Why are there so few Technical Directors/Visual Effects Artists in Singapore?

By ANIMATION XPRES... | 15 January, 2010 - 14:20

The one thing seriously retarding the growth of the 3D animation industry in Singapore is a lack of interest among creative people in visual effects.

In the six years we have been running our training facility, I have never once met a prospective student who said, “I want to be a Technical Director.” This may seem incredible, or perhaps just untrue. We have offered a VFX course for some time and it’s no secret it has been our least popular offering. Of those students who did complete the course, I know of none who have pursued VFX as a career. Similarly our production studio has had to reach as far as Canada, the US and India in search of VFX talent.

So, what’s wrong with VFX and being a Technical Director and why is it so unpopular? A lack of education has something to do with it. So too does a lack of a work ethic.

During the early days of the animation business in Singapore (and I don’t have to go back too far – maybe 3 or 4 years), it seemed everyone wanted to be a character animator, or at worst, a modeler. For some reason, many people believed that only animators work in 3D animation studios. Everyone wanted a “creative” job and do the “glamorous” work done by the character animation team. In reality, very few people had the aptitude or the perseverance to get close.

Character animation is an exacting profession. Most successful creative people will share their experiences of many years of struggle to master their art. Character animators are no different. The very simple truth about character animation is that very few people are actually good at it.

That brings us to the possibility of making VFX a career. Most animation studios have a character team that is around 20-30% of the total staff; so it’s a tough ask to get in. Asset creation, design, surfacing (texturing), lighting, rendering and compositing are areas that usually employ more staff than the animation team.

Being a Technical Director (or TD for short) is broad term, however there are three basic areas; Animation TD, Effects TD and Rendering TD. From a studio owner’s perspective, when I find proficient people in these areas, I never let them go and usually pay them whatever they need to stay. By contrast, character animators and modelers are a far more plentiful and I can hire them when needed.

For those not educated about the role of TD’s in the production pipeline, here’s a basic intro into the three main groups.

Animation TD’s are those who create the scripts and functionality for all kinds of animated assets. These might include the bone structure and control objects for characters (humans and animals), creating animated systems for plant life to mimic realism, or any kind of mechanical structure.

Effects TD’s are the explosive guys. These people are forever seeking to create the perfect simulation of natural phenomena be it water, fire, smoke or anything that is created as a result of some sort of collision.

Rendering TD’s are perhaps the most precious as they are the ones who make the stunning imagery we all get to appreciate when watching high-end animated movies. Combining all the work done by the surfacing and lighting team these dudes have mastered the black art that called rendering.

There is no denying that being a TD takes as much discipline and application as an animator, perhaps more. There is no physics, mathematics or scripting involved in character animation and perhaps because of these things, many people shy away from this end of the pipeline. But the truth is the chances of long-term employment as a TD are much higher than a character animator, particularly given the present state of the business.

But where does that leave us here in Singapore? The best word I can think of is “stuck” unless some attitudes and education policies change. Many animation graduates from the polytechnics and universities have never rendered a frame and possess little (if any) knowledge or interest in the technical side of animation. It’s no secret amongst creative companies that poly students are seriously under-skilled. Some new curriculum needs to be urgently injected, along with some career guidance for those who are not so artistically inclined.

Similarly, as more people attempt to enter the animation industry and can’t secure the “creative” job they desire, consider the alternative career paths that may eventually prove to be just as rewarding.

Right now in Singapore “the cart is before the horse”. There is infrastructure and opportunity but insufficient talent to meet the demand. For the industry to move forward and compete internationally as the government seems to want, things have got to change.