Why Green Ogres Keep Bringing Jeffrey Katzenberg Back to Paris

Paris School Spawns Cartoon Talent for Hollywood
  • Cartoon school in French capital is talent font for Hollywood
  • New Gobelins curriculum ups rivalry with California's CalArts

When Jeffrey Katzenberg needs green ogres, talking penguins or kung-fu-fighting pandas, he heads to an old brick building in Paris.

For 25 years, the head of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. has made his way to the elite photography school Les Gobelins in Paris’s 13th arrondissement in search of animation skills with a distinctly French touch. Building on the country’s age-old tradition of fine art and graphic novels, Les Gobelins has spawned Oscar-winning animators and last year topped a ranking of the world’s best cartoon trainings

“Gobelins is one of the finest animation schools in the world and we have dozens and dozens of graduates and alumni from them,” Katzenberg said. “The school is completely attuned to the needs of our industry and serves as a critical pipeline for elite, artistic talent.”

Now, Les Gobelins is looking to bank on that notoriety to steal away students from Valencia, California-based rival CalArts -- bigger, richer and closer to where Mickey Mouse was born -- with an all-English curriculum. The first such class starts in September 2017, and the school is now sifting through candidates.  

Talent wars have become as big for cartoon studios as they are for technology and video-game companies, especially after Disney’s 2013 release “Frozen” broke box-office records by grossing about $1.3 billion, showing animated films can sell better than most movies. As DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar conjure up their next blockbuster animation adventure, Les Gobelins has caught their eye by marketing itself as select and artsy.

Hand-Picked Candidates

The school hired Moira Marguin, a professor from Paris’ School of Fine Arts -- the two-centuries-old school of painters like Degas and Renoir-- to run its cartoon department. It keeps a tight rein on recruitment, hand-picking 25 candidates out of 700 each year based on technique, personality, art history knowledge and a likely fit with the industry’s needs.  

An added bonus for students: A four-year program at Les Gobelins carries an annual price tag of 7,000 euros ($7,835) for European Union citizens and 12,000 euros for non-Europeans. In contrast, the four-year CalArts program costs $45,030 a year.

About a third of Gobelins graduates land jobs in Hollywood each year.

“It’s the kind of place that makes artists feel at home and their mothers reassured about job prospects,” said Clemence Maret, 26, who dropped out of a mathematics program to pursue animation, graduated last year from Les Gobelins and landed a job at Studio 352 in Luxembourg. 

Oscar Nominations

Her class created cartoons like “Wedding In Hell”, about a little girl who puts her pets through a nightmare marriage after watching too much reality-TV, and “A Convict’s Last Day”: the tale of a lobster taken on a wild ride, bungee jumping included, before he’s cooked to be eaten.

Les Gobelins, which opened its doors in 1963 as institute of photography, has over the years branched out into animation, digital design and video games. Alumni have made top-grossing cartoons like "Despicable Me" and grabbed Oscar nominations for artsy films like "The Triplets of Belleville" and Studio 352’s "Ernest & Celestine." The Frenchness of the films come through in the acerbic edge of the characters in “Despicable Me,” or the daring experimentation with watercolor in “Ernest & Celestine.”

Recruiters say the school’s graduates can carry out tedious technical tasks as well as pitch a story-line, design colorful characters and remain true to their artistic standards.

Mounting Competition

“Gobelins graduates have a reputation as creative and critical contributors,” said Gilles Gaillard of Mikros Image, a cartoon studio that worked on Salma Hayek’s “The Prophet”. “They’re not afraid to put their hand up and question what the boss wants -- that’s something international studios appreciate.”

So what could go wrong for Gobelins? Fame. Competition. Low-cost alternatives.

Success has spawned a tsunami of competition. France alone has more than 150 animation training schools. Alternatives are on the rise in developing countries as well as online, where they’re cheaper and there’s no entrance exam.

Animation Mentor, which has professionals teaching animation methods exclusively over the web in 12-week sessions of $2,500 each, is one training that recruiters say is on the rise, flooding the job market. While these online graduates aren’t always comparable to Gobelins or CalArts candidates, they fit the bill for some entry-level tasks, said Kristof Serrand, an animation supervisor at DreamWorks in Los Angeles.

Rollercoaster Market

“Job trends are like a rollercoaster in this industry, and when the market dries out positions may be less interesting and salaries lower,” said Serrand, who is a Gobelins graduate himself and was hired by Katzenberg in person some 25 years ago. “Gobelins alumni are practically guaranteed to find a job regardless, but they might get frustrated when offers don’t match their expectations.”

All of the graduates from the class of 2015 have found jobs, in a variety of roles from 2D cartoons to video-games, in the U.S., Canada well as in Europe. One of them, Magali Garnier, a 28-year-old biochemist and former primary school teacher who quit to pursue animation at Gobelins, now works at video-game maker Ubisoft on 3D animation in Montpellier, in the South of France.

“Going to California -- that’s often the ultimate dream for a cartoon animator,” Garnier said a few months ago while she was still at Gobelins. “But really what most of us care about is working on a fun, creative project. Whether it’s in California, Japan or here in France is secondary.”

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