California dreaming

The west coast is reborn as a high-tech boom sweeps away memories of riots and recession, writes Tim Cornwell

IF CALIFORNIA was looking for a new state mascot, it could do worse than go to the movies. A hot tip for this year's Oscars is Babe, starring a piglet who aspires to be a sheep dog, and featuring an entire farmyard of talking animals.

Having lost his family to the butcher, Babe the pig leaves an outdated industry - pork - for a career in sheep management. The message of the film is you can always be what you want to be - an apt metaphor for California's economic renaissance.

Earthquakes, riots, recession, everything but plagues of frogs, was the stuff of jokes against California in the early 1990s. It saw the bottom fall out of real estate and a huge shrinking of the aerospace and defence industries.

But after five depressing years, California has declared itself reborn. The tide of Californian emigrants breaking away north to rain-drenched Seattle and east into cool Colorado is drying up. The car phone has taken the frenzy out of long commuter journeys. Air quality is reported to be improving - even a sense of humour is returning.

California "IS BACK", according to the new vanity number plate on Governor Pete Wilson's official limousine. When elected five years ago he wondered whether he would serve as "chief executive of California or referee of its bankruptcy".

California is home to 33 million people and the seventh larg-est economy in the world. The Los Angeles area has overtaken New York as the biggest US port, boosted by trade with countries of the Pacific Rim. Economists point to a revival powered by hi-tech and led by exports. "It's not a jobs boom, but it's a boom in virtually every other way," says Stephen Levy of the Centre for the Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

Jobs may not be booming, but they are certainly growing. By the spring California will be close to replacing half a million jobs lost in the defence and aerospace sectors, analysts believe. In southern California employment in the film industry has increased by a third in 18 months. In Silicon Valley to the north, personal computer and semi-conductor shipments are climbing at rates of 30 per cent a year, caused by penetration into the Japanese market for computer chips.

African American restaurants report, however, that white customers are still too scared to return to south central Los Angeles after the 1992 race riots. And the historic avenues of Hollywood itself are still lined with sleazy motels, the area a hang- out for gangs and prostitutes.

But these days there are distinct signs of life in "beautiful downtown Burbank", the town on the northern edge of LA where supposedly nothing ever happened. It is the place where both Disney and Warner Brothers have chosen to expand. The revivals in Burbank and along the booming coastal corridor from Los Angeles International Airport to Santa Monica - whose malls are a yuppie mecca - are being driven by entertainment technology. In a move heavy with symbolism, Stephen Spielberg's hi-tech studio DreamWorks is occupying military hangars built by Hughes Aircraft.

They once housed the Spruce Goose, a balsa-wood seaplane and one of the US aerospace industry's more bizarre failed experiments. DreamWorks plans to invest $200m over three years in the first new studio in California in 50 years, planned as an 100-acre entertainment "campus".

It would be the heart of a new township with five million square feet of office space built onseafront wetlands. "It's the biggest business win that any city has ever had," said Mayor Richard Riordan, whose administration struggled to lure DreamWorks to the site with tax breaks and promises of quick construction approval. "It sends a message to the rest of the world that Los Angeles is back."

Dreamworks is a magnet for hi-tech effects companies such as Rhythm and Hues. Started in a partner's living room, the workforce has risen in the past three years from 70 to 200 people. The firm supplied computer animation for Babe, Waterworld and Batman Forever and in Britain its work can be seen in advertisements for Gilbey's Gin.

Excerpts from all three films were shown at the Academy Theatre as candidates for a new visual effects category of Oscar.The audience, exclaiming over Babe's splicing of real and robot sheep, was very much a cross-section of this new-look Hollywood. Computer programmers and technicians discussed motion control and computer graphics, and the challenge of having elephants and rhinos stampeding through a suburban home in comedian Robin Williams' new film Jumanji.

In some cases hi-tech entertainment is replacing lost defence jobs by drawing on military technology. At the virtual reality firm, Illusion Inc, a third of the 20 employees are ex-military. The company supplies battlefield simulators and weapons software to the Pentagon but is also designing a virtual reality racing circuit for Future World in Indianapolis. "Companies seem to have adjusted to new realities and are expanding again," said executive Matt Walton."

i100'Geography can be tough'
newsVideo targets undecided voters
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
businessHow bosses are inventing unusual ways of making us work harder
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis Stinchcombe, of Broad Plain Boys' Club in Bristol, by a Banksy artwork, titled 'Mobile Lovers', where the sale and handover have been completed at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, where it was on display to the public.
artHuge price will help to keep a 120-year-old youth club in Bristol open
Life and Style
Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, dropped out of Stanford University just before graduation to develop his app
techAnd yes, it is quite a lot
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

DevOps Engineer - Linux, Shell, Bash, Solaris, UNIX, Salt-Stack

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: A fast growing Financial Services organisation b...

Trade Desk FIX Analyst - (FIX, SQL, Equities, Support)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: An award-win...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins