On the Road

ROWLAND HEIGHTS, CALIF.-- "My parents told me we really couldn't afford college right now and that I'd have to get a job," says 18-year-old recent high school grad Kim Dunning, "so they were pretty happy when I got the job offer from Disney. I started the Monday after graduation." Her starting salary? About $40,000.

Dunning is a graduate of Rowland High School, in Southern California, about 25 miles south of Hollywood's animation epicenter. The otherwise nondescript public high school is home to an innovative training program that has quietly become the fourth-largest supplier of talent to the burgeoning animation industry. About 50 recent grads now work at Disney Studios, 30 work at Warner Bros., and dozens of others have landed at smaller production houses.

"Most of my friends are working at places like McDonald's for $5 an hour," says Dunning. Typical entry-level salaries for animator trainees are around $40,000, with scheduled increases rapidly bringing annual pay to upwards of $80,000.

The animation classroom in Rowland High School looks like a converted industrial-arts shop. But here, rows of light tables take the place of jigsaws and vise grips. First-year students in the animation program start out with simple exercises, like animating a bouncing ball, while fourth-year students put together more advanced animated features that become portfolios required for job hunting.

"Our best students don't have to look very hard" for jobs, says Larry Kurnarsky, a professional animator and filmmaker who directs the Rowland program. "The studios come looking for them." Kurnarsky's predecessor, Dave Masters, recently left the high school to take over as head animation trainer for Warner Bros., a move that led to a real-time teleconference link between the high school and Warner's internal training department. "Now we can watch their training sessions, and they can watch ours," Kurnarsky says.

There are just a few Pentium-based computers at the Rowland High site, along with five "pencil-test systems" that capture student drawings, an Avid Systems off-line editing station, four 3-D systems for "claymation," and an audio station where sound effects are added. But the most important ingredient, says Kurnarsky, has nothing to do with fancy computers or new graphics software. "We've created a place where creativity is nurtured and rewarded. This is not about technology," he says, "it's about giving the kids the freedom to create and to grow. So much of education just pushes kids down, shuts them off, and closes them out."

At Rowland students present their story ideas to classmates, who must give each proposed project a "green light" or a "red light." "We've re-created the way studios do business in our classroom," Kurnarsky explains, "so when students graduate, the creative process is not new to them. They leave here as professionals." Advanced students also serve as "mentors" for the Rowland night school, which offers similar classes to adult students. "There's no discrimination based on age here. It's all about what you can do. The students appreciate being treated like full human beings," he says.

While the program is ideal for those with some aptitude for drawing, there are also training opportunities for those interested in film editing, special effects, and audio. "This will get me a job when I get out of high school," says David Navasartian, 16, who uses his free time to help younger students at the high school's video-editing bay. "But what I really want to do eventually," he says, "is direct."