Slevin, who oversees the company’s global talent development, the benefits will be mutual. ‘The beauty of our Singapore operation is that we’re building it from scratch. It’s a huge training challenge for us but also a huge opportunity. We use Singapore as a ‘Petri dish’ for stuff that we ultimately want to use in California. We can try things on a slightly smaller scale and with ‘wetter paint’ than we have back here.’

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

One of those areas of experimentation has been cross-training’exchanging animators among interactive projects, TV animation and visual effects. In addition to animating Clone Wars, Singapore talent this year worked on mobile and hand-held games, and over 400 vfx shots for ILM. ‘There are subtle but profound differences in the way that animators work in these different areas,’ Slevin observes. ‘So immersing them in different day-to-day pipelines helped us break down barriers. We’ve had more opportunity to do that in Singapore than California.’

Lucasfilm has been equally ambitious in training Singaporean talent, which now numbers 280 people. ‘We consolidated our talent development at the beginning of 2008 because we recognized that we had diverse training programs and internships,’ says Slevin. What he called ‘Plan A’ of their strategy involved partnering with schools that would direct top graduates towards the studio’a typical approach in the U.S. ‘But we realized we were na’ve to think that,’ admits Slevin. ‘Given that there wasn’t a huge animation or effects industry in Singapore, it was na’ve to think there would be an educational system to support that. So ‘Plan B’ was building it ourselves.’

The result was The Jedi Masters program, aimed at training new talent from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Japan. ‘JMP is basically a six- month, paid apprentice program, and it’s our main training pipeline now,’ Slevin explains. ‘Apprentices spend the first period of time in classrooms learning the basics. The middle section’and these periods are flexible depending on the discipline’covers aesthetic and artistic fundamentals. And the last period, which usually lasts 12 weeks, is a production mentorship where they’re deployed on a project like a TV episode or a game level or a visual effects shot. They work in the midst of other artists, and if they make it, we hire them.’

The program reflects Lucasfilm’s belief that the Singapore studio can’t thrive based primarily on a staff of ex-patriots, however expert they may be. ‘That’s just not a long-term sustainable scenario,’ asserts Slevin. ‘We definitely value ex-pats and we need them, but we want regional talent.’

Ex-pat trainers from Lucas’ California divisions regularly visit Singapore to act as mentors, but the company has also built an online system that helps bridge the many time zones separating the two locales. ‘It’s great to fly people between Singapore and the U.S., but that’s expensive and ultimately temporary,’ says Slevin. ‘If you don’t have a good online solution then you’re really kidding yourself. So we do remote training sessions where trainers in California essentially broadcast their lessons to Singapore. We have an extensive documentation and learning system called LOIS, which means Lucasfilm Online Information System. It’s like a massive internal Wikipedia, though it’s not technically similar.’

He adds, ‘We’ve developed another internal tool that allows us to vidcap instructors alongside the output from their screen. If someone is teaching a Maya effects tutorial you can watch him pull down the menu and see what he does with it. That vidcap can be bookmarked and tagged so that you can watch the lesson online. It’s a pretty elaborate system that our internal training group built over the last couple of years. Everyone at Lucasfilm is on the same network so they can pull up LOIS at their desktops.’

The final piece of Lucasfilm’s training approach is provided courtesy of Singapore itself, in the form of grant called STRAT (Strategic Attachment to Training). This program enables Singaporean interns to work at Lucasfilm in California, and Slevin reports, ‘We’ve availed ourselves of the program two years in a row. We had 10 interns in one discipline in 2006-2007, and in 2008 we’ve got 23 across 10 different disciplines. After spending time in the trenches here they’ll go back to Singapore with Lucasfilm habits and values ingrained.’ Of course, adds Slevin, ‘It’s been so valuable that the guys at ILM are telling me, ‘We don’t want to give our STRAT guys back!”