Stereo 3D Studio trades CA for MI- Will It Blend?

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“The growth possibilities in California are really dismal right now. I was a storyboard artist. I had a lucrative career, which just fizzled away.”

– Formerly unemployed LA SB artist, now Michigan-based & gainfully employed. Yay, Michigan!

What’s been happening for years in Southeast Asia, China and India by way of outsourcing visual effects and animation work, to reduce operational costs for production by the larger studios, is now starting to gain momentum in the good ‘ol US of A.   That’s a good thing, right?

Michigan: Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret?

The Los Angeles-area based group I.E Effects recently moved into new digs in Traverse City, MI. and are ramping up some serious 3d Stereoscopic work for  “some major motion picture studios,” according to Clover Roy, Director of Regional Operations. Of course, all this is super-duper top secret, too- “You’ll know when the movies come out and you see our names … in the credits,” adds Roy, declining to ID neither films nor studios. Why so  serious?

Despite Michigan Governor Snyder’s recent budget proposal that virtually eliminates the state’s film incentives, (arguably not a smart move) I.E Effects is sticking to it’s guns and moving ahead with it’s Traverse City Studio  expansion plans (arguably, still a good move).  “We hope to have 100 employee’s by the end of next year, and 250-plus within five years,” Exec Producer David Kenneth says.

That might appear to be just shy of crazy ambitious – especially in light of the impending evaporation of Michigan’s film incentives – but Kenneth is stalwart, still. “We’re creating 21st-century jobs; the film industry isn’t the only industry using 3-D technology. The gaming industry, the military, medicine, even oil and gas exploration companies use stereoscopic 3D, too.” (3-D sonograms help determine the depth and size of oil and gas fields underground, for example. Who knew)? Question is, do they get wacky looking X Ray Specs to wear as well?

The Culver City, California-based studio will maintain roots in LA, handing some of the heavy lifting to the Traverse City Studio;
simultaneously lightening the load &
making use of tax breaks (if still existent). “A lot of it’s going to depend on the incentives,” Ms. Roy says, referring to Michigan’s shaky film tax credits (threatened by the mean Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal). “If they stay competitive, then we’re talking hundreds of jobs.” New model for other states in the union to follow? Maybe. So, what about those incentives?

Kenneth says I.E.Effect’s long-standing presence in Hollywood provides him with a direct connection to film industry movers and shakers, proving beneficial to the Traverse City facility. “We have a direct pipeline to Hollywood. Studio executives can see us here, and then we have the people in Michigan to facilitate it.’ He add’s. “That’s crucial for our business.”

Freezing the Brain Drain

For the film industry/ studios, it’s a great way to save a ton of cash and yet deliver high quality work, and it provides an option for LA folks ready to try something new. For Michigan, it’s one way to slow the dreaded ‘brain drain’.

Phil Franzo, director of business development for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, says it’s not so much the quantity of jobs created with the influx of studio facilities, it’s (more importantly) the quality of jobs created. “The 21st-century technology positions will impact the area by appealing to young, up-and-coming, technically proficient professionals.” By that, he means graduating students and those with ties to the area who left Michigan & want to return, or can be talked into returning, if the price was right.

David Kenneth bolster’s this viewpoint: “We’re very excited about this. Before Silicon Valley, there was Michigan. It was an engineering mecca. You have the education level, the technological drive, as well as the artistic.”

Apparently, Clover Roy is a sterling example of seeing an opportunity in her home state, coming back and grabbing it. A Birmingham native, she attended Western Michigan University and New York University. From there, she landed production gigs in Detroit, MI for a while. Seeing the other end of the rainbow landed in Hollywood, off she went. Flash Forward 22 years; she’s back, and she’s not alone.

Faced with impending doom and gloom facing the Los Angeles based visual effects industry, eyes are sliding toward Michigan as an opportunity for gainful employ; it’s not as far as India or China. Being centrally located in the continental US, holidays ‘back home’ are a little easier. One LA-based compositor says he jumped at the opportunity to stay, though he’s not a fan of the cold. But, “I’d rather be in an area where you have snow and employment”, he adds.  That’s honest.

Despite the neck-snapping cold winter brings to MI., but you can still surf!

Adding to the attraction that a paying gig provides, Ms. Roy feels  “Traverse City’s appeal bodes well for the group’s hiring outlook”, adding the local studio seeks to be involved in the community, with aim to making the facility an attractive place to work. “If we’re going to have to cast a fairly wide net across the country or the world, it has to be really sellable,” she said. In that, there’s also lots of strategic partnerships being forged with local talent pools & potential future team members.

Northwestern Michigan College, who offers Visual Imaging Technology and Visual Communications Technology programs, seems to be just the right place to find folks willing to learning the job, gain experience and work for less than their West Coast counterparts. Apparently, this isn’t the best news for many LA-based VFX artists in light of the recent open letter to the industry, posted by Eric Roth, President of the Visual Effects Society.

Despite ‘Battlefield: LA VFX vs The Studios’, seems there may be more artists heading to MI in the near future, as storm clouds gather over Hollywood; insanely long hours, low pay and sporadic accreditation on tent pole films (compounded by shrinking work opportunities) are getting VFX artists up in arms, and rightly so.

Kenneth David wraps things up on a personal level; “A lot of people in the industry are families, and a lot of them aren’t from this area originally. When you tell them they can be in an area where the schools are safe, and they can afford to actually buy a house, they’re interested.”

Dare we dream?

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