Will Latin America be the next Asia for toons? Judging from the number of animation studios and schools popping up across the region, the answer may be yes.

Latin America has never been the first port of call for animation outsourcing (or “international cooperation,” as the euphemism goes), but that may change thanks to efforts by U.S.-trained computer graphic and effects designers who have gone home to start up world-class animation studios and schools. Moreover, these upstarts are prepping animated films of their own, some with the help of their pals from Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

On May 2, Latin America’s first digital design school, the 3dmx University of Digital Design, opened in Guadalajara, home to Mexico’s premier film festival. Founded by Xavier Carmona and Jorge Villalobos, prexy and CEO, respectively, of design studio 3dmx, the university includes courses in 3-D animation, videogame design, digital cinema and architectural design.

The partners founded a Web development firm in 1997 in San Jose, Calif., before setting up 3dmx in Guadalajara in March 2004. 3dmx is prepping 3-D animated pic “Space Cadets” with backing from Silicon Valley investors.

“A low overhead and a growing surplus of local talent allows us to slash costs without sacrificing quality,” Carmona says. Company also set up an inhouse animation school, which has already trained more than 500 budding animators. Other 3dmx productions include a short directed by Colin Brady, the lead animator in “Toy Story” and co-director of “Toy Story 2.”

Guadalajara, already home to four animation schools, has been abuzz with toon activity the past two years. Two-year-old shingle Metacube, with offices in both Guadalajara and Mexico City, is co-producing some live-action pics as well as prepping $3 million 3-D animated pic “Un Dia de Muertos.”

“Hollywood animation studios should consider going south of the border, where they won’t have to deal with huge differences in time zones and long distances,” says Carlos Arguello, who invested his life savings in setting up animation and design center Studio C in his native Guatemala after 20 years in the U.S.

Even with their own inhouse toon facilities, U.S. majors are still on the lookout for cost-saving alternatives. Pacific Data Images co-founder Richard Chuang recently returned from an eight-country tour in his quest for a studio to produce DreamWorks’ direct-to-video “Shrek” spinoff, “Puss in Boots,” which again features Antonio Banderas voicing the character.

Arguello honed his skills at PDI before it was folded into DreamWorks. He rose to the position of creative and artistic director at the Silicon Valley computer design firm and later joined Kodak effects arm Cinesite. His credits as visual f/x supervisor include “Armageddon,” “Batman and Robin” and “Space Jam.”

Like his counterparts in Guadalajara, Arguello is bent on passing his skills on to his countrymen. “Guatemala’s educational system only provides degrees in the more traditional fields of engineering, architecture or industrial design, but there aren’t enough jobs for these graduates,” says Arguello, who plans to open a college for design, technology and performing arts students from across the region.

While Arguello seeks Hollywood projects to give his studio some street cred, his main focus is education through both training and creating educational programming for Latin Americans. He is in talks with Discovery Channel for TV project “Trip to Latin America,’ a live-action/3-D animation combo aimed at immigrant children living in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Studio C has provided f/x work on “The Chronicles of Riddick” and now is working on f/x for Disney’s live-action “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” directed by Arguello’s former roommate and co-worker Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”).

Animated Argentina

In Buenos Aires, TV producer Jorge Rodriguez of Redlojo Entertainment has unveiled a new animation studio that employs 100 full-time animators and conducts inhouse training for 50 students. The newly dubbed Indiecito Studio hopes to plumb its franchise for “Patoruzito,” a 75-year-old local toon character. The first feature based on the toon was a phenomenal hit. Indiecito Studio is employing 200 artists for the sequel “Patoruzito II,” now in prep, and has several movie and TV spinoffs in the works.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s Patagonik Film Group, one-third owned by Disney, has produced seven animated features, some of which have done boffo business at the wickets.

So far, Mexican toon producers have not been so lucky. Mexico City-based Anima Studios made the first all-Mexican feature-length pic to blend traditional and computer-generated animation, “Magos y Gigantes.” Released by Fox on 280 prints, pic crashed at the box office but has done better than expected on DVD. Pic proved no match for even Hollywood’s less expensive animated pics.

“It opened against Warner’s ‘Looney Tunes’ and Disney’s ‘Brother Bear,'” explains Anima’s Fernando de Fuentes. Anima is hoping for better luck with its August release, “Imaginum.”

Meanwhile, another Mexican studio, Animex, is prepping a $3 million feature, “Maya: La primera gran historia” with former Walt Disney Co. animator Mike Kunkel on board as animation supervisor.

“Anybody can set up a studio these days,” says Chuang. “Technology is universal, but having the skills and intuition to learn the craft is key.”

These Latin animation studios may have some ways to go before reaching the level of maturity and technical standards of their counterparts in Asia, Europe or Canada. But they’re doing their darnedest to catch up.