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Israeli Animation: Raising Expectations

Practically non-existent until recently, the feature animation industry in Israel got a big boost with both Waltz with Bashir and $9.99 qualifying for Oscar consideration, so things are looking up.

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Waltz with Bashir is based on Ari Folman's experiences as a young Israeli Defense Force solider on duty in a Beirut refugee camp during a massacre. © 2008, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 

Until just a few months ago, Israel was far from being considered an animation powerhouse. But that was before the one-two punch of Waltz with Bashir and $9.99 shone a historic spotlight on the tiny nation's animation industry and raised expectations for the next feature project to come out of Israel.

Not surprisingly, things are definitely on the rise, with an animation studio working on the nation's first CG feature film and others competing for and landing work for clients all over Europe and North America. There are also a growing number of animation schools turning out talented and creative graduates capable of doing world-class work.

But interestingly, neither Waltz with Bashir nor $9.99 benefited from these more recent advances in the local industry.

In fact, Bashir director Ari Folman says there was no animation industry in Israel to draw upon when making his acclaimed animated documentary about his experiences as a soldier during Israel's 1982 offensive into Lebanon. He and his producing partners were forced to basically invent their own techniques, resulting in a mix of Flash, traditional and 3D animation.

"There were only eight animators in Israel qualified to do the job," Folman told AWN last month. "We started with six, then we found another two. We needed two more and we couldn't find them. So this is the state of animation [in Israel]."

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The characters in $9.99 look for the meaning of life in the new stop-motion feature by Tatiana Rosenthal. © Regent Releasing. 

Similarly, $9.99 director Tatia Rosenthal learned animation at the Tisch School of the Arts and has made her home in New York for the past 15 years. Though the stop-motion film adapts the stories of popular Israeli writer Etgar Keret, Rosenthal suggests that what really made the film possible was the work she did in the U.S. and that producer Emile Sherman did in Australia.

"The support from Israel came because of Etgar's talent and reputation and establishment in the industry. I think the fact that I complemented his stories helped, but I don't think the film got made based on the state of the animation industry in Israel," she explains. "There was no infrastructure."

However, things are better for the next generation of animators in Israel, where a studio called Animation Lab is in pre-production on the country's first CG-animated feature, The Wild Bunch. Directed by Doug Wood, the film is based on a script by Philip LaZebnik -- writer of Pocahontas, Mulan and The Prince of Egypt -- about farm plants that are attacked by genetically-altered corn stalks.

The project was funded by venture capitalist Erel Margalit through his Jerusalem Venture Partners, and Wood credits Margalit with having the vision to get the project going. "He loves animation and has a vision," says Wood. "He thinks that stories started here in Jerusalem thousands of years ago and there's a thriving cultural community here that hasn't been tapped."

Wood admits the task is challenging, with Tel Aviv being the more obvious choice for such a studio given its artistic reputation. "It's kind of a bit of a pipe dream that we could create a movie studio in Jerusalem and draw top-level talent here," he says. "But we're finding that it is possible."

The Wild Bunch is nearing the production phase, with work proceeding on the fifth and final story reel before it will be ready for production. Wood says the voice cast, which includes Abigail Breslin, Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Hurley, Willie Nelson, George Takei and Chris Klein, has already been recorded. The production pipeline is being built, and the characters have been designed in 2D and 3D, with most of the environments also near completion. The film has no distributor yet, but Wood says their sample footage has generated significant interest.

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Being in Israel has several advantages, Wood acknowledges, not the least of which is innovation on the technical side. What has been lacking is animators' experienced in making features, so the production has had to bring in animators from North America and Europe to supplement the homegrown talent.

"The majority of the animators themselves will probably come from outside Israel, but only because there isn't [CG] feature animation that's been done here before," says Wood. Recruiting animators to relocate to Israel is not always easy -- especially when the nation's image is dominated by events like the recent conflict in Gaza. But Wood -- who is currently looking for talent -- says the day-to-day reality is quite different.

"In Jerusalem, we feel very safe, the quality of life is very good and it's a very wonderful place to work," he says. "It's like when you live in Los Angeles and you hear about riots in South Central or an earthquake in Riverside, it's kind of not in your everyday life, so it doesn't affect you the same way as if you were right there in the middle of it."

Wood expects the talent base in Israel to grow over time and play a larger role in the films Animation Lab plans to make. "There [are] lots of artists, filmmakers and creative people in Israel, so we feel like we want to use as many of those homegrown talents as we possibly can," he adds. "And hopefully with our second and third and fourth movies, each film will be more and more Israeli in terms of the talent."

Doug Wood, director for upcoming Israeli feature The Wild Bunch. Courtesy of Animation Lab.

Doug Wood, director for upcoming Israeli feature The Wild Bunch. Courtesy of Animation Lab.

Aiding that is a number of schools that have developed well-regarded animation programs. Wood says Animation Lab has a relationship with the Bezalel College of Art and Design and the school's teachers and students are both working on the film. Other schools and programs teaching animation include Tel Aviv University, Animation Center, Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Sapir College, Camera Obscure, Israeli College of Animation and Hasifa at Israeli Open University.

Another animation house on the scene is Crew 972, based in Tel Aviv and founded by Alex and Michelle Orrelle, who met in Israel and worked extensively in the American animation and technology industries. Alex, a Briton who grew up in Israel, attended the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. He's worked in visual effects on such films as The Matrix Reloaded and in animation at Pixar on shorts and features, including The Incredibles. Michelle has production and business development credentials, having worked on projects for such companies as Macromedia and Scient.

The duo returned to Israel after Alex got a job at DPSI, an Israel-based animation studio run by IDT. The studio closed six months after he started, but introduced the Orrelles to the local animation scene and prompted them to open Crew 972. The studio's first projects came from the Orrelles' connections in the U.S. and their reputations.

"It wasn't easy because really Israel at the time didn't have a name as an animation outsource destination," Alex says. "The pricing wasn't as attractive as some of the Asian and East European studios, but the fact that I was from Pixar, it helps people takes the chance with us because they knew we speak fluent English and the quality of animation was what they were looking for."

Most of the work Crew 972 has done has been for American and European clients, though they have produced a couple of commercials for Israeli TV and a short informational film for the government. Their clients have included creating a stereoscopic 3-D film for the Coca-Cola World Cup Tour traveling exhibit, and they specialize in character animation for film, TV, the Web and gaming.

They also have been developing original properties, such as Adrenaline Lemmings, about a group of four lemmings who live in an urban setting and partake in extreme sports stunts that always end in tremendous pain. Disney picked it up for development as a series of short films, until the recent economic downturn prompted Disney to fold that division. The Orrelles are seeking a new home for the property and also are doing some tests for Warner Bros. Animation.

There are challenges to being in Tel Aviv, they admit. Michelle says one problem is being so distant from the rest of the industry requires extra effort to maintain important connections.

Alex says costs are higher in Israel than in other outsourcing destinations, but there is plenty of talent looking to learn about animation and a few cultural advantages.

"Because the Israeli culture gets Western humor and Western media, it's easier to find talent here that can give the creative response that is needed for many projects," he says.

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comic book blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.

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