Friday, June 21, 2013

Should SIGGRAPH Encourage People to Go Into Computer Animation ?

This essay is an editorial on the role I see SIGGRAPH playing over the years to encourage people to go into the field of computer animation in spite of very serious employment issues in the field.  Let me be clear that I am not referring here to the technical part of SIGGRAPH and the role they have played to publish research in this area, nor am I referring in any negative way to SIGGRAPH as an institution in some greater sense, I am however trying to get people aware that people attending SIGGRAPH are making life decisions based in part on the impressions given at SIGGRAPH and that they are being given what I think is a false impression of the likelihood that this field will be able to support them economically.   

I hear a lot of people say "Computer Animation has changed so quickly in the last few years!!". I hear some people say "The business model of visual effects is broken!!"

That is what I hear them say.

Its true that in the last six months over 1,000 people have been laid off of work.  At least 500 at Dreamworks, an unknown number at R&H but well over 500, an unknown number by Sony in Vancouver and an unknown number by Cinesite in London.   And those are just the ones I know about.  1,000 at least.

But I disagree that there is anything surprising about this.   Everything that is happening today was obvious 10 years ago or more, modulo a few details of this corporate takeover or that merger and acquisition. And the business model of visual effects is not broken, not in the least, it never worked to begin with. Nothing has changed, not for a long time. People just didn't want to know. They were too busy selling a vision that they wanted to be true. And many still are selling that vision.

Computer animators lining up for SIGGRAPH

But now one hears that there is a crisis and so people say "What can we do about it?" There are a number of things that people can do about it, but they probably won't because it will violate every bone of their rah-rah, marketing positive body.   Ok, that is not entirely fair.  But the writing has been on the wall for over a decade or more, and people / groups have not taken action until recently, and even then I am not sure that the actions that they are taking are going to help.

The first thing that SIGGRAPH could do that would be responsible here is for them to stop encouraging people to bet their careers and their lives on this field without first understanding what the likelihood of success will be. To encourage people to choose computer animation as a career, whether in technical, research or production, without a clear understanding of what the actual opportunity is would be irresponsible on SIGGRAPH's part, and yet year after year I see SIGGRAPH doing the same thing.   Which is to say, pushing the field and making it appear glamourous and rewarding in spite of the hardship, the collapse of employment, the nature of the companies and business in this field, the failure to establish computer animation outside of a few niches in entertainment, and most of all, ignoring the genuine hardship and poverty of people who have gone into this field, helped to create it, and now struggle to make a living, or fail to make a living, as the case may be.

How many black kids want to grow up and be professional basketball players? A lot, I hear. But in fact there are a very limited number of positions for basketball players even if most of them do turn out to be black. Basketball is a good way to get some exercise, and some fun if you are into that sort of thing, and work off some aggression. I used to play basketball badly, and I went to UCLA for part of my so-called higher education, so I take (college) basketball very seriously.

But as much as I think it is great to encourage kids to play sports, I would consider it irresponsible for people to go around and tell a bunch of ghetto kids that playing basketball is going to be their ticket out of poverty. It isnt, not for all but a tiny percentage of them. Hard work, education, learning skills that people want to pay for, becoming a lawyer or a computer programmer or something else that is practical will get them out of the ghetto, more likely than not.

I bet that pretty much anyone who wants to be a poet when they grow up, or a writer of american musical theatre, or a photojournalist, or a film editor or a contemporary artist of some sort, is well aware that they have a hard road to travel. In general, I would not advise anyone to try to become a professional writer of the sonnet if that is how they expect to make a living. If they can make a living another way, and then spend all their time being the best writer of sonnets that they can be, well that is a different matter. If they are independently wealthy and do not actually have to make a living when they grow up, then indeed it is a reasonable strategy to spend all your time writing sonnets.

But what if you are not independently wealthy, and you have a family to support, and you are expected to be self-supporting, and you discover that in fact there are very few real jobs in this business and you, unfairly or not, do not happen to have one of them? And you are 35 or so years old or older? And you went to SIGGRAPH for 15 years and never is heard a discouraging word? What are you going to do then?  Well, whatever it is they or you are going to do, SIGGRAPH is not going to be there to help you.  They do not even recognize the problem exists.   At the very least, new people should have expectations set correctly, and then they can perhaps make their own choices and take their own chances.

The University of Oxford Graduate Program in Archaeology is arguably the best program for archaeology in the world (or at least it is up at the top of the list) and it used to have a notice on their website that I thought was completely remarkable. I think it said something like
"We hope you will apply to our program and that you will attend. We would love to have you. But you should know that there are very few jobs for Archaeologists in this world and it might be better if you also had some other way to make a living."
I have looked recently and I have not been able to find this notice, maybe they took it down, maybe I don't remember correctly where it was. But I thought to myself, what a classy thing to do. Wouldn't it be great if SIGGRAPH would start doing the same thing?

But they won't, not in a million years.

So what I am saying here, in case it was not clear, is that SIGGRAPH could do a lot better job of letting people know how risky this field is to be in and give people fair warning.

One panel after all these years is not enough.   A Keynote speech that presents successful animation directors is unlikely to be a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, analysis of where we came from and where we need to go.   Its much more likely to be another in a series of Hollywood promotion events: "See how glamourous and rewarding it is to be a director of computer animation? "

I wonder, did anyone at SIGGRAPH stop to think how this Keynote might appear to someone who has been laid off again and again, whose various companies have gone bankrupt around them, who has to work 80 plus hours a week for people who are not fit to be their assistants or who has been unemployed for years?  "Here are the successful ones, they became directors," SIGGRAPH seems to be saying,  "Too bad you are not one of them, you must be a failure."

Until we as a community come to an understanding of who can be supported economically by this field, I think it is ethically wrong to let people think that they can have a career here.   And if they can not have a career here, then I think that SIGGRAPH ought to try at least to help those who have an investment in this field to find another way.  We, as a community, and SIGGRAPH as our leading professional organization, needs to get on solid ethical ground.

I have some suggestions on how we, SIGGRAPH, can do that, but whether you like my suggestions or not is beside the point.   First, we have to agree that we have a problem here.

Reviewed 3/7/2014

No comments:

Post a Comment