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Industry Conferences Abroad – Should You Consider Going?

The answer of course is: “It depends.” 

There are great conferences in Europe and Asia and I've been to a number of them. They are all presented primarily in English and some have simultaneous translation for those few bits done in other languages.

I have my favorites for various reasons, and yes, they are for the most part excellent. Here's the big question: “Why would I want to go?” And only you can answer that one. I'll share with you some of the reasons you might want to go and why you might not want to.

Have you ever thought that a year or two working abroad might be fun and educational…might broaden your global perspective? If you have established talent in film, TV, games, animation or visual FX, visiting an international conference in the part of the world you'd like to try out may be an excellent idea.

FMX in Stuttgart is your best bet for Europe and IMHO your best bet in Asia is SIGGRAPH Asia. I've spoken at both conferences and can tell you that they are excellent networking opportunities. Recruiters from a wide area set up booths at both conferences, or in hotel rooms, etc. They're looking for talented people to add to their teams. Most speak English as well.

Be prepared to be flexible in your demands. Some small studios can offer you an exciting and interesting life experience in exotic places like India or Malaysia or even perhaps Slovenia or Bulgaria, but you will not make the same kind of money you might in London or Vancouver. But then, living expenses are much lower in these places and you might well find yourself living a higher standard in Sofia than you would in London.

There are airfare deals and you can certainly use mileage to get there. In Europe there are great deals on smaller hotels, hostiles and pensiones. Sharing a room or staying with friends should also be considered.

I have three favorite conferences in Europe. The big one, FMX, is held in Stuttgart each May. This year it is on from May 8 – 11. This is Europe's largest such conference with thousands of people from around the world attending. It's awesome. I host the Virtual Humans Forum there every year and it is hands-down the best general conference for Visual FX, Games, and Animation and Transmedia. It's getting more into general production as well. This year people from 5D are putting on a multi-day program presenting the cutting edges of virtual production…headed by legendary production designer Alex MacDowell.

The job fair at FMX is the best in Europe, and if you want a job in there, it's the place to visit. Many of the London houses set up big booths and take your reel, vitae and do the interviews right there. They also sometimes give out cool T shirts…what could be better? You'll find studios from Europe and beyond taking applications.

FMX is massive with many simultaneous tracks, so you'll have to make some really hard decisions as to what events to attend. You'll find virtually everyone at FMX has a “hair down” attitude where people check their egos at the door. You might well find yourself drinking a beer (oh, it's really good there) with one or more industry legends like Paul Debevec, or Alex or David Sproxton (CEO of Aardman Animation)…or some top studio executive from Sony or the WB or Disney. If you're really fortunate you might be able to buy me a beer and I'll actually sit with you and chat. What could be better. Get more details at http://www.fmx.de/

Next is Mundos Digitales. Okay, I'm prejudiced because I co-chair this one. But it really is a killer conference in La Caruña, Spain. The food in this seaside town is amazing, especially the seafood. The networking here is superb because because you get the cream of Spain and beyond. The conference design is single track, which means everybody gets to go to every event; and they are almost always excellent, in English and done by top people in the industry who you later get to hobnob with. The wrap party is always amazing.

The Spanish do like to stay up late and drink their excellent local wine and we provide the flaming drinks for La Quemada (google it). The socialization is second to none at Mundos. So if you have any interest in working in Spain – a fabulous country — and you have excellent skills, especially in animation, this is the place to hook up with the powers that be. I'll introduce you myself. This is Spain's largest and most exciting digital entertainment conference, and here, too, you'll have fun with industry legends like Mark Sagar (of WETA/King Kong, Planet of the Apes fame), Scott Ross, (industry legend, founder of ILM and Digital Domain…cool guy) and one of my favorites, Diego Gutierrez (Professor of Perceptual Psychology…more relevant than you would ever guess.)

If you're into set design or digital architecture, we have a full day of that, too, hosted by Jeff Mottle,CEO of CG Architect in Canada. You'll also meet a number of animators in wheelchairs. They're pretty amazing folks who are part of our associated program with Averho Foundation, to train spinal chord injured young people to become highly paid, passionate animators. Take time to get to know them if you come. Mundos clearly has a soft spot in my heart and it takes place only a five minute walk from the beach – ahem, actually a clothing-optional beach. Check out the program at http://mundosdigitales.org

Digital Story Telling is a little different. It takes place in Oslo, Norway. Generally, there are no students, just high-level professional speakers, delegates and participants. They usually have one or two superstar industry legends speaking. This year one of them will be Sebastian Sylwan, CTO of WETA. He's a great speaker and someone to know. It's a pretty intense and intimate conference where you'll spend serious time interacting with lots of of industry professionals. In addition, every single hot studio in the Nordic countries is represented, so if you are looking for work there, this is the place to network. One of the people running Digital Storytelling is Kim Baumann Larsen. Kim is an architect by training, and a digital set designer, a visual effects artist, and photographer/filmmaker. I run into Kim frequently and you'll want to get to know him. Kim is also a founding advisory board member of the CGSociety.org and member of the 5D Founding Committee. Also running the show is Angela Amoroso, a delightful Jersey Girl — seriously, we're both from New Jersey — who lives in Norway. She also produces Celebrity Chef Wan's global TV show. English is definitely spoken here at Digital Storytelling. Check out the details at http://www.digistorytelling.com/ for details. Note the spelling.

I'm running out of space, but VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, is also worth a look. It's well done, draws wonderful speakers and you can't beat the food in Turin…or the wine…and it's a short drive from Alba, home of those white truffles…to die for, if you can afford them. Get the details at http://www.viewconference.it/ In the spirit of full disclosure, I once sat on the board of advisers at VIEW, but no longer. Did you know the chocolate bar was invented in Turin? The original is just a few blocks from the conference.

The only conference I've been to in Asia, other than the big Chinese International Arts and Culture Expo, is SIGGRAPH Asia. I found it well organized with lots of interesting presentations. It has a different feel from SIGGRAPH USA and I liked that. I found it more intimate and it was easy to meet people. I made some lasting friendships there. This is also an excellent place to network and job hunt. I found studios from Japan to Maylasia and India and beyond well represented and fun to interact with. I have been amazed at the intense development in digital media going on in Asia. For example, the Government of Singapore has put about 30 million dollars into developing their media corridor. It's a small country but an interesting place to live and work. I know a number of Americans there who love it. It was there, at SIGGRAPH Asia, that I met my friend Jesh Krishna Murthy and his wife Palak. They are the owners of Anibrain, one of India's best studios. They're a delightful couple, speak excellent English and their studio does killer VFX work and animation. You'll also find Rhythm & Hues well represented as they now have at least three Asian studios that I know of. The people who run those studios are very approachable. Asia may not be anyting like you picture it, if you've never been there. Things are changing faster in Asia than nearly any place else on earth. Think of the adventures you might have living in Asia for a year or two. This year it will be held again in Singapore and you can get the details here: http://www.siggraph.org/asia2012/

That's why you might want to go. Here's why you might not want to go: It's an investment and not a small one. There are no guarantees that you'll land a job. You might find that the competition is more intense than you expected. Just because you come from a name studio in the US does not mean an automatic job. Going to an international conference is more for the person who likes adventure, enjoys meeting a wide range of industry people and is open to new ideas. If you tend to be uncomfortable in these kinds of situations, it's likely that you'll not benefit greatly from such an investment. If you are just a beginner, you'll be up against some really talented people who can be hired more easily, locally. Get your experience and training nearer to home, and then take on the world, once you're killer good.

These are just a few of the conferences that I personally know. It's a drop in the bucket. If you want to make a radical change, broaden your horizons, work on interesting new projects, meet new people and possibly learn a new language, an international conference might be just your ticket.

In any case, if you've got the cash and the time, I'd say do it. I can't imagine that you won't come home with new ideas, new friends and certainly a broader perspective on our industry.

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