To understand what it takes to have a thriving career in the fast-changing economy of the 21st century, go to the movies. Or, more precisely, give a little bit of thought to how the motion picture business has changed over the last century.
Consider three movies with the same title. The 1933 version of King Kong was considered a technological marvel, depicting what was a stop-motion puppet climbing to the top of the Empire State Building. Its crew numbered 113 people. A 1976 version of King Kong used a technician in an ape suit and a 40-foot tall robot to portray the Great Ape—and, as it happens, also had exactly 113 crew members.
But a 2005 version of King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson, was a little more complicated. Kong was played by an actor, Andy Serkis, who wore motion-capture equipment to bring the ape to life. And its crew numbered no fewer than 1,659 people, including jobs like “data wrangler” and “stereoscopic compositing lead.”
In the old days, the director of a movie could look around the set, know most everyone’s name, and have a pretty good sense of what they did all day. If you look at the list of movies that dominate the box office in this year, they almost all involve the kinds of incredibly complex digital effects that necessitated all those technical skills that were brought to bear on the 2005 King Kong.
The movie industry, in that sense, parallels the corporate world as a whole, where large, technologically advanced firms dominate more and more industries. The key to having a career is to develop the right talents for thriving within them.
On combining two areas of expertise
To figure out what that means for somebody who wants to have a durable, thriving career in the film industry, I traveled 9,000 miles to Wellington, New Zealand, where I met the man who was responsible for the hairs on the 2005 King Kong’s back and quite a few other digital effects since then.
On the day I met him, Marco Revelant was wearing rimless glasses, a gray hoodie, and stubble that suggested he had gone two or three days without shaving. Revelant taught himself how to make 3D graphics, once worked making graphics for TV commercials in his native Italy, and received an invitation to work on the third Lord of the Rings movie from Weta Digital in New Zealand.
The reason it takes so many people to make a major movie is that creating 3D digital effects that are not just adequate but convincing on a big screen is a highly labor-intensive process. It isn’t enough to draw a scene the way a visual artist would. You need to create an entire world.
To create the scenes of 1930s Manhattan for the 2005 King Kong, they modeled each individual building. To create a forest, they simulated the growth of a forest over a hundred years, as different plants grow, compete for light, die, and decay. To create animals—real or fantastical—they start with the skeleton and must model everything from how muscles move to how hair grows and how light passes through it.
All of that, in turn, requires people across a broad continuum of talents. At one end are pure artists—the creative talents who dream up characters and scenes, and in some cases still draw them by hand. At the other end are more purely technical staff members—people who code software and deploy advanced mathematics to turn those artistic ideas into an actual movie. In between are a whole lot of people, including modelers like Marco Revelant, who straddle that divide.
The importance of cross-discipline communication
“The thing is, a lot of the coders don’t know how to groom,” Revelant told me. “They rely on someone to tell them what the software needs to do. But sometimes it’s difficult for the person who is skilled at grooming to tell them in a language they understand.”
So, for example, as the team at Weta Digital pivoted from Lord of the Rings to work on King Kong, Revelant was assigned to work on Kong’s fur. The process of carefully adjusting the digital fur so that it looks realistic onscreen is called “grooming,” because it is the electronic equivalent of a hairstylist working to comb, tease, trim, or muss the beast’s fur.
Revelant was assigned to groom King Kong because he understood both the artistic vision the movie aimed to achieve and the technical needs and limits of the software engineers. He worked with the software developers to create a program, which they called Fur, that let a modeler manipulate the direction of one “guide hair,” which in turn controlled the thousands of hairs around it. It allowed them to add a clump of mud here or make a patch of fur more scraggly there.
It worked well but was very labor-intensive. To do movies with more furry characters, they needed a way to turn around shots faster. What if—Revelant asked the coders—they could create entirely new software that would allow them to manipulate the curve of each hair, millions of them, directly, rather than the cumbersome system of guide hairs?
This software, called Barbershop, proved more crucial than they could have known. Before they knew it, Weta was working on the Planet of the Apes trilogy that concluded in 2017. Barbershop was essential to creating the furry characters at its center, including the memorable chimpanzee leader of the apes, Caesar. Revelant, along with collaborators Alasdair Coull and Shane Cooper, won a technical achievement Academy Award for the Barbershop software.
On being the ‘glue’ of the project
I spoke with Kathy Gruzas, the chief information officer at Weta Digital, about what it takes to thrive in that company. She used a term for people like Revelant that I hadn’t heard before but that resonated: glue people.
“I think the only way you can make something so big and complex work is to have a lot of people spending a lot of time talking about stuff and discussing and getting it right,” Gruzas said. “It’s the people who can speak both the artistic and technical languages well who can translate between them, who can keep everything running and translating the vision and overseeing quality.”
In other words, succeeding in the high-tech, winner-take-all movie industry of the 21st century means becoming somebody who doesn’t merely have exceptional technical skills—though you need that, too. It requires being able to put that skill to use on a team to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. You have to know “how the pieces interconnect. You can’t just know your part,” as Gruzas said. And it’s as true, I found, in organizations in all types of industries as it was at that movie effects studio in New Zealand.
This article was adapted from How to Win in a Winner-Take-All-World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers, by Neil Irwin. It is reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press, LLC.