Wednesday, March 13, 2013

From DreamWorks to Greece and back again - Nassos Vakalis tells the story of an animation startup

Who wants to live in Greece?
Nassos Vakalis is an animator, director and storyboard artist who has had a long and varied career in the animation industry at studios such as Warner Bros Feature Animation and DreamWorks.

In 2001 Nassos left DreamWorks to set up his own company, TimeLapse Pictures, in his home town of Athens. He is now back at DreamWorks, most recently storyboarding on Puss in Boots and Madagascar 3. FLIP asked him what it was like running an independent studio.
Storyboards from Madagascar 3 by Nassos Vakalis
FLIP: After many years working in Hollywood you set up your own studio, TimeLapse Pictures, in Athens. What made you want to go it alone?

Nassos: I didn't set up TimeLapse entirely alone; I had a business partner in the studio venture. But my own story is quite simple. After all these years in Hollywood I became a bit homesick. I had been working into the business in Los Angeles for a long time, and I only ever managed to find brief opportunities to go back home to Greece during the summer.
Worth a visit
Setting up TimeLapse was also an opportunity to go back to Athens and do some business. In addition, I enjoyed the challenge to try and do something different, to build a studio from nothing. The time seemed right at that moment, and eventually the idea became a reality.

FLIP: What were the biggest obstacles you faced in the early days?

Nassos: There were a number of obstacles we faced. Personally, I was in a comfortable financial situation, so I had the luxury to take some time off and devote my efforts to set up the studio. In addition, my partner and I operated a company in the USA for a year before relocating to Greece, so we had additional funds from that company to build the Greek studio.
Character design by Nassos Vakalis - Brer Rabbit

FLIP: How difficult was it to set up the Greek Studio?

Nassos: Upon arriving in Greece we quickly realized that things were not going to be at all easy. Although I grew up in Greece, I have spent most of my adult life in the USA, and I naively thought that things in other countries worked roughly the same way as in America.  It was pretty easy for me to open a company in the US; it only took a day to visit a lawyer and have the paperwork completed. Soon after that I was ready to do business.

The same procedure took us about 6 months in Greece. The amount of paperwork that we needed to collect and file was beyond anything I could imagine; we were stuck in the middle of a bureaucracy that had no end.
Storyboard from Monsters-v-Aliens
FLIP: Did you get help from the Greek government?

Nassos: Not at all! There was no understanding of the nature of our business at all, not from the government, banks, vendors - even from landlords when we looked for premises.  When we talked about setting up an animation studio, they all scratched their heads trying to understand what we wanted to do.

For example, the government had no "animation production studio" category, so we could not get a business license as an animation studio; instead we had to get one as a film production studio. The banks needed tons of paperwork and in the end we got no line of credit, and several of the locations we hoped to rent as our possible studio considered us not credit-worthy.
Hard at work in Athens
FLIP: Give us an example of the bureaucracy at work

Nassos: There was a bizarre incident in which I had to use the shield of the company we had in the US to obtain a bank account for the new Greek company. In the US, companies have a particular kind of shield that presses the paper - leaving a relief of the shield design. Unfortunately all Greek documents need an ink shield, and the bureaucrat working on the documents with us would not accept the US shield as a valid shield.

And it was impossible to apply the US shield anyway because of the location of the area where the shield needed to be in the document. The little tool that makes the US shield was not able to reach the spot without folding the paper and this was apparently unacceptable to the bank. So, after debating the issue for half an hour, we were advised to go and create a "Greek standard" shield with the US company design and use that instead for the real shield. That alone should have raised a red flag for me right there!
Part of a Graphic Novel for the 2004 Athens Olympics - artwork by Nassos
FLIP: If there is one thing you could have done differently, what would it be?

Nassos: Well I would have been more prepared. I think this was the biggest mistake. Looking at this after a decade I can clearly see now that I was taking a huge risk. I was unprepared, uneducated and totally naive about the complexity of the process.

I would also have chosen more partners so that there would be more voices. When we opened the US company, and later the Greek company, we were just two people, each one owning 50% of the business, so the vote was always split in case of disagreement between the two of us - and this made things much much harder.
Nassos - back at DreamWorks
FLIP: You now work for DreamWorks in Los Angeles - how does that compare with running your own studio?

Nassos: Well running a small studio is not easy, specially when you are trying to do it in a country with so much bureaucracy. I spent most of my day trying to run the studio instead of doing any art work.

After a year in Greece we had no money to hire a studio manager so I ended up doing most of the day-to-day work, running the business, helping with the accounting, dealing with the banks, dealing with the crew, teaching classes and at the same time trying to maintain the highest possible quality and standard of our work.

One the positive side - at the same time I fell in love and got married!
There were consolations
Here at DreamWorks things are much easier. I do not worry about the business side of things - nor is it required of me to do anything more than my art work. Anything else is not my problem. If my stylus is broken - I call facilities and they bring a new one. In Greece I would have to go out and buy it myself.

FLIP: Might you set up a studio on your own again?

Nassos: In the end, Time Lapse did not succeed as a studio. But I did like the feeling of owning my own business and trying to make it succeed - it is always exciting to try to build something from scratch. Maybe Time Lapse was not the right place, or the right time, or perhaps not with the right people - but this does not mean that if an opportunity comes along I would not take it again.

(Editor's note: You can see Nassos's professional work at his website here.  You can also read more about other animation start-ups, such as Tumblehead animation, and Scott Petersen's Golden Street Animation.)


  1. Great interview. Nassos is a super talented artist and it was a pleasure for me to work with and learn from him back at Warner brothers years ago.

  2. It was a pleasure for me too! ---Alex