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THE CUTTING EDGE / BACK-TO-SCHOOL TECHNOLOGY SPECIAL

Launching Pad for Digital Artists

Many graduates of Orange County High School of the Arts go straight to jobs in the booming field, but are they missing out on 'life experience'?

September 01, 1997|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ALAMITOS — When Christopher Bonnstetter turned 14, he created his first video game.

At 16, he unleashed his first cyber-superhero for a student film.

At 18, right after his high school diploma arrived in the mail, Bonnstetter landed an entry-level digital animation job at Boss Film Studios Inc., a visual effects house in Marina del Rey.

"The opportunities were too great to waste four years at art school," said Bonnstetter, now 21 and earning a high five-figure salary. "Why waste my time in college when I got the training I needed from high school?"

His alma mater, Orange County High School of the Arts, has launched several students directly into high-paying positions at special-effects shops, game companies and film studios. Hollywood's galloping demand for computer-generated images in film, television, commercials, games, theme parks and online projects has created an extraordinary race to land tech-savvy talent, and many company heads are now willing to grab promising digital artists regardless of their work experience or age.

Though some colleges tapped into the need for classes in this field early on--particularly Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and California Institute of the Arts in Valencia--Hollywood executives insist most high schools have long ignored these specialty fields.

Which makes OCHSA, and its strong push to lure the corporate world to its public campus, so distinct.

The school's curriculum ranges from traditional art instruction to classes on self-marketing. It draws guest teachers from Hanna-Barbera, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Feature Animation. Students often intern with these companies during high school, and that can help them land a job after graduation.

"The role of the artist is changing, and we need to prepare our kids for the real world," said Nancy Melbourne, director of OCHSA's visual arts department. "We need the private sector and the kids need jobs. If we can go into the community and show off our student's wares, then we'll do it."

Some entertainment insiders warn that these students may not be emotionally ready for corporate pressures. Jumping directly into a job could thwart their artistic growth, pushing them into a niche market and denying them the luxury of spending four years exploring other artistic arenas.

But such misgivings haven't stopped these same executives from luring teenage artists to their studios with lucrative paychecks and promises of working on feature films.

Jennifer Cardon, 20, took a character animator gig at Warner Bros. right after she graduated. Cardon, who attended both OCHSA and Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, said she had some misgivings about shrugging off college, but she takes comfort in knowing that her contract with Warner Bros. allows her to keep her job if she ever decides to take time off and pursue a degree.

Brian Kesinger, a 19-year-old artist who works in Disney's feature animation department, said he decided to jump into the work force at the suggestion of his teachers.

"I was submitting my portfolio to studios at the same time everyone else was sending out college applications," said Kesinger, who also attended both OCHSA and Rowland. "Now I have friends saying I'm missing out on the college experience. I figure that the studio experience is better."

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Today's search for tech-oriented talent stems from an animation renaissance, spurred by the success of features such as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King"; from the popularity of effects-laden works such as "Terminator 2" and "Independence Day"; and from the development of the CD-ROM and video game industries.

Warner Bros., DreamWorks SKG, 20th Century Fox and Viacom are spending a combined $1 billion to launch or expand their animation departments. Disney has gone on a hiring spree, nearly doubling its animation division since 1995.

Dozens of visual effects shops have cropped up throughout Southern California. Studio executives now estimate that nearly every major motion picture released in the last three years--from "Twister" to "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet"--uses digital effects.

At least 7,000 animator jobs are based in Los Angeles, and command an average salary of $104,000 a year, according to the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union Local 839.

"There's an explosion happening and it's the younger people who are adapting to it," said Tom Sito, president of the local. "All this work is creating the need for a new type of artisan, especially one who's comfortable with a computer."

Enter OCHSA. Founded in 1987, the public school is housed at the Los Alamitos High School campus and draws 500 kids from Orange, Los Angeles and other counties. Students take academic classes in the morning, then attend afternoon courses in dance, theater, music and art.

The school's mission statement sounds simple: to help youngsters see themselves as artists, to aid their ability to market themselves in the private sector or help them break into art school.

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