Jerusalem animation studio snowballs into the darlings of Hollywood

Co-founder and CEO of Snowball Studios Yoni Cohen speaks to the ‘Post’ about working with Disney and helping to put the local animation industry on the world map.

Yoni Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Snowball Studios in Givat Shaul (photo credit: PR)
Yoni Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Snowball Studios in Givat Shaul
(photo credit: PR)
Things are getting pretty animated in Jerusalem – literally. Unbeknownst to much of the country, in recent years the focus of animated image creation has slowly but surely been shifting down Route 1 to the capital. Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film and TV Fund at the Jerusalem Development Authority, based at the deftly restored historic premises of Hansen House, reckons that around 25 percent of all film production in the country now takes place in Jerusalem, up from a measly 4% not too many moons ago.
That is primarily as a result of the efforts of animation movers and shakers such as Yoni Cohen, thirtysomething co-founder and general manager of Snowball Studios in Givat Shaul. I visited the company’s premises earlier this week and got a glimpse of the efforts of some of the animators, who all appeared to be in full flow. There were 30 or 40 young people glued to their computer screens creating textures, colors and backdrops, and ensuring the characters make all the right movements.
Most of the animators are currently busy getting together another episode of the Disney animated children’s series Star Darlings and, naturally, it is quite a feather in Snowball’s hat to have landed a contract with the US giant.
Cohen started his own path to computer- enabled art when he very young.
“I started getting into animation at the age of 13,” he says. That was back in the early ’90s when animation software was far less capable than today. And, more importantly, a sleeping giant was beginning to come out of the doldrums.
“When I started, Disney was just beginning to refind its feet,” Cohen explains. “In the 1970s Disney went through a serious crisis, and then there was a return to all the great Disney films, like Aladdin and The Lion King. I really got into those films and I started to draw.”
Cohen soon added some technologically more advanced tools to his pencil work.
“A friend of mine introduced me to software called 3D Studio, which worked on DOS, with all those code lines, and then [Steven Spielberg blockbuster] Jurassic Park came out.”
The computer animation sector began to develop in leaps and bounds.
“In the Nineties you had movies like Toy Story and Jurassic Park. I was 13 and that was perfect timing for me.”
It seems that Cohen has quite a knack of being in the right place at the right time.
The teenager really got into the technology and made great strides and, by the time he was 15, was showing architects how to use computers to produce drawings of the buildings they were designing. Cohen also got some help along his virtual technology way from a source very close to home.
“My father was pensioned off by the air force and opened an advertising company.
That was just when the Internet was starting up, and I began building web sites for the company’s customers.”
Cohen began accompanying his father to business meetings.
“I remember when I was 16 we went to a meeting with a company that manufactured taps and I saw the enormous CNC machines [which produce various tools] and giant posters of 3D images of taps on the walls.”
The lad was taken with the outsized images and immediately wanted to know how they were made.
“I asked the guy there what software they had used to produce the prints,” Cohen recalls. “He looked at me like I was some kind of alien from outer space and he explained that they had photos of the taps taken at a special studio. They suspended the taps with special nylon wiring – it took weeks for them to get the taps into the right position – then they took the pictures and erased the wiring, by computer, in the final image. I told them, as they had drawings of the taps, they could do the whole thing on a computer.”
Cohen received some more blank looks before suggesting that he be allowed to try his hand at producing a computerized image of a tap, bypassing all the photography studio palaver. It took the youngster a week or two to work out how to arrive at the requisite image, but the end product made the company happy. The initial one-off was followed by 30 more computer-aided jobs and the youngster found himself well and truly in the black.
“I got $300 for each one and I was the richest student in my class,” Cohen laughs.
“I spent it all really quickly.”
Cohen maintained his technological learning curve in the army, although it took a while before he ended up in the right place.
“Because of my dad I initially went for a pilot’s course, although I only lasted 10 months, but I got a lot out of it and I learned how to test, and break through, my barriers.”
But Cohen really wanted to do animation in the army too and, after several twists and turns, ended up with the film unit.
Back on Civvy Street, Cohen soon landed a lucrative contract to produce animation to market toys made Stateside. He also learned an important lesson about how to streamline the production process which, he says, stands him in good stead to this day, and also caught the attention of some of the major players on the global scene.
“The big companies invested in certain tools involved in the process, but they didn’t invest much in making the manufacturing floor more efficient,” he notes.
Cohen’s streamlining innovations came to the attention of the big boys when he and his partners took a stand at an animation technology fair in Boston.
“You have all these Israeli startup companies which need to solve problems along the way, and they don’t have tons of money like the established giants,” notes Cohen.
“So you have to be efficient and deal with things.”
Cohen clearly did and he and his partners soon got into the rapidly evolving field of TV advertising animation.
“We did the Lottogutz campaign [for the Lotto lottery] which people really liked. We took on the Bezeq animated parrot character which was flagging at the time and we resuscitated it, and did all sort of advertising campaign work.”
Things have moved on appreciably since those TV advertising jobs, and working with Disney places Snowball at the forefront of the Israeli animation industry and, indeed, puts in a decent grid position on the global scene. Besides helping to put the Israeli industry on the world map, Cohen is proud of the fact that he and his partners are doing it from their Jerusalem base.
“We currently have shuttles that bring animators from Tel Aviv to work every day,” he says. “But we have all these great animation and arts schools in Jerusalem, like [the] Bezalel [Academy of Art and Design], and it would be great if the students from Jerusalem, and the Tel Avivites who come to Jerusalem to study and generally return to Tel Aviv after their degrees because there’s more work there, stayed in Jerusalem.”
There is a price to pay for all this pioneering verve.
“When you work opposite people in LA you start work at 8 p.m. and end at two in the morning, and then you have to work the normal work hours here too,” Cohen notes. “My wife said it would be so much easier if I worked for [California-based animation giant] DreamWorks, but I want to do it from here, from Jerusalem,” says Cohen. “We are also getting a lot of help from [Mayor] Nir Barkat and the Jerusalem Municipality.”
While the Star Darlings project is certainly a high-profile venture, Cohen says he and his partners are keenly looking for more top-end jobs to keep their animators busy.
“There is a big project in the offing right now, which I can’t talk about just yet, but I hope that works out and we keep going. I think we have a lot to offer.”
For more information about Snowball Studios: