Animating Jerusalem's Center (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A venture capitalist hopes to inject new life into the city by establishing a Hollywood-style animation studio inside a new media/technology complex A motley group of flowers and plants - roses, sage, turnips, four-leafed clover, cacti and others - band together to preserve their meadow and way of life against a group of genetically-modified cornstalks who are planning to conquer the habitat and impose a dictatorship of genetically identical maize. That, in a nutshell, is what happens in "The Wild Bunch," an animated feature film that may sound like yet another blockbuster of the genre - the voices are those of superstars William Dafoe, Elizabeth Hurley and Willie Nelson and the script is by Philip LaZebnik, who wrote "Mulan" and "Pocahontas." But there is a difference: The 70 artists and engineers hard at work on the film are not in Hollywood, California. They're in Jerusalem. "The Wild Bunch," scheduled for release in 2009, will be the first full-length animation feature made in Israel - with several more slated for production in the next few years at The Animation Lab, a state-of-the-art animation studio that is set be the center-piece of a media and technology complex now under construction in the heart of the capital, not far from the Old City walls. Behind the project is Erel Margalit, a prominent Jerusalem venture capitalist. His vision is to create a media center to replace the sad-looking wasteland of crumbling buildings near the capital's Turkish-built abandoned central railway station - rather fittingly, given that the first moving pictures shot in what was then Ottoman Palestine featured Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany alighting from a train at that same station in 1896. Margalit's goal is to create a media-technology center that will combine companies in several different niches in a synergistic manner. Initiating and underwriting the buildings, studios and associated start-up companies to the tune of tens of millions of dollars is the veteran venture capital fund founded and managed by Margalit, Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP). A decade ago, JVP was a central player in Israel's emergence as an information technologies powerhouse, investing in companies such as Chromatis, Jacada, and Paradigm Geophysical. In recent years, Margalit has been steering JVP towards investing in media technologies. "Content is now undergoing a revolution," Margalit tells The Report. "It is moving from a passive broadcasting experience to interactive user experiences. Technology and media are converging, bringing together the creative elements of engineering, media and story-telling - and Israelis can be creative in all of these areas. JVP is tapping into this. "We intend to create what the Japanese call a 'keiretsu,' a group of companies related to each other that give one another advantages they wouldn't have if they were operating in isolation. To that end, JVP has put together a portfolio of companies involved in animation, virtual worlds, communications, networking, advertising in three-dimensional worlds and games, the placement of movie clips in instant messages, and visual education platforms." The 3,000 square meter building now undergoing renovation on Hebron Road used to house the government mint. It stands out from its surroundings because when the British Mandate Authorities constructed it in the Bauhaus style in the 1930s, they ignored their own regulations obligating the use of stone facing. It is instead one of the few Jerusalem buildings with plaster outer walls, contrasting starkly with the nearby stone-faced, gabled and ornate Turkish railway station built forty years earlier. The main building is to house the animation lab as well as other media companies in the JVP portfolio. The site has room for several other buildings which will form a media/technology "campus." Margalit envisions this campus as the spark for reviving Jerusalem's sometimes heavy atmosphere and pushing it into a more dynamic direction, which is why he deliberately chose to build the complex in the center of Jerusalem, rather than in Tel Aviv or Herzliya, which boast more start-up technology companies, or in one of the capital's industrial-technological zones. He drew his inspiration for this urban revival plan from New York City. "In the 1990s, the internet and related industries revived the meat-packing and garment districts in New York," he says. "Silicon Alley gave the city a dynamic look and feel that had long been missing. Cities need creative centers to form hubs, give off a buzz and connect people. A lot of technology came to Jerusalem in the 1990s, but it was concentrated in technology parks remote from the city center. A creative focal area, near the city center, can spark the buzz and the 'scene' that is needed to unleash those creative forces in an optimistic, young and dynamic way." Margalit is no stranger to cultural pursuits - he has backed the "Ma'abada" (The Lab) a multi-media art center featuring experimental theater, music, and a bar and restaurant located near Animation Lab's new studio, and clearly plans on having the creative energies from it spill over to the animation and technology workers next door. His aim of using the arts as a lever for urban revitalization is shared by the directors of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, who announced two years ago, on the 100th anniversary of Israel's national school of art, that they would be moving the academy back to the center of Jerusalem after more than a decade at the more remote Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University. If the Animation Lab succeeds, it would be a natural candidate for hiring the Bezalel School's animation graduates, who until now could only obtain major studio animation work overseas. Margalit says he hopes other media and technology companies, not necessarily connected to JVP, will establish themselves nearby. "Revitalization requires the emergence of a thriving group of creative companies and initiatives." The historic building that will house the Animation Lab is slated for completion in June. In the meantime, the staff are ensconced in temporary offices in the ultra-modern Jerusalem Technology Park in the south of the city, near the equally contemporary-looking new railway station and the Malha Shopping Mall. Here, they are crafting story-boards, creating three-dimensional computer generated animation scenes and pouring their energies into the exacting task of planning and sequencing the frames that will eventually form "The Wild Bunch." Voice recording of the film's script has already begun, as animations usually record voice tracks first, with the animators then fitting the characters' movements to the recorded tracks. Those recordings are currently being conducted in Hollywood, but Dafoe has visited the studio in Israel and the producers expect some of the other stars to visit the studio in Israel in the future for some of the recordings. The film contrasts nature's chaotic but beautiful imperfection against scientifically engineered but cold-hearted perfection, along with the timeless theme of individuals fighting, against all odds, for freedom and liberty against a conquering, evil militaristic empire. Animation Lab promotional materials describe it as "combining the high-stakes of an epic adventure with the creepiness of a classic Sci-Fi movie, and adding lots of character-driven comedy." "We looked at about two hundred possible scripts before ultimately selecting 'The Wild Bunch'," says Douglas Wood, Executive VP of Creative Affairs at Animation Lab and director of the film. "It was selected because it tells a wonderful story and it features plants - there are so many animated films centered on animal characters that we felt depicting 'the secret lives of plants' would be creative and original." Perhaps no less fantastical than the script is the fact that Wood, a top-ranked film industry executive, moved from Hollywood to Israel just to join Animation Lab. He was originally hired by Margalit as a feasibility consultant, but he was so captivated by the energy and enthusiasm of the project that he eventually agreed both to direct "The Wild Bunch" and move to Israel. "If you'd told me a few years ago I would be living in Israel, I wouldn't have believed it," says Wood with a laugh. "But here I am, and I love it." He was especially concerned that his wife would summarily veto the idea of moving to Israel, he says, "but she loves history, and the exposure to the richness of history here during one trip was enough to persuade her to agree enthusiastically." Wood started out as an actor, working on stage and in front of the cameras for twelve years, including a stint as a member of Chicago's comedy troupe, Second City. He began his executive career at Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, working his way up from screenplay analyst to Director of Animation, and moved on to the position of V.P. for animation production and additional creative positions at Universal, Turner Pictures and Warner Bros. He developed the series "Little Einsteins" and "Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies," with the latter also spawning a children's book that he authored. Wood has brought a bit of Hollywood with him to Israel, apologizing for conducting an interview from behind a desk. "In Hollywood we always sit on sofas for meetings," he says. "I promise you in the new studio building we will have sofas." Expounding on the medium of animation, he explains: "Any movie is ultimately based on story-telling, and the story must be entertaining and thought provoking. From that perspective there is no difference between a live-action and an animated production. But an animated film requires a lot more collaboration between the technology and the artists, which is why it is the perfect vehicle for Erel Margalit's vision." Animation has come a long way from the days when artists painstakingly drew and colored each frame. Nowadays the scenes are computer-generated, making use of some of the most sophisticated computer processors available on the market. The characters are depicted in three-dimensions on computer screens by artists, to enhance the realism of their features and motion in the two-dimensional film. The costs of computer hardware have fallen precipitously. Computers capable of studio-quality animation that cost at least $200,000 ten years ago can today be had for less than $15,000. This has significantly reduced one of the barriers for the creation of new animation studios. But state-of-the-art equipment is of little use without top-quality talent. Wood hired Jim Ballantine, another seasoned Hollywood executive, whose resume includes production work on animations such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty & The Beast" for Disney and "The Ren & Stimpy Show" for Nickelodeon, to produce the film. "It initially seemed crazy to leave Hollywood and come to Israel," admits Ballantine, "but I liked the challenge of working on a completely new production studio, without an existing hierarchy, and I discovered working with an Israeli staff has many advantages." Both Wood and Ballantine have high praise for the employees who have been recruited for Animation Lab. The staff hail from eleven countries, including Canada, Argentina, China and Italy, giving the company a certain international flavor. But 80 percent of the employees are Israelis, many of them with military technology experience or training at the Bezalel School of Art - or both. "Our Israeli staff members haven't got the experience of Hollywood veterans," says Wood, "but they more than make up for it in passion, discipline and innovation." Speaking as a producer, Ballantine notes that the multi-disciplinary approach Animation Lab is adopting, combining knowledge of technology with creative talent, has significant advantages. "We've got multi-disciplinary employees who are adept at taking apart computer programs and putting them together again in new ways," says producer Ballantine. "We are definitely benefiting from the experience young Israelis get in working with fast-moving technology in the army. This has enabled us to put together a streamlined film production pipeline that is very innovative by Hollywood standards and gives us productivity increases that are far and above what I've seen in my previous jobs." Animation Labs expects "The Wild Bunch" be the first of many animated films emerging from its studio. "The current plans are for producing six animated features over the next eight years," says Ballantine, "and we are in the process of raising additional financing for the films beyond 'The Wild Bunch.' So far we have enjoyed a very high level of investment from savvy Israeli and American investors." Financing will certainly need to be high-level. Backing a film studio requires a great deal of capital, invested for a long time, in the hope of producing a profitable hit. The Animation Lab is not the first attempt at creating feature animation films in Israel. Digital Productions Solutions Israel, a subsidiary of the IDT Corporation, created an ambitious digital animation studio in Beit Shemesh in 2003, employing over 160 workers, but the initiative ran out of money in less than two years and the project was aborted before it completed its first film. To avoid a similar fate for Animation Lab, Margalit, an accomplished venture capitalist, continues to travel frequently to the United States, connecting with individuals working in both the creative and financial sides of the media industry to bring them on-board with his vision. "You do lunch with Erel Margalit in L.A., and the next thing you know he has convinced you to move to Israel," says Wood. "It's happened to me and others and I am sure it will continue to happen." "I have discovered I can have a lot more fun working with media than solely in technology," concludes Margalit. "I love the optimism and creativity, and I want that to spread. Jerusalem has made modesty a virtue. But it is time for its dynamism and optimism to shine through." • Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.