Something in the latest TrendWatch report caught my eye recently, reminding me that only a few months ago in this column Phil Vischer, founder of Big Idea, which was acquired by Classic Media LLC, predicted that 3D work would begin moving offshore—out of the US, that is. The report noted that 25 percent of the managers of visual effects and animation studios cite competition from studios in other countries as a major challenge. "Over-all, the data shows the number of US studios/ facilities worried about offshore competition has remained steady this year at 1 in 10," says TrendWatch partner Jim Whittington.
Cel animation work, particularly for broadcast and direct-to-video animated features, has been offshore for decades. So anyone doing that type of work has long been casting a wary eye across one pond or another. But it's no longer just cel animation that's taking the leap.
"2D has been offshore since the '60s," says Brad deGraf, a consultant and a pioneer in computer graphics and animation. "Everything that happened to 2D is happening to 3D. In the same way that the manufacture of shoes is moving overseas, 3D is going to move also. It's just a matter of time. Like any other outsourcing, there's probably a 10 to 1 salary gain in a developing country."
As a consultant for the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC), deGraf has taken a close look at studios around the world that are gearing up for 3D work. "The IFC's mission is to invest in sustainable businesses in developing countries that meet the World Bank's goal of reducing poverty, creating jobs, and raising the standard of living," he says. "I think outsourcing 3D is not super practical yet, but it's going to be, and so people are starting to do it. There are studios and training centers all over the place— Morocco, Southeast Asia, China...and India is booming. The learning curve is still high, but it's coming down fast. In five years, it will be moot as far as the difference in skills."
Already, there are examples. In addition to producing its own animated feature Moebius, Global Digital Creations Limited in China offers 3D character animation and visual effects production services and training. GlassEgg in Vietnam shows examples from games and TV commercials on its Web site. Four years ago, the French-based animation and effects studio Sparx opened a 3D studio in Vietnam, and earlier this year, a teaser trailer for a live-action/animated feature being developed by Sparx and art director Doug Chiang won the prize for rendering at Imagina 03. Two years ago, Rhythm & Hues (R&H) established a small studio in India that got its first taste of visual effects work this year by doing wire removal for a few shots in Daredevil.
"Bandwidth and inexpensive equipment are beginning to make working remotely and collaboratively more viable than ever before," says Douglas Kay, who started the CGI group at LucasFilm in 1985 with George Joblove and is now chairman of Mondo Media, an animation and digital production studio and a leading syndicator of animated content on the Web. "It's not there yet. But at Mondo Games we have artists in different places. It works well for some projects."
One of the projects currently underway at Mondo Media is a CG animated feature. "We are working with Wes Craven on a horror/comedy film," Kay says. "We've done a number of test sequences to understand the look and feel and what it would take to do the project."
As part of that research, Kay has been considering offshore animation. "Films fall into two categories," he says. "One has high-end budgets that compete with Finding Nemo. The other looks more like an independent film budget in the $10 million to $15 million, or even $1 million, range. It's been difficult to do independent CG films because they're so expensive. But offshore studios might open up a new level of production that has not been available to CG because of costs."
Big Idea's Phil Vischer isn't convinced that offshore studios are ready to work on 3D features, however. "We've been approach-ed by producers in China and India particularly, who wanted to take a shot at producing Veggie Tales," he says. "But we didn't feel they were quite ready yet."
That wouldn't surprise Prashant Buyyala, managing director of R&H India. "We first opened the office to do software development. Last year we decided to expand into production, so we started with a small group doing wire removal and compositing. What I'm finding is that technology is not the issue. The software is here. The hardware is here. Those challenges are very small. It's about the creative process. We're taking it one step at a time."
The difficulties in the creative process are twofold. First, it's the distance. With a time difference of 12.5 hours, interaction with the rest of the production team is tricky. To help, supervisors from the US travel to India, R&H's education department provides videotapes and other materials, and a videoconferencing system gives the crew in India access to the people they need. All this long-distance communication and travel eats away at the overall cost-savings, though, reducing the 10 to 1 figure to more like 3 to 1, Buyyala believes.
The second problem is the lack of experience with high-budget projects and animation in India, even though the country has a thriving feature-film industry. "Bollywood is a huge industry, and there are a large number of visual effects studios here," Buyyala says, "but the CG visual effects industry is still in its infancy compared to Los Angeles. We have to train people to focus on the right things in terms of quality. We specifically screened for people who are open-minded and, because the work can be meticulous, have patience. They're picking it up very quickly."
The next step for the studio, now between 20 and 25 people, half of whom are artists, might be rotoscoping. "And then we might start doing matchmoving," Buyyala says. "We try to find things that are relatively independent and that don't impact the overall pipeline. We don't want to become the critical point."
Although R&H has a far higher rate of growth in LA—where the company is adding 100 jobs—than in India, Buyyala is sensitive to a general concern in the US about jobs moving offshore, particularly now when unemployment is high.
It's a reasonable concern. "Even financial analysts are losing jobs to India," notes deGraf, who adds, "[Offshore 3D] can go two ways. One way is that American jobs move to the cheap labor markets and people are out of work. Or, the lowering of prices could bring a boom in production. I think the boom in production will be the case. There will be more jobs in production management, design, layout, writing, and oversight. In addition, in the short term there will be knowledge transfer jobs as teams get set up in other countries. So, there will be a lot of opportunity for people who want to travel. And, there will always be a component that will be produced here."
Kay agrees. "I haven't seen anything that tells me it's all going offshore," he says. "I think studios like Pixar and DreamWorks will be quite fine working here. Yet, I think all the studios will look at ways to be more productive."
That's exactly what R&H is doing. "It's about trying to survive in our industry," says Buyyala. "Lowering our costs might make it possible to do television and help us create some of our own projects. Also, we want to be ready to expand our market and not be tied to one area."
It might be time for other studios to take note. As Vischer puts it, "We're in a free market economy, so it's survival of the fittest."
Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@attbi.com.