Companies fight for talent at Siggraph

Recruiters using parties to make offers

Monday night at Siggraph, several companies, including visual effects shop CafeFX, pooled their resources to throw a huge party on the USS Midway, complete with DJ, open bars, and fireworks off the flight deck.

So many people crashed the bash that for a while no one was allowed on or off the fight deck, leaving some wags wondering aloud if they’d been drafted.

Though the Midway soiree was much bigger than most, such Siggraph parties aren’t simply social occasions. They’re weapons in a battle over some of the scarcest talent in showbiz.

“There’s a war for talent out there,” says Lucasfilm director of talent acquisition BZ Petroff.

“Some of these kids want a great job right out of school,” she says. Some with the most technical skills, “can write their own ticket, and they know it.”

So fierce is the competition among animation companies, game makers and visual effects houses for talent that at times it can resemble college football recruiting — but with tech mavens at tradeshow booths, not pliant cheerleaders at keggers, reeling in the prospects.

Like college coaches after high-school grid stars, the recruiters cultivate relationships with schools and teachers around the world. As a result, they know who the top prospects are coming out of school.

DreamWorks Animation’s head of show development John Tarnoff, is involved with the company’s outreach recruiting efforts, aimed at entry-level employees. Tarnoff said Tuesday “We ran into a department head this morning from one of the big technical schools. It’s ‘Hi, howyadoin, who’s hot? Who’s coming up?”

“These are highly, highly skilled people,” says DreamWorks Animation’s head of outreach, Marilyn Friedman. “You’re still looking at a very small pool of people who get it. 3-D is hard. It’s hard technically and it’s hard artistically. We get thousands of reels every month but very few have the skill set.”

Competition for talent is not as intense as it was during the tech bubble, say Siggraph vets, but with games, vfx and animation all booming, the market favors the artists.

DreamWorks Animation, in particular, comes hard after its favorite recruits. Since DWA resembles an old-style studio, it is careful about which prospects it wants to train and “acculturate.” But once someone’s targeted, they pull out all the stops. “We’re looking for leaders, not someone to fill seats,” said Tarnoff.

That extends to no less than topper Jeffrey Katzenberg who’ll sometimes phone astonished prospects. Tarnoff tells the story of one recruit who “was walking around in shock for days. He couldn’t believe that the CEO of a major entertainment company would call him.” And indeed, he signed with DWA.

Recruiters and HR pros vie to impress top prospects in different ways.

Lucasfilm’s five business units have 20 recruiters working their booth while a parade of their top artists do presentations of their work. “Branding is very important,” says Petroff. “We’re lucky at at Lucasfilm to have excellent branding.”

Upstart Laika Animation doesn’t yet have a known brand, but it offers the chance to work with noted animator Henry Selick — and to live in Portland, Ore. CafeFX, which did the vfx and helped produce “Pan’s Labyrinth,” projects a hip, cool image; their Midway event fit with that.

More importantly, though, says Petroff, such parties usually require the invitee to provide some contact information. That goes directly to the recruiting department, which looks them up on MySpace and FaceBook, determines who the superstars are, and starts cold-calling.

In contrast, Blue Sky, Fox’s animation arm, complements its booth with more intimate private parties where prospects get quality time with recruiters and higher-ups.

Siggraph has prospered as one of the industry’s premier recruiting events. Soon, though, those efforts will get more complicated. Citing the combination of more academic papers from Asia but declining attendance from there due to visa restrictions, the org behind Siggraph intends to open an Asian edition of the event late in 2008 Given the number of young animators plying their trade in East and South Asia, that, too, is sure to become a must-attend event for recruiters.

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