Bitstream is mainstream

Even nontech gigs affected as digital revolution transforms work

It would be an overstatement to say that hiring in the entertainment sector right about now is all about technology.

Not a gigantic overstatement, but an overstatement.

Companies are still looking to fill the same positions they’ve always had — for MBAs, finance specialists, marketing people, administrative support and so on.

But as new technology makes its way into nearly every aspect of the industry — computer animation, digital storyboards, content delivery, HDTV, the Internet and so on — the employees who can adapt are the ones most likely to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Steve Hulett, business rep for the IATSE’s Animation Guild Local 839, has seen technology redefine the toon field.

In 1995 and 1996, when the hand-drawn feature world was in a boom, his union had nearly 2,800 members. By 2002, the number had fallen to about 1,500.

“We’re back up around 2,300 now, and I think the reason for that is the digital resurgence of feature animation,” he says, adding that the videogame industry (whose workers he does not represent) has seen similar growth.

“The animation business is exploding this year,” says Sony Pictures Imageworks prexy Tim Sarnoff. The company added 400 new positions last year, ranging from animators to programmers to motion-capture engineers. With the advances in technology, “we have as many artists now working on a smaller visual effects movie as we had on our largest visual effects movies a half dozen years ago,” he says, “and I don’t see movies getting simpler.”

The Internet is another hot spot for entertainment companies. Andrea Sobel, director of staffing for NBC Universal, says her company has “a major initiative in the dot-com world.”

Every one of NBC U’s channels (from Sci Fi to USA to Bravo) is expanding its Internet presence, Sobel says, and web developers, producers, digital designers and Flash pros are all in demand.

“Now in Los Angeles, there are some major dotcom players,” she says. “Yahoo has two very large facilities, there’s a Google office, Fox Interactive has hired 1,000 people since September, so the dot-com world is giving us competition.”

Meanwhile, new technology has distribution companies scrambling to find people who can identify better ways to get their products to consumers.

“The problem with digital distribution is that there are no true experts in the field right now,” says Vicky Goldberg, vice president for worldwide recruitment at Warner Bros. “There aren’t people out there who possess a favorable track record in this area.”

Digital distribution involves sending existing programs out to iPods, mobile phones and other devices as well as figuring new ways to send movies to theaters.

As that happens, anti-piracy specialists find themselves in great demand.

Kathleen Milnes, president and CEO of the Entertainment Economy Institute, which tracks employment and other industry trends, says new jobs are digital jobs.

“Two words: digital intermediate,” she says, describing the process that is replacing traditional coloring.

Post-production houses such as Burbank-based Laser Pacific have digital intermediate specialists on staff. Milnes says she expects people with similar skills will continue to find employment.

Leon Silverman, president of both Laser Pacific and the Hollywood Post Alliance, an industry trade association, says the people who make movies and television programs are doing the same things, just in different ways.

“These tools and processes are becoming an integral part of both production and post-production (now and) in the future,” he says.

Advances in technology have created work in lower-tech fields, as well.

Set painters and makeup artists find themselves being asked to perform increasingly detailed work now that HD sets allow auds to see the imperfections on their home TVs. Their skills are in such high demand right now that some union projects have even had to hire outside the guilds.

“It has created more work for us because (where) all of your corners — the set walls and set pieces – come together, they have to be done properly and correctly,” says George Palazzo, business manager for Local 729 of the Motion Picture Set Painters and Sign Writers union. “The old days of just throwing up tape on the corner are over.”

As Silverman puts it, “The future really isn’t about the (state of) digital today, but about the impact of technology on the creative process.”

Those who have the training are perfectly positioned to land the in-demand digital jobs today. But those who can see how the technology impacts the industry overall stand to change it.

And that can mean only one thing: more new jobs.