DIGITAL MEDIA IS broadly described by one industry expert as any means of mass communication that has its final distribution through a digital domain. Especially eye-catching is the ability of digital technology to create on-screen special effects, now seen in everything from television commercials to multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbusters. Most digital media companies in Hong Kong can provide such special effects, and many have worked on award-winning commercials and films. As an industry with obvious growth potential, it would seem to offer untold career opportunities, but those already in the business strike a note of caution. Darren Richter established Virtually Real in 1992 and, as managing director, he oversees a company which has expertise in interactive and online content management, film and video production, animation and visualisation. 'I believe that digital media is ill-defined and to call it an industry may be a misnomer,' he said. 'Growth is difficult to measure because the technology is utilised by such a wide spectrum of businesses.' Mr Richter said he felt there was a tendency in government circles to 'hype up' anything remotely related to information technology or creativity, and that basic statistics did not always back up the assumed speed of progress. Percy Fung is production director, owner and founder of the Film Magic Group, which includes Digital Magic, an award-winning film and video production company. With 27 years' experience, he believes the government should reallocate resources to help the sector grow. 'Hong Kong is advanced in digital work, but resources for promoting the film industry are directed towards lower cost areas, which results in a less skilled, less competitive industry and companies scaling back,' he said. The trend was to outsource specific projects to freelancers. 'Our employee count used to be 21 but we now have six core staff and use freelancers as the workload dictates,' Mr Richter said. 'The market does not justify any expansion of full-time staff.' Virtually Real regularly employs freelance animators and directors for its digital media work. Mr Fung agreed that many local companies were turning to freelance or contract-based staff but said that, ultimately, this was not good for the industry or for people looking to build careers. 'Outsourcing does not sustain core research or industry development, and the possibility of a digital media company with up to 500 employees in Hong Kong is still a long way off,' he said. Digital Magic employs 60 staff. Mr Fung said the government was focusing on creating entry-level jobs and paying insufficient attention to the needs of private enterprise. In comparison, the governments of other Asian countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and India, were providing support and substantial investment for their digital film industries, he said. 'Our group has been a pioneer for almost 30 years and we also helped to bring the digital film market to Hong Kong. 'However, we have been using our own money to keep Hong Kong's digital movie service alive, as well as to try to stay ahead in Asia.' Despite these concerns, there are some opportunities for graduates. Anyone keen to get into the sector is advised to go out and get an internship first, since most companies look to recruit full-time staff who have experience. Mr Richter said: 'With more training programmes being initiated by local educational institutions, there are now more people to draw upon. sFrom our perspective, though, experience is the key as we don't have the luxury of training fresh graduates at this time.' His view is that the courses available in Hong Kong give young people a good qualification against which they can be measured, but that nothing beats experience when it comes to deciding who to hire. '[An internship will help to] put you one step ahead. We have taken on interns before and would be happy to do so again,' he said. Digital Magic has vacancies for an experienced digital film producer and an experienced 3-D animator. The company anticipates further recruitment in the coming months and welcomes resumes and examples of work via its website. Most other companies in the field also look for at least two to three years of on-the-job experience when assessing candidates. Mr Richter pointed out that smaller businesses might not be able to offer a standard career structure. Larger enterprises allowed greater scope for advancement and would have positions for creative directors, animation supervisors, graphic artists, storyboard artists, computer animators, lighting specialists, editors and production managers. For most positions, an excellent sense of design is needed, as well as more than basic proficiency in performing key jobs. Mr Fung said that it was also necessary to be 'super hardworking and self-driven' to succeed in the digital media special effects industry.