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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2023

ANIMATION–Students Drawn to Growing CSUN Animation Program

On the northern edge of the Cal State Northridge campus lies a group of numbered trailers spaced out in what used to be a parking lot hardly an image that would lure incoming freshmen to the campus.

Yet the trailers house what over the past five years has become one of CSUN’s biggest draws, not to mention one of its fastest-growing programs: animation. Little more than eight years old, the program has increased its student base from 40 in 1995 to nearly 300 today.

“It has grown by leaps and bounds,” said Joe Lewis, chairman of the university’s art department. “It’s an economically attractive area because there are jobs.”

There are indeed jobs in abundance in animation, though they are nowhere near as glamorous nor as high-paying as they were a few years ago. In the mid-1990s, the major Hollywood studios started a fierce bidding war for animation talent, particularly after start-up DreamWorks SKG launched with the determination to dethrone Walt Disney Co. as an animation powerhouse.

Today, the studios are retrenching, cutting down their animation divisions after a series of mega-budget disappointments. That doesn’t mean the jobs have dried up for artists, though, because a whole new medium has emerged to take Hollywood’s place: the Internet.

While they don’t pay anywhere near what Hollywood studios do, new-media firms have been a boon to animation, as everyone from Net startups like Atomfilms and Icebox.com to industry leaders such as DreamWorks and the Cartoon Network launch sites with original animated Web content.

There is also still the hope of landing what for animators is the Holy Grail a regular job with a big studio. CSUN officials say the increase in enrollment is a combination of skyrocketing opportunities in animation over the last five years combined with the fact that CSUN is 30 minutes from the top Hollywood studios.

“Students like to come here because they can get connections to the industry. You can meet with Disney, which won’t happen if you’re at the University of Georgia,” said professor Jack Reilly. “Our students almost get first crack. It’s like, if you want to be an actor, you come to L.A. well, if you want to be an animator, you come to L.A.”

Investment in the future

To keep up with demand, the department has increased its animation faculty from one professor to three and expects to add two more within the next two years, Lewis said. Meanwhile, the department has spent roughly $250,000 over the last five years to upgrade and add the latest digital technology.

The school’s 3-year-old California Sun International Animation Festival, held each April, has attracted increased attention from Internet animation firms and Hollywood. That in turn has boosted the school’s recognition. It has attracted big-name animators to sponsor the festival, including Pop.com, the DreamWorks-owned entertainment site.

The festival attracts roughly 65 entries from around the world. Many winners end up selling their works to studios or to other animation-content companies. It has also become a good way for CSUN students to network for potential jobs.

Most animation students find a job within a year after graduating, Reilly said.

“It’s almost the animators’ market, though that doesn’t mean for high-paying jobs,” Reilly said. “Now we know when they graduate they can do their work and get paid.”

Instead of higher-paying, cushy studio jobs, though, graduating animators most often find themselves with lower-paying or freelance dot-com work.

Reilly said he gets dozens of e-mails and calls every day from Internet companies in search of animated content. Many cash-strapped students have been able to sell their school projects and sign on for other freelancing opportunities before graduating.

Other opportunities

Aside from dot-coms, students are also finding jobs with advertising agencies and production companies that do digital work not typically considered traditional animation.

Mary Ann Trujillo, a professor at CSUN who has taught animation for eight years, said she has noticed a significant change students are continuing to study in the field, whereas in the past many turned to “safer” majors because they thought that was the only way to get jobs after graduation.

“It’s more fun to teach,” Trujillo said. “You know they don’t have to go to work at McDonald’s.”

Darlene DiPrimo, an animation student who graduated this month, has already gotten two dot-com job offers and as of late May was in talks with others. She has already sold several of her projects to dot-com companies.

“I never really thought I’d have a problem getting a job,” Di Primo said.

CSUN isn’t the only school seeing an increase in animation students. Over the last several years, a number schools in California, including USC, UCLA and private art schools, have seen admissions rise along with job opportunities.

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