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Fledgling Buffalo Billion component has big hopes for its future

Pierre Roy wanted to find a new career after losing his job as principal oboeist at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra nearly three years ago.

He’s hoping to have found one in the up-and-coming field of producing visual effects for television shows, movies and other productions.

Roy recently completed the 15-week training course in visual effects offered by Daemen College in partnership with Buffalo visual effects production company Empire Visual Effects that is trying to lay the foundation for the growing industry to take root in Buffalo, with a major boost from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

Even before Roy graduated in early May, he was spending time at Empire Visual Effects, working on enhancing a scene for a TV show and enhancing still photos that will be displayed at NBC.

“It’s a huge advantage to work in a professional shop,” Roy said. “You learn a lot of the tricks of the trade really quick.”

The idea behind the Buffalo Billion investment is to create a visual effects hub that will allow the region to become a player in a fast-growing, technologically intense field. To do that, state officials are trying to develop a local workforce with the skills to create the visual effects that are becoming commonplace in movies, TV shows and commercials. Visual effects can do anything from changing the background of a particular scene to add explosions, smoke and blood to a shoot-out scene or erasing the acne scars on an actress’ face.

It is the smallest component of the Buffalo Billion – with a total investment by the state of $4.5 million – and has been largely overshadowed by higher-profile projects such as the SolarCity solar panel factory. But supporters believe the venture could lead to 150 jobs at Empire Visual Effects and open the door to other firms within the industry.

Fewer jobs

Unlike the solar panel factory, which is still under construction and won’t hit full production until early 2017, the visual effects program is well underway, having turned out more than 50 graduates through the first four sessions that have been offered by Daemen.

The job opportunities haven’t been growing nearly as quickly. Empire Visual Effects recently met its initial goal of having the equivalent of 25 full-time workers, but that’s not enough to provide locally-based work for all of the graduates that the Daemen program has turned out. And it’s just one-sixth of Empire Visual’s pledge to ultimately employ 150 people.

Building an industry from scratch is kind of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. A skilled workforce is needed to attract the studio work, but an ample amount of studio work is needed to keep those trained workers on the job.

“It’s a new situation for Buffalo, so it’s been a little bit difficult for some of our graduates to understand,” said Ben Porcari, Empire Visual Effects’ managing partner.

To do the work, Buffalo needs a stable of trained workers that can handle the sometimes intense labor demands for bigger projects, which typically have a quick turnaround time. “We need to have enough people to be able to complete the big jobs,” said Laura Watts Sommer, a professor of art history at Daemen and its director of visual and performing arts.

But in a fledgling industry, the flow of work isn’t steady as Buffalo and Empire Visual Effects try to build their reputation in an industry that already has a stable of established visual effects firms. So while there might be work for a few dozen workers at a particularly busy time, there also will be times when work is hard to find.

Of the 25 full-time equivalent employees at Empire Visual Effects, about 16 are working full-time, while the rest work as independent contractors as projects come along, Porcari said. Sixteen of Empire Visual’s total workforce are graduates of the Daemen program.

“To develop a new workforce takes time and it has bumps,” Sommer said. “It’s going to take another year or two. There’s no magic wand here.”

Tough competition

By building the workforce, and by using the state’s Buffalo Billion money to develop the physical visual effects facilities at both Daemen’s International Center for Excellence in Animation and at Empire Visual Effects, state officials are hoping to establish a toe-hold in the fast-growing visual effects industry. The idea is to steadily build a core of skilled workers for the visual effects industry, so that as Empire Visual Effects builds its business and the region’s workers gain recognition within the industry as being able to handle projects, the region will be able to take on bigger and more complex projects that require even greater manpower.

“You’ve got to be fleet-footed. You’ve got to be ready to go when they call,” Porcari said.

“You have to establish a reputation,” Sommer said. “In order for this to really work, we need to become a presence in the visual effects industry, to the point where, if Toronto can’t complete a shot, they know we have the capabilities to do it.”

The competition is stiff, however. Critics say a largely inexperienced local workforce may struggle to compete against established visual effects companies, such as New Zealand-based Weta Digital. The digital animation and effects industry now is largely centered around Los Angeles, London and Vancouver. About 16,000 people work for digital entertainment and interactive companies in British Columbia alone, the Vancouver Economic Commission estimates.

Still, Porcari and Sommer are confident that Buffalo can become a player in the visual effects industry.

“Buffalo has a couple of things going for it,” Sommer said. “One, we’re close to Toronto, which already has a well-established film industry,” doing an estimated $700 million in production work last year.

Because most visual effects work is outsourced, it’s just as easy to do work in Buffalo as it is in any of the established hubs. Plus, Buffalo also has lower living costs to go along with a strong fiber-optic network and access to the supercomputer resources at the University at Buffalo, Porcari said.

Effects everywhere

In Daemen’s center in the Tri-Main Building on Main Street, students work on projects using technology common in the industry. For his final project, Roy made a video of himself playing in the subway and then getting run over by a train.

“It’s really an apprentice-style education,” said Scott Holmes, the director of Daemen’s center of excellence in animation, who has worked as an animator on films ranging from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” to “Stuart Little.”

The program costs $5,250, and students aren’t eligible for financial aid because it’s only a four-month program. And because the program runs during business hours, juggling a job and the visual effects classes can be a challenge.

Visual effects now are used with practically every commercial, TV show and movie. With the proliferation of Internet-based shows, the demand is rising even more.

Veteran talent

To raise its profile, Empire Visual added an experienced industry veteran, J.D. Cowles, who has 14 feature film credits on his resume and worked on Oscar-winning films “What Dreams May Come,” “The Matrix” and “Spider-Man 2.”

At the same time Empire Visual was trying to land Cowles last November, he also was weighing another job offer to work as a visual effects supervisor in Montreal of the fifth Terminator movie. He picked Buffalo.

“It’s nice to be close to home,” said Cowles, who commutes from Rochester, where his wife continued to live even while Cowles was working in Southern California. “It’s a growing industry here in upstate New York. And the tax incentives are here.”

Those film industry tax breaks are an important factor in the competitive market for visual effects work. New York’s incentive package includes a tax credit of up to 45 percent for post-production work done by upstate studios such as Empire Visual Effects, capped at $25 million statewide. Canada also offers lucrative incentives, though Ontario last month proposed cutting its tax breaks, partly because of the savings film producers already are reaping from the drop in the value of the Canadian dollar.

Porcari thinks Buffalo is beginning to establish itself within the industry, with Empire Visual having grown from three employees at its start.

“We’re doing things in a sustainable way,” Porcari said. “We’re building the workforce, rather than moving a workforce here. We’ve created a talent pool that never existed in this area.”