San Diego Vicky Lin Yu-tzu gently removes her son's fingers from the laptop. Youxuan is 22 months old, but his tiny grasping hand is the
only distraction he has caused us. His mother and I are inspecting 3-D snake-limbed figures from the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Yu-tzu helped to create them. She works as a computer-generated graphics artist for the Walt Disney Company in Burbank. Her products are a far cry from the hand-drawn characters of early Disney animation.
Yu-tzu's husband Hock Wong takes the boy to the counter of the Kearny Mesa McDonald's, where we are sitting, to buy him French fries. Wong does animation work too, but on PlayStation products for the Sony Corporation in San Diego. Although their industries are different, Wong's animation work is similar to his wife's. They met several years ago while working on video games for the Japanese SNK Corporation in San Jose. Before that Yu-tzu had worked in Chicago and Oklahoma.
Both Yu-tzu and Wong came to the United States 11 years ago. Wong studied at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco before starting to work in animation. "My original art medium in Taiwan was sculpture," says Yu-tzu. In 1994 she attended Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design.
Today Wong, 34, and Yu-tzu, 36, own a home in Carmel Valley. But at each weekend's end Yu-tzu takes their son to an apartment she rents in Burbank. Youxuan goes to day care during his mother's working hours, and she cares for him at night. They return to San Diego on Saturday mornings.
Wong looks forward to the time he can be with his family every day. Both husband and wife enjoy their work and find it challenging. But the separation they endure for its sake is the most difficult aspect of their lives. They each know other artists who make similar sacrifices to work in the field, some going back and forth periodically from Hollywood to San Francisco and cities as far away as New York.
But unlike most of their colleagues, Wong and Yu-tzu must navigate the additional problems of being immigrants. They are Chinese; he comes from Singapore, she from Taiwan. Both are applying for green cards, or permanent resident status. They now have work permits corresponding to their skill, education, and experience.
Sony sponsored the work permits of both Wong and Yu-tzu when the couple worked together for the company. But when Yu-tzu left to work for Disney two years ago, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services terminated her green-card application. She has started over under Disney sponsorship but is only in the beginning of the process. Wong applied for his green card four years ago and is still waiting to receive it.
San Diego attorney Stephen Ure tells me that immigration services has a 5-year backlog of green-card requests. But low-skilled workers often wait longer than that, sometimes as long as 15 to 20 years. Today there is great agonizing about illegal immigration. According to Ure, however, if the length of the process were more reasonable for unskilled workers, the United States would have fewer immigration problems. "If the legal way is going to take 20 years," he says, "there is no incentive for immigrants to do things right."
While waiting, immigrants may stay in the United States to work if employers obtain work permits for them. The permits are good for three years plus a three-year extension. After that, says Ure, immigration attorneys can usually obtain special permission to stay in the U.S. longer. Yu-tzu and Wong have retained an attorney to assist them.
What legal help immigrants can get once they are here is "all about their entry," says Ure. "There are very few avenues to stop them from being deported if they entered illegally. But immigration attorneys can usually do something to help them if they entered legally."
Wong and Yu-tzu did enter legally and are fortunate to have jobs that demand high skill levels. So their prospects are good. Their strong relationship also serves them well. In his work, Stephen Ure has discovered that marital and immigration problems often go together. American citizens who divorce their immigrant spouses subject them to deportation unless the immigrants' attempts to stay in the U.S. are based on something other than the marriage. And some vindictive spouses, according to Ure, have threatened to keep the couple's children while getting their partners deported. At least abused women in marriages have some recourse. Under the federal Violence Against Women Act, such a woman often can file the "battered spouse petition" to stop deportation.
"But when it comes to getting permanent residence," says Ure, "patience is the most important thing. When people tell me they have friends who got green cards in two weeks, I want them to show me the lawyer. He must be a genius."
Along with patience, however, comes anxiety for those who have played by all the rules but think about what might happen if they don't get their green cards soon. For Yu-tzu and Wong that would mean losing American careers in which they have risen steadily through hard work. "We've paid a lot of taxes too," says Wong. Before coming here both their families had warned that their interests might lead them to become "starving artists." Now their jobs pay well. Yu-tzu tells me that at Disney, salaries for permanent animation employees range between $40,000 and $100,000 per year plus benefits. At an earlier stage in her career she worked as a "project based" employee. That meant she was out of a job when the project was finished and that she was paid an hourly wage with no benefits. Even then the wage ranged from $15 per hour for inexperienced college students doing repetitive tasks to $60 per hour for supervisory personnel.
During "yearly reviews," Yu-tzu tells me, Disney offers employees the option of moving in the direction of a supervisory role. Her job demands good cooperation with coworkers. But Yu-tzu says she is not interested in becoming a manager, even though that would mean more money. What Yu-tzu likes is the creative work. "It's the movie business," she tells me, "yet the work is tedious, not glamorous. At some companies the workday is ten hours. I'm luckier; I only sit in front of the computer eight hours a day. But it's a very interesting job, every day painting something different."
The way her animated creations develop, according to Yu-tzu, is that Disney's art department gives her drawings to use as models. From them she must create the computer-generated images, which she then turns over to the company's computer science specialists. She uses Maya software and Adobe Photoshop to edit images. I ask her if she is surprised at how her creations look when the movie is finished. "I don't have to wait that long," she tells me. "We view product at the end of every day."
Yu-tzu won't talk about the newest movie project she is working on. But in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, live actors move and speak in combination with animated figures. The actors are first filmed in a "blue room," she tells me. The appearance of animated figures and scenery slowly replaces the blue. As the production process unfolds, "the computer takes the blue away," says Yu-tzu. Several incomplete scenes she shows me on her laptop still have a little blue background left in them.
With her background in sculpture, Yu-tzu feels she brings the sensibilities of traditional fine art to her work. "The most important thing that allows me to do is visualize what's good and what's bad," she says.
Yu-tzu's husband expresses a similar reverence for artistic purity. Eventually Wong would like to paint in his own studio. He's grateful for his current job in animation, but he worries that, even though he takes training classes at Sony, "techniques I've mastered already make it harder to use newer technologies. Younger artists coming into the field do better with them." But at least Wong and Yu-tzu don't have to be starving artists -- as long as the immigration process keeps working for them.