Once again at full stride, f/x shops looks to bulk up

The pendulum, it seems, has swung back.

After weathering several lean years, when the double whammy of a soft economy and a Down Under talent drain took its toll, Hollywood’s effects houses are up and running at full stride.

“The market’s finally coming back,” says Connie Winn, director of career services at the Art Institutes, which is overseeing the job fair for Siggraph organizers this year — the first time in several years the confab has featured such a thing.

“The fact that companies are actually looking for candidates is something we haven’t seen in quite a while,” she adds.

And with big projects arriving on their doorsteps at an unprecedented rate, shops all over town have put out the welcome mat for visual effects masters, adventurous animators and other highly skilled pros who specialize in making movies on computers.

“We’re always looking for the best and brightest in artists and technology, but when we’re ramping up for big projects, the recruiting never stops,” says Stan Syzmanski, senior VP of digital production for Sony Pictures Imageworks. “We’re seeking artists who can get stuff onscreen that’s never been done before.”

From Imageworks to DreamWorks and beyond, recruiters are pursuing fresh talent while bringing back into the fold staffers who’d been lured to New Zealand by the hope and glory of “The Lord of the Rings.”

At the peak of production on the Academy Award-winning trilogy, Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop employed some 400 people.

“About 90% of the artists who went off to New Zealand were from Los Angeles,” says Laurence Plotkin, director of HR and recruitment for Digital Domain. “They saw it as a great adventure and a great opportunity to develop new skills. A number of people we had relationships with, as soon as they came back, they wanted an opportunity here to grow those skills.”

Of course, with a slew of effects-laden films and animated features either in production or just around the corner — including Disney’s “Dark Water” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and Warner’s fourth Harry Potter installment, “The Goblet of Fire” — it will take far more than returning experts on orcs and ringwraiths to handle the workload.

Which is a big reason why Siggraph decided to reinstitute its job fair for this year’s conference.and exhibition at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Skills in demand by studios and production houses span a broad spectrum of the f/x and animation disciplines and duties, covering the digital and nondigital realms, and 2-D and 3-D environments.

Digital Domain, for instance, which recently delivered shots for “The Day After Tomorrow” and “I, Robot,” has placed a priority on technical directors, f/x animators and matte painters to meet the needs for its next round of projects.

Meanwhile, on the CG animation side, the needs are many at DreamWorks, where “Shark Tale” is being finalized for an October release, the NBC animated series “Father of the Pride” is well under way and the full-length features “Madagascar” and “Over the Hedge” are being cued up.

“We’re going in all-out mode right now,” says Jane Hartwell, head of digital production for DreamWorks Animation. The company is on the lookout for technical directors, character animators and Lightwave artists, among other pros. “We’re finishing production on one film and ramping up another right after. People who can combine artistic excellence with technical acumen are hard to find, but that’s what we’re really interested in.”

One of the few houses not recruiting is Industrial Light & Magic, which is already running near capacity, with some 1,000 artists and technicians busily cranking out effects for the May2005 release of “Star Wars: Episode III,” as well as New Line’s “Son of the Mask,” Paramount’s “Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events” and Sony’s “XXX: State of the Union.” Still, ILM will have a booth at Siggraph and will be accepting resumes.

With the resurgence of activity in Hollywood, it’s logical to ask what impact this has had on New Zealand. The answer: hardly any.In fact, the Kiwis are managing quite nicely, thank you.

In Auckland, Wellington and even the South Island city of Dunedin, the f/x industry has almost more work than it can handle. Recently completed projects by New Zealand companies include shots for “Van Helsing” and “I, Robot.” And preparations are under way for Jackson’s next 800-pound — and then some — gorilla, “King Kong.”

“We know an awful lot of people came here just to get the experience of working on the ‘Rings’ films, but a lot of the digital artists have stayed on,” says Paul Voigt, a money manager for Investment New Zealand, a government agency that works closely with film companies to attract business and skilled labor. “These artists are only now fully appreciating the impact of what they’ve done and what they could do.”

To handle the additional requirements for the nation’s burgeoning film community, and to fill the holes left by those who returned Stateside, New Zealand’s government and private sector are on the hunt for more skilled help. The Kiwis, who offer a 12.5% rebate on production costs as well as a streamlined work visa process, will be represented at Siggraph by no fewer than 11 companies, ranging from Oscar-winning powerhouses Weta Workshop and Weta Digital to Oktober and Massive.

Demand for skilled help is also high in Britain, where work is progressing at full speed on Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, “The Aviator”; Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”; Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”; and the fourth “Harry Potter.” Framestore-CFC, which handled “Troy”; Cinesite; and Smoke and Mirrors are just some of the production houses churning out shots for big-budget productions, both American and British, in and around London.

“It feels as though there’s a lot of good talent out there right now,” says Digital Domain’s Plotkin. “There is an up and down to this business — it ebbs and flows. This definitely seems to be one of those up periods.”

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