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October 2014
Issue: November 1, 2012

Working Abroad

By: Randi Altman
No matter where you are from, the idea of living abroad can seem exotic. For those in the post industry, making a home in another country can often be a reality — so much so that many HR departments have policies and best practices in place to help with visas, housing and even homesickness.

Whether you are an Australian moving from Los Angeles to Singapore to run a studio, or a Kiwi moving to the Big Apple because it’s the city that never sleeps, picking up your life is not a task taken lightly. And HR departments like the one within DreamWorks Animation help take some of the unknowns out of the equation.

NATHAN MCGUINNESS — DOUBLE NEGATIVE SINGAPORE

Nathan McGuinness is well known in the world of feature film visual effects. This Aussie opened the well-respected LA-based VFX house Asylum back in 1998. During that time he was nominated for an Oscar (Master and Commander), four BAFTAs and walked away with a BAFTA (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Even though Asylum was one of the top feature film visual effects studios in Hollywood, it became harder and harder financially for McGuinness to run the studio as he had envisioned. He closed its doors in 2010. 

After taking a short break, McGuinness signed on to run Double Negative Singapore (www.dneg.com), the sister office to 12-year-old London VFX house Double Negative, a company he dealt with many times while at Asylum. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he says. “Asia was an interesting idea.” 

The creation of digital effects can be done anywhere. “Once you walk through the doors at Dneg Singapore, it’s really no different than being in a VFX house in LA or New York; the technology is essentially the same,” says McGuinness. 

So the idea of creating visual effects for feature films — like the recent Captain America, Bourne Identity, Total Recall and the upcoming Les Miserables — combined with the fact that Singapore is only a five-hour flight from Perth, Australia, his hometown, sort of sealed the deal.

And he’s not alone. “Opening up Double Negative in Singapore (offices pictured, right) has brought people closer to home, people who have worked at MPC, Framestore, ILM, Digital Domain, Weta, and all these great companies.” This international gathering of talent offers what McGuinness calls “a unique artistry,” thanks to all the different cultures and world views represented.
 
“I still have the same aspirations I’ve always had, and I still get to work with major directors and filmmakers,” he explains. “It’s now accepted to be working anywhere in the world, so it hasn’t changed the client base I’ve always had.”

McGuinness, like many on his staff, brought family with him to Singapore. His wife Emma helps him run Double Negative, which he admits has made the transition easier. The Singapore government, through its Contact Singapore (www.contactsingapore.sg) agency, encourages companies from abroad to take advantage of all the country has to offer, including its healthy economy. They also help make the transition easier by helping with visas, housing and offering quality schools so those relocating can get a good education for their children.

“My kids go to the Australian school here, and there are American schools, French schools, English schools... but it’s still a multicultural country. It’s retained its history, its religion, but it’s Westernized, and they cater to foreigners, offering a clean, comfortable and safe place to live.”

In addition to Contact Singapore’s efforts, Dneg Singapore does its part as well. The studio’s HR department works like a family, according to McGuinness (pictured, left), nurturing everyone who walks in the door. “Straight away we are working out their families, passing on schools and areas within Singapore. The last thing you want to do is uproot your whole life and then be stuck without any help at all. You can’t be successful hiring people from overseas, or looking after your staff as a whole, without having a great support staff and making sure our international employment is as comfortable as possible — from getting off the plane to the end of your term or renegotiation.”

While English is one of Singapore’s primary languages, McGuinness points out that they don’t disengage on employment because of someone’s language loopholes. “If he or she is a brilliant artist, we can make it work. There is so much talent out there, I don’t want to lose that artistry because we might discriminate.”

This industry affords people the opportunity to live and work in cultures different than their own, and McGuinness encourages it. “They should take that opportunity because it’s worth it. Just make sure you do your homework, and make sure it’s the right move for you.”

KATIE HINSEN — GOLDCREST

Katie Hinsen’s path to New York wasn’t motivated by a job; she just wanted to live in New York City. This native New Zealander, who is now an editor and jack-of-all-trades at Goldcrest Post (www.goldcrestpost.com) in Manhattan, resigned her job as a DI editor at Wellington’s Park Road Post when she made her decision — that was almost two years ago.

Hinsen emphasizes that her move wasn’t based on career path. In fact, while she had been working on major feature films at Park Road, she was willing to take a step back if it meant finding work in New York. “I wanted an overseas adventure,” she says. “New York was somewhere I thought would be cool to live, but I knew it was difficult for people from New Zealand to come to the states — we have heavy restrictions on trade and immigration to the US.”

The only way she could make her dream work was via an H1B visa, which is essentially a work permit, and this meant finding someone not only willing to pay her salary, but also to take care of the cost of the Visa, about $12,000. 

Hinsen (pictured, right) gave herself a week in New York to meet with as many post people and facilities as she could.  “I got in touch with sales reps from Quantel, Avid and others, and they provided contacts for me. I went to all sorts of places, big and small.” Hinsen’s talents and resume got her some offers.

Since Hinsen’s move was to further herself personally, not her career, choosing a post house came down to picking a company that felt good to her. Equally as important was not working at the same pace she was when at Park Road. 

“I wanted to enjoy New York, and if I was going to be here, I didn’t want to be working 24/7. I wanted to be at a facility that would allow me to do a lot of different things. That’s very much like the New Zealand culture I am used to; everybody chipping in and doing a little bit of everything.”

It’s exactly that philosophy that led her to Goldcrest New York, where while her title is editor, her job involves much more, including online, offline, color correction, visual effects and 3D. “Goldcrest is a big company that feels small,” describes Hinsen, adding that Goldcrest has an office in London as well. “It is fun and very loose, with a real family atmosphere. And, importantly, you could tell everyone got a chance to do a bit of everything. It was a good fit for me.”

With that one huge part of the puzzle in place, Hinsen then had to take on the visa process, which she likens to a full-time job. Initially, she was supposed to come over in November. That turned into December, and after her first application got turned down on a technicality, it became January. “I had already left my job, moved out of my house and I was living out of a suitcase at my in-laws’ house in small-town New Zealand, waiting for the visa to come through.”

Two days after arriving, she started working, which made her transition a bit easier because the environment was familiar. “An edit suite is an edit suite, it could be New York, New Zealand or Nairobi,” Hinsen explains. “The job made a huge difference. It meant I immediately had people who were familiar to me, because people in post are the same no matter where you go. Everyone was very welcoming, which was great because the rest of it was really hard. It was exciting, but at the same time it was a bit of a culture shock that I didn’t expect.”

Amazingly, Hinsen says there was a language barrier. “No one could understand a word I was saying… and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I grew up watching American movies and television, and I still felt like I was speaking a foreign language. It made me feel more isolated when I was out and about.” 

It took about six months for Hinsen to feel like New York was home. “It was then I realized I had made the best decision of my life. I am so at home in New York and really, really happy.”

DREAMWORKS ANIMATION

While DreamWorks Animation (www.dreamworksanimation.com) is a US-based company with offices in Glendale and Redwood City, CA, the studio has an international presence as well.  It has a studio in Bangalore, India, and a small outpost in Shanghai.

The Bangalore office (pictured, right), which has 250 Indian employees, is home to 11 American expats. Currently that office is working on the DreamWorks animated television series How to Train Your Dragon.

Moving people across the world is no easy task, and it’s not one that DreamWorks Animation takes lightly. It’s the job of human resources head Meredith Berens and her team to make sure that any DreamWorks Animation employee moving and living in India is taken care of. “I am responsible for the HR functions for all of our offices, and have people on my team who handle the physical relocation, housing and all of the immigration services for those folks. Our Bangalore office is four years old, and I’ve moved quite a few people, and their families, to India. Over those years we certainly learned a lot of things and gained a tremendous amount of experience for what is appropriate for India.”

The first task in the process is visas, which DreamWorks Animation files on behalf of its employees and their families. “We are very hands-on in that process,” says Berens. “The majority of my team’s work happens a good six to eight months before someone departs the US for their assignment.”

That hands-on relationship doesn’t end until the employees have completed their assignment and are back in the states. “I am talking daily with my team in India, and in China [where currently four employees reside]. Next to their mothers, I am probably the person — aside from their supervisors — who speaks to them most frequently,” laughs Berens. 

In terms of housing, most are placed in furnished houses or apartments. Another important aspect for those who move to India is ground transportation, which DreamWorks Animation takes care of. “Bangalore is not a city I feel comfortable having our employees driving in. It’s very chaotic,” she explains.

While employee packages are typically a set offering, DreamWorks Animation will shrink, contract or expand as needed. “We try to tailor these packages to the person and what their needs are,” she describes. “If there are children, they typically go to international schools, which are private, so we will assist with tuition as well.”

Berens admits that while many employees decide to go to India for the adventure of it — and are given flexible hours and vacation time to take full advantage — homesickness is a reality. And they combat this in a variety of ways, including plane tickets so they can come home when needed, frequent business trips back to the US and regular meetings via video conferencing, allowing them to stay close to the US-based studios on a regular basis.

“Cultural settling-in services” is another way. DreamWorks Animation has people in India who accompany the newly landed expats around the city, show them where to shop, visit local sites, and just generally get them acclimated to their new environment. 

Those with children are given a “settling-in coach,” who works with the family and takes them through a series of conversations about what they can expect to encounter in India. Berens says this particularly important for those with adolescents. “We have an expat with two high-school-age daughters in India now, and we’ve had others going through the high school years, and the socialization aspect is important. We try to coach them through the challenges.”

For those who make the move alone, the key is making sure they keep in touch with their personal support system. “We have a much higher chance of success with the folks who do.”
In terms of Oriental DreamWorks, at the moment employees there are working within a small studio in Shangai, mostly producing animation for the gaming industry. Berens expects Oriental DreamWorks will get its own studio in about three to four years. “Our experience with Shanghai right now is brand new… six weeks new.”

In reverse, DreamWorks Animation places many international artists in the US-based offices, and they currently have about 35 countries represented, between Glendale and Redwood City. “Everything that we do for folks that go abroad, we do in reverse for those we bring into the US. All of our artists who are foreign need visas and need to be relocated. So the same team that is handling our expats, handle those coming to the US.”

ZOIC PARTNER HEADS NORTH

Andrew Orloff (pictured, below), co-partner/visual effects supervisor at LA-based Zoic Studios, recently migrated north to the VFX house’s Vancouver office. The move comes on the heels of a recent expansion that nearly doubled the size and capacity of that office. 

That build-out and Orloff’s move have a lot to do with the fact that two of Zoic’s most effects-heavy episodic series, Once Upon a Time and Falling Skies — on which he serves as VFX supervisor — shoot in Vancouver. This move affords him more direct access to the sets and the entire creative team, as well as the chance to expand upon Zoic’s already diverse body of visual effects work in film, commercials, gaming and television.

In order to ease the transition for Orloff’s wife and three children, they decided to keep their permanent residence in the US. Choosing an area in Washington State, they were able to keep their children in the US school system while still granting easy access to the Zoic Vancouver office. Orloff’s one hour and 15-minute commute is aided by his Nexus pass, which allows him to expedite the border control clearance process.

With the more flexible immigration policies of the Canadian government for skilled workers, Zoic’s Vancouver office houses a highly international force of VFX talent. Numerous cultures are represented, with employees from India, China, Australia, Singapore, England and New Zealand. “It’s exciting to get a wide array of perspectives from those coming from different production systems. It’s really nice to get that wealth of ideas,” notes Orloff.

Zoic’s HR team helps international recruits in the immigration process, assisting them with Labor Market Opinions through the HRSDC and work permit papers. Additionally, the studio will occasionally assist with moving expenses and provide temporary housing for the newly relocated staff members. 

With Orloff’s new home located near both Vancouver and Seattle, he finds that he is not only able to take advantage of a vast array of outdoor experiences, but also take in the cultural nightlife that the nearby metro areas offer. “Life here is a much slower pace than Los Angeles. The kids can do more ‘kid stuff’ and be outdoors more. It’s great to have access to natural beauty all around us and be able to go hiking, biking, boating and skiing on the weekends and still enjoy a nice dinner out nearby.”