Warner Bros. Takes a Lead in Cultivating Talent

Who says animators only deal in fantasy? Spurred by the looming shortage of skilled professionals to staff the two-year-old feature animation division at Warner Bros., Dave Master, director of artist development and training, has made a personal dream come true. He's also making industry history in the bargain.

For the past three months, in a class dubbed the Virtual Training Network, the studio has hooked up students from eight schools around the country, ranging from 14 to adult, with the teaching talents of its animation staff. The class is laying the foundation for what the studio hopes will be an ever-expanding pool of ready talent for its burgeoning needs.

The studio professionals communicate with the students, as far away as Birmingham, Ala., via business-style video-conferencing technology. (Three of the eight sites are two-way interactive; the others have varying degrees of one-way observation capability.)

The eight-month class meets weekly for two hours, during which the instructors cover the basics, from the details of how to animate a human being jumping to what sort of acrylics professional animators use (Bren-ton cel vinyl paint). They also assign and critique homework, which Mr. Master says is intended to create the nucleus of a professional portfolio.

Says Master, "This is material we would ordinarily cover in our in-house internship program, over three months, eight hours a day." With this program, he explains, these animators will come to the job that much more prepared. He foresees the day when the class will replace the internship program completely.

Katherine Concepcion runs the Virtual Training program and has been with Master since he taught at Rowland Heights High School in southern California. "It's unheard of to open professional-level animation training to high school students. But these are entry-level studio exercises, so if the students can master them, they're set."

In fact, Master says he's already hired one student from Rowland. (Although he does anticipate hiring students straight from high school, Master is quick to point out that Rowland High has a diverse student body, from youngsters to laid-off professionals in need of retraining.)

Instructor Lennie Graves is a lead animator at Warner. He says the technology enables a one-on-one interaction that's almost like being there. More important, he adds, getting the education into the schools is helping to create a new audience for animation, if not professionals.

Master says he didn't set out to break with Hollywood tradition. Rather, this class is the realization of his personal dream to see professional animation training at the high school level. At the same time, he hopes it sends a helpful message to the rest of the industry.

"We want to break the mystique that Hollywood wraps around itself. We need to reach new talent, train people to come right into the industry," says Master. To do that, he says, we have to help seed the ground. "By doing this, we all benefit. It's a win-win situation."

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