Drawing on Talent Overseas

Charles Solomon is an occasional contributor to Calendar

While entertainment industry pundits debate the significance of the less than stellar domestic earnings of Disney’s “Hercules,” the unprecedented level of feature animation production is continuing unabated. Faced with a shortage of talented, well-trained artists, the Hollywood studios have been forced to look abroad.

The current roster at DreamWorks SKG includes 130 foreign artists from 20 countries; Warner Bros. has 42 artists from 14 countries at work in its Glendale facility. Walt Disney Feature Animation also has a substantial contingent of foreign artists, but exact figures were unavailable. Canada, Britain, France and Ireland supply most of the foreign personnel, followed by Italy, Germany, Spain, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and the remainder of the old Eastern bloc. American animation has become world animation--and vice versa.

“There simply isn’t enough talent in the U.S. to supply the studios, even though we’re working very hard to develop talent through training programs,” says Ron Rocha, head of animation at DreamWorks. “The number of countries we have represented among the artists makes DreamWorks a very attractive place to foreign artists. They know we have the experience in relocating them, they know there’s a talent base here, and there’s someone with whom they share a common experience. That kind of foreign community is quite attractive.”


“The other evening, I took the lead artists on ‘The Quest for Camelot’ [Warners’ first big animated feature, due out in May ’98] out to dinner, and I looked around the table and realized we had people from Canada, Greece, Britain, France, Belgium and Vietnam: It gave me a sense of how truly international an art form animation has become,” says Max Howard, the genial, British-born president of Warner Bros. Feature Animation. “We couldn’t exist at Warner Bros if we didn’t have an international crew, and I don’t think we’re unique: You’ll find the same sort of mixture of nationalities at DreamWorks and Disney and Fox.

“I’ve brought animators into studios who haven’t spoken any English,” adds Howard, who was senior vice president of operations worldwide at Disney Feature Animation before moving to Warner Bros. “That’s produced complications, but the complications are mainly outside the studio. An artist can always draw a picture if he doesn’t understand the language; speaking the language of the country he’s in can come later.”

In addition to bringing foreign animators to work in the U.S., Disney has a satellite studio in Paris with a staff of about 300; Warner Bros. has more than 100 artists working at a studio in London and others in Copenhagen and Estonia. Ten minutes of “Hercules” were done in Paris, while nearly a quarter of “The Quest for Camelot” will be animated overseas.

“Setting up the London studio gave us a base where we can utilize the European talent base without having to bring them to the U.S.,” Howard says. “That opened up a talent pool of people who were unable to contemplate a move to Los Angeles. If coming to the States doesn’t work out, there’s a home for them in London where they can work on the highest level of feature animation production.”

But having part of the crew thousands of miles away also complicates production. Teleconferencing, computer links, faxes and transcontinental visits facilitate communication, but some artists feel that it’s difficult to maintain continuity over such long distances. “We have no plans for a satellite studio,” Rocha says. “Having everyone in one time zone makes life much easier: Even the three-hour time difference between L.A. and the East Coast makes things difficult. I worked on ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ and that eight-hour time difference from London to L.A. was a killer.”

The satellite studios should not be confused with the kidvid factories that subcontract most of the programs on American television. Located in Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Australia and Thailand, these studios crank out huge volumes of work quickly and cheaply, using workers whose training is often minimal. Because audiences expect feature films to display higher-quality animation, design and direction, the studios have had to expand their search for artists.

“The recent surge in animation, particularly the surge in the quality of the Hollywood cartoon feature, has become a magnet that is drawing the finest talent in the world into Los Angeles,” says Tom Sito, president of Animator’s Union Local 839. “Fifteen years ago, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of foreign artists, so the union had a roster of seniority clauses. We’ve realized that we can’t build walls around Los Angeles, but we can share information with other labor organizations around the world. We’ve sent wage scales to Minsk and Mexico City and Malaysia. There’s an increasing realization by the artists that as the animation studios are global, their rights as employees have to be global as well.”

The foreign artists are bringing new ideas about design, movement and storytelling to American animation. In recent years, features have grown more sophisticated in art direction and visual styling, due in part to the influence of these new talents.

“Most of the European artists are fine artists,” Rocha says. “When they discover animation, they’re drawn to the high level of artistry we’re achieving in current features, and they bring that fine-arts background with them. Whereas a lot of American animators have been brought up on cartoons, and they’ve known that they wanted to be animators since they were kids. We think that cultural cross-pollination improves both the animation and the stories we tell.”

“These artists are changing the look of the films at all the studios,” Howard agrees. “They’re helping the animated feature grow and diversify. We’re taking advantage of those influences and will continue to. And it’s a two-way street: We have American artists working in our studio in London, so there’s a wonderful swapping of ideas.”

For the foreseeable future, American studios will continue to use increasing numbers of foreign artists, and the art of animation will be richer for it.

“I definitely see this trend continuing,” Howard says. “I think the medium of animation is changing because live-action filmmaking is changing. When I go to a live-action film now, I sit there and think, ‘I’m really watching animation.’ ‘Independence Day’ is an animated film; ‘The Lost World’ is an animated film. Virtually every live-action film you see includes credits for computer-generated imagery. Although we don’t seem to be aware of it, I think we’re going through a revolution, perhaps as dramatic as going from silent films to talkies or from black-and-white to color. The influence of animation is everywhere now.”