At Work , 2nd post : small, medium or huge companies

At Work , 2nd post : small, medium or huge companies

Here we go … Second post about my different experiences of production.

It’s been 7 years since I work in the 3d computer graphic field. From commercials, to feature film via music videos and video game cinematics. Throughout this journey I was able to observe the structure of each of these companies, their pipeline , what was working, or not.  I will therefore try to make a synthesis through several posts. This is the second post about that topic.  I encourage you to write comments about your own experiences in order to enrich the debate.

Dreamworks logo Blur Logo Partizan

Here are the remaining subjects I will address in the next posts:
  • The type of projects
  • Technical Structure (render farm, networking, Linux or Windows … etc)
  • Human Structure, organization and hierarchy
  • Pre-production
  • Production, tools, techniques
  • Completion of the project, approval process

Small, Medium or Large Companies.

Once again I had the chance to experience 3 sizes of structures. So I will try to describe the working environment, the hierarchical structure, the technical side and the financial issues.

Small team at Partizan Midi Minuit:

The CG department counted only 4 artists, sometime 6 or 7 when free lancers joined us. The company had a little more employees (about 20) but their activity was focused on classic audio visual production. The department ran therefore with a very small number of artist but the structure behind provided financial and technical means (Editing facility, distribution networks … etc) which is rare for small companies. Apart from the fact that I already knew the two instigators of the department (Loic and Aurelien) because we studied at the same school: Supinfocom, the atmosphere in such a small structure was great. On the other hand tensions can go very quickly because of always working with the same people. But I didn’t experienced such difficulties during this time. The main advantage of a small structure is the proximity between people , on the long term it sets up good habits, communication becomes easier and honest, and if people appreciate themselves then the daily feeling at work becomes pleasant and harmonious .

From a technical point of view it offers an enormous flexibility, despite weakness in terms of render farm power and the lack of internal tools development (scripts and plugins). It is very easy to integrate new software into a rough and small pipeline and the working methods can adapt quickly from project to project. I remember while working on the Snooze music video the needs to create clouds with 3ds max as lightwave wasn’t giving satisfactory results. Regarding the schedule of the project (2 months with 4 artists, from the first script to final assembly) it would have been difficult for a bigger studio to manage a seamless integration of a new software so quickly into their pipeline or to develop a plugin to do the clouds. We used Windows 2000 back then and not Linux because we’re using Lightwave/3dsMax and Combustion. There was no need for a Linux platform because of the absence of a big pipeline.

From a financial point of view, however, a small structure offers few options, it is difficult to negotiate a salary raise, bringing the issue of paid overtime is generally difficult. But I have not really suffered from it in Partizan since I worked there only two years and we haven’t work too much overtime.

The real problem in a small structure ultimately is to not get tired of the daily routine : in Partizan case, playing Quake 3 game every day after lunch for 2 years :)

A medium-sized company: Blur Studio

During the 4 years I worked at Blur, the studio oscillated between 65 and 80 employees. The change was quite impressive, there was a real sense of family business at Blur: The artists share a large open space full of great and comfortable work station. All kinds of drinks were available for free, snacks, and meals… A game room with pool, console game, arcade games, ping-pong table and football table . The first year we were invited to the Siggraph in San Diego at the company’s charge, we had many events to unite the group. So every two weeks we had a meal within the studio open to our friends and families .Tim Miller (the boss ) was doing a report bi-monthly about the company activities to the whole team, which was an opportunity to talk about future projects, the prospects for the long term, but also a good way to introduce new employees or to announce the departure of an artist. This energy was really a surprise to me. In this case I really think that wasn’t linked only to the size of the business but to the family business style which is much more widespread in the USA.

Regarding the organization of work, responsiveness at Blur was great, and the pool on talent was vast and varied. This was an opportunity to get help quickly in the event of problems. Being gathered in the open space also allowed to know each other faster.

Blur has always provided great technical assets. Our work stations were updated almost annually, we had two screens, modelers were really happy to work with their cintiq 21. The Renderfarm was getting wider regularly (over 300 units last year, before I left the company). Similarly the pipeline based around 3dsMax evolved constantly by absorbing the artist’s feedback. We were using Windows instead of Linux once again as a result of our main software 3dsMax which is not Linux friendly. The pipeline would have probably benefited from a switch to Linux, for reasons of security, network management and stability, but Windows has never been a major handicap.

From a financial point of view I was surprised to receive annually (without any solicitation from my side) a raise amounting usually with a double-digit percentage which was set on my performance. Frankly, one major difference with France. And I do not believe that payroll taxes are the only responsible for a failure of the French companies to increase their employees wages on a regular basis. However as Blur was not the most wealthy company ( well this is a medium sized company, making good money but not huge profits as the corporates) , overtime was trade against day off. This is not an ideal solution, and the pace of work at Blur was sometimes intense, but the company didn’t have many other options. Recently the situation has improved and extra hours have become increasingly rare and are remunerated.

I almost forgot to mention the daily routine for 4 years, Quake 3 after lunch, and generally later in the evening during the late working night, you know just to relax :)

A large studio : Dreamworks Animation

Obviously the change here is even greater than the jump from small to medium sized companies. Firstly, the number of employees: 900 at the Glendale campus, about 400 at the PDI campus in San Francisco. Just for the lighting department we’re 70 at Glendale.

In the same way than Blur, Dreamworks seeks to reproduce a family structure, offering a game room with pool table, console games and arcade game stations, ping-pong tables, foosball table, there’s even a basketball court improvised in the rear of a parking lot. And as the company is far from being poor, we have free breakfast every morning, and lunch every day , which we can enjoy sitting under the californian sunny weather (Take a look to the campus post ). There is also a projection room (which is a standard theater with something next to 300 seats) is used twice a month for the broadcast of a recent movie, again for free and open to one guest. In addition to all that there is a department dedicated organize events such as carnival parties, costume contest for Halloween, poker tournament against Jeffrey Katzenberg (the boss), etc … For sure a wealthy company has more money to spend in order to provide leisures and entertainments to their employees. This does not happen in all sectors of business, but well it seems to be a good fit in the animation business.

Speaking about organisation, the management hierarchy is way more developed and the reactivity is limited by the number of intermediaries. Most of the employees are working in cubicles or small offices rarely with more than 4 people each. This restricts the socialisation and interaction with the rest of the department a little. Simila
rly knowing employees in other departments takes a long time even people you work directly as the communication happen mostly using instant messaging, e-mail or phone.

On the technical side there is no complaints, not necessarily only because we got great work stations. For example we have a video conference room HD human sized to communicate with the campus in San Francisco. From what people said , it feels pretty much like you’re in the same room. The render farm is absolutely insane: nearly 7000 posts. One regret our stations have finally little Ram (4go, could be better I guess)

From a financial perspective I did not have all the details because I am going to negotiate my next contract soon (if ever we offer me another contract, of course). But we should receive a more than generous bonus as a result of good incomes from the domestic Box-Office based on the two movies released last year (Shrek 3 and Bee movie). An important point overtime hours are paid very greatly +50% on weekdays and Saturdays, and +100% on Sundays or beyond 12 daily work hours. One last point we are under the Motion Picture Union via the Animation Guild , which gives us a good health care system, and an interesting retirement plan 9 from what I understood, being a foreigner, leave me with a numerous lack of legal knowledge), as well as a great way to get legal advise , thanks to the Guild :).

To summarize:

The bigger the company is and the more I felt comfortable work conditions, same goes for the financial advantages (no surprise there), and at the same time communication and interaction becomes more diffuse, slow and somewhat anonymous ( just a little, as Dreamworks is doing a lot of efforts to avoir that).

I am quite happy to have been able to experiment with each situation and neither would seem to me difficult to experience again. So far I had just really good experiences so I will be curious to learn more about YOURS , have they been difficult or enjoyable? Feel free to feed thos comments below :)

12 Responses to At Work , 2nd post : small, medium or huge companies

  • Jelmer

    Interesting article! Right now I only do some freelance work from time to time but working at a studio seems to be so much fun :). The companies you’ve worked with are also really generous I think, providing lots of good stuff for free, thanks for the insight into working at a studio. I’ve just posted about this on, so hopefully more people will have a look and comment!

  • Zeb

    Hey Jelmer, thanks for spreading the word :)

  • Nico

    a good and interesting article to read Zeb !!!

  • Mikhail

    well… nice artical…. so do u have any tips for a good demo reel?
    and 1 thing you did not mention… in dreamworks what program u use?

  • Zeb

    @ Nico : Thanks buddy :) @Mikhail : I don’t have much tip for a demo reel except just keep it short (2 to 3 minutes maximum ) and with only the best of your work . There are plenty of website giving way more info than me about that topic . Concerning the softwares just look the other post from the same category

  • Snell, Jason

    Very nice! Thanks for sharing, I really dig it when those in the “know,” open up and tell their experiences! Very cool!

  • Ptarmigandalf

    Nice… I used to work at the DW Glendale campus, back when it was new. Remains to this day the nicest place I’ve worked at, although the food quality at the canteen saw its ups and downs over the years. :)

  • jjjcoolio

    I worked at PDI a year ago. Heard a lot of good things about Dreamworks LA studio. Mostly about the food :) better choices and quality !
    Thanks for sharing a lot of great pictures and information, Zeb.

  • regime

    Here is my experience :
    in a small company I had to be aware, available, and dynamic for a ridiculous wage.
    in a huge company I had to be stand-offish because everyone wanted to give me their job, but I had a good wage.
    Now I’m alone, I work for me. But If I had to work again I think I’ll try to work again in a small company. Because it is more dynamic and less boring.

  • gmat

    Hey there, I bump into the blog recently and I have couple dubs that maybe you can help me out to clear. I am an Argentinean Art Director working in USA since a month ago, in a company doing motion graphics, I am nowadays really tired of motion graphics, cos I have been working on this market since 2001 really long hours, overnights and almost all the weekends since 2001. My most recent wish is to get involve in film, which I assume that may have different times, more pre production and of course higher budget and respect for the employee.. isn’t it ?? Can someone told me about this please ?? I am doing a huge sacrifice to follow my dream and I don’t really sure if it is something that I can handle for I while. Thanks for everything, sorry for my basic English. Gabriel Matula

  • Zeb

    Hey Gabriel so far film production can offer either great schedule that will fit with a family life, but the invert is right. I’d say in general the schedules are better for animation feature, dreamworks is pretty good on that aspect. And effects work on live action feature film tends to have shorter schedule more competition and so it’s more difficult to keep decent work hours under those conditions. But in general the companies in US are really respectfull of the artist, you’re told when you’re doing great and usually you’re salary will be upgraded whenever you’re employer is happy from you. So far they’re fighting to keep the best elements in their company rather than constantly training new artist to their pipeline/softwares.

  • gmat

    Hi Zeb, First at all, many thanks for your quickly response, I really appreciate it.
    Your words have been very helpful to get an better idea about futures steps.
    I think that I will continue trying with films companies, I was asked to send some material to Dream Works couple months ago, but then I lost touch with them.
    Anyway, to know that you can get some extra time for you personal live after work make me feel some hope again. here some illustration from my personal work: thanks for your time men!! I really appreciate it !! Gabriel Matula