Toward the end of 2004, Israeli animators saw their world collapsing around them: the American media corporation IDT decided to close DPSI, its lavish animation studio in Bet Shemesh, and would later sell all its activities in the United States to the cable giant, Liberty Media.
Two years later, those traumatic events turned out to be a catalyst for the Israeli animation industry, giving birth to Crew972, an Israeli company specializing in three-dimensional animation at a level that a Hollywood studio would be proud of. 972 is Israel’s international dialing code.
Crew972 already has a record that includes breathtaking advertisements for Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and PlayStation, as well as active involvement in producing video games, interactive DVDs, a high-budget television series, and a feature length animated film. This resume may help Crew972 realize DPSI’s failed vision: to set up a first-class local animation studio aimed at exporting its products.
The company operates from a modest, but quite new building in the Diamond Exchange area of Ramat Gan. You could call it “Hollywood on the Ayalon”. In small rooms, darkened for professional reasons, 20 or so young animators are hunched over their computers, headphones on their ears, breathing life into the three-dimensional figures dancing across their screens.
Lior Goldberg, CEO, and one of the co-founders of Crew972, believes that the local animation industry’s feverish export-oriented activities guarantee it, and the individual animators working in it, professional interest and relatively secure employment. He also thinks it serves as a melting pot that will produce animation at the highest levels.
In stark contrast to those aspirations, the closure of DPSI in 2004 left 170 animators out of work. One of these was Goldberg, formerly from the world of hi-tech, who had managed the studio, and Alex Orelle, an experienced director and animator, who was recruited to DPSI from Pixar Animation Studios, where he had worked on hit movies like "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo".
Less advertisements, more TV series
Goldberg and Orelle believed that despite the closure, there was still a large enough pool of talented and enthusiastic animators to justify founding an animation studio of their own. Their beginnings were somewhat modest. They both worked from their own apartments, trying to seduce clients and Orelle’s acquaintances from his days at Pixar from around the world to give them an opportunity and hire their services.
They recruited a number of animators, rented some equipment, asked for favors, and, based on promises to pay in the future, started to work. Their luck came in and their first project was to create a number of very short advertisements for Pepsi-Cola. The budget was around $50,000, a bargain price for the client, but a lifeline for the pair of entrepreneurs.
“To our great fortune”, says Goldberg, “international clients have an excellent payment ethic. They don’t pay current plus 60 days. They pay at the beginning of the project, during it, and when it’s finished, and that’s the money we started to run with”.
The quality of the animation and the client’s satisfaction began to open other doors. In the meantime, they joined up with Snowball, a local company specializing in designing animated characters and effects for advertisements.
The partners (with whom they currently share an office) received an additional contract to produce Vipo, a German television series for children, developed by an ex-pat Israeli producer. The initial order, for four episodes, each five minutes long, generated results that whetted the client’s appetite, who subsequently expanded the order to 26 eleven-minute episodes at an overall cost of $2m.
Goldberg relates that it took four months to prepare each episode, with each minute, labored over by eleven animators, taking two days. The impressive results, as well the emphasis they placed on Orelle’s experience in Pixar, began to prove themselves. More and more interesting projects began to pile up on Goldberg’s desk, such as the stunning advertisement for the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola, at a cost of $250,000. The advertisement was screened in the 32 countries that participated in the World Cup, and there is talk of further collaboration for the World Cup of 2010.
Subsequently, the company produced advertisements for the Paris Dakar Rally and Sony PlayStation, as well as segues for American television’s Sci-Fi Channel. Nonetheless, Goldberg declares that he is less interested in advertisements, and more in long-term productions, series, films, and video games. This plan already began taking shape last year.
Israeli television is not on the agenda
Crew972 created 20 minutes of animation for an interactive Bratz dolls DVD, which injected $140,000 into the coffers. An extremely important alliance was also formed with Electronic Arts, a leading company in the video games market, for whom it produced the animation for a game to be released in the coming weeks, and which Goldberg is unable to reveal.
The jewel in the crown is the agreement reached with Glasgow Animation Ltd, a Scottish animation studio, to provide 23 minutes for Sir Billi, a feature length animated movie, including voiceover by the legendary Sean Connery. Goldberg confessed that he preferred to limit his involvement in the film, owing to difficulties in recruiting sufficient animators at the high level required.
Meanwhile he hopes to take on more graduates from Bezalel, and is planning to recruit senior professionals from overseas. One such recruit is Joyce Boll, Crew972’s energetic Head of Production, who has also managed a New York-based production company. The company’s current employees are promised a fair wage, although it does not compare to the hi-tech sector or to animators at Pixar. He regrets the lack of government support for the animation industry, but reports that the company is sustaining itself without external investment, and is profitable.
“The next stage”, he proclaims, “will be to expand our activities into a much larger studio for developing intellectual property”. In other words, Goldberg wants to produce original films and series for the international market. He has already got Kobi Oz involved in one of his projects, and is looking for investors and strategic partners to fund his company’s productions.
Involvement in the local television market (excluding advertisements) is not on the agenda, for purely financial considerations. “We were approached by a cable channel who asked us to produce a series at $5,000 per episode. That’s not even a basis for negotiation, because it would cost us $60,000 to make one episode. I don’t want to get into the niche of $5,000. It doesn’t leverage me into the overseas market”.
Published by Globes [online], Israel's business news - www.globes.co.il - on March 15, 2007
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