You just can't get the staff

There's a battle raging in Hollywood. The studios have gone crazy for animated blockbusters. There's just one problem: finding enough animators to make them. Peter Guttridge reports
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The Independent Culture
Toons are taking over Hollywood. While Walt Disney has been busy turning animated feature films like The Jungle Book and One Hundred and One Dalmations into live action movies, virtually every other studio in Hollywood has set up an animation division to steal some of Disney's cartoon action. They've woken up to the fact that, although animated films are time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive to make, the rewards can be phenomenal. Disney's Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, has exceeded all expectations while The Lion King is the fifth largest grossing US film of all time. And that doesn't take into account the multi- million dollar merchandising possibilities.

DreamWorks, the new studio created by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and former Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg is shaping up to be the heaviest competition for Disney. It has linked up with Silicon Graphics to create "the digital studio of the 21st century" and is spending three years and an undisclosed amount of money making its debut animated film, Prince of Egypt, due for release in 1998, while preparing another about Cortes, the Spanish conquistador.

Before DreamWorks is off the blocks, however, Warner Brothers Feature Animation will have Space Jam, The Quest for Camelot and Tim Burton's Mars Attacks (with a budget thought to be $70m) on release. The Adventures of Pinocchio will have both a live and a mechanical Pinocchio (though the live 14-year-old actor will have his voice electronically altered since it was breaking when the film was made).

Not that Disney is sitting on its hands. Its 34th animated feature film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has a lavish world premiere in New Orleans on 19 June; James and the Giant Peach is previewed this week at the Cardiff International Animation Festival and Hercules is on its way.

Animation is an industry growing in a hurry. Indeed, it is growing so fast that there is suddenly a worldwide shortage of animators. "They've exhausted the supply of animators in California," says Pete Saunders of Manchester-based modelmakers McKinnon Saunders, some of whose staff are working in Hollywood. "Now everyone's fighting for the talent."

"As a result of this worldwide shortage we're seeing a brain drain of British animators," says Janice Turner, editor of Stage, Screen and Radio, the magazine of BECTU, the British entertainment union. "Britain has always had a strong animation base and we're seeing an incredible exodus of our animators to Hollywood."

Indeed, this is boom time for British animators. Walt Disney Features Animation has been putting ads in the British press lately inviting both traditional 2-D and computer animators to come and say hello at the Disney stand at this week's festival in Cardiff. Disney is offering jobs in Florida, Los Angeles and Paris (where 100 artists and animators worked on Hunchback - part of a total Disney team of 600 that took three years to complete the film).

"There's a lot of money being waved at animators willing to follow the yellow brick road to California," says Turner. "An animation director can get $5,000 a week plus perks like a house and a sports car. For a senior animator it could be $2,200 a week plus a big housing allowance. Then, of course, the training and experience you get from working on a major feature film is invaluable."

For the past seven years, Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment ran an animation studio in Acton, west London, staffed by animators from all over Europe. Now that has been absorbed into DreamWorks and all the staff have been transferred to America.

Warner Brothers Feature Animation has done it the other way round, setting up a studio in London's Covent Garden in March which it hopes will have its first feature film ready for release in the year 2000. It already employs 73 European animators but this will rise to 300 or 400 in the near future.

"It's true that there is a worldwide shortage of animators," Warner Brothers vice-president John McKenna explains, "and that was one consideration in deciding to open up in London. Another was the reluctance of European animators to relocate. But Britain has had a huge success over the years in animation, disproportionate to the number of people and resources."

One of those successes is triple Oscar winner Nick Park whose A Close Shave was watched by 10.6 million people when it was screened on BBC2. His Bristol-based, model-based Aardman Animations has resisted offers from Disney and DreamWorks in order to remain in complete control of its pictures. Instead, it has signed a deal with Jake Ebert's Allied Film- makers to develop and produce original animated feature films. It will be three years before the first one hits the screens. Assuming, that is, that Aardman can get the staff.

"It only takes one model-animated feature film to be set up anywhere in the world for us to feel the pinch," Aardman's development manager, Michael Rose, says. "There are maybe only 150 top-class model people in the world. Because there's such a demand we're all chasing the same talent."

To get round this, Aardman is setting up a training course in conjunction with the University of the West of England to train puppet animators. McKenna at Warner Brothers is also planning training schemes - collaboration with art schools, in-house work experience, intern and mentor programmes. "In animation, people have found that short-termism doesn't pay," he says. "Warners know that you get better features by training up your own animators. The longer people work together on projects the better the work becomes."

Warner Brothers is paying its Covent Garden animators pretty much US rates. "There's been an international standardisation," McKenna says. "We are competing against LA studios. We are saying to animators: 'You don't have to go to America to earn a decent living. You can work here and be treated decently'."

Technological developments are, of course, fuelling this growth in animation, allowing shortcuts in the traditional 2-D cell process and making possible films that are wholly computer-generated. There is still a long way to go, however, before computer animation threatens the survival of the 2- D process.

"You can make an animal, you can make a monster but you can't make a human character," says Carl Franklin, technology correspondent for Broadcast magazine. "You couldn't do Pocahontas in 3-D. One of the holy grails of computer animation is representing people. Just generating Pocahontas's hair would take more computer memory than you would wish to use. Computer animation at the moment is all about toys and military machines."

Michael Rose agrees. "Making an animated feature of any sort takes a lot of time, labour and talent and you won't replace that - to achieve the quality it takes as much time on computers as on models. What makes a great film is story and characters. Technology itself isn't nearly enough. Everyone can own a video camera but we can't all be David Lean."

Animation has always been either Eastern European arty or kid's stuff. But in the future, studios will be looking to give it the widest appeal. Disney is trying to position The Hunchback of Notre Dame not just as a family movie but also as a "date movie" for couples. "Animation isn't just a children's medium," insists Hunchback's producer, Don Hahn, who also produced Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. "We're growing up."

Cardiff International Animation Festival is at various venues to 1 June. Info: 01222-878 500