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Creativity Earns a Premium : Multimedia Firms Want More Programmers, Software Designers


You know how your mother told you to throw out your comic books and stop playing all those video games or you'd never amount to anything?

Boy, was she wrong.

The boom in multimedia companies--the firms that make computer graphics, CD-ROM games and animation for films and television--has created a voracious market for talent. Especially young talent familiar with art, pop culture and games, who can draw and who know computers.

Because the field is so new, multimedia companies are scouring design schools and universities to find freshly minted graduates to fill positions as animators, graphic designers, artists and game creators at salaries ranging upward from $50,000 a year. To start.

"Finding talent is so hard, we will pony up when we find someone we think is terrific," said Scott Lahman, director of development at the Los Angeles-based game publisher Activision. Lahman himself is only 27.

About 10% of Activision's staff of 325 was hired directly out of school, he added.

Locally, firms have targeted mainstream universities such as USC and UCLA and art schools such as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Gerry Sun, 23, graduated from UCLA last year with a degree in communications design. While in school, he freelanced in designing Web pages and graphical interfaces for various companies. In his senior year, he made $40,000.

By the time he was ready to graduate, he had already received 20 phone calls from various firms.

He went to work for one, then realized he could do better on his own. Seven months later, he launched his own design firm, working out of his West Los Angeles apartment.

"I think in my profession there are a lot of opportunities due to the high demand in graphic designing, advertising, multimedia and the Internet," he said. "The catch is to be able to present yourself in a way that you are marketable."

Kathy Sims, director of UCLA's Career Center, said 25% of the companies that come recruiting for graduates are looking for software designers and programmers, including multimedia. That's up from 15% just four years ago, she said.

"We are seeing a much greater representation from the creative side of the industry in other kinds of recruitment activities," she said.

At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, traditionally a training ground for industrial and automotive designers, a third of the 100 or 150 companies that recruit graduates are computer media firms, said college President David R. Brown. "Five years ago, the number was zero."

Executives at multimedia firms say they are looking as much for creative people as for computer nerds.

"From the creative arts point of view, the first thing we're looking for is artists," said Scott Ross, chief executive of Digital Domain, which did the special effects for "Apollo 13" and other films. "They don't necessarily have to be computer people. If they draw really well or sculpt really well or write really well, that's good enough for us. That allows us to say we're interested."

But it helps to have a familiarity with some of the hottest software platforms, he said.

About a fifth of Digital Domain's new hires come straight out of school, Ross said.

Employers say that school curricula generally lag the needs of the emerging industry and that some of the best recruits are those who have taught themselves how to do computer graphics.

"There's very few programs geared to what we do in this industry; it's too young," said Activision's Lahman. "If someone is geared to work as part of a project team and willing to work really hard to create the greatest video game ever . . . the training can come easily for a smart person."

Lahman said he never misses a chance to speak at a school or university.

"I know that at the end of the class, the people we're talking about will come up to me. And we've hired several people that way," he said.

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