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As the World Turns: Law is Not, Animation is Not

As Studios Shift Focus, Animator Prospects Dim

May 24, 2000|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On long tables, students at California Institute of the Arts laid out their best drawings and artwork, hoping to catch the eyes of future employers.

Just a few years ago, they could expect to land high-paying, salaried jobs as animators at major Hollywood studios. But not anymore. These students are more likely to end up designing Web sites, and it may be on only a freelance basis.

"When I first got here I was told anyone holding a pencil would get hired by the studios," said CalArts senior Erik Yahnker, one of the students displaying his work at a campus career fair this month. "But the reality today is you have to work your tail off, start small in a 'dot-com' or an independent [studio] where you get a variety of skills."

In the mid-'90s, studios ramping up animation production were hiring all the talent they could find at places such as CalArts--raiding the campus of even freshmen and sophomores in some cases, school officials say.

But an oversupply of feature animation talent, recent box-office disappointments and an end to the decade-long expansion by studio animation divisions has chilled the once-hot job market for animators.

"A lot of people who are new to the industry have never seen it this bad, although historically it's been worse," said Jeff Massie, secretary of the International Assn. of Stage and Theatrical Workers Local 839, which represents animators.

The union says animator membership has declined by about 500 from a peak of 2,700 in 1997.

The Entertainment Industry Development Corp. estimated animation employment at 3,500 in 1997--about double the figure from 1989--but it has not conducted a survey since then, EIDC senior vice president Kathleen Milnes said. Studio executives, however, acknowledge that animation hiring is down.

"There are not as many productions and there are periods the [studios] aren't fully staffed," said Tom Knot, a recruiter for Warner Bros.

"If you want to use stock market terms, it's a correction," said Frank Gladstone, director of training for DreamWorks SKG. "We are training the people we have here rather than bringing them in."

That reality was hitting home for CalArts students at the three-day career fair in early May, where current and recent graduates were given a chance to show their portfolios to 42 animation-related companies.

Brian Godlewski, 26, graduated from CalArts two years ago but was back on campus for the career fair, still looking for that elusive studio animation post.

"The dot-coms said the job opportunities were there if I applied, and were eager to meet with me," said Godlewski, who has done freelance work since graduation. "The studio representatives took my resume but I never got to talk to them."

CalArts junior Aimee Major would be happy just to land a summer internship with an animation studio, but hasn't found any openings.

"I would pick up trash just to get in the door," Major said.

Studio Doors Close, but Others Opening

For fledging animators, the major studios offer the security of regular paychecks, benefits such as health insurance and the opportunity to work on high-profile feature films.

By comparison, the dot-com world is much more uncertain, forcing artists in many cases to act as their own agents. They have to find the work, set a price for their services and, last but not least, make sure they get paid.

CalArts character animation professor Frank Terry remembers when studios were luring away talent with starting salaries in the $50,000 range, even higher in some cases. Studio recruitment was so intense that school officials fretted that instructors might be in league with the studios, tipping them off to star pupils years away from graduation.

"For a few years there, the studios were scouring the country to snap up every available talented student," Terry said. "There were demands coming from all directions."

CalArts was one of the first visual and performance arts schools in the nation to offer an animation program. But as the demand for animators grew in the 1990s, other colleges, including USC, Woodbury University in Burbank and Glendale Community College, added animation programs. Other institutions offering animation courses include the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the Otis College of Art and Design on the Westside and UCLA, where the animation program dates to 1947.

CalArts, considered among the premier arts schools in the world, is graduating 38 students in animation-related studies this month. Almost all of those students have a job or will be placed in the coming months, said Cal Arts spokeswoman Anita Bonnell.

Animators work in several niches. In addition to drawing characters for feature films and TV, they paint backgrounds, develop storyboards and use computers to generate graphic images.

As job prospects dim in feature film animation, other opportunities are opening up in areas such as computer game design, live-action special effects work and the Internet.

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