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'Of course, my first reaction was, Why Israel? Why would [someone] possibly want to build an animation studio in Israel?" recalls Max Howard, a veteran executive and producer in the international animation film industry.
Last October, Howard was approached by Jerusalem Venture Partners Studio (JVP), a leading venture capital firm, and asked to participate in developing the first-ever media center and multi-million-dollar animation studio in Jerusalem.
Having spent 12 years at the Walt Disney Company working on animation successes such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Pocahontas, and serving as president of feature animation for Warner Bros., Howard was more than qualified for the position, but somewhat skeptical of the location.
"If you're a foreigner, this place is a war zone," he explains. "The [US] State Department's travel advisory Web site says don't come here. My wife and all my friends thought I was crazy."
Now, Howard says he is "enthralled" by Israel, and by the creation of the animation studio.
"There's a real passion here," he says, "and I think any great idea needs passion behind it, and JVP really provides it. They see it as I do - a real value in content. And content is the most important thing. Content is everything."
According to JVP founder Erel Margalit, the decision to house the international studio in Jerusalem came from his love for the city and it being "the only city in Israel in which old and new, art and advanced technology, artists and students are intertwined nationally."
Set to be built near the capital's old train station, the Animation Lab, as it will be called, is already up and running, and the search for the first film is underway.
"The most important thing is to find a story to tell. We've so far seriously looked at about 75 different ideas, and we've got three that we like," says Howard, though he won't disclose details.
Once an idea is chosen, Doug Wood, the head of development for the Animation Lab, will work with a writer to turn the idea into a screenplay.
Wood "is amazing at developing screenplays that work for an international marketplace," says Howard, and has the experience to prove it - he previously did development for Warner Bros. and Universal Studios, among others, and developed the award-winning television series Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs.
Ayelet Weinerman will also be an integral cog in the JVP animation machine, having produced TV commercials for Jaguar, Porsche and Dunkin Donuts; she will lend her production skills to the making of the films.
ALTHOUGH the JVP Animation Lab intends to eventually create full-length animated features - which would be a first for Israel - its first film will be a short one, probably only about six minutes in length.
"The strategy is, we're going to put a small team together and a small studio and make a short film based on characters who will be in the feature film," explains Howard. "It will take about six to nine months to make that short film and then we'll have a nice film to show people. At the moment, all I can say [to people abroad] is, there are lots of great animators here, but then I'll be able to show them an actual film."
The writer for this first film will be someone who has written for the international market before - probably an American, says Howard, adding that he will also bring in a director and other key players from overseas.
But the ultimate idea behind the lab is to utilize the Israeli workforce - what Margalit calls "an enormous pool of talent and creativity."
"We want this to ultimately be 100-percent Israeli," states Howard. While the existing animation infrastructure in Israel is big enough to get the project off the ground, Howard claims if he brings in people with experience from overseas, the Israelis "can learn so much more and become experts themselves."
Plus, Howard says, the opening of the studio and of subsequent employment possibilities in animation might bring Israeli animators working in America back to Israel.
"There is also a fantastic community of animators here working mainly doing TV commercials," he continues, "but if you're doing a 30-second TV commercial there are certain things you don't really get examples of that you would see in a feature film, like slow, sensitive acting scenes that make you care about the characters."
To Howard, an animator isn't just someone who draws a character - but an actor himself, who must be able to use his body to complement the voice of the actor, and to reflect that in the character and his actions.
"There are many great actors in Israel so I'm not worried," asserts Howard. "Israel is a culture that looks to the West, they see the movies that are in the international marketplace - all the reasons why a studio here could actually be successful. Some cultures just don't understand Western culture, and I want our audience to not know - and not care - where the films are made.
"We're not making Israeli films for Israelis, we're making films for the international marketplace in Israel, and it becomes irrelevant where they're made," Howard continues. "I hope one day after the films come out someone will say, 'You loved that film? Oh, it was made in Israel.'"
DESPITE his affection for the country, Howard admits that having the studio in Israel does present a barrier - one he compares to the "Irish issue" for those from England - and says it will not be easy to get certain artists comfortable with coming here to work because of the security situation.
But he maintains that it is, in fact, Israel's "tenuous position" that makes the country unique.
"Everyone else takes their country for granted," he explains. "But here, you feel that unless you really work hard and are really focused, you won't have a country. There's an interesting nationalism here, an energy that you can channel into making a really great film."
Aside from finding the perfect film, Howard and the rest of the team are trying to come up with a logo for the lab, one that means something to Israelis but to the rest of the world is simply a nice symbol.
They are currently mulling over a sabra - a type of cactus in Israel that also means a native-born Israeli - though nothing has been settled yet.
The media center is also set to include a gaming studio and a development lab for animation for cellular phones, both of which will acquire content from the films produced by the Animation Lab.
Some Israeli animators expressed skepticism as to whether the lab would be a success in the long run, citing other examples of animation studios which attempted to launch in Israel and failed, but most are excited about the possibilities.
"It's a great idea and has great potential," says Yossi Abolafia, a lecturer in animation at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. "There's a lot of talent in Israel, and I hope this will be an opportunity for them to express themselves."
WHILE TODAY Howard stands at the apex of the modern animation world, his humble beginnings provide ample material for a feature film of his own. While working in the theater business in England, the blockbuster hit Roger Rabbit was being filmed in London and required managing help on the set. Howard jumped on the opportunity and, the next thing he knew, he was building studios for Disney.
"My whole life changed," he recalls of the transition from theater to film. "But I always remembered that it didn't matter if I was doing a play in London or a film in America - if the heart of the story is good, it's good. That's what's important."
To illustrate this point, Howard cites the movie Final Fantasy, an animated film released in 2001 that he calls "an extraordinary achievement filled with amazing technology." Nonetheless, he points out that at the box office, the film was not as successful.
"There was no story in it so nobody went to see it. It couldn't keep people in theaters," he explains. "On the other hand, I could give you a story with so-so animation - like Hoodwinked, a low-budget film made in the Philippines - where the animation's not great but the story is really good and really funny."
That, he says, is the key to making a great film.
IN LATE February, JVP launched its up and coming media center at the lab in Jerusalem in front of the Israeli animation world as well as guests such as then-acting prime minister Ehud Olmert and former premier Ehud Barak, both of whom expressed their excitement over the project that would, in the words of Margalit, make Jerusalem "the place where Hollywood meets Silicon Valley."
To introduce the talents behind the Animation Lab, scenes from numerous movies bearing their creativity were shown to those in attendance. The scenes were chosen in part by Howard, his favorite of which comes from the classic love story Beauty and the Beast.
"Everyone remembers the ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast," he says. "That was the first time [an animation film] moved around the characters.
"It was a great moment, but it was because you cared about what those two characters were doing at that moment in the film. You've had Beauty and the Beast hating each other, not liking each other, and then suddenly they dance, and it's those moments that make it. It's moments like those that we want to create."