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'E-School' Draws From World

As film studios scramble to find animators for a flood of computer-generated features, a Bay Area service helps them restock the talent pool.

November 25, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

It's 10 p.m. West Coast time, and Animation School is about to begin.

The students take their seats all over the world. There's Fabian in Switzerland, Susanna in Italy, Gustavo in Spain. Richard and Rafi are just waking up in England.

Then there's the professor, Jason Schleifer, a wisecracking animator at DreamWorks Animation SKG. Instead of standing at a lectern, he plops down in the sun room of his Bay Area home and aims a tiny Web camera at his face.

"Do we have everyone here?" he asks, as his image, including baseball cap and T-shirt, appears in the corner of his students' computer screens. Then it's down to business, as Schleifer fields questions about how to make cartoon characters evoke emotion.

"Add ticks and mannerisms," he advises, explaining how even a cleared throat or a raised eyebrow can help entertain.

Schleifer is one of more than 50 teachers with AnimationMentor.com, a Berkeley-based "e-school" that uses the global reach of the Internet to link working professionals at major studios with aspiring animators worldwide.

Since its founding in the spring, the school has grown to about 400 students from 35 countries. Apart from its global reach, the school, with an 18-month program that costs $14,000, also stands out for its unconventional student body. Although some students work in the industry, the group is mostly made up of people outside the field: accountants, a former NYPD homicide detective and a part-time fishmonger from Iceland.

The school owes its existence to a shortage of young talent. Spurred by the commercial success of such hits as "Shrek" and "Finding Nemo," Hollywood studios have largely abandoned hand-drawn animation, instead pouring millions into developing new computer-animated features. About 25 such films are scheduled for release by the end of 2007.

As a result of the production bonanza, the biggest in a decade, colleges and art schools have had trouble training enough animators to keep pace with studios' demand. It's not just familiarity with computers that animators need, but the more basic skills, such as building characters and crafting story lines.

"The talent pool is getting extremely thin, making it extremely difficult for employers," said Ray Schnell, chief marketing officer of CreativeHeads.net, an El Segundo company that operates a job board for 160 companies that create video games, visual effects and animation. The board has more than 700 jobs posted on its website.

To meet demand, studios have stepped up their own recruiting programs. Recruiters at Glendale-based DreamWorks Animation, for example, recently returned from a trip to New Zealand to woo workers away from Weta Digital, the computer effects house co-owned by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.

To firm up its talent base, Sony Pictures Imageworks recently launched a program to expose faculty members from schools such as the Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida and the USC School of Cinema-Television to the latest animation techniques.

The animation division of George Lucas' Lucasfilm Ltd. has dispatched its animators to teach artists at its new Singapore studios, which will produce "Clone Wars," a TV series based on his "Star Wars" movies, and work on feature films.

"Everybody wants the same people," said Kathy Mandato, head of human resources for DreamWorks Animation. The company that made the "Shrek" movies and "Madagascar" plans to hire nearly 200 animation staff members over the next year, she said.

DreamWorks and other studios aren't just competing with one another for good job candidates but with video game companies as well. As they create increasingly sophisticated games with the look and feel of movies, game publishers are aggressively courting skilled animators.

During this summer's gathering of computer graphics experts, Siggraph 2005, video game companies and studios were openly poaching talent from one another, setting the stage for a possible bidding war for top artists similar to the one that occurred during the last boom in the 1990s.

Bobby Beck, co-founder and chief executive of AnimationMentor.com, said his school was an attempt to fill the gap.

"We honestly felt the need for something like this," said Beck, a former senior animator at Emeryville, Calif.-based Pixar Animation Studios.

Beck had the idea for the school three years ago, when he and Shawn Kelly, a senior animator at Lucas' effects house, Industrial Light & Magic, were teaching a course together at San Francisco's Academy of Art University.

Beck observed that many of his students lacked the kind of skills that Pixar and others were looking for, forcing the companies to spend too much time training new recruits.

"These kids knew how to push the buttons, but not how to push the characters to life," said Beck, who has worked on "Toy Story 2," "Finding Nemo" and "Cars," which will be released in 2006. "I would see the same mistakes over and over again."

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