'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.
By 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."
The solution, he figured, was something more hands-on than any conventional school could offer: a program that paired top animators at the major studios with students worldwide, using the Internet as the medium.
So Beck made what he called "the toughest decision of my life": He quit his high-profile job at Pixar, and teamed up with Kelly and fellow Pixar animator Carlos Baena to launch the e-school. Kelly and Baena kept their studio jobs, while Beck ran the school full time.
Although the group had start-up costs of less than $1 million, its task was daunting. The team had to develop an entire curriculum from scratch and design proprietary interactive software that would allow mentors to critique students by drawing over their work. To spread the word, the co-founders relied on Internet forums and reached out to their friends and colleagues to serve as mentors.
After about three years of preparation, the team launched its school in March. Today, the unaccredited program includes weekly audiovisual lectures from animation experts and interactive question-and-answer sessions. Students post their work on the website and receive feedback from industry professionals.
Despite strong response, there were some early glitches. Some students initially had trouble linking their computers to the school's website. One student in Tahiti at first couldn't receive streaming video because of that government's restrictions on Internet pornography.
Right away, though, the mentors were struck by the new ways of learning possible only in the interactive classroom.
"We can see raw talent while it's shaping and can help form it," said Schleifer, who works at DreamWorks' Northern California campus, PDI/DreamWorks.
Gail Currey, vice president and general manager of Lucasfilm Animation, agreed.
"What we've found is that talent isn't confined to one part of the world," Currey said. The school, half of whose students are American, has "the ability to pull in people from all over."
Some students have landed jobs through the school at Walt Disney Co., Fox's Blue Sky Studios and some smaller outfits.
Among them is Christopher Caufield, a former homicide detective who is pursuing his childhood passion for cartoons. After losing several friends in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Caufield decided to switch to a less stressful career.
"I loved being a cop, but it was 20 years and I'd seen a lot," said Caufield, 40.
"Animation has always been a release for me. It always made me happy."
Caufield enrolled at the New York-based School of Visual Arts to learn the business but found that the computer animation instruction there was limited. He signed up with AnimationMentor.com after learning about the program on the Internet.
Now in his third semester, Caufield credits the school with helping him land a job on the IFC animated television show "Hopeless Pictures," about a dysfunctional independent studio.
"They really taught me the rules and the basics that come second nature to more experienced artists," he said.
Shakeel Noor, a 30-year-old graphic designer from Pakistan, said he felt the same way.
Noor needed an online school because he couldn't afford to come to the U.S. to study. His family relies on the income from his job at an information technology company in United Arab Emirates. Noor sold his car to pay the tuition.
He has no regrets, he said. Noor said he believed that his professors were "preparing us for the studios. They are not holding anything back."