I am still amazed at how my post, The Unofficial Truth about The Industry, is still relevant in todays world. I often feel like I should do an update, but after writing one up, it turned out be its own new thread. So here, I present you with The Unofficial Truth about The Industry Part 2, with common questions Ive received, and my thoughts.
How has the industry changed over the years?
The computer graphics industry is now a global multi-billion dollar empire that spans entertainment, industrial, and public use, and within each are several sectors:
- Visual effects for feature films, television, and commercials
- Computer animated feature films and tv shows.
- Video games and computer software applications.
- Stereo conversion and remastering.
- Architectural previsualization
- Medical and forensic animation
- Legal and professional animation
- Computer generated performances (ie: Tupac by Digital Domain)
- Displays, including art, billboards, banners, and other ads.
- Internet based content and viral campaigns
Within each of these sectors there have been many changes- perhaps too many to list. I would like to focus on my particular experience in the entertainment industry.
So then, how has CG changed in the entertainment industry?
First, computers and the programs needed to create high-end computer graphics are now readily available to anyone in the world, regardless of location. Second, the industry has heavily invested in the internet, file-sharing, and new technologies that allow remote reviewing of work. And finally, companies have taken advantage of cost differences from one location to another by investing in local infrastructure and resources.
The result is a global workforce of computer graphic workers who are capable of producing high-end work at varying degrees of costs. Talent used to be the sole factor in setting ones price, now it also comes down to where in the world you live. For example, I expect to pay less for animation done in Mumbai and Shanghai than done in London or New York.
Tax Incentives have played a role in the entertainment industrys expansion by accelerating the otherwise natural process of decentralization of work. This would have occurred either way, despite what some may argue. Looking at other industries proves this, and there is no sense in getting upset about tax incentives and subsidies, as many have.
Computer graphics, in particular games, film, and cg features, are just a few of many industries that are subsidized throughout the world by various governments. This is neither a new concept nor is it something that can or will be stopped.
I bring up the tax incentives because here in Los Angeles, where I am based, many of my co-workers or friends have been forced to move out of the country to find work. They blame two things: Californias lack of investment in the film industry, and other governments investment in the film industry.
Indeed, these have played a part, but I assure you that the internet, hardware and software entry costs, and the increase of global talent played a much larger part. Even without tax incentives, places like Weta Digital, Double Negative, Animal Logic, and MPC would still have found a way to survive and establish themselves.
Likewise, Pixar has opened in Vancouver and Dreamworks is investing in China. This is to be expected.
So a few changes have occured to the job market, and there are now some new problems:
Why are there so few entry level jobs now?
Due to globalization and reduced barriers to entry, an entry level job in computer graphics is difficult to obtain because most entry level tasks are considered routine and low-risk jobs. Those jobs are now being done overseas or in lower wage environments. You are more likely to get an entry level job in India doing VFX than you are in Los Angeles.
Why are there fewer jobs overall?
Again, due to globalization and reduced barriers to entry, competition between companies has increased dramatically. It is not uncommon for a company owner to decide to bid below cost to a client in order to obtain work. The hope is that they can turn that around on the next client and make up the difference. Often this backfires resulting in closure.
Secondly, the available capital to entry level employers has diminished significantly since the collapse of the American banking system and the EU. The result is tighter rules on money and less investment capital available to startups. New companies are no longer able to use lines of credit to make it between projects, and are also forced to lower margins due to increased competition. The combination of competition and financial industry woes has affected the global economy, and computer graphics is not exempt.
Im a senior artist and I still cant find a job, why is that?
The answer to this question also has two parts. With the surge of computer graphics as a whole, the educational industries have capitalized on students who are looking to join the field. This has created more workers available. Many of those workers now have access to the same tools, or perhaps even newer tools, than artists working in production. The work they produce can be higher level than someone with several years of experience.
For a senior level artist, they will feel pressure from wages being lowered in regions that they are not working in. For example, a senior animator in Los Angeles may have made $50/hour, but in Vancouver for the same job at the same company they are being paid $30/hour, thus applying direct downward pressure to the wages of the animator in Los Angeles.
Your problems are new grads, in over supply, who are able to produce high level work for cheaper than your current rate, compounded with your competitors who are doing the same job in a different location for less money overall. Therefore the only solution is to either take a pay cut, move up the ladder to a higher paying job, or move to a different part of the world where your skills may be in higher demand.
A highly skilled animator in Wellington working at Weta will make more money than a highly skilled animator at Framestore working in Vancouver, for example. The artist in Wellington is exempt from the Framestore artists wages applying downward pressure because Weta is in demand and therefore the artist is in demand. The two go hand in hand.
Why are staff jobs so few and far between now?
Most computer graphics related jobs are project based. It used to be that projects would overlap and/or there would be larger profit margins and reliable clients with regular cash flow to allow artists to stay employed between projects.
With increased competition, less certainty about future clients, and cashflow strains, businesses are unable to offer as many full-time staff positions as in the past. As a result, many computer graphic related artists are contract employees working project to project.
The film industry is built around this model and it seems as though feature film visual effects are catching up. Meanwhile computer generated films seem to be able to generate more stability for employees, but due to increased supply of animated films there is now more competition at the box office. Not all CG animated feature films result in full-time staff jobs, and there are many companies trying to move to a project-based business model to save costs.
Video games is still one area that offers employers access to ownership of the company and possibly a piece of reward on original IP the game developer is making. However, many game studios are wary of giving out ownership or project bonuses due to the high availability of artists. Why would they give you a piece of something when someone else will do the job for a salary or even on a contract?
What can I do to make myself more employable?
This question is difficult to answer. Two options exist:
Become a very specialized and very technical person with a deep understanding of something specific, like backend pipelines for Nuke, or character rigging, or perhaps software development for simulations. These jobs are still in high demand and low supply, with few people technically capable of executing these jobs at a high level.
Become an amazing generalist. A generalist nowadays must be able to model, texture, light, shade, render, and do a final CG composite. Many can also rig, animate, run simulations, and write pipeline code when necessary. The best generalists are still in high demand and can therefore bring in higher hourly rates because of the cost savings they offer. When one employee can do the job of four, they can charge twice as much and still save the employer half the cost of doing the work.
What does the future for computer graphics look like?
In the entertainment industry in particular, the studios are making less films and therefore there are less visual effects that need to be done. The work that is being done tends to go to the larger shops who can handle big projects. This is the current trend.
There is a new market of online content, such as Netflix and Amazon, both developing original IP into streaming shows for subscription based audiences. I believe this may be the future for visual effects.
For feature animation, the sector is very strong and still produces massive windfalls. Despicable Me 1 and 2 comes to mind as more recent successes. I expect this market to continue to do well and produce new jobs into the future. Those jobs may be in lower paying markets or markets with incentives, but there is a demand for talent in this area.
For video games, that market is also still very strong, and with the release of X-Box One, the new PlayStation console, Steam, iOS and Android, the possibilities are increasing for artists in these areas. The video game marketplace is huge and is constantly growing.
In general the employment questions still have similar answers, with some minor changes here and there.
If you feel like youre completely hopeless and dont see a future in computer graphics then you must be looking through a tiny crack in the window. If you open it up youll find there are many areas that are growing and opportunities exist in places now that did not exist at all as recently as ten years ago.
The one thing I would advise now more than ever is to avoid overpaying for education. The cost of education has gone up faster than the wages that can be earned in computer graphics. Self-education has become more important than ever. There are good programs out there, and at a reasonable cost, so look to those approaches first. Online classes, in my opinion, are one of the best ways to learn right now.
Hopefully this helped flesh out the original post a bit better, and offer some new insights.