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Detroit automakers vs. Hollywood filmmakers for top digital design talent

From: Automotive News

By Larry P. Vellequette

September 23, 2014

When it comes to hiring hot young car designers, Detroit’s automakers face tough competition from an unlikely but glamorous source: Hollywood.

Ralph Gilles, head of design for Chrysler Group, told an audience in Detroit this morning that both moviemakers and carmakers use the same powerful software to digitally design their products.

“Digital surfacers” — designers who use computers to create and virtually test new vehicles and components before they exist in the physical world — are the fastest growing segment of automaker design teams, Gilles said.

“Those are the virtual builders,” Gilles told several hundred people at the Detroit Regional Chamber 2014 MICHAuto Summit this morning.

“There is a whole pool of people that does nothing but digital surfacing,” Gilles said. “That job did not exist six or seven years ago.”

Gilles said digital surfacers are used extensively by filmmakers to digitally create sequences that would otherwise be impossible to film, such as those in big-budget science fiction film series such as Transformers and Star Wars.

“It’s exciting. It’s glamorous. I don’t know what the career path is in those companies long term, but initially, as a young designer, they get tempted away by that,” Gilles explained.

Such glamour makes attracting top creative talent to work on relatively mundane things such as midsize sedans more difficult, but not impossible, Gilles said.

“Some of them are car people from birth, and they can’t stop it. Even though they work in other industries, they have this nagging attraction to the auto industry and to do cars,” Gilles said.

The biggest thing the auto industry has going for it over film and animation is reality, Gilles explained.

“We’re converting [their designs] to reality. The cars we do, even though they start out [digitally], end up real,” Gilles said.

He pointed to the recently released Chrysler 200 as a car that was “100 percent” designed and tested on a computer before it was created physically.

The Chrysler design head said Hollywood and Detroit also compete for design students in another specialized — if much older — field: clay model makers.

Gilles said Chrysler still employs traditional clay model sculptors in its development process but is finding it difficult to locate designers with experience. The film industry also still uses clay model makers extensively, increasing demand for skills that are in short supply.

“There are only 50 clay modelers that work at Chrysler, and, I hate to say it, but it’s really a dying breed,” Gilles said. “That’s an unspoken beautiful career that’s here. It’s a very difficult skill set to develop.”