Interview with Simon Rosenthal, Head of VFX Asia Pacific at Iloura Melbourne



GEORGIA: As you know, I’m exploring the value of a university degree in getting a job in the creative industries. I want to put a hypothetical question to you. Say you had two applicants, their showreels were pretty similar in terms of skill, one had a uni degree and one was self-taught. Would one or the other take preference?

SIMON: 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.

GEORGIA: Can you elaborate on what you mean by cultural fit?

SIMON: The issue is, we’re incredibly time-poor here. We’re not a teaching institution and we find it difficult to spend time developing staff. So the staff—whether they’re straight out of a tertiary institution or their lounge-room—they’ve got to be motivated, they’ve got to be self-sufficient, they’ve got to be willing to learn, they need to shut up because what you’re dealing with is a very volatile environment. When an environment is primarily based around creative individuals it has a volatility to it that doesn’t perhaps exist in the banking or finance industry. I’ve been here for twenty years and there are personalities that I still can’t work out. There are individuals within this business that I have to treat completely differently to what I would think would be the right way to treat them. So to immerse someone in the culture they’ve got to have a really strong starting point. They’ve got to be the right fit for the business. 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. There are people who have been here for 20-25 years who have done some extraordinary things and often we find interns or students challenge that authority, which is totally inappropriate. We get a lot of applicants for intern programs out of tertiary institutions and we get a lot of them from their lounge rooms. We do not place any emphasis on a tertiary degree at all. We will choose the person who’s got the best work and the best attitude.

GEORGIA: Makes sense.

SIMON: And I think you would get a similar answer from anyone in the industry.

GEORGIA: If say, a high-schooler just desperately wanted to be an animator, would you think either going for the university degree or teaching yourself is a more viable option? Because a lot of students, when I was studying, who weren’t into the university system complained, “Oh, I could learn all this at home, why am I spending all this money?”

SIMON: It’s a tough one because it’s not necessarily about tertiary education, it’s actually about maturity as much as anything else. If you said to me, “You can take an 18 year old who is straight out of school or a 21-year-old who is straight out of tertiary education,” I’m probably going to lean towards the 21-year-old. If you said to me, “They’re both 21,” I would have no preference one way or another. I think there are tertiary institutions that provide a quality of service and I think there are tertiary institutions that don't. There is a fundamental issue in that I still think a lot of the tertiary institutions are driven by the dollar and getting as much student dollar as they possible can. As such, the curriculum is not necessarily the priority for them. We find we have to un-train a lot of what they’ve been taught during their time at the tertiary institution. Once again, I don't really have a preference. Someone would have to be extraordinary to go straight from school into a professional production environment.

GEORGIA: Say they spent a couple of years teaching themselves?

SIMON: Then I don’t have a preference. It comes back to what they’ve learnt, what they’ve taught themselves, what type of person they are, whether they’re the right cultural fit and what their goals and ambitions are.

GEORGIA: It seems a lot of people are leaning towards the uni degree at the moment. Do you have many people who are self-taught at Iloura? Is it a mix?

SIMON: It’s probably fifty-fifty in terms of entry positions in the business. I think tertiary institutions are hard, I mean it’s different now but it obviously comes at a high price. This place across the road charges 30-odd thousand dollars a year—now you can get HECS, obviously and that’s helpful but I’m not convinced the quality of education is any better than being self-taught. The one thing I will say that a tertiary institution does, is it brings discipline. When you’ve got a curriculum that forces you to—

GEORGIA: Deadlines.

SIMON: Deadlines and all that kind of stuff, then that’s a whole lot more important than sitting at home and thinking, “Oh, I’ll do it next week.”

GEORGIA: Someone at DLF [Digital Labourers Federation] drinks brought up that someone who is self-taught might be more desirable because they’ve actually had to drive themselves.

SIMON: Yeah, but it’s totally arbitrary. It’s scattered. You just don’t know when they’re going to appear on your doorstep. They may have done six months and felt like they’ve achieved everything or they may well have done five years and felt like they’ve achieved everything. While I don’t care if they’re from a tertiary institution background or whether they’re self-taught, I think the fundamental thing for us is to have that maturity. And that’s why I would tend to steer clear of anyone just out of school and you would have to put a question mark against someone who’s self taught only on the basis that thy haven’t had the appropriate interaction, feedback and—

GEORGIA: And team work.

SIMON: And team work. So the simple answer is I would probably tend more towards someone who had come out of uni than someone who is self-taught but… each case is an individual. You have to treat them individually.

GEORGIA: I find that people who come out of uni, particularly at JMC Academy and Qantm, are given a very generalist understanding of the whole pipeline, from 2D to 3D and everything that goes with it, whereas people who are self-taught tend to specialise themselves. Do you value that generalist understanding or do you prefer someone who specialises?

SIMON: We are very specific in our departments. Each department has a group of people within it and they don’t move beyond that department. That’s the way any professional production environment works. But I do think it’s important that there’s a rudimentary understanding of the different disciplines that exist within the pipeline. To be a great animator you’ve got to have a great understanding of modelling, to be a great compositor you’ve got to have a good understanding of lighting… so I think it’s important. It’s not something we dwell on but what we will do is—through an interview process or a selection process when we’re talking of bringing interns in—we’ll earmark each department for an intern, so there will be an animation intern, a compositor intern—whatever it is—and we will try to select people who have a specific interest in that area but also have a generalist understanding of how it [the pipeline] should work. In many respects, places like JMC and RMIT, they do churn out generalists but they churn out generalists who have an inclination towards one discipline or another, which is kind of perfect. But you get that with the self-taught, they’ll have a gravitation towards one thing.

GEORGIA: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

SIMON: Um… look, contrary to popular belief there’s actually plenty of opportunity out there.

GEORGIA: That is contrary to popular belief.

SIMON: Within the businesses of Australia there’s an aging population. We’re always on the lookout for someone new and exciting and motivated who can contribute meaningfully to the business. I mean, my ideal scenario is never to have to employ anyone from overseas when we actually have a self-sufficient industry in Australia. I have to make decisions about what types of projects we do based on how many people we employ from overseas because I’m paying for airfares, accommodation and visas. So there’s times I have to say, “Well, we’re better served by not doing that job because it’s just going to cost us too much money.” So conceptually, the idea of a ‘new breed’ coming through is incredibly important. The disciplines don't change, the disciplines won’t change. What will happen is, there will be a need for a higher level of expertise, because at the end of the day, part of the problem for students is that the entry-level positions, like rotoscoping and clean-up and tracking and things like that, will eventually be outsourced. So there will not be any entry-level positions in a business like ours. There will be an expectation that students have a high level of expertise and be able to work at a junior level within each department. And that’s a challenge. But we’re not far off, probably only about two years. But that’s okay because that means they’ve got to lift their game. Each department has heads of department, seniors, mids, juniors. And juniors are people who have come out of school, they’re self-taught or whatever it is but they’re at a higher level of skill then ever before and there will always be positions for them here.

GEORGIA: Sounds like it. Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.

SIMON: No worries—pleasure.