Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Train Wreck That is Computer Animation Production: A Postmortem

[Updated 4/15/2013]

There are many different issues affecting the health of the visual effects and related computer animation industries in high-end, e.g. motion picture, television and web production. The reason this situation is so complicated has many origins but not least is that it has been building up now for many years, well over a decade and probably closer to two.

So when the train wreck happens, and people are finally willing to take action or potentially change their behavior to improve things, it is not at all easy to figure out how to make changes that will substantially improve the situation. An ounce of prevention might have avoided a pound of cure, or maybe even a ton of cure, but that is water under the damn dam by now.

But what exactly is this train wreck?   What is it exactly?   I think it is the following things.  That a large number of people, Americans and others,  were encouraged to devote a tremendous amount of energy and time and money to become skilled in this area of computer animation, only to discover that there was no reasonable employment for them that would allow them to live a reasonably secure life and support their families.   And that furthermore, having made this bad choice, that it was in fact too late for them to change direction because their career has been, from the point of view of employment, set.   Thus we have thousands and thousands and thousands of people either impoverished or going from bad company to bad company trying to earn a living.   This human misery is the primary part of the train wreck.  Secondarily, that in the process of creating a new industry, computer based visual effects and computer generated films, we not only wiped out several earlier industries, but because of subsidies and globalization we lost our own industries, and that the American computer animation and visual effects industries no longer exist or are on the verge of being completely eliminated.  And third, that in spite of the great technical advances in 3D, that in fact there is very little demand for those skills outside of certain kinds of animation production, and those who specialized in them, and helped create them, are very likely to never work again.

What led to this situation?  Let me count the ways.  But not everything on the list that follows is of equal weight, and not all of them are bad.  Furthermore, some of them are vague.   Had computer animators organized as a labor group from the beginning, would it have made a big difference?  Would it not in fact have hampered the industry and perhaps kept it from coming into existence?   Quite possibly, but on the other hand, the failure to organize and have a plan in place to deal with the project-nature of the business and have a method for benefits to transcend that is a fundamental mistake.

One more thing.   This is not black and white.  You are going to have to think.  Don't assume I am wrong if you disagree, instead find out more about what I am talking about.  Obviously this is from my point of view.

So cut me some slack, people, and pay attention: I am not doing this for me as much as I am doing this for you. I have at best a fatherly attitude towards the situation. I can't force you not to do drugs and drive drunk, but I can sure as hell make sure you know that you are risking your life when you do so. And since I am one of the people who invented the automobile, to continue our analogy, I feel some responsibility to do so.

Each item below could be at least a paragraph, if not an essay.

The situation has its origins in, among other things:

- subsidies from foreign governments to production companies doing work in their country
- combined with production companies that are self-financed through production and therefore have very low reserves and very tight constraints on what they can do at any one time,
- the labor intensive, highly skilled nature of the work, 
- in an industry that has through competition driven the margin to essentially zero such that a production company can do a tremendous amount of work, spend a lot of money, and end up with almost nothing in the bank when they are done,
- with perceived lower cost of labor in some countries combined with the belief that the labor is a commodity, 
- the belief of the customer that the work itself (VFX and animation) is a commodity and is only differentiated by cost ... in other words that the production companies are not very different from each other, (3)
- the improvement in the enabling technologies that make remote collaboration and remote production possible and the willingness on the part of the customers to use remote production (1)
- the glut in labor resulting from extreme exaggeration of the labor market available and the perceived glamour of the market area due to all the media hype and the encouragement of such events as SIGGRAPH (2)
- the contempt for and dismissal of anyone with experience in production
- the failure of both labor and production companies in this country to make allowances for and set up systems to accommodate the project-nature of the work unlike other aspects of the motion picture industry.
- the failure of labor and production companies to use the political tools at their disposal to see that certain advantages in foreign countries, particularly subsidies, are either matched or eliminated.
- the disinclination of the studios to be involved with and finance the costs of production and R&D
- the boom and bust nature of the business which by definition is going to grow and shrink dramatically based on perceived market conditions. This is true, but different, for visual effects and feature animation, e.g. they have their own cycles of boom and bust separate from each other.
- the specificity of the skills involved: people who do not have work are not qualified to do anything else.

None of the above should be the least bit new to anyone.

Each of the above deserves at least a paragraph if not a paper to describe, define and explain what is meant. If you do not think that a point above applies, then you might want to think again or inquire. Because the fact is, they are all part of the enabling situation here that has led to our train wreck.

For example, many people are calling for labor to organize.  On the one hand I am always in favor of labor organizing to present a united front to management.  In this case, I doubt very much if labor organization, possibly even unionization, would have made a huge difference, but it might have made a minor difference in the following way: (a) there might be a system set up to accomodate some of the continuation of benefits for project oriented people and (b) there might have been more in the area of the political process here: particularly involving the US Govt and foreign subsidies.   I doubt very much if unions would have done much to help improve employment in this country in this case, which is probably what most people would desire or expect from a union.

In order to not be perceived as being so negative (although in fact I am), the following has also happened which is not necessarily bad, in fact, they are very good. Even if they may in some sense contribute to this problem in some sort of ironic way:

- a massive increase in the demand at the high end for computer animation because of the great successes brought about by this technology
- a massive increase in the power of the computation, disk, networking, etc, available at any price.
- a much better set of software that is available more or less off the shelf combined with greatly improved techniques
- a set of software that labor can learn on their own or through experience that makes them valuable to a different production company (e.g. you do not have to train everyone from scratch).
- a vastly increased set of skills that can be called upon in a project (e.g. character animation is both a talent and a craft, and good character animators were not really available early on, certainly not in any quantity).

In the next post we will address the first of these as it is so important to the current train wreck: subsidies by foreign nations.  Click here.

Train Wreck at Wikipedia


1. It used to be the case that the studios would not work with visual effects production companies outside the Los Angeles area.

2. ACM SIGGRAPH is a major offender in this area. The various vendors in the industry are also a part of this hype: they encourage people to go into this field and spend their money and time, but turn their back when people can not get jobs.

3. In other words, the studios and film productions believe that the work is all alike, or close enough, so why not go to the lowest-cost provider?

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