End of an Era

In May of 2005, I graduated from art school. I was terrified that I had not been recruited before the end of the semester, like many of my graduating classmates were. I had my demo reel (a series of clips demonstrating what you can do), and it was specialized around lighting and texturing surfaces. In those days, you needed to burn DVD’s to mail to recruiters, so I made sure I bought slim-line DVD cases. I printed color DVD labels, and made a DVD sleeve for the slim case. When you send things out, to be judged based on your schoolwork, it can really put you ill-at-ease about yourself. After all, it was a personal effort. It was very hard not to take the rejection letters personally. Even more painful than rejection: complete silence.

I had an interview with Electronic Arts in Orlando, Florida (Tiburon, they called it). They were primarily working on EA Sports titles. Every year there was a new Madden, etc. They started their first non-sports game, a Superman title, and a few of my friends were already working on it. I really wanted to get on that. Instead, in the very large conference room, with 12 people in it, I got questions about what my favorite sports team was, and since I was from Tampa, they thought I must surely like The Bucs. I do not like football, and hold The Bucs, and Tampa, in contempt for all the tax shenanigans they used to extort financial backing for their state-of-the-art stadium. Remember the tax theme, it’ll come up again.

It was very clear to everyone that I would not fit in well for what they wanted me for. I bought a ticket to fly to SIGGRAPH in LA, a convention that’s held for computer graphics, which also has a job fair. No dice. After another month of sulking (a total of four sulking months) I got a call from a recruiter for Sony Pictures Imageworks. They wanted to conduct a telephone interview with me, provided I was immediately available to start work in Los Angeles (I was in Tampa).

My stomach was inside out, I was full of nervous energy. Now that I was getting hired for something, and moving somewhere, I was going to have to be in the real world. There wouldn’t be time to hem and haw. There is a tightness in your chest with this kind of anxiety, and tingly numbness in your extremities. Uncertainty sparks it. I flew out to Los Angeles with nothing but a large suitcase. I stayed at my Aunt’s in Altadena, and drove the 1.5-2.5 hour drive to Culver City in complete stop-and-go traffic. I was even late for my first day of work. Back in 2005, you couldn’t check your phone for directions.

I worked. I worked, and I worked, and I worked some more. In those days, it was project after project. There wasn’t really a life outside of work. There are so many stories like that in VFX, and tech, jobs that it’s kind of banal and gratuitous to dwell on it much more than that.

The proudest moment I had was working on the Watchmen movie. A lot of people were disappointed in it, but I liked it. (Anyone who says they should have kept the squid monsters is plain wrong.) The work was incredibly challenging for me, and it made the reward of seeing it on the screen all the better. I got to blow up four people in two shots. There weren’t a lot of those exploding people shots, so getting the opportunity to work on something so memorable was beyond my wildest expectations.

I am under NDA for the rest of eternity, so I can’t say anything really crazy, but there are public things that happened in the news over the years. They opened a New Mexico facility to take advantage of tax rebates in 2007. They bought a facility in India to handle some types of technical work in 2007. They opened a Vancouver facility when the tax rebates were better in Vancouver. They closed the New Mexico facility in 2012. They closed the India facility in 2014. What happened in the industry-at-large was basically the same, satellite facilities moving to where financial offsets were favorable.

The first time I was impacted by the shifting landscape in VFX was when I was laid off after Hotel Transylvania. I had a lot of that same anxiety from before. I had convinced myself that there were still other opportunities out there. With a new demo reel (things were all online now, no more DVDs) I applied to places, and once again went to SIGGRAPH (only it was a much smaller job fair, and everything was for Vancouver work). There weren’t as many rejection letters this time, it was mostly silence. After three and a half months, I got a call from Rythym & Hues, another large VFX house in the LA area. They had relocated their facility from Marina Del Rey to El Segundo, CA for more favorable economic reasons. They just finished Life of Pi and they were staffing up for several projects. Right before my interview, I was contacted about coming back to Imageworks, right away. I let R&H know this and they hemmed and hawed on making a decision so I had to go with Imageworks. Only 2 months later R&H filed for bankruptcy. (They also won an Oscar.) The short-term hire turned in to another long gig, and I was there until the end of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. There wasn’t anything for me to work on again, and it was getting pretty scary that there wasn’t anything to work on outside either. Digital Domain, another LA company was in trouble.

Where was all this work going? It was going abroad, for tax rebates on labor costs. Hollywood, like any industry, feels that labor is always too expensive, and can be obtained at a discount. Unfortunately, as DVD sales (remember my demo reel DVD?) declined they needed to reduce their risk but subsidizing the production of the movies they were making. You’ll recall seeing articles about why there aren’t as many middle-budget films these days. That was also part of the impact.

I was hired back to Imageworks again, only two months later this time, to work on Amazing Spider-Man 2 for a few months.

Before the end of Spider-Man, a rally was planned by VFX artists outside of the Academy Awards to draw attention to the labor situation, and what it was doing to families. It got a good deal of press, but I could tell that it wasn’t going to last. The event wasn’t really close to the Awards. No one was really going to cover very much of it. No stars would stop on the red carpet and stare at the people wearing greenscreen-green when they weren’t even on the same street block. Besides, I had to work. I went to work. The rally would have been cathartic. The news articles circulated until the next morning.

I wrapped up, again, in March. By this point the anxiety was less. I had survived this twice, remember? It would be a good “vacation” in a horrible sort of way. This time, however, I suspected Imageworks would not be calling me back to start right away. Something about it felt very permanent.

Today, it was made permanent. In Variety, The LA Times, the CBC… In a cruel twist of fate, the banner image they selected of Spider-Man with the manhole cover is something I did stereo work for (not the 2D, just the stereo). I have no credit on the film, but these things happen. It doesn’t really matter where the story ran, no one reads that stuff except the dwindling coterie of VFX artists. It’s not like Motorola closing a plant in Texas for making phones no one would buy. That’s news. It’s related to electronics, and tangentially to Apple, so it’s worth dwelling on. How entertainment is made is so dry and boring it quickly gets flushed off the home page of every site that ever posts it. Stars and directors are almost the only part that people track. People like to fixate on Kubrik, and other auteurs. That’s not to sound unappreciative, or spiteful, it’s just a fact.

People that have either already accepted positions in Vancouver, or are considering them. People that have moved to the bay area to try and make it in VFX there. People that went to commercial houses in New York to get out of film. Even people looking for work in Vancouver, where SIGGRAPH is announcing an unemployment discount for the first time ever.

I did my first stint at a small company in LA, and it was an interesting experience, for a month. I will look for other, tiny places, and tiny places after that. When I work on something, I go all-in, but if the work isn’t here to do, I don’t feel the same way about moving to chase it. International migrant work is not appealing to someone that wants certainty, that wants stability.

I hold on to those moments, like Watchmen as the reason why I have pride in what I do. I like to hold on to those moments where I worked crazy overtime for pride in my ability to do a task set before me. However, without more of those moments I fear I’ll lose momentum.

Truth-be-told, that’s why I’ve been writing so much recently. It’s why I tinker with bad code. I need something other than my career to think about or I’ll go nuts. I’ve even toyed with the thought of writing, or with web dev crap. Not because I think I have the same aptitude, nor because I think it would be profitable, but just because it would be something else. I’m even posting really awful jokes on Twitter more often because it distracts me from peering in to the abyss.

We now return to our regularly scheduled snark fest about things that don’t matter.

2014-05-30 15:07:00

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