Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why Are So Many Pioneers of Computer Animation Chronically Unemployed?

Needs to be revised.

The people that I know in computer animation, who can be said to pioneer the field, fall into a number of categories.   Some are well entrenched in academia, some seem to have jobs for life at the one or two stable companies in this field, some go from job to job every 5 or 10 years, and some, quite a few, are chronically unemployed and financially ruined, or nearly so.

I think it is sensible to discuss why this might be so.  It will have implications later on when we discuss recommendations for SIGGRAPH and other topics.

Of course this is my own opinion.  So far as I know no one else discusses or is interested in the phenomenon.

My intuitive take on this matter is that it involves a lack of respect for one's elders, goddamnit.   We had to walk through the snow every day to do computer animation.  When we needed a computer we had to build our own.  We thought 250 MBs was a lot of disk.   We were excited by getting 800 vectors on the screen 15 times a second.  You kids are just spoiled, cough, cough.

Unfortunately, the rest of the essay is serious.

My first general observation is that the reasons for this chronic unemployment is that it is not just one thing, or one mistake, unless that mistake was to go into computer animation at all.  The reasons for the problem are many, with some applying to one person, but others to a different one.   The list below is an attempt to mention the major topics but not all of these topics apply to every person.

The second observation is that many of the issues below are not really mistakes at all, they are in many cases a natural result of being in this field when it was early, or other circumstantial things such as being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Also, whatever the issues are here, I do not think it is about the current economic depression we are in that the government denies exists.  Perhaps that depression and the dot com bust has made things worse, but its not the primary cause.

1. Most of the pioneers are colorful individuals who took chances, in a world which expects everyone to be like everyone else and not take risks.  So when they are considered later for employment, people who are not their peers judge them by saying they are too colorful, or controversial, or take too many risks, and they are not hired.

2. In inventing the field they made unconventional career choices or worked for companies with very short lives, and thus have a non-traditional employment history.  Again they are judged negatively and not employed.

3. Computer animation/graphics/3D turns out to be a niche field.   The few companies that advertise for 3D people are generally looking for production people to use tools, not to do new kinds of work.

4. The relationship between computer graphics technical knowledge and other related fields, such as user interface design, is not recognized.  Furthermore, even areas which use specific computer animation/3D technology have split off to form their own fields with their own credentials, such as medical imaging, or scientific visualization.

5. All of the early computer animation companies made mistakes.   Those who stayed in business were able to show that they had learned from their mistakes, those which did not were tarred with the brush of those mistakes.   

6. Many if not most of the pioneers of this field were/are multidisciplinary, and by definition multidisciplinary people are a hard sell, because they have a confused marketing image. There is lip service to something called the Renaissance Man (or Woman), but it is just that, lip service. It has no niche in the employment market.

7. Many of the pioneers ignored formal credentials because they were not relevant to inventing the field. But when the field became mature, those credentials became required for employment, so the pioneers were out.

8. Many of the companies that the pioneers worked at are no longer in business, which means that one can not return there, nor are the people to see that you get the appropriate awards, credit, etc. 

9. The field is very competitive.  People from the early days are generally slandered, unless they are in a position of power which does not describe the people who are unemployed.

10. People and companies in this field are not the least bit interested in where ideas came from, nor do they care to invent new ideas or techniques. Even if they were there is no belief that those who did the original work will do new work that matters.   Doing good work buys you nothing for the future is the lesson I have learned.

11. By definition, the people who invented the field are autodidacts and learned what they needed to learn in the process of doing. Today, people are only hired if their resume and work experience show exactly what is required and nothing else.   That does not describe the pioneers.

12. As the field matured, it became wildly oversubscribed. The tsunami of new people have no idea who or how the field was invented and could not care less.  The companies who hire have lots of choices and also could not care less.   

13. The companies that survived are generally run by people who are very competitive with the people who are out of work.

14.  Pioneers often have the problem of not being able to show new work, since their skills were often tied to proprietary software which is no longer available to them.

15. It is easier to hire someone new, recently from school, then to hire someone with experience.

16.  Jobs are limited because so many have been off-shored.

17. Ageism.   Computer animation is one of the few industries I know (along with the music industry and the game industry) that proudly admits it is ageist.

18. There is no noblesse oblige in the computer animation industry.

Are there lessons to draw from this?  Yes.  In America, to be early in a field such that you are not able to profit from it is to be wrong.    Second, it is true what they say, there are no prizes for second place.


1. There is a longer topic lurking in here, that I am skimming over in the interest of not making an already over long post even longer.   And that topic is why not do something entrepreneurial?   That is a very good question and deserves a very serious answer.  For the sake of this discussion, we are leaving the entrepreneurial issues until later.   A brief version of my take on it is that in fact there are some entrepreneurial opportunities, but that they are dicey.

[revised 6/9/2014]

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