Animation talent continued to enjoy a seller’s market in the past year, with rates for union staffers generally rising to record levels, according to an annual survey by the industry’s cartoonists guild.

The survey, conducted in April, showed especially strong increases in the median average salaries for story sketch artists, visual development designers and lead key assistant animators.

The median average for lead key assistants, for example, jumped from $1,370 a week in 1996 to $1,900 a week this year. The minimum in that category was $1,435; the maximum, $3,815.

The “median average” is the middle rate when the results are listed in order from lowest to highest.

The survey was done by Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839 and published in its latest newsletter, the Peg Board. The survey had an average response rate of 32.8%.

For several years, animation talent in the 2,000-member union have benefited from the entry of non-Disney studios into the feature animation market. And although there has been some recent slowing in that area, there has been a boom in the market for TV animation and CGI artists.

Key assistant animators, who not too many years ago made scale of $950 a week, are now making twice that, according to Steve Hulett, business rep for the guild.

“Lead key assistants were once happy earning $1,100 to $1,200 each payday,” Hulett wrote in an article in the June issue of Animation World magazine. “Now they feel cheated if they’re only making $2,500.”

To be sure, some categories saw drops. The median average for staff writers, for instance, fell from $2,300 a week in 1996 to $1,988 this year.

But overall, almost every category saw increases in median salaries, some well above union-mandated minimum rates.

Producers were the highest-paid of those surveyed, with median average weekly wages of $4,000, unchanged from a year earlier. The maximum in that category was a whopping $14,423 a week.

The next highest median was for art directors, at $2,950 a week. That is unchanged from a year earlier. The minimum was $1,300; the maximum was $5,000.

Still, there continues to be a sense that the bubble could burst, if only because the industry has generally been cyclical.

Much may depend on the coming year, as Fox releases its first toon entry, “Anastasia,” and Warner Bros. releases “The Quest for Camelot.”

“Common wisdom would tell us lower instead of higher, but there are too many variables to predict the future with any accuracy,” Hulett wrote. “If Disney releases two or three ‘Sleeping Beautys’ in a row, wages will likely fall. If Disney’s competitors find the animated releases from their new cartoon divisions still-born at the box office, departments will shrink and wages will certainly fall.”

He noted that the increased use of special effects in blockbuster pics has opened up new opportunities for traditional animation talent to swing into live action.

“After all, it’s easier to educate an experienced artist to use a Silicon Graphics machine than train a computer wizard the skills of a Rembrandt or Picasso.”