A Partial Rebound
Jennifer Austin
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 8: (Aug-Sep 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 video game developers,” says Chris Scanlon, account manager for Digital Artist Management (DAM), 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, 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, for example, “We have new work on the boards,” says Barbara McCullough, manager of recruitment. Stressing that she could only speak for her company, McCullough reports that business had been a little slower previously but has picked up in recent months.

Many of the studios (film as well as game) interviewed by Computer Graphics World 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, California. That same month, Toronto’s CORE Digital Pictures shut its doors.

While some have felt the negative impact of the industry downturn, others, such as Double Negative, have been busier than ever with projects such as Iron Man 2, says the studio’s Hannah Acock.

“It’s been a really odd year,” says Debra Blanchard, president of Fringe Talent, 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.

Social Factors

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, particularly likes using LinkedIn for hard-to-fill positions. But the importance of Facebook is not to be downplayed. At Electronic Arts, 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 Electronic Arts.

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 Web site,” 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 Web site 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.

In addition to the economy, and the importance of staying virtually connected, the following issues also factor into the ever-changing hiring landscape at CG studios.

Internships and apprenticeships provide valuable work experience and are offered at a number of studios, including Rhythm & Hues (which recently moved into a new, larger facility).     

A New Pool

Almost across the board, studio recruiters report that the economic situation both past and present has altered the hiring pool—sending ever-larger numbers of qualified applicants into the market. Although a large number of applicants would seem to be a recruiter’s dream, that is not necessarily the case.

“Unfortunately, volume doesn’t always mean quality; it can be a little more time-consuming to find the right one,” says Nicola. Torrano notes that at the height of the downturn, she would get many applicants who were far too qualified for the position. It could be difficult to deal with VPs and the like who were willing to take “a serious step down” to get a full-time position with a company, or benefits, she explains. They were not always the right fit. Nowadays, she adds, people seem a bit less desperate, and more applicants are applying for the appropriate positions.

Applicants themselves have also learned to modify their expectations. “They understand that it’s more of a competitive climate,” says Scanlon. This is especially true for students and other entry-level candidates, as there is now a larger-than-ever talent resource from which to recruit.

Outlook for Entry Level

Most of the studios CGW interviewed for this article say they do hire entry-level CG artists, including those fresh out of school. In general, the larger facilities have more leeway to hire the inexperienced and then train them. Smaller studios are usually in the position of needing maximum productivity from everyone they hire, so they tend to stick to more seasoned professionals who can hit the ground running. At Lumière Visual Effects in Montreal, says HR recruiter Christine Zervos, the hiring depends on the project. “With a shorter contract, tight deadlines require experienced artists who know how to produce under stressful conditions,” she says. With longer projects, the studio is able to bring in artists who will learn as they go.  

Says Acock, “We do hire VFX/animation graduates who have come straight out of university. We usually hire 3D grads into matchmove positions and 2D grads into roto roles where they’re given time to get to know our pipeline and processes, and gain a full understanding of the way in which we work as a company. We also hire a lot of grads into runner positions, where they can train on the in-house systems and are in line for the next roto/matchmove vacancies.”

So, there is definitely hope for entry-level artists and others who are willing to stay flexible and work the system. Internships are a basic component of that system.

CG Salaries

How much can a CG professional expect to earn? Studios are understandably reluctant to divulge salaries, and of course, the ranges vary greatly, but a ballpark idea can be gained from several sources, particularly as many studios are union shops for which the pay scale is a matter of public record. Disney Animation’s Animation Guild contract, for example, specifies a current minimum payment for experienced or journeyman-level artists, from animators to lighting specialists, of $39.133 per hour, or $1565.32 per week for a 40-hour workweek. For positions like assistant animator, assistant lighter, or assistant technical director, the minimum pay is $33.49 per hour, or $1339.60 per week. A list of studios covered by the Animation Guild can be found at www.animationguild.org.

According to figures from the International Game Developers Association, salaries for CG artists in the gaming industry range from $57,000 a year for an artist with one to two years’ experience, to $68,000 for a lead artist or art director with six or more years of experience. Of course, salaries can be much lower for entry-level positions at studios, and go well into six figures for top producers. According to job-seeker search engine Indeed.com, the average salary for a senior character animator in the US is $62,000. And the US Bureau of Statistics reports that the average salary for a multimedia artist and animator in 2008 was $62,380, with jobs in the motion-picture and video industries averaging $71,910, and those in advertising and public relations in the range of $57,740. It should be noted that many CG professionals are paid hourly rather than annually.

Of course, salaries vary depending on country and region. Artists generally earn more in Los Angeles than in, say, the Midwest. On the other hand, it costs more to live in Los Angeles. As always, flexibility is key. “I don’t see the crazy bidding wars we used to have,” says Fringe Talent’s Debra Blanchard, who advises job applicants to be willing to compromise on the issue of salary, “especially if it’s a job you really want.” –Jennifer Austin 

The All-important Internship

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 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.”

Different Career Options

It seems that everyone wants to be a character animator. Says Acock, “We receive a huge amount of applications for entry-level and animator positions.” Fringe Talent’s Blanchard agrees. “There is a ton of competition for the character animator jobs,” she says, advising job seekers to consider options, such as lighting and compositing, as well. Rhythm & Hues often has a difficult time finding texture painters and lighting artists, according to McCullough.

Lumiére, which worked on The Day of the Triffids, can train new hires if the pending project is a lengthier one.

 “It really takes a village to make one of these things [films],” says DreamWorks’ Friedman. “Not everyone can do character animation.” Therefore, the outreach training and education program that DreamWorks conducts with different universities focuses on lighting, rigging, and other aspects of content creation, in addition to animation.

For those determined to do character animation, patience is required. “We do review all show reels sent to us,” says Acock, “and we short-list the most interesting and inspiring. If we don’t have suitable vacancies at the time, we hold on to these applications and re-review them when a vacancy arises, and we always try to update everyone by e-mail so that they know the status of their application.”

The Right Tools

Most recruiters say they expect to do some amount of training­—especially since 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.

Generalists vs. Specialists

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.

Full Time vs. Short Term

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 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 afterward; we try to keep people long term.”

One trend among a number of studios, including Double Negative, is to hire artists for short-term contracts, which are usually renewed until the person eventually becomes a permanent employee. Continual work, such as on films like Kick-Ass, enables Dneg to maintain this trend.


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.”

The Long View

Those in the job market, whether newcomers or seasoned 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. Yet, studios seem to understand that everyone has to begin somewhere. Says Nicola, “My philosophy in hiring is to 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.