A Partial Rebound
Jennifer Austin
Issue: September 1, 2010

A Partial Rebound

Last year at this time, the global economy was generally acknowledged to be in a downswing, and most studios were reporting fewer projects and more applicants. The situation is a bit rosier now in 2010 — not a complete reversal, but showing progress. “We’ve seen an up-tick in hiring since the end of 2009, primarily among smaller- to medium-sized, privately-funded, independent videogame developers,” says Chris Scanlon, account manager for Digital Artist Management (www.digitalartistmanagement.com), a recruiting agency that specializes in interactive entertainment (games).

Last year, studios outside the US seemed to be less affected by the down economy, and business is still good this year at the UK-based Double Negative (www.dneg.com), according to its recruitment manager, Hannah Acock. “We’re busier than ever at the moment and receive around 60 applications per day,” she says. “Over the last 12 months, we have seen a large increase in the number of new recruits from the US, Australia, Asia, and New Zealand, but we’ve still continued to hire a large amount from within the EU (European Union).”

Inside the US, business is looking up in some quarters. At Rhythm & Hues Studios (www.rhythm.com), for example, “We have new work on the boards,” says Barbara McCullough, manager of recruitment. Stressing that she could only speak for her company, she says business had been a little slower previously but has picked up in recent months.

Many of the studios (film as well as game) interviewed for this article report similar conditions, but not all the news was good. In March 2010, Disney announced that it intended to close ImageMovers Digital Studio in San Rafael, CA. That same month, Toronto’s CORE Digital Pictures shut its doors.

“It’s been a really odd year,” says Debra Blanchard, president of Fringe Talent (http://fringetalent.com), a recruiting agency focusing on visual effects and animation artists for the film industry, noting that things got off to a promising start, but that the recent closing of both ImageMovers and CORE has shaken many in the industry. “It’s been kind of shocking and surprising,” says Blanchard, who adds that nonetheless, projects are still ongoing and that there are geographical pockets that seem to be flourishing. For example: “Vancouver seems to be coming alive, and staffing,” she says.


Heading up the list of what’s new in studio hiring this year (besides the tentative economic recovery) are the maturation of social networking as a tool for both recruiters and job seekers, and the importance — which sounds almost counterintuitive in the Internet age — of maintaining human contacts.

Last, it is vital that the job seeker maintain a virtual presence, such as a Web or blog site, so that his or her materials may be reviewed by studios on a moment’s notice.
The use of social networking sites, such as LinkedIn or Facebook, is not new, of course, but the way in which they are being used has evolved. LinkedIn, the more professional of the two networks, continues to be more seriously considered by recruiters.

Josilin Torrano, recruiter at Nickelodeon Animation Studios (www.nick.com), particularly likes using LinkedIn for hard-to-fill positions. But the importance of Facebook is not to be downplayed.

At Electronic Arts (www.ea.com), for example, the company’s Inside EA page has more than 100,000 fans and is an excellent way for a candidate to gain familiarity with the company, according to Cindy Nicola, VP of global talent acquisition for EA.
Staying in touch applies to those not seeking work, as well. Knowing what is going on at a studio is of primary importance. Then, when it comes time to seek work, the applicant doesn’t have to start from scratch. By the same token, potential applicants should stay up to date on who the right contacts are. “There are so many people applying blindly through the Website,” says Torrano, explaining that such efforts are nearly useless. Applicants should address their information to a particular individual. They can find recruiters’ names by subscribing to studio pages on Facebook or LinkedIn, or even by cold-calling the studios and asking for names. “Just make sure there’s some kind of human connection,” advises Torrano.

CG artists also need to make it easy for recruiters to stay in touch with them. “If an applicant doesn’t have a Website or a blog, they are doing a disservice to themselves,” says Torrano, explaining that recruiters want to be able to see an artist’s work immediately upon request. That means that demos should be available online, as well. If you decide to mail your reel to the studio, “someone else might get the job while we’re waiting for your package,” adds Torrano.

Almost across the board, studio recruiters report that the economic situation past and present has altered the hiring pool — sending ever-larger numbers of qualified applicants into the market. “Unfortunately, volume doesn't always mean quality; it can be a little more time consuming to find the right one,” says Nicola.


Many studios offer internship and apprentice programs — some paid, some not. Nickelodeon has an unpaid internship for college juniors and seniors that requires between 15 and 30 hours a week at the studio. “We have an incredible intern-to-hire ratio,” says Torrano, noting that she herself began as an intern. “Most entry-level positions here are filled by interns.” Rhythm & Hues offers apprenticeship programs in three areas: animation, lighting, and composition; and EA also has what Nicola calls terms a “robust internship,” adding that the studio loves recent graduates because “they're the people who are closest to emerging technologies.”

Internships are more than a way for an applicant to get a foot in the door, however. Increasingly, they’re mandatory in order for a graduate to be considered. Recruiters figure that if you’re in CG school, you ought to have the wherewithal to get an internship or two under your belt before you graduate. Besides, spending time in a real work environment teaches so many “soft” skills — how to be professional, work as a team, and understand a company's pipeline and culture. “An internship is a must," says Torrano. At DreamWorks Animation, however, says Marilyn Friedman, head of outreach, “it’s always nice if they have apprenticeships, but it’s not a prerequisite.”


Most recruiters say they expect to do some amount of training — especially as many shops have proprietary programs. But when it comes to the software that most applicants should be familiar with, it will come as no surprise to hear that Autodesk’s Maya continues to trump all. “Maya (for games) and XSI (for film) seem to be the most important packages to know these days. 3DS Max is still relevant, although seemingly less prevalent with each passing year,” according to Scanlon. “In the CG department, if they don't know Maya, we’re not going to hire them,” says EA’s Torrano.


Another consideration for those entering the CG job market is how much to invest in one particular area of knowledge. “In video games, the general rule is that smaller studios tend to favor candidates with broad or generalist skill sets, whereas larger houses prefer specialization,” says Scanlon. Lumière goes the middle path, looking for specialists with at least one more skill set. Examples include a compositor who also does matte painting, or a rigger who can animate. “This allows us to work more as a team rather than in individual groups,” says Zervos. So, while waiting for those callbacks, it might be worth an applicant’s time to bone up on at least one additional discipline.


For many years now, the larger film studios have done a lot of their hiring on a per-project basis. Game studios, according to Scanlon, are more likely to hire full-timers. One difference that Zervos has observed recently at Lumière is that more applicants are looking for permanent or longer-term positions. “It is much harder to get artists for short contracts,” she says. “Those who have jobs seem to be more interested in staying put, whereas a few years ago, we had a lot more selection when hiring short term.” At Double Negative, as at many other studios, employees are hired on short-term contracts, but those contracts are typically renewed. “We hire most people on a six- to 12-month basis but look at them as long-term employees, normally on rolling contracts,” says Acock. “After four years, they become permanent staff, and we have quite a large number of permanent employees now due to length of service. We don’t tend to ramp up just for specific projects and then downsize afterwards; we try to keep people long term.”


Most studios contacted by CGW claim to use very few recruiters. “It used to be that the agencies had a lot of special contacts,” says EA’s Nicola. “But the Internet has leveled the playing field somewhat. Still, companies are using them, as both Blanchard and Scanlon can attest to. “Groups with an in-house recruitment staff often rely on DAM to complement in-house efforts on hard-to-fill positions,” says Scanlon. “Smaller groups without internal recruiters lean on DAM to develop and manage their entire staffing and recruitment process.”


Those in the job market, whether newcomers or season performers, and in good times or bad, should take heart and keep the following advice in mind: “Talented veterans are always in demand, especially those who can lead and mentor — creative types are not always the best managers,” says Scanlon. On the other end of the spectrum, studios seem to understand that everyone has to begin somewhere. Says Nicola, “My philosophy in hiring is that you look for people with skills you can’t teach.” Acock advises: “In a competitive market, it is more important than ever to get the basics right. Ensure that your show reel is working hard for you; there should never be any excess or diluted work that will detract from the main event, which, for us, should be the first 15 seconds of any reel.” Last, despite it being the digital age, never underestimate the importance of face-to-face contact. “When at all possible, says Acock, “make the most of conferences as a chance to meet potential employers — a smile and a hello go a long way.”

Jennifer Austin is a freelance writer based in New England.