Can Jerusalem Redraw the Global Animation Map?

With films based on works by Nachum Gutman and Ephraim Sidon, a new studio in the capital has high hopes.

The great white hope of the Israeli animation industry resides in a very small room in the heart of Jerusalem, containing just four computers, an editing table, a light table and an impressive model of a sculpted sand castle.

Over the years there has been a succession of failed attempts to make a full-length animated film in Israel. Ari Folman was the exception, who beat the system through boundless determination and plenty of charisma, and in Jerusalem they are now hoping to follow in his footsteps. With a new studio, support for a series of animated films and plans to bring in big projects from abroad that will provide a livelihood while allowing artists and technicians to gain professional expertise, fans of the medium can start biting their nails now in anticipation.

The Jerusalem studio, on Shivtei Israel Street, is in effect a branch of the veteran Jaffa studio PitchiPoy Animation Productions, and it was established at the initiative and with the support of the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund. The studio is working on two feature films are in production. “The Sand Castle,” to be directed by Noam Meshulam in 3-D animation, shows what happens inside a sand castle after the children who built them leave the beach and return to their homes. “Being Solomon” is an Israeli-Hungarian coproduction directed by Hanan Kaminski (and produced by Eden Productions) in 2-D animation. It follows the young King Solomon, the Arab Princess Naama and the Queen of Sheba, who join forces against the King of Demons, Asmodeus, who is trying to seize their kingdoms.

Work is set to begin within a few weeks on a third feature, also directed by Meshulam. “Baldy Heights” is freely adapted from Ephraim Sidon’s children’s book “Ma’aleh Karahot,” which follows a girl from Curly Hills into the enemy city of Baldy Heights, “where every scalp is sleek and shiny, every building domed and polished and baldness is legally required and viciously enforced,” according to the synopsis on the PitchiPoy website.

A different project of Meshulam’s, the production of which is scheduled to begin soon, is “The Boy Who Painted a Donkey Blue” (the Hebrew name is “Bein Holot Ushvil Klipot.” A short animated film based on the stories and pictures of Nachum Gutman, its purpose is to help PitchiPoy raise money for a full-length film. If the plan succeeds, work on the full-length film will begin next year.

The Sand Castle - 3D Teaser from Gilad Rosenau on Vimeo.

On paper it looks quite simple, but when you look at the very meager history of Israeli animation, it turns out that this task is ambitious and risky. In 1961 Yoram Gross directed the stop-motion animated feature film “Joseph and the Dreamer.” Ari Folman made “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) and “The Congress” (2013), largely an American production. Tatya Rosenthal directed “$9.99” (2008), which was made mainly in Australia. But that’s it.

Despite that, Meshulam of PitchiPoy is trying to remain optimistic. “Better people than I tried and didn’t succeed, but I have always said that because I come from the industry, and have been in it for so many years, I approach this task differently,” he explains. “As opposed to [film] companies I come from the bottom, from the field, and am able to work with different budgets. Big companies like DPSI and JVP tried to do it with big money, but I want to do original Israeli things and to reach the European and American market with them,” he says, referring to the Beit Shemesh-based digital animation company and Jerusalem Venture Partners Studio, respectively. “JVP spoke at the time about a budget of about $12 million per film, whereas I’m starting out with a budget of $1.5 million and hope that in the end we’ll have a total of about $3 million for each project.”

Meshulam admits that the relatively low budgets of his studio’s films requires compromises and does not allow for rich and meticulous animation of the kind we are used to from the big Hollywood studios, but he finds the positive aspect of that too. “Although we work on a small scale, are short of money and can’t compete with the works of a big studio, our great advantage is that we are completely free. Who in the world, for example, would agree to make a film based on a story by Nachum Gutman?” he says.

And when he shows a scene from “The Boy Who Painted a Donkey Blue” in the Jerusalem studio, the efforts seems justified. There is something exciting about seeing the very familiar style of Gutman’s paintings animated and coming to life, to see the landscapes, characters and situations that are so connected to this place begin to run riot on the screen after decades of stagnation. It may not be enough to raise the sum necessary for such a project, but it’s certainly worth a try.

The Sabbath Barrier from Gilad Rosenau on Vimeo.

In addition to PitchiPoy, credit for establishing the Jerusalem studio belongs to the Jerusalem Film and Television fund. The fund, which in recent years has supported dozens of films and TV programs in order to improve the image of Jerusalem on the screen and to develop the city’s film and TV industry in the, decided that starting an animation industry in Jerusalem could make use of a relative advantage that the city has not exploited until now, the dozens of talented graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design who each year abandon the city after completing their studies. After consultations in Israel and abroad, the fund’s directors issued a manifesto calling for the establishment of an animation studio in the city.

Fund director Yoram Honig says much thought was given to avoiding the pitfalls of previous initiatives in the city. For that reason, he says, the fund chose to distribute its investment among “The Sand Castle,” “Baldy Heights” and “Being Solomon”). It also put in 500,000 shekels ($126,000) to establish the Jerusalem studio, for which Pitchi Poy won the tender.

The fund also plans to offer financial support for foreign film or TV productions that do all or part of their animation in the studio.

“We want to make at least one full-length feature a year in Israel and to bring a huge, 15-million-shekel project to Jerusalem every year,” says Honig. The intentions are good, the plans are impressive, now let’s see if they can be realized.