With the Double Negative closure announcement yesterday, a curtain comes down on a integral part of the local vfx/animation industry.
“In closing the facility, our first priority is our staff. We will be working closely with the relevant agencies in the Singapore government to ensure that all support is given to our staff in finding them ongoing roles at one of Double Negative’s other facilities or potential training and placement in other firms in Singapore.”
The writing have been on the wall for the last 6 months ever since they laid off over 80 artists in Sept.
There are a lot of question floating around like why did they move out of sg, why didn't MDA or EDB keep them here. But reasons have not been forth coming.
And more importantly... what will happen to the artists and the industry in general.
Here are my theories as well as industrial hearsay.
1. Why did they close the sg branch?
a. The simple reason is that Singapore is just too expansive to do business here for low cost visual effects. Locally most of the work is matchmoving and rotoscoping ever since they opened shop here.
With the acquisition of D Neg by Indian company Prime Focus, they have been effectively been in direct competition with India for work. And the cost of visual effects here just cannot compete with those in India. I mean a Indian artist get paid about SGD300-$500 dollars a month with them working on three 8 hour shifts in the hundreds.. How do u compete with that?
b. With the subsidies in Canada and London ramping up, Singapore just cannot compete with the tax subsidies that they offer for the higher end VFX jobs since D Neg already have branches there. It really does not make much sense to keep 3 studios running with Singapore having a higher cost of living then Mumbai which is in a similar time zone.
c. This is purely my theory and guess but I think that EDB or the govt played a game of brinkmanship and lost. All companies when they come to Singapore have certain financial incentives to set up shop here that are up for review every few years. And D Neg's incentives are up for review and the govt is unwilling to extend the benefits and played hard ball. And they lost. Which brings me to the objective and goals of EDB/MDA over the last decade. I believe that they do not have a dedicated department for visual effects and animation but rather that portfolio is handed around a revolving door of individuals or groups. People who do not have industrial experience or knowledge to understand the situation locally or globally. Nor really the interest or fervor to pursue it. It is just a box that needed to be ticked. Reports to be filed. Another ladder to climb. Either that or EDB's priority and interest for VFX and animation have waned in the last decade or they feel that it is a sector not worth pursing. Which I cannot blame them when you see VFX/animation against other sectors in terms of growth and profit margin. Which is a worrying sign for the rest of us.
d. This is a factor that I have discussed before time and again . The students that are coming out of the private schools and polys are poorly trained and ill equipped for working in the industry. And are painted with unrealistic expectations of what the industry is like. Now we are seeing the consequences. To take on the higher level of Visual effects, there needs to be a certain level of artistic and technical competency to even began an apprenticeship in a studio and when oversea studios want to come to Singapore, they see the level of the artistic talent against the cost of hiring them. And compared against Vietnam, Malaysia and surrounding countries that have lower cost of operation, we are on par if not slightly less "artistic". Thanks to the economic policies for the last few decades that results in people favoring more financial motivations then artistic growth.
e. This is actually relevant to the point above. Even at full operations, there are a significant amount of foreigners working here in Singapore with skill transference to the local talent. But with the curbing of employment passes in the last few years, it has become harder to hire artists globally to work here. Partially because the level of experience that the locals have are not sufficient which was compounded by the reluctance of the company to bring in higher level of shots to work on. A vicious circle.
2. How will the loss of a big VFX company affect the local industry here ?
With D Neg gone, ILM sg is the only big VFX/ animation studio here and there is still Ubisoft which does AAA games. But you can understand the nervousness the artists inside will feel about this.
There are still animation studios doing overseas TV shows and post houses. But most survive on low pay and long hours to compete. For a lot of the artists that was let go by D Neg in Sept, most of them are working overseas. For the older workers who have families here, it basically means a change in career or take a pay cut.
ANd on the hindsight, that actually might be a good thing.
What I tell myself everyday.
To all the people watching, I can never ever thank you enough for the kindness to me, I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask is one thing, and this is.. I'm asking this particularily of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism - for the record it's my least favorite quality, it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen." - Conan 'O'Brien