Animation talent is in demand. On the eve of France’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival (June 6-11), Screen looks at how US studios recruit international animators, and the creative benefits they bring

With more and more Hollywood studios trying to cash in on the global popularity of animated movies, US demand for top-tier animation talent is growing. And with many of the biggest animated releases doing especially well at the international box office — Pixar’s Toy Story 3, last year’s top animated earner, took 61% of its global gross outside the US — it is not surprising US studios are looking for talent in Europe and beyond.

In part, of course, the animation houses are just doing what Hollywood has always done: shopping for the best talent the world has to offer.

“We want to find the best people, no matter where they are, whether it’s Europe, Asia or New Zealand,” says Kim Mackey, head of recruiting for DreamWorks Animation, whose 2,150 employees come from 40 countries around the world. “You don’t want to miss any talent. Ultimately it’s going to help us get the best work on to the screen.”

There is also a belief that bringing in non-US talent to a project can produce creative benefits.

‘The more diverse a group I can hire, the better’

Pam Zissimos, Pixar

The thinking of European talent, says Pixar senior recruiter Pam Zissimos, “is a little more out of the box. If we get some people from the States and some from Europe, that creates such a nice synergy on the team. It is all about what we are creating, so people’s life experiences and their ideas are what we want. The more diverse a group I can hire, the better.”

To scout for talent, most of the studios regularly attend events such as France’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Pixar and Sony Pictures Animation are among US companies that stage recruiting sessions as part of the Creative Focus section of this year’s festival — just as they did at the FMX animation and effects conference in May in Stuttgart, Germany.

Some US studios also visit European animation schools and do other kinds of outreach. Walt Disney Animation Studios, for example, is working with Annecy this year on a YouTube animation competition. And DreamWorks Animation has a dedicated international recruiter based in Europe, Shelley Page.

The US talent scouts have recently been helped in their search by the appearance of English-language, European-made animated features such as Planet 51, from Spain’s Ilion Animation Studios, Arthur And The Invisibles, from France’s EuropaCorp, and Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, from the UK’s Aardman.

When a European animator can supply an English-language reel, “we can actually see the acting and the emotion and get what the animator is portraying,” says Zissimos, who observes Pixar has hired between five and 10 European animators over the past two years, including two who worked on Planet 51.

US studios say they look for European talents with a whole range of experience, from recent graduates to established film-makers. DreamWorks, for example, recently convinced award-winning animator Bolhem Bouchiba to return to work for the studio after he had moved back to his native France after a stint in the US.

To lure European animation talent to the US, the studios can offer a number of enticements. Generous pay is probably one, though studio recruiters say US pay rates are not necessarily much better than those in Europe.

‘We recruit skillsets other than just animators’

Ken Maruyama, Sony Pictures Imageworks

The working conditions are another attraction. Several US studios have purpose-built animation campuses where employees can take advantage of perks including free lunches, access to recreational and health facilities and art classes.

In some European industries, suggests Dawn Rivera-Ernster, director, talent development and recruitment at Walt Disney Animation, “the deadlines are so tight and the expectations on people so finite that when they hear about what our studio offers and the types of creative outlets we have, they’re inspired.” At Disney, she says, “the infrastructure is set up so that artists are concentrating on what’s truly their craft.”

Perhaps most enticing, though, is the kind of work US animation studios, whose outputs are often as critically lauded as they are commercially successful, can offer European talents.

“As artists they’re going to want to go where the good work is,” says Zissimos. Pixar has won the last four best animated feature Oscars. “That’s my best bet in trying to get someone interested. Because ultimately as an artist what they’re working on means more to them on a day-to-day basis than anything.”

Besides animators, the studios also recruit story artists, visual development artists and technical directors, whose ranks have been swelled by the growth of computer animation in Europe.

Some studios also look to Europe for visual-effects artists who can be put to work on both live action and animated projects.

“We recruit skillsets other than just animators,” says Ken Maruyama, head of recruiting for Sony Pictures Imageworks, a sister division to Sony Pictures Animation. “It takes a huge team of people to produce either a visual-effects film or an animation film and in many cases the same types of talents are used on each genre.”

In creative terms, the studios say they are looking in Europe for the same kind of skills and proclivities they seek in the US.

“You have to be a certain kind of person who wants to work for Disney in general because of the type of subjects,” says Disney’s Rivera-Ernster. But, she adds: “We’re not looking for a particular style, we’re looking for people who know what they’re good at. You need people to understand where their strengths fit into the business.”