By Georgia Jordan
I am in a place where my fellow creative arts graduates, and creative arts graduates everywhere, dream of being. If only they could get that flipping foot in that darn door.
I have gained access behind the scenes of a prominent creative industries company and I feel as if I am being led to El Dorado.
Simon Rosenthal, head of VFX Asia Pacific, is in fact leading me through the rabbit warrens of Iloura—a South Melbourne animation and visual effects studio—replete with endlessly embranching hallways hiding reclaimed wood staircases that contrast with ultra-modern spaces illuminated by innovative lighting design. Pretty impressive. Naturally, artwork splashes across every wall while sculptures and figurines gallivant, it seems, upon every desktop.
“We spend a lot of time here,” Mr Rosenthal says when I comment on the pool table.
Iloura staff members update Mr Rosenthal on matters in passing the way busy employees do big-shot bosses in movies. Although Mr Rosenthal, I am pleased to find, is hardly the stereotypical Baldwin-esque big cheese, offering tea and answering my questions thoughtfully.
It is thrilling to have finally infiltrated Iloura: my former classmates and I studied our creative degree just across the street but the gap that separated us always seemed far larger. I am half expecting Mr Rosenthal to turn to me and say, “If you ever tell anyone what you’ve seen, I’ll have to kill you.”
But he does not.
In fact, he expresses his surprise at how little contact the studio receives from the creative industries university opposite.
“We’re always on the lookout for someone new and exciting and motivated who can contribute meaningfully to the business.”
This statement is why creative arts graduates struggle on against the tide toward that golden isle of employment. His next is why many are washed away.
“[With applicants] we do not place any emphasis on a tertiary degree at all.”
Last month, on the 15th of April, the sun streaked proud through the windows of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and our graduation robes, once a practical way of keeping warm in the draughty halls of 16th century universities like Oxford and Cambridge, were not of any help in our struggle against perspiration. General anxiety alone could have brought a good sweat to our brows, nervous as we were not only for the forthcoming ceremony but also for the rest of our lives.
The ceremony weaved between sentimental celebration and spontaneous humour. (One student, approaching the Chair of the Academic Board for a photo, lost his mortarboard in front of the entire audience attempting to flick his tassel from right to left with a jerk of the head. Good on him for trying.) With whoops and whistles we congratulated our comrades, with whom we had shared long hours, dreams for the future, sleep-deprived conversation, advice, styluses, pegbars (an animation utensil), shoulders to cry on (when programs and hard-drives crashed) and thus, finally, made it through.
Naturally, Facebook that evening was awash with triumphant status updates featuring graduation puns (including the classic conGRADulations) and robed selfies. One particular status by an animation graduate touched on something significant:
“Now to find a job! #officiallyunemployed”
The status held the weight of worry we carried in our hearts during graduation. It attracted 110 likes.
Those cynical comments to the tune of “it’s just a piece of paper”, “university and the arts don’t mix” and “you’re wasting your money” had flown about like pesky flies since the first day of our degree and had, despite our swatting and shooing, persisted right through to graduation. Though optimistic students take pains to argue otherwise, these messages do touch a nerve: the common worry that after all our physical, emotional and financial investment the testamur we hold in our hands is no more than a one-way ticket to unemployment.
And now, the head of VFX at one of Australia’s most successful production studios sits across from me and confirms its insignificance.
According to Graduate Careers Australia, just 48 per cent of visual/performing arts graduates are working full-time four months after graduating—a lower proportion than all other fields of education reported in 2013. Training.com.au reports a 10 per cent increase in customer service and sales staff holding undergraduate degrees within the past five years. Consistent with these statistics, many of my former classmates retain their part-time retail and hospitality positions while seeking work in the creative industry. In the job market, the value of academic credentials has decreased due to credential inflation. Not only are students struggling to snag a job in their dream industry, they are competing with teenagers for retail and hospitality positions. Since teenagers are cheaper workers, university graduates often get the short end of the stick.
Shaun Dare (22) is one of three students who formed an independent studio just two months following the completion of their degree and, since they are yet to generate any revenue, must juggle a part-time position at Safeway to support himself financially.
“I’m expecting we will have to put in a lot more work to get things off the ground revenue-wise… [but] I’m optimistic.”
Mr Dare and the other two-thirds of Firestorm Studio, Chris Laffin (31) and Lisa Le (22), welcome me into their cosy North Melbourne workspace. It is admittedly not quite as sprawling as Iloura, but radiates the same charm native to any creative working environment worth its salt.
“We formed the studio to keep our minds in the game. Towards actually doing something rather than waiting and ending up doing nothing,” Mr Dare says. Mr Laffin agrees it was a good way to avoid getting stuck in a career they did not want to do.
Commenting on the value of their degree in their creative career, they echo the thoughts of Iloura’s Mr Rosenthal.
“If you have the skills then I guess getting a degree doesn’t matter,” Mr Laffin says.
Due to the rising costs of education, many aspiring creative professionals are teaching themselves the necessary skills through the magic of Youtube tutorials.
“You could learn off Youtube tutorials but you would be dedicating yourself to that like the full-time study we’ve been doing,” Mr Dare says.
One of the main problems people who adopt the self-taught method struggle with is dwindling motivation.
“You’ve got to drive yourself towards it,” Mr Dare says.
For this reason, there is a perception those who are self-taught are in fact more desirable than university graduates. I pose this to Mr Rosenthal in a hypothetical scenario: Two applicants display equal skill in their showreels, one has a university degree while the other is self-taught. Is one at an advantage?
“No, absolutely not. We would gravitate towards the one we felt was a better cultural fit for the business irrespective of whether they had a tertiary degree or not.”
What does he mean by “cultural fit”?
“They certainly can’t have a chip on their shoulder. They’ve got to be prepared to put in the hard yards and learn, know when to ask the questions, know when to shut up. Respect is an enormous thing in this business.”
This sounds very similar to what one learns at university.
Mr Rosenthal admits, “You would have to put a question mark against someone who’s self-taught only on the basis they haven’t had the appropriate interaction, feedback and [experience in] teamwork.”
While Mr Dare agrees the university degree itself is not significantly useful, he advocates the university experience, providing the institution employs industry professionals.
“The classes and the experience you got from the lecturers were a huge help just because you learn from the experience they have, what they know, the contacts they have and advice they can give.
“[Relying on online help] is not the same as getting critique in person.”
Although our testamurs are not golden tickets, university was our chocolate factory and (embracing the Roald Dahl metaphor) in graduating we gave Willy Wonka back the everlasting gobstopper.
“It’s not necessarily about tertiary education, it’s actually about maturity as much as anything else,” Mr Rosenthal says.
You can read the transcript of my interview with Simon Rosenthal here.