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Lights, Cameras, Software!

Programmers reach for the stars by seeking careers in digital effects

By John Edwards

When Joshua Schpok began studying software engineering at Indiana's Purdue University, he never imagined that he was preparing for a career that would include creating volcanoes, spaceships and talking animals. But shortly after receiving his master of science degree this spring, he joined Dreamworks SKG, the movie studio responsible for such memorable films as "Shrek," "Minority Report" and "Gladiator."

"I'll be working on the next generation of graphics and simulation software for new productions," says Schpok.

With many of Hollywood's hottest stars now created out of 1s and 0s rather than flesh and cosmetics, a new generation of software experts is helping the industry create memorable characters, settings, chase sequences, battle scenes and other effects that can only be designed with the use of powerful computers. As a result, digital modelers (people who design digital images), animators (people who make the images move), and compositors (people who combine digital and real-life images) are now among Hollywood's most important and influential employees.

Added to the List

For proof of special effects' impact on film and video production, one need only look at the ever-lengthening list of software experts on production end-credits, says Susan Varnum, chair of the computer animation/visual effects and motion graphics program at the Miami International University of Art and Design. "The number of visual effects artists and compositors has just increased hugely," she says.

Much of the field's growth is being fueled by rapidly falling technology costs. "Before, [CGI] had to run on one of those huge Unix-based computers," says Varnum. "Now, the effects can be created on little desktop machines."

While digital effects first popped up in space operas and action films, tumbling costs have encouraged producers to use computer graphics imaging (CGI) in nearly every type of production. Even films with little apparent need for special effects, such as romances and dramas, are now packed with them. "Some shows are completely composited," Varnum notes. "Just about every shot has some sort of effect." That's because it can be far cheaper to create a beautiful house, for example, out of digital data than to build one with real bricks and mortar.

CGI is now even starting to replace humans in certain scenes. "We just did work for "The Longest Yard," where we filled the stadium with people," says Hans Rijpkema, senior production software engineer at Rhythm & Hues Studios, a Los Angeles-based visual effects company. "That was a lot cheaper than having thousands and thousands of extras hanging around for the day." As effects technologies mature, CGI characters are also beginning to step into the spotlight. Rijpkema notes that digital images played the lead roles in several recent films, including "Scooby-Doo" and "Garfield." "We've only begun to tap the technology's potential," he says.

It's What You Know...

Not surprisingly, a career in special effects requires individuals with deep programming and computer graphics knowledge. "C++ is very important to learn," says Varnum. Rijpkema agrees. "We are using C++, which is very widely used," he states.

Yet job candidates also need to be adaptable. "It doesn't always matter what software you learn, or what programming language, as long as you have a skill set that you can apply to whatever software package or proprietary software the company uses," adds Varnum.

With the effects market rapidly splitting into various specialties--such as animation, modeling, compositing--and even sub-specialties-facial expressions, coloring, vehicle motion, digital matte painting and so on-workers tend to find their niche and stay in it. "You rarely find someone who knows all the aspects of digital effects," Varnum explains. "Pretty early on you need to decide what you want to specialize in."

As he begins his career, Schpok plans to focus on developing modeling tools that will allow Dreamworks staffers to create sophisticated effects with relative ease. "It's the biggest kick to see artists working with your software and doing things you hadn't thought of before," he asserts.

Beyond solid programming skills, Rijpkema looks for job candidates with a love of movies. "The main thing is that they have some sort of drive, some motivation, some interest in the industry," he says. What Rijpkema doesn't want to see are grads who would be just as happy working in another field, such as telecommunications or industrial engineering. "That's not the kind of motivation we're looking for."

Designing a Job

As Hollywood grows ever more digital, the number of effects jobs is increasing rapidly. Yet grads looking to work on an effects team can expect a tumultuous market where rapid turnover is a fact of life. "The movie industry is fairly fickle," warns Varnum. "Depending on what [effects] house is doing what movies, they'll either be hiring in mass or firing in mass." But on the bright side, the total number of jobs keeps growing. "You can definitely make a career out of this," he notes. "Just be prepared for the ebb and flow."

Fortunately, if the entertainment industry should someday tank, digital effects skills are readily transferable into many other fields. "A programmer or any sort of engineer should be safe," adds Varnum. That's because companies that create commercials, video games, theme park rides, business Web sites and many other forms of entertainment and information are beginning to rely on the same digital effects used by the makers of feature movies and prime-time TV series.

Meanwhile, as digital effects technology gets cheaper and the work diversifies, the CGI job market is rapidly spreading beyond Hollywood and other major media centers. "The whole industry has shifted from post-production houses, which were in major urban areas like Los Angeles, New York and Miami, to smaller 'boutique' outfits," Varnum says. As a result, jobs can now be found almost anywhere, as workers group together to fulfill the needs of both large and small companies in a variety of different fields. "Someone with a little desktop computer—that's actually pretty powerful—along with the right software, can perform high quality work by himself or herself if one has the right skills."

But no matter where they work, the greatest satisfaction digital effects professionals receive comes when they watch their efforts appear at their local multiplex or on TV. "I just get a thrill out of modeling stuff on a computer and watching it go," Schpok says. "An added benefit is working with enormously creative people, both technically and artistically."

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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Articles > Wired Outlook