Monday, February 11, 2013

The End of the Animation Lab

Jerusalem - not an obvious place to make an animated film
The Animation Lab, the animation studio founded in Jerusalem back in the early 2000's, has finally closed its doors. After almost a decade trying to put together an animated film, they have, apparently, given up.

The Animation Lab was set up by Israeli entrepreneur and business angel Erel Margolit, the successful founder of JVP Partners, a Jerusalem-based investment fund with a strong track record of high-tech start-ups. Israel, say the locals, is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of technology entrepreneurship.

But making an animated film isn't really about technology. Of course, studios always talk about the new high-tech leaps that have been made - Merida's hair in Brave, for example. But outside of big well-funded studios like Pixar,  the last thing an animated film needs is new technology - technology that can go wrong, and throw the whole delicate project off-schedule. Rather, animation is what investors call "a content play". In other words, it's all about the story.
Stamens at Dawn. Artwork by me and art director Mary Locatel
The story that the Animation Lab wanted to tell was "The Wild Bunch", a tale of genetically modified cornstalks trying to take over a meadow of wild flowers. It was a funny idea, with an excellent script by writer Philip LaZebnick. And it was an idea that, crucially, no other studio was taking on.

My own involvement with the project came when I pitched the Animation Lab an animated film idea of my own. No, they said, it's not for us, but how would you like come and direct "The Wild Bunch"? The 2006 Lebanon War was just ending and business in Israel was just starting to get back to normal. Why not? I thought. It sounds like an adventure. So I said yes.

My concerns began as soon as I read Philip's script. It was brilliant - but how would we ever get the plants to walk? After all, they can't stay rooted to the ground all through the film. But walking around? Wouldn't they die? At some point suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. So we agreed that we would make a proof-of-concept teaser at the same time as we boarded the film, just to see if any of this would actually work out on screen.

Tom Sito's encouraging birthday card. Ridley Scott had just released Kingdom of Heaven.
When I arrived, there was hardly anyone at the studio. Just me, producer Jim Ballantine,  and a handful of other staff. We needed story artists, an editor, designers, all the experienced crew you need to get a film off the ground. And we had to get them to come to Jerusalem. "Jerusalem?", said almost everyone, "you have got to be joking".

I was not the first director on the project and I wasn't the last. Directors came and went and no-one seems to have solved the fundamental problems. Still, it was huge fun while it lasted, for me at any rate. Putting together an animated film is the best job in the world. Unlike on a live action shoot, you can take your time; if something doesn't work - you fix it the next day. The pressure is always there, but it never seems insurmountable.

And I'm sorry the Animation Lab closed down. Erel's dream of building a film industry in his home town was a beautiful dream. Perhaps someone else may yet make it come true.


(Editor's note: You can also read our interview with the very talented Roy Iddan, candidate for the Israeli Libertarian Party and an alumni of the Animation Lab.)

1 comment:

  1. I am sorry to hear of the closing of the Animation Lab. I did some of the very first, if not the first concept work on the WIld Bunch back in 2006 in Santa Monica. From time to time I have tried to find out what is going on with it, but now it looks like it's over.

    Thanks for the posting.

    Sean Sullivan