Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?

VFX company recruiters reveal how to get’and keep’a job during the economic downturn.

Panels focusing on how to get a job are always among the best-attended at SIGGRAPH. But this year’perhaps reflecting the tough economic times’there will also be a panel focusing on keeping a job. Among the panelists will be representatives of three major companies: Sony Imageworks, Double Negative and Digital Domain.

‘Most of our hires are production people hired for a show,’ says Sony recruiter Ken Maruyama. Considering today’s hiring trends, Maruyama observes, ‘The industry is moving towards people who can multi-task, because everybody is looking at minimizing the number of hands that touch a shot. But larger studios usually still have assembly-line-oriented pipelines of specialists.’

As Digital Domain CG supervisor Jonathan Litt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) points out, ‘The need for specialists is directly related to the size of the facility. Smaller studios need generalists. But it’s not just generalists or specialists. You can be a ‘multi-specialist’ in neighboring specialties, like lighting and compositing.’ Sony vfx supervisor Rob Bredow (Surf’s Up) agrees. ‘We look for people who can work in adjacent departments in our pipeline. If modelers can do their own texture painting, it’s an efficient way to work.’

VFX supervisor Ken McGaugh (The Ruins), a leader of the 3D group at London’s Double Negative, says generalists have thrived at DNeg’even as the company doubled to 500 people in two years. ‘Some do specialize in our custom software, but we want people who can move around.’ McGaugh believes generalists have helped DNeg withstand the inevitable feast-and-famines in production. ‘The types of work available in London are very cyclical. Last year, when there wasn’t much creature work, we focused more on environments and effects. It’s difficult to line up projects that keep everyone happy, so it’s good that we have lots of generalists.’

‘There is an ebb and flow of opportunities,’ agrees Digital Domain recruiter Karen Sickles. ‘As technology becomes more standardized, artists who have core skills in Maya, RenderMan, mental ray or Houdini can more easily roll from company to company. It’s more nomadic, and there’s quite a herd of freelance artists in L.A. I tell students looking to enter the business that they might not get into one company and stay for years. That’s not as prevalent as in the past, at least on the visual effects side. You almost have to look at L.A. or London as ‘companies,’ and move around the different studios. Technical people tend to stay put the longest, but if they feel a pipeline has become stagnant, they’ll move on.’

McGaugh, who won a Technical Academy Award for the subsurface scattering techniques that helped Weta create Gollum in Lord of the Rings, thinks that a job candidate’s software skills should align with a studio’s pipeline. ‘When we’re hiring, we always account for the fact that people won’t know our proprietary software. What’s more important is which software package people do know. If someone only has experience in XSI or 3ds Max, they’re not going to be as usable to Double Negative right away, and that will influence our decision about hiring them.’

Special expertise can cut both ways, observes Digital Domain’s Litt. ‘If you’re a Massive software specialist you’re worth your weight in gold when a facility has a Massive show, but those opportunities come and go. You need to be able to do something else. When people have had secure jobs, they may stop keeping tabs on the rest of the industry or on how other departments in their company work. But if their job becomes less secure, then they have to catch up.’

Litt says that formal training isn’t always necessary in the field. ‘There are lots of publications and podcasts and learning versions of software to try,’ he notes. ‘It’s a huge boon that people can learn production-quality techniques on their own. Self-training of any sort is vital to keeping a job and having mobility within a company. You’ll need to show a reel if you want to change what you’re doing, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with building a reel of personal projects.’

Some companies facilitate cross-training, notes Sony’s Maruyama. ‘We’ve had success at cross-training people who were matchmovers or mocap integrators to make the move into layout.’ And Bredow, who’s worked on vfx-driven movies such as Stuart Little 2 as well as animated features like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, says people regularly petition to demonstrate they can move into new areas. ‘Since the days of Stuart Little when Sony didn’t have enough character animators, we’d give people a preliminary rig and a ball and a table and see what they could do. Not every show does auditions, but if people petition, we set them up. We probably did a half-dozen for Cloudy. There are pretty significant advancement opportunities for people willing to go that extra mile.’

Whether you’re looking to advance, or to get an entry-level position, your reel continues to matter most. Digital Domain’s Sickle asserts, ‘A one-minute reel of your best stuff is better than three minutes of not-as-good stuff. Especially for students, it’s really about editing yourself. If you’re including a group project, you need clear descriptions about what you did. Leave nothing open to interpretation.’

Sickles notes that it’s important to tailor your reel to the style of the studio you’re applying to. ‘Digital Domain looks for people who can make things look photo-real. You need to show you understand how real world environments interact with CG. And we animate digital doubles, not Mickey Mouse, so your reel needs to show your understanding of realistic weight and motion.’

If there are any exceptions to the overall advice offered by these experts, it’s in the area of research and development. Sony’s Bredow observes, ‘People who do R&D are generally the easiest to crew between shows. For example, Dave Davies, who built our crowd system Swarm, is always fought over because if you have him on your show you can easily customize Swarm. He led the destruction system on Cloudy. Of course, you have to have a natural affinity for R&D. If you find the area that comes easiest for you, your career will remain fun a lot longer.’

Bredow estimates that as 50 percent of shows represent new combinations of talent, people will continue to face the challenge of getting hired. As Sony’s Maruyama notes, ‘I tell people that their specialty skills will get them hired, but their versatility will keep them working.’