DreamWorks offering, CGI boom bring optimism to under-employed animators

This week, Pixar and Disney unspool their sixth computer-animated feature, “The Incredibles,” which is generating buzz that is indeed incredible. Add that to DreamWorks’ success with “Shrek 2″ (the third highest grossing feature film of all time) and “Shark Tale,” and 2004 could be remembered as the year of the CGI toon.

A new load of these pics is due out next year from Sony, Fox and Disney (including its first CGI without Pixar). DreamWorks Animation’s IPO last week surged 38% on its first day of trading Oct. 28.

Despite this CGI gold rush, animators’ salaries are generally down from a decade ago, and the employment picture is not too rosy.

That’s because there’s an abundance of animator talent left over from the last toon boom, as well as a growing number of animators learning on the fly. And CGI animation work is increasingly technology-intensive, not labor-intensive.

Fox’s animation division, which acquired CGI company Blue Sky in 1997, employs only about 250. Even ultra-successful Pixar employs 70 full-time professional animators.

Companies are hiring, however. As Pixar ups its release sked to a new feature every year, it is quadrupling its staff of animators. Disney is currently recruiting in London.

But with CGI the main game in town, applicants don’t necessarily have artistic and storytelling skills so much as they know how to operate animation software like Maya — a skill that can be mastered in a couple years’ time, as compared to the lifetime it took traditional animators to hone their craft.

“The market is diluted with people who can manipulate a computer. They have great technique, but they aren’t artistic geniuses, like the guys who did ‘Snow White,’ ” says one animator. “They’ve flooded the market and lowered prices. There are different skill sets between traditional and CGI animators.”

Further dimming prospects: While CGI animation is largely U.S.-based (followed by Canada and the U.K.), there is the looming prospect of outsourcing.

“Animation talent is much less expensive than it used to be,” says Jeff Kleiser, prez of animation house Kleiser-Walczak. “And you don’t have to have 150 animators on staff every day working on a movie.”

Despite the pressures, many animators see CGI as their employment savior. Nearly all current 2D (i.e., cel) animation, which is being done primarily for TV and direct-to-DVD projects, is being outsourced to Asia.

“Because CG is newer, there’s less of a talent force around the world,” says computer-animation vet Hoyt Yeatman.

He concedes, however, that “there are some pockets of them. It’s only a matter of time before outsourcing will be a big part of the CGI business.”

LucasFilm, for instance, is prepping for its move into computer animation with a new facility in Singapore.

Things are better than a few years ago, but not nearly where they were 10 years ago.

Animation salaries and jobs rocketed in the mid-1990s, when the industry, led by Disney, resurged with hits like “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”

The peak was in 1996, with 3000 members of the Animation Guild. After Disney closed its traditional animation facilities between 2000 and 2003, resulting in the loss of 825 jobs, membership dropped to 1,500. Today, the guild has about 1,900 members, 80% of whom are working. Television animators say pay has fallen, with most making under $90,000 per year, as opposed to a few years ago when many talented craftspeople made more than $100,000.

On the feature front, union minimum wage for a CGI animator is $1,375.32 per week. (Pixar employees aren’t unionized, but are believed to be compensated very well.)

Another reality of the industry is the increasingly itinerant nature of the animation profession.

Though the big studios are still doing most of their work inhouse, the CGI biz is starting to mimic the live-action landscape, where individuals come together on a project and then disband.

“Just like the live action studio system, people in animation are now working film by film like itinerant workers,” notes Michael Scroggins, director of the experimental animation computer labs at CalArts. “There’s not a core of people at animation studios anymore.”

The professor notes, though, that other opportunities are on the rise for animators willing to look outside of features.

Vidgame companies are looking for animators to help design characters and create cartoon-like interstitials in games.

Another more splashy development is animation directors making the leap into live-action. “Shrek” director Andrew Adamson is directing “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” an effects-heavy pic.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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