Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Then and Now

As Mark Twain says, history doesn't repeat itself ... but it rhymes.


In 1979, after a decade of losing animation jobs to less expensive overseas studios, The Animation Guild ent on strike for contract protections against runaway production. After a two-week walkout, they got it.


[In 2013, 400 visual effects workers protested runaway production at the Academy awards.] ... It is now status quo for visual effects to be created abroad, where there are low currency rates, government subsidies, cheap labor or tax breaks. ...

What's happening with visual effects today happened with hand-drawn animation forty years ago. Cel painting went away, then animation went away as American television animation was outsourced to Japan, Korea and the Philippines (among other places.) And now?

... Countries with lower workers' compensation like India and China are offering a 20-60 percent discount in production in hope that cheaper visual effects studios will help attract other technology industries to their regions ...

And so you have the Visual Effects Society issuing white papers with familiar-sounding remedies:

"[To stay in business, visual effects companies] could focus on commercials, which have a quicker turn around. Or, they could concentrate on creating preliminary effects designs in pre-production. This would protect their creative involvement by setting the design in LA before post-production work is outsourced for completion."

This is pretty much what animation companies resorted to decades ago. When the production work went overseas, Hanna-Barbera and others held on to pre-production work (scripts, storyboards, design work) which companies occasionally tried to ship abroad, mostly with bad results.

Today, strangely enough, the animation industry is still rolling along in Southern California, and there are more people employed than during the days when animation work was totally in Los Angeles County. But production work is still largely shipped abroad.

If I had a crystal ball, I would predict that visual effects work will hang on in Southern California, but look different than the present business model. There will be more pre-production and more pre-viz, more theatrical animation and live-action "money shots" created locally, more wire removal, crowd scenes, comping and lower budget animated features created aboard. The work won't vanish from Southern California because the talent pool is deep and the talent pool is needed. And low wages in cheaper countries tend to rise, and subsidies aren't forever.

On the other hand, the corporate feeding frenzy for visual effects, which caused job stability and higher wages in the 1990s, probably won't be coming back. Visual effects employees are going to have to adapt, some of them big time. The future for animation/visual effects in Southern California won't be lollipops and roses, but it won't be a scorched desert, either.


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