After graduating from art school this year, Ricky Nierva planned to backpack around Europe for five weeks before trying to break into Hollywood. But Hollywood couldn't wait that long.
"I was packing for Europe and getting ready and I would get these messages: 'Hi, Ricky, this is Disney'; 'Hi, Ricky, this is Warner'; 'Hi, Ricky, this is "The Simpsons," ' " says the 22-year-old animator.
Nierva, who ended up at Turner Pictures, is the beneficiary of a sweeping new demand for animation talent, a development set in motion by rapid strides in computer technology and Walt Disney Co.'s phenomenal success with such films as "The Lion King."
Companies hoping to claim a share of the animation market are competing for freshly hatched artists with offers of ample paychecks, prestigious film credits, creative freedom and the tutelage of big-name directors.
"Our students get recruited like college athletes. Their talents are in such demand, it's very difficult to get them to stay here and complete their education," says Steven D. Lavine, president of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where Nierva earned his character animation degree. "They have a choice of staying here and racking up more debt or going there and starting at significant wages."
The wages are high, indeed. Nierva, who was hired as a visual development artist at Turner, is earning $950 a week, or $49,400 a year--more than $1,000 above the average starting salary of a USC Business School graduate in 1993.
For studios eager to build solid creative teams, the cost of new talent is a relative bargain, considering that well-established animators can earn $75,000 to $100,000 a year for a three- to four-year project.
"Clearly, animation is a business that is run and grown by the artistic talent in it," says Disney Feature Animation President Peter Schneider. "We are always looking to find more and more artists."
New animation artists are the prime targets of recruiters partly because many of the top names in the business are already under contract at Disney.
"There is a finite amount of animators. What it requires is essentially growing your own," says Bonne Radford, who heads the Los Angeles animation arm of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment.
Eric Koenig, a self-described "animation nerd" who graduated with Nierva, found himself juggling five job offers after Cal Arts' Producers Show in May, an annual show-and-tell for the industry.
Koenig, 22, started working at Turner last month, a job he says he chose largely for its opportunities for creative growth. "The thing that's so great about this is that I'm actually doing animation," he says, waving a sheaf of elephant drawings for the upcoming musical feature film "Cats Don't Dance."
"I am so lucky to have this job," he says. "My first job is a position that 20 years ago someone would have waited five to seven years to get into."
By hiring a generation of animators fluent in the new computer technologies--such as the 3-D live animation used in this summer's "The Mask" and "True Lies"--the studios can also keep up in a rapidly changing media world.
"Students today are very computer-oriented already when they get to the school," says Cal Arts' Bitomsky, adding that more students than ever are attracted to the school's animation programs, widely considered by the industry to be the best in the country.
"All of a sudden, much more is possible," Bitomsky says. The major studios "all, in a way, have to obey and serve the potential of the technologies available. If they don't take advantage, someone else will."
While animation is swiftly making its way into mediums from music videos to CD-ROM, the feature film remains by far the most lucrative application of the art. Disney has proven that the potential profit from ticket sales alone can be astounding, and a well-marketed hit can drive sales in ancillary markets such as home video, CDs and merchandising.
Whether anyone can challenge Disney's dominance in the feature market remains to be seen. The company continues to expand its 700-employee Burbank animation unit to support an ambitious roster of films that includes "Pocahontas" for 1995 and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for 1996, as well as "Toy Story," the first-ever wholly computer-animated feature.
Disney's phenomenal success with such films as "Aladdin" and "The Lion King"--which is projected to be the highest-grossing film of all time--is the main reason for the current financial gamble in big-screen cartoons. And though the sudden departure of Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg last month has cast doubt on whether Disney can continue the momentum, studios now entering the market have learned from its approach.