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Some day, people will look back to the early 21st century and think to themselves, “what an innovative and chaotic time of humanity to have lived in.” They will see our movies, commercials, music, blogs, papers, excitement, happiness, violence, wars, and suffering like no other generation which came before us. The digital age of world-wide communication came about – reporting events in foreign languages in near-instantaneous “real time.” They will see us as a generation of little patience – constantly wanting more with each passing second and not stopping to look around at what we have done to this world. They will look in amazement, but also remark at how awkward society’s growing pains came about.

The first decade was like no other. They could directly see the impact a few greedy people had on the entire world. It was a global economic depression that was caused primarily by an unregulated banking system – knowingly letting people who were at risk to buy the homes of their dreams. And when the bankers realized that they weren’t going to be paid back, they passed the risk to smaller banks who didn’t realize the severity of the entire problem. This was coupled with two wars, rising oil prices, and the outsourcing of jobs through faster telecommunications. The people at the end of the decade were living on the edge of  what the next day may or may not have brought. It was completely unsustainable to have continued in that direction.

What they had is a drain on the system. The money went to the top and never came back down. And if the paper trail did go anywhere, it often lead straight to the Middle East, China, and India. The baron tycoons and corporate monopolies took to their advantage the means to blindside governments and officials – none of the policy-makers cared so much as long as their own families weren’t suffering and they were forging ahead. But the almighty dollar mattered most – and these tycoons felt that if they could get their work done in foreign, disparate countries, then they could safely pad their bottom line at a substantial profit.

What they didn’t realize is that this was a house of cards waiting to fall down.

I just received word today that a colleague and major competitor known throughout the world had to shut its doors this week. On Friday, they had to let everyone go. While some might view a competitor having to close shop as an opportunity, I view it more with a bit of sadness and concern. The fact is that competition is healthy to a degree. This company helped inspire my own work and wanted me to better myself. They constantly pushed me in the right direction in order to get ahead.

It brings me little happiness to see these colleagues out of work. They are people within the 3D community that I’ve come to known over the years, almost like friends that I’ve had in real life. And it’s especially worrisome when they are considered to be one of the best teams of artists in the world.

In part, we can blame the housing market calamity for bringing us this mess. The truth is that this was only the tinder, and the catalyst was rising oil prices. People suddenly found themselves out of work, and uncertainty started to set in. The companies that were left over started to send their jobs overseas in mass because they could save money in order to stay afloat. The problem with outsourcing is that it is a temporary bandage on a much larger issue. If all of the money is traveling outward, then who is left on the inside to be buying what is produced?

Globalization is a funny thing. In some ways, it brings peace and order to those poorer countries. It opens up communication. It opens up freedom. However, as the financial balance starts to tip in their favor, the people left over on the inside have much less to work with. In the long-run, it brings about a more stabilized world. In the interim, it destabilizes it and causes panic. As to how long that destabilization lasts, it’s simply a guess for now until either the balance evens out which could last years, or Western governments step-in and put caps through tariffs or taxes on jobs flowing outward. Right now, we have a bathtub full of water, and someone just pulled the drain while we were still sitting in it.

This issue of outsourcing isn’t just limited to my field of architectural renderings. It’s happening to almost every creative field.

I’ve talked with several printers recently. Most of them were telling me that they were struggling through layoffs. Their main complaint was that their larger print jobs were suddenly getting shipped off to China to be printed. In order to stay competitive, let alone stay in business, these printers had to follow suit and lay off some of their staff in order to compete with the rock-bottom prices being offered by the Chinese.

As for publishing itself, I worked for Scholastic and Pearson Publishing as a freelancer for a number of years. Towards the end of my publishing career, we were packing books up into PDFs, and sending those books over to China to be printed out. As if the printers in this country didn’t have enough competition locally to worry about.

The same thing is happening to architects and engineers. They’re finding their plans and drawings being shipped off to other countries. People that spent 6+ years in school to learn a fairly sophisticated trade are suddenly finding the rug pulled out from underneath them. Sure, the quality may not be 100% of what would be produced here, but in some cases what is produced overseas might reach 85% of that quality. Most people also couldn’t argue with those prices being offered.

And if that isn’t enough, it’s happening to other creative fields as well as manufacturing.

Even other fields that were considered to be more secure are feeling the tightening of the belt/noose. Because finances have been so tight, instead of hiring a skilled electrician or a plumber, people are turning to people that are new to this country (some legal and some not) to get their jobs done instead. If a homeowner has to make a decision between spending $100/hour or $10/hour for someone that could probably do somewhat of a comparable job, who do you think most people will turn to? So this balance has been severely upset, and it has trickled down to other facets in life and even fields that on the outside, might appear unrelated.

This is a much different world than the 80s and 90s when people complained that the Japanese were taking over the automobile industry, and that the Detroit-based manufacturing jobs were being shipped to Mexico. Today is a time of instant communication. You can simply press a button and hit send and the job gets sent overseas. Jobs can be literally lost within a matter of seconds. We’re not talking about heavy equipment and parts being shipped (although they are), but more scientific and intellectual pursuits as well. Plus, you don’t “need” to have that insider source any longer to have that “secret” economic advantage. All it takes is a little bit of homework and research on any search engine to find out who could manufacture or create your product for less.

So, I feel it is very important for people and business owners to consider the ramifications of sending their jobs overseas. It may work as a temporary fix, but shortly thereafter, you will erode your base of support.

Outsourcing, while having some positive effects, also has some negative consequences. In my field of art, I am constantly seeing this. A few of the things I’ve encountered are:

  1. Miscommunication leading to inferior products.
  2. Miscommunication leading to longer than usual production times.
  3. Miscommunication leading to increased costs due to an increase in production times.
  4. Target dates and deadlines being missed.
  5. Target dates and deadlines being missed due to time-zone differences.
  6. Increased costs locally due to time-zone differences.
  7. Inferior products.
  8. Copyright infringement.
  9. Patent infringement.
  10. Product theft.
  11. Foreign companies using other people’s work illegally to pass off as their own.
  12. Stolen money which is nearly impossible to recover.
  13. Loss of local jobs.
  14. Loss of local, skilled-jobs.
  15. Loss of business as a result of business policies.
  16. Supporting “sweatshop” types of conditions.
  17. Supporting child labor conditions.
  18. Supporting corrupt government officials and ties.

It’s simple (and irresponsible) for most business owners to turn a blind eye to these problems. The policing isn’t there and our governments can’t step in to monitor every situation. It’s almost as if “you don’t see it, then there must not be a problem” mentality. Well, that is a very reckless position of fellow business owners to take when all you are doing is concerning yourself with the bottom dollar. As far as I’m concerned, taking that position makes you just as guilty enacting those injustices.

I had an architect write me the other day for a project. In his email, he wrote:

“I am trying to source a US firm that is competitive with the foreign rendering firms.”

I immediately picked up the phone and called him saying, “you have to be kidding me. There’s no way I can compete with a $300 rendering. This is very difficult work and if I have to spend an entire week or two working on this – how do you expect me to live on $300? I need to make at least $2,000 a week minimum as a business owner by the time you factor in business expenses and taxes. You have to give me a break…”

He started apologizing and said, “I’m sorry. But everyone seems to know that you can get renderings for those prices. The same thing is happening to architecture too. I don’t feel good about it one bit. But that’s what the developer asked me for.”

I replied, “well, I think you need to educate him.”

As for whether or not that happens, I think the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. Unfortunately, people are afraid to “bite the hand that feeds them.” If he really wanted to do us all a favor, he could send the developer this article – which I will gladly forward to him.

Ultimately, you have to weigh the positives and negatives of supporting the people closer to home – and if it keeps going down this path, then we won’t have much of a home to speak of. I know where my consciousness sits – but where does yours?

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

We’ve all seen it before. You come across this great band that’s largely unknown. You think you’ve discovered a gold-mine, and in your excitement of this “discovery”, you’ve turned around and told all of your friends about the band. In turn, they start telling their friends and so on and so forth. The next minute, you’re watching a commercial on television and that “obscure” band which you so highly-prized is banging out a generic jingle for a car insurance commercial. In laymen’s terms, they’ve “sold out.”

The “sell-out” generally means that there was a sacrificial offering. It’s viewed that the band compromised their own artistic integrity by “watering down” their music in order to sell albums to the masses. Amongst the “indie” or “alternative” crowd, this is generally highly frowned-upon – except maybe in the rare instance that you happen to be The Cure. But as a whole, the psychological effect of “selling out” relates to taking something that feels personal, and spreading the love across the board rather thinly.

So as an artist or a creative person – where do you stand with your own values in this world – do you “sell out” (assuming that you can) or do you continue along your current path with no financial distractions? I’ve collaborated with plenty of phenomenal artists – some of which whose styles admittedly beat my own work hands-down (it’s quite a humbling experience.) More often than not, most of these artists have the financial backing (usually mom and dad) to support their efforts in taking one piece of art – and spending weeks if not months to polish that piece to perfection. Most ordinary people can’t afford to spend that amount of time to create a single piece, without the rest of the world falling down in and around them. Those “types” are almost definitely not going be able to perform the same quality of work on a live project from a client, unless that client has really deep pockets as well as some serious patience, or they happen to be the one in a billion ‘savants” living amongst this world. And from that experience, I’m reluctant to hire an artist whose portfolio looks “too good” – because usually something is amiss.

Unfortunately, unless you’re privileged to have land to grow your own crops on, you almost always have to rely on money. The whole financial issue is a catch-22 – it’s expected that an artist does what they do because they love their work for what it is, yet they’re also often expected from society to not want any financial gain, or in some cases, financial security. In my mind, this whole “integrity” versus “money” dichotomy is hypocritical and  unrealistic. It shouldn’t be an “and” or “or” issue. The fact is, an artist needs to survive. They may hide their resources well, but almost invariably rely on some source to put a 23-cent package of Ramen Noodles on the table and a roof over their head. If they didn’t manage to scrape on by, they’d probably end up with a bottle of Colt 45 sitting under some bridge with a shopping cart. I can’t speak for you, but I don’t want to see this happen to anyone. There’s a certain level of pride, and a certain level of foolishness involved in weighing out those “pros” and “cons” in working for the proverbial “man.”

Someone that doesn’t know my own situation would probably assume – “he has a company” or “he’s doing well.” Well, that’s the first mistake. Don’t assume. I do well with all things considered, but even I need to pick up more business and clients or else I might find myself manning a fast-food counter. I’ve heard this assumption time and time again – and sometimes people with that perception think that I would be willing to give them a discount because “he must be rolling in the dough.” The fact is, that there always needs to be a compromise unless you’re truly willing to commit Seppuku. I know that I’m not willing to sacrifice my own life. There must always be a balance between being able to survive, yet be productive enough to “not make a mess.”

The whole flock of struggling artists seem to follow a pattern. It starts off with wanting to create because you enjoy the act of creation. It’s often followed by a sense of pride and integrity. Next generally comes “starvation phase” unless you’ve hit the lottery jackpot. Scrambling for self-preservation through fear of death often follows that. If they managed to get past those phases, the artist becomes a “commercial artist” because they know what it’s like to barely make ends meet – more often than not, this is the level an experienced artist tends to shoot for and if they are “lucky”, they will stay in this state of eternal bliss. If these levels do not completely dissolve and integrity doesn’t take you back to the starting line, you may in that very rare instance “get lucky” and hit that next level of financial security. From my own personal experiences with these other, “lucky” artists – there really is no such thing as “luck.” They’ve almost always busted their asses to get to where they’re at. I have yet to really encounter any artist that has been struck by “artistic lightning.” That has to be a 1 in a 100 million chance of happening.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

I finally managed to get a break for a day or two and it’s a bit strange to adjust to. The last two months have been extremely busy so this is a welcome respite. I do have a couple of projects in the horizon, but for now I’ve put it out of my mind until I have more information in my hands. In fact, it’s been so busy that I’ve had more work in the last two months than all of last year. Granted, most of these projects have been smaller compared to some of those major development projects which often involve animations and plenty of stills. But quantity-wise, these projects kicked last year’s butt. I’m not bragging or boasting – but rather implying that I think things are definitely turning around.

I think there’s a few different things at play here. Construction and advertising was put on hiatus during most of 2009 during the downturn in the economy. I think with this year, people are more optimistic and willing to spend. After all, there’s only so much “sitting on our butts” society can handle before we dust off our old clothes and put them back on. I don’t think the turnaround is going to be drastically immediate – there are still plenty of unemployed people around the world. But the people who do currently have jobs are managing to stay in them.  Employment has risen to above 2008 levels. Secondly, I think there was a major “thinning amongst the ranks.” In my field, plenty of people lost their jobs and lost work. People that didn’t strategize or market themselves fully, people that didn’t make the right business decisions, people that got caught up in the thing called “life”, or simply people who had a sub-par level of work found themselves out on the streets – struggling to either stay in the field or completely abandoning it altogether.

So I think I’ve experience a residual effect from other businesses picking-up pace. I also think people have found LunarStudio because other artists and art-related companies have gone under. In some ways it’s a good thing, but in other ways it’s bad. I don’t like receiving 2-3 resumes and 2-3 solicitations for outsourcing on a daily basis. It simply means that other people aren’t doing as well and if you have any sense of compassion, this is not what you want to see out of your fellow man. I consider myself fortunate for the time-being, but it comes at a human cost.

The business of art is a tricky concept. Most artists know well in advanced that our field is not something you’re probably going to get rich at in our lifetimes. In my mind, the ideal medium/compromise is a little of both – you want enough money to live comfortably and perhaps even retire, but you also want to be able to love what you are doing. That has been my goal – to create, inspire, and simply make a comfortable living. Becoming “rich” is just a pipe-dream – it would be nice, but that’s not my goal. If that’s your sole-goal, than you might lose track of the art itself.

As for fellow artists – the field is simply flooded with creative talent (and quite a bit of novices.) Most will go largely unknown and lost, especially in today’s white noise of telecommunication. In art, that’s just the way things have been since the dawn of mankind. People that painted caves, pottery, knitted baskets, troubadours, musicians-alike, painters, sculpters – they have always been highly admired yet grossly under-rewarded for their efforts. I think with art that there’s “too many” people in the creative field to be completely sustainable, people feel that they don’t need to pay for something they feel is “unnecessary”, and last but not least, people feel that artists love what they do so they feel they can “get away with” not paying too much for an artist’s services. Hence the common english term, “starving artist.”

To me – there needs to be a compromise in order to earn a living in the field of art. Being passionate about your “style” almost always involves learning how to work well with others in order to even earn an average living. You can’t just go around painting whatever you feel like painting and expect that people will automatically buy into it. You almost always have to cater to some degree to other people’s tastes unless you feel like starving, or are fortunate enough to have parents, husbands, and wives to support individualistic efforts. Technically, you can do whatever the heck you want, but be prepared to have to take on that part-time or full-time job to support what essentially becomes a part-time hobby.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

Background

I was recently ripped-off on one of my projects back in January. It’s the first time that this has ever happened to me in the 10+ years that I have either been freelancing or running LunarStudio. Over the years, I’ve worked on over several hundred images and websites, and I’ve never once encountered any unreasonable circumstances which weren’t easily remedied or corrected. With all of my projects, I’ve always been certain to send out a contract unless it was a really trusted client. Without going into too many specific details, this contract basically serves five main purposes:

  1. Outlines what I will deliver.
  2. Outlines what is expected from a client such as plans, elevations, etc.
  3. Protects both the client and myself.
  4. It appears more professional.
  5. Helps me keep track of paperwork.

To summarize what happened, I did work for a company called Advanced Fabrication now called Coffee Shop experts out in California. They also go by the name Coffee Cart Biz. While I’m very reluctant to have actually released any names, I feel that in this rare case it is necessary to prevent other artists from encountering the same issues that I have had. As it stands, they have still refused to pay for my time and services. In no ways would this be considered slander or libel – it is merely stating the facts. I even have it in writing that they refused to pay and the contract to show for it. To add salt to the wound, they went ahead and posted my work on their website without permission (nor payment) which amounts to copyright infringement.

In my contracts, I stipulate that I will work initially from a client’s supplied plans. After that initial round, I allot for a couple rounds of changes thinking that it would be advantageous for future business by keeping the client happy. I also stipulate that plans should be provided which are correct and finalized from the start, that way any potential changes are kept down to a minimum. Well, we started off on the wrong foot here. First, I was sent incorrect plans. When I mentioned this to the client, they told me I was in the wrong (which I wasn’t) and finally when I convinced them that they were incorrect, they ended up telling me to go hunt around for their files. The client also made arbitrary delivery dates such as sending me information on a Friday night, and then expecting changes the following Monday during the week of Christmas. The point in telling you this is to show that they were being quite unreasonable.

Not only did I continue to politely work on their project, but I ended up going above and beyond the outlined rounds of changes. The thought process behind “being accommodating,” is that they promised to have more work in the future. In all, I ended up creating five rounds total, with about 5 views/renderings per round. Each round would take several days on average. The project, which probably should have not run any longer than one week ended up running about a month in total. And they were not just “simple” changes, but often involved complete changes in geometry.

The problem is that I think the client either didn’t care, or they simply “assumed” that changes were easy to make. Anyone that is experienced with the 3D process knows that nothing could be further from the truth. A “simple” change such as a wall color could tack on several hours easily – by the time you make the changes, test process several rounds, and send off the revised image for approval. This can seriously lead to a major time-sink. If you also have other clients, than this could adversely affect the outcome of their artwork as well. Last but not least, it directly impacts our own time-frame for receiving prompt payment. As a 3D artist working with people who are somewhat unfamiliar with the process, I believe it is our obligation to let the client know how their requests for changes can impact our time and that of others. It is simply the responsible and professional thing to do.

Without going into every nit-picky and unreasonable demand (and they were demands), I finally mentioned that this went well beyond my contract and that my fifth round was to be considered a final round. If they needed any other changes, I would gladly make them but those changes would be billable. Advanced Fabrication in turn replied by saying that they refused to pay me unless I made another round of changes for them. Tim Langdon of Advanced Fabrication offered up a meager “$100” for at least one more additional day’s worth of work. That was the last straw which broke the proverbial camel’s back. I felt that their method of holding finances over someone’s head that’s conscientiously gone above and beyond a reasonable amount of work, and tried to provide the best work possible, to be a very crass method of conducting business.

Current Case

I approached two attorneys who both specialized in copyright issues. Both wouldn’t consider the case due to the “trivial” amount involved (a couple thousand in case you need to know.) Attorneys on average bill out around $400 hour. Their advice to me was to take this issue to small claims court which I have done. I have also gathered all of the paperwork which includes a signed contract, all of the emails, as well as printouts of the artwork and screenshots of this company using one of my images without permission.

As for them using my image without permission, I had informed them of copyright infringement and they pulled my image down within a week. According to one attorney, a judge would award compensation based on the amount of damage the infringement may have caused. In this case, a week’s time was probably not enough to warrant significant damages.

Hopefully, I can obtain payment through the small claims judicial system. If this goes through, I can also write the Better Business Bureau of California, it will affect their credit rating and history, and can also be submitted to the Secretary of State and/or Attorney General.

Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily need a written and signed contract to conduct business. Word of mouth is just as admissible in the court of law, however the burden of proof becomes more difficult. It is better to play it safe than sorry.

Lessons Learned

We often learn from our mistakes, and in this case there are several things which could have been done differently and some things I’m glad that I didn’t change.

  1. Always have a contract. It might take a half hour tops to create, but it’s well worth having the documentation handy for reference. In this rare instance, this will benefit me.
  2. Do not allow for “free” rounds of changes. There should only be an initial preview round to make sure that your scene and model is correct. The client needs to provide you with finalized plans from the beginning. If they can’t provide solid plans, then you will need to wait.
  3. If you feel something is minor and you want to provide free changes, you can do so at your discretion. But at least you will have it in concrete writing that you didn’t allow for any changes without billing extra. This way you avoid spending extra days worth of time and working with what I like to call the “maybe factor.”
  4. Mistakes on your behalf should always be corrected free of charge. After all, you made them.
  5. List your change rates in your contracts, and make certain your client is well aware of this rate.
  6. If changes are asked, itemize those changes and provide the client with an estimate as to how long you think their changes will take. Wait until they sign off on them.
  7. Always point out all of the free and additional work you have done on a project. If you don’t inform them of your changes done out of courtesy, don’t expect them to automatically realize it.
  8. Always take it with a grain of salt when a client holds a “carrot over your head.” Just about every single person I speak with almost always mentions that they probably will have future opportunities. This is something you should automatically assume – after all, if you did a great job to begin with, then why wouldn’t they come back to you? It’s just another way of saying, “can you give me something relatively inexpensive, and I’ll feed you more work down the road?” You realize shouldn’t compromise here. If it’s a project that you really want to work on are interested in – there are some exceptions but the exceptions shouldn’t be the rule.
  9. Take screen shots.
  10. Save emails.
  11. Save contracts.
  12. Analyze their work as well. In this case, if I looked more closely at their previous renderings, I would have noticed a variety of 3D rendering styles. If I had paid more attention, this would have raised an initial flag of concern.
  13. You should watermark your images and don’t remove the watermark until you received payment. This must be spelled out clearly in your contracts.

You have to really look at our artistic profession from the perspective of any other professional industry. For example, if you were to hire a painter to paint your house, you would select a color and have them paint it. However, after they had painted it and you decided that you didn’t like it, it would be ridiculous and unethical to tell the painter to redo the paint in a different color and expect it to be free of charge – even if you were “promised” more work down the road.

You can pretty much take any other industry as an example. If you took your car to a mechanic and asked them to change your oil, you wouldn’t expect them to replace your brake pads for free. It’s simply a ludicrous thought. You would need to pay them for the extra time, expertise/labor, and parts involved.It’s only fair.

In the same respect, we should all handle our artwork and value our time and efforts equally. Anyone that’s being cheap about these matters is probably not worth conducting business with. Not charging for changes is really doing a disservice to the industry as a whole and it only serves to make the rest of us look unprofessional.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ to a few people who have been of tremendous help recently. It’s always a nice surprise (a surprise to me at least) whenever I find good-natured people who aren’t necessarily always looking for something in return.

Thanks to Torgeir Holm for helping me out with one of my product lighting shots.

Thanks to Christian Bloch for his help and support on sIBL as well as HDRs.

And last but not least, thanks to Jeff Mottle for posting my website HDRSource under the News category of CGArchitect.

It really is appreciated you guys – I can’t thank you enough without sounding completely sappy.