Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#0026 Better Pipelines with Pros

A complex fractal image, generated in PASCAL.

Since my last post, life has been full of adventure and chaos,
most of it unrelated to CG Supervision. My daughter started college, our family was forced to find new housing when our landlord lost his house to the bank, looking for work, and a million other distractions. Through it all, I have been thinking long and hard about the future directions that CG Supervision is taking, and how I can help readers understand the changes that are happening and I believe will be coming so we can shape a future good for the CG industry and good for ourselves.

My intention has been to continue the CG pipeline series, and in post #0024 "Just a quick update..." I outlined the series direction. That intention remains, but it is a major undertaking that requires a good deal of focused time. Most of my thinking lately has been on the way VFX companies recruit and hire, probable directions of the CG industry and its import to myself and my readers, and new technologies and methods for command and control of the CG pipeline.

Hollywood Sign 
I believe that the worldwide economic condition is effecting CG workers globally, with large effect on U.S. visual effects CG workers, due to the outsourcing of jobs worldwide.  Outsourcing has been on the rise for over 15 years now, and today the effect can be seen looking at job boards like CreativeHeads, where the majority of ads placed are for jobs in England, Canada, and Australia. The U.S. market is still strong in games production, judging by CreativeHeads ads, but ads for non-U.S. jobs now dominate by 2:1 or greater. And that's a job site with HQ in Los Angeles, the historical heart of film making. The job board Smoothdevil caters almost exclusively to the European market and is quite full of offerings.

For single workers with Bachelors degrees under age 30, opportunities abound to work abroad on what are called work-vacation visas. To get one in many countries, you need to declare an intent to vacation in the country where you will work, and the visa you apply for allows you to work to pay for your vacation. Neat legal opportunity to see the world and work abroad, if you are single and 18-30.

After age 30 through 49, you can still get a work visa in many countries. For example, to work in Canada, you need to score 67 points on their qualification test. A Bachelor's degree is worth 20 point, and so on. After age 50, points are subtracted for your age.

Age discrimination is packaged subtly in the U.S. market as well. When an ad suggests "3-5 years experience", you need to understand that 5 years is considered a maximum. Showing more experience will most likely result in your resume being tossed. Employers in this way are limiting the job pool to workers more or less fresh out of college and those with less than five years experience: effectively cutting out most workers over 30.

Students working on class assignment in comput...
How does hiring 
less experienced workers

effect the CG supervisor? 

First, it means that increasingly, you are working with people who barely will know how to get a shot made. Your crew will comprise relatively green workers with relatively narrow work skills --specialists. Oddly, a specialist used to mean someone who spent years in a craft as a generalist who gradually developed a specialty, for example, in Lighting. Today, it's the opposite: a specialist is someone who after graduation, fell into an entry level job, did mainly lighting, and now does that fairly well, but cannot animate a camera to save his life.

Your CG crew will include a few people who have been around a while, providing some depth of experience, but after a few years these people may be cycled out of the company for younger, lower-paid workers, easy to do as each film wraps. A percentage of experienced workers are retained and paid very well, but in most cases the staff comprises specialists who repetitively do the same sort of shots for months at a time. Some will graduate into "supervision", which means a technical leader to most companies, and the rest will be let go.

The upshot for the CG supervisor is that your pipeline can become less and less flexible if your staff is less and less versatile.

Now a large VFX production company can handle that, but smaller companies need versatile pipelines. Hence the long-term prospects for employment in the VFX business for workers who fall out of the large production houses, is going to be smaller companies and starting their own small companies. Some will freelance for a few years, but if you leave VFX film making for a few years to pursue other interests or opportunities, your reel becomes stale and your skills are questioned. You may be better than before: faster, nimble, experienced, but the VFX world is looking for cheap.

This is odd, because often VFX large houses pay more than the small houses for less qualified workers. When I was hiring for a small CG production department, I was able to find workers with broader skill sets and hire them for less than workers who were specialists. I was able to hire good people at rates below those commonly paid by large studios because I was working with mostly generalists.  I hired roughly a third senior people and a third juniors, with a solid core of experienced generalists in the center.  A few of our exceptional people had both general and specialized skills, which helped us meet occasional special needs.

Let's face it, older workers are less likely to pull an all nighter and more likely to want time with their families.  But we as supervisors should not view these as negatives; after all, the point in working is to support life, so why complain when people want to live it?  We should expect a fair return for wages and can ask workers to be there for the big crunch, but we don't own them.

I find the situation sad, in part because it shuts out workers beyond a certain age (who leave the business in frustration), in part because it limits job opportunities for experienced workers (including CG supervisors), and in part because the inefficiencies of using poorly trained and inexperienced workers will eventually manifest themselves in an inflexible and less effective pipeline.

Further, the world population, especially in the U.S. and other "western" countries, is aging.  Bill Bennett writes about the problem of age discrimination toward knowledge based workers in "The madness that is age discrimination" http://bit.ly/3g2Eqj

Sure, human brains slow down as we age, but they also amass experience and wisdom. Older workers have a lot to offer. It may be true that they can’t work through the night as frequently as youngsters or go on so many of those macho programming ‘death marches’. On the other hand, older workers tend to be more reliable and stable.

Perhaps the silliest aspect of age discrimination is that while the skills shortage may not be pressing right now, it hasn’t gone away. Many knowledge based industries are finding it hard to recruit enough youngsters, as older people drift away many won’t be capable of making a return if industry wakes up and decides it needs them any way.

The loss of efficiency in pipelines due to replacing experienced workers with specialized novices will put more pressure on producers and supervisors to use cheap (inexperienced) labor. Further, the loss of an experienced labor pool will eventually become an issue if not enough generalists and experienced older workers are retained.  The abandonment and loss of experience in local markets will drive more and more outsourcing.  Good for my non-U.S. readers, bad for the rest.

Or is it good for the non-U.S. vfx workers? Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a feature article about visual effects outsourcing to international vendors. The article reported that once vfx was established in a country for a few years, wage and efficiency pressures made outsourcing there less attractive, and the outsourcing was shifted to a country with a lower standard of living. Eventually, your company's new facility in India will exhibit the same inefficiencies as the one in Los Angeles, and management will start looking at China or Nigeria or Kamchatka.

Eventually we will run out of poorer nations, but that will not happen for a long, long time. The message to everyone working in this industry, whether you are in Los Angeles, Melbourne, London, Vancouver, Casablanca, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai.... your company can outsource your job, and will, unless it sees working with you is worth their money.

I believe the problem of VFX production costs cannot be solved by continually shopping for an outsource vendor in a cheaper nation. The problem is that we need to embrace experienced workers for the efficiencies they can bring to an operation. Not all older workers will meet the criteria of efficiency I'm talking about, because age does not guarantee experience and skill. But as I have long observed, the challenges in CG-VFX are often how well and how quickly we can solve technical and artistic problems.

An assembly-line mentality is not geared to solving problems- it works by avoiding problems. There are two groups of people who are good at solving problems: young, energized artists with new ideas AND enthusiastic, experienced artists who know how things work. The best is the skillful worker, with youthful energy and years of experience, who keeps his mind and ideas fresh and knows his tools well enough to animate with his eyes shut. I'm saying that to build better pipelines, stop looking for the cheap laborer who can follow a template tutorial: hire the generalist who is specialized. Build better pipelines with pros.

Finding and recruiting experienced workers is one of our key responsibilities as CG Supervisors. Looking for better people and putting them to work is what we need to do to make our pipelines more efficient. It's not easy, and it begins with ourselves. As the saying goes, "wake up and smell the coffee!"

  * Description: Coffee cortado (An latte...
Are we staying up with new technologies? Are we keeping abreast of changes in our field? Are we stimulating our imaginations? Are we letting management know we are relevant and important?

Are we technologists who happen to supervise, or are we supervisors who love the technology and the art? A CG supervisor is one who works with people to get the job done, gives them training and tools, and provides and promotes effective policies and work procedures.

Have fun on your job!          

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Anonymous said...

once more, loved your insights. Very good read. scary though. I can only presume that small studios will not hire abroad as easily. it takes infrastructure, or does it still?
Also if you have production which is highly specific to that particular region... (language, culture so on.
But I guess that does not concern big movies.. Or is it valid in any case?
And yes, getting old becomes more scary then ever...