IT Spotlight: Hollywood

IT Spotlight: Hollywood

Even techies win Oscars. In 2003, Toronto-based Alias received a statuette for the development of its Maya animation and digital effects software.

Given Hollywood's reliance on technology today, Maya's Oscar was no fluke. The film industry now depends on the expertise of technology professionals for special effects, screenings and more.

Your Code on the Big Screen

Consider Jason Waltman, an FX artist/developer for PDI/DreamWorks -- the company behind Shrek. His position entails working with animators to write programming code for use in special effects and film production. "I love this job," Waltman writes in an email. "The code that I write gets used almost immediately by my peers to make frames of a movie that will eventually be shown on the big screen."

Is there a more glamorous coding job on the planet? Probably not. "I like the fact that I'm able to use my artistic/creative skills, that my code literally 'makes pictures,'" Waltman continues, "and that I'm not working in databases or operating systems, etc. -- things that most CS grads find themselves doing."

Waltman's not alone. Industry experts say plenty of opportunities await tech pros in Hollywood, ranging from work at tech-support call centers to troubleshooting problems with the digital displays used for viewing the day's footage, known as "dailies."

Going Digital

A number of trends have created opportunities for techies to break into pictures:

  • New film distribution methods, from the Internet to on-demand viewing.
  • Increasing use of digital displays and projectors for production and exhibition.
  • Filmmaking processes requiring digital tools for everything from editing to sound production.
  • Widespread use of animation and 3D effects, even outside of the realm of fantasy and sci-fi flicks.
  • Movie distribution beyond theaters and TV to smaller screens

"The digital aspects of making a movie are more prevalent than ever," says Jim Robinson, CEO of Cinema Electric, a producer of short movies for mobile phones and a former director whose company tackles issues like the small file sizes for movies on mobile phones.

CinemaNow and Movielink distribute movies online -- an entirely new model still in its infancy. "It's very, very early," says Bruce David Eisen, executive vice president of CinemaNow. The company employs tech professionals with skills in HTML, .NET, SQL and other technologies. "I see great growth there."

Complex tools like Maya are generating some of the most exciting opportunities. Alias operates a custom development center in Santa Barbara, working with key customers to extend Maya's ability with plug-ins and other tools, says Chris Ruffo, industry market manager for Alias, specializing in feature films and digital content creation.

"Developers want to work on the neatest stuff," says Ruffo. "We have those challenges on a daily basis." Maya's own developers often have advanced degrees in computer science or math. "They're all highly creative people," he says. Studios also have their own internal development teams who write plug-ins and other proprietary code.

A Visual Sense

As one might expect, techies with a visual sense have an advantage.

"Everything we do is about images and sound," says Sean James, senior manager of technical services for Christie, a maker of digital cinema solutions and displays used in production and theaters. "People have to have the ability to critique those things."

Christie employs a wide range of technology professionals, from electrical engineers and programmers, who work on the innards and interfaces of the company's products, to customer-service engineers and field-application engineers who may have to remedy display issues for directors eager to examine dailies.

A Technical Audition

There's no single route into the industry. Some techies work through Hollywood's traditional apprentice systems, while others leverage their programming prowess.

"CS grads with artistic abilities, and especially knowledge of computer graphics and rendering, are obviously going to be in higher demand -- for the movie industry -- than CS grads who don't know anything about graphics," Waltman says.

Waltman was a computer science major at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, with a double-minor in art and mathematics. He later received a master's degree in computer science with a graphics emphasis. His art background helped him stand out.

Perhaps there's a movie in this: Mr. Geek Goes to Hollywood.

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