Sunday, September 27, 2009

Los Angeles is a Desert

Well, not entirely, but it's as bad as I have ever seen it. The United States was the birthing place of computer graphics. The Darpa Net, framebuffer from Utah, graphic rendering from Utah, so many developments it's impossible to list them all. Los Angeles as the place where a group of us geeks finally convinced (over a period of about twelve to fifteen years) Hollywood that we could use our technology to make movies. A former head of ILM once said at SIGGRAPH in a speech he gave about the business, "It was 1991, the year that "Beauty and the Beast" and "Terminator2" came out, and Hollywood finally said,"Ohhh! That's what you meant!"

By 1995, every major studio either had or was starting to hire hundreds of computer graphic artists (that mostly didn't exist, remember in 1991 there were only a few hundred of us world-wide). We were so scarce by 1996 and 1997 (the schools had not caught with or not gotten wind of the demand yet), that there were literally thousands of dollars available to artists just for signing a contract to work somewhere. Yes, for digital artists, that was a "fat" time, as in your wallet could get fat.

But, we as an industry had yet to learn (and we still haven't) the lessons of the Animation Industry (Also, by the way, Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley was the birthplace of American Animation, until it, too, was deported by first, William Hanna and Joe Barbara's company in the early 1960s). Since the 1960s, there has been an irrefutable belief by Hollywood Producers that in order to get more for your money (or spend less on your films), you just take the work overseas.

On the spreadsheets, and powerpoint presentations, this looks true at first. But having started in production doing computer graphics in the Animation Industry in Los Angeles and having become fast friends with the world's historian of LA production, Tom Sito, in the late 1980s, I became VERY familiar with the failure of Business in America to keep their edge over foreign competitors. I was working at Filmation Studios (at that time, the last Animation Studio in America doing all of their production under one roof) when they were unexpectedly sold by Group W in the Fall of 1987. No, not to a competitor, but to be disassembled, selling all the pieces for as much cash as they could get. This was 18 months after Filmation had finished their run on 'He-Man, Masters of the Universe' and started a new series in the same line, called "BraveStarr." He-Man, the syndicated animation series for after school slots on televsion made over a BILLION dollars in on-air sales, commercial sales and ancillary market sales. It was documented in the LATimes during the Summer of 1987.

But Business through away the goose that laid the golden egg. Hanna-Barbara did the same thing in the 1960s, when the networks were pressuring them to lower the costs of the runaway hits, the prime-time shows of 'The Flintsones', and 'The Jetsons', both take-offs on Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners" a fine American show. The exported the painting and camera work to Japan, thereby creating jobs in Japan and laying off hundreds of artists devoted to the company in the San Fernando Valley. The Network got it's profits up. Bill and Joe made even more money, and the artists who created the show got laid off.

Business as usual, you say? So, you really feel that there should be an elite of the very rich in the United States? Because business as usual in the U.S. absolutely builds on this idea.

Think about it. The creatives create it. The businessmen profit from it, and deride the artists for being so stupid as to lose control. It's happening again, right in front of your eyes, with the computer graphics business and the visual effects business. Someday, it will be considered silly to make movies in Hollywood, if business has its way, and so far, nothing is stopping it from doing exactly that.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"At Risk" Living & California's Disaster Budget

I was listening to the radio on the way back from the Airport this morning. They were talking about how the state budget for fighting fires has reached $108 million only two months into California's fiscal year. I believe the total state budget for fighting fires for the year is somewhere around $160 million. So, with ten months yet to go, we have used up 67 % of the yearly budget for fire disaster.

California already can't afford the way it lives. Past legislation has caused the California of today to teeter on bankruptcy year after fiscal year. The mistakes of the past need to be rectified in order to make the state's budget behave in a more reasonable fashion. Expense often comes with risk, but the risk-takers are not paying for it.

What is the real cause of the disaster expense? Okay, you might say the fires. Yeah. But regardless of the fires, the money has to come from somewhere, right? Currently, the money to fight fires in California is coming from everyone who pays taxes, but is that fair? Afterall, most of the homes in California are not "at risk" of being burned due to mountain-side scrub brush fires or forest fires. Most of us do not live in such areas. Most of the developers have not built in "at risk" areas.

Developers build in such areas for two reasons: one, the view might be scenic (it's near or in a forest on the side of a mountain) -- two, there is no new land to build on anywhere else -- the flatlands have all been developed years ago. So, as a developer, eager to create income from the expansion of populations in and around Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego, if I want to build something new to sell to the public, steep hillsides near or in a forest is all I have left.

Permits to build in any area are granted by some state authority, so let's assume the state has said, "You've met all our demands. Go ahead and build in this 'at risk' area without providing the state with any guarantees of monies or other compensation if fires are to come any time in the future."

Then, the homes are built. Suburbs are built. Thousands upon thousands or homes are built in 'at risk' areas. Now, if anything burns, it will be at the cost of the tens of millions of homes that do not occupy these 'at risk' areas.

The homeowners build in the 'at risk' areas. They pay their fire insurance at premium prices (Hey, the Insurance companies know what might happen, even if the state doesn't). The fires come and go, and sometimes, the homeowners in the 'at risk' areas get paid to rebuild their homes by the insurance companies. Of course, built right back in the 'at risk' area again, and with no requirements of fireproofing the home any better that it was during the last fire.

So, LOTS of money is being paid to the insurance companies by the homeowners and possibly even by the developers of the 'at risk' homes in the mountainside communities, but none of the money is going to the state. You remember the State, the group that gets to pay for fighting the fires when they come? Notice I didn't say "if." That's a word that the insurance companies use to make LOTS of sales.

I propose that a more fair system would go like this: If you wish to develop or build in what the State designates as an "at risk" area, then monthly stipends must be paid to the state to fight the fires that will eventually come. You can decrease your stipend, if you maintain the brush cut back from structures to a given distance, but the stipend will be paid to the state to fight the fires if you continue to live in an "at risk" area. After all, it is your choice to live there, no one if forcing you to live there, and with that choice should come an added responsibility.

And this should not be just for those of us who reside in "at risk to Fire" areas, but for any and all "at risk" areas -- at risk to flood, at risk to mud slides, at risk to earthquakes.

Only then would the cost of fighting the disasters be equitable. Otherwise, all of us bear the cost by the risk that a few require. Yeah, putting the cost over all of us makes the cost less for those who are "at risk," but isn't the point of doing that to discourage from developing and living in the "at risk" areas?

Yes, it is.