Israeli Animation: Then and Now

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The release of Waltz With Bashir and $9.99 (both of which garnered significant attention on the festival and awards circuit), dramatically changed the Israeli animation landscape. The artform has now evolved from its roots in traditional techniques (cel-shading, 2d animation, etc), and indeed in the stories it sets out to tell, which up until recently were mostly biblical and didactic in nature. Contemporary Israeli animation utilizes increasingly complex methods and processes (flash, 3D animation, CGI), often hybridizing old and new technological approaches, while featuring increasingly ambitious, multi-layered plotlines.

One of the earliest Israeli animated features, Joseph the Dreamer (Ba'al Hahalomot) relays the biblical tale of Joseph and his coat of many colors. The film uses traditional animation methods, as can be expected of its 1962 release date. The Amlash Enchanted Forest (Ha'Ya'ar Ha-Kasum), released some ten years later, shows little development technologically or narrative-wise, as it utilizes the same fundamental techniques and straightforward storytelling style.

 


With only a handful of full-length features, Israeli animation has, for the most part, kept a relatively low profile. While the United States and Japan have long been considered animation powerhouses, it is only recently that Israel has come into the fold.

Nonetheless, Israel has long been home to a select (small) group of influential and preeminent individuals in the animation field. Joseph Bau, affectionately dubbed "the Israeli Walt Disney," had a prolific output of short films. In fact, he pioneered all the equipment used to make the animated films in his studio where he worked for 40 years (now a public museum). Much of his work is based on his own extraordinary experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and reflects the brutal reality of life during war, as well as the joy and humor he found in later years in Israel. His Show a Good Face to the Tourist comically follows the journey of a Israeli tourist. The man begins his tour of Israel with joy and enthusiasm, yet by the end, after being swindled by a taxi driver, is left feeling sad and dejected. A simple injection of the negative beautifully floats into the once-eager tourist's t-shirt (an obvious stand-in for his psyche) as its tagline morphs from "I like Israel" to "I don't like Israel."

Show A Good Face to the Tourist:


Rony Oren, a claymator, is another of Israel's heavyweight animators. Oren's brand of animation is essentially a type of stop-motion, a technique used to make a physically manipulated object appear to kinetically move on its own. The object is turned in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of motion when the collection of frames is played as a continuous sequence - a process famously illustrated by Eadweard J. Muybridge. Clay figures are frequently used in stop motion because of their ease of repositioning. In Oren's Clayground (essentially a world of clay) method, all creatures, settings, and scenes can be constructed from three key shapes: Ball, Sausage, and Pancake.

Through his independent studio, established in 1978, he has used the Clayground method in over 500 short films and television series. Among his many notable productions is a TV advertisement for Bezeq Beinleumi, featuring the enduringly popular character of a talking parrot and over 86 shorts for Rechov Sumsum, the Israeli version of Sesame Street.

Bridging the gap between the classically trained and the new wave of Israeli animators is Yoni Goodman. Goodman started his career as an illustrator and graphic designer, employed by two of Israel's major newspapers, Maariv and Ha'aretz. After his graduation in 2002 from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, he worked as a freelance animator and illustrator, working on commercials, short films and clips, as well as teaching animation in the Bezalel Academy.

Yoni Goodman's Recent Short Closed Zone:

Goodman came to prominence in 2004 when he worked as an animation director for Ari Folman's documentary series, The Material That Love is Made of, which served as a precursor to his second collaboration as animation director on Ari Folman's widely acclaimed and influential Waltz With Bashir.

That film signaled a major evolution in the world of Israeli animation. Goodman developed a new animation technique for the film, moving forward from-while at the same time honoring-the methods of his predecessors. The resulting technique is a mix of Flash, traditional and 3D animation, which gave the film an almost surreal, dream-like quality.

The process was not without its share of difficulties. "There were only eight animators in Israel qualified to do the job," according to Folman. "We started with six, then we found another two. We needed two more and we couldn't find them. So this is the state of animation [in Israel]."

The film also paves the way for more complex, nuanced subject matter to be tackled in animated features. Examining the vagaries of perception and memory against the backdrop of war, the semi-autobiographical story finds the director, Ari Folman, setting out on a journey to uncover the truth behind his experiences as a soldier during the Lebanon war. Folman's personal odyssey takes him in unexpected directions (a snowy estate in Holland, a dojo) as he tracks down his old comrades and subsequently probes them for answers. At the beginning, Folman has trouble remembering anything having to do with the war yet by the end his mind is inundated with memories, feelings, and sensations all pointing towards a pivotal event (the infamous Sabrah and Shatila massacre). The central question the film raises is: how much of these memories are his own, and not a product of imagination, or something else entirely?



Quite unexpectedly, the film ends by breaking from animation altogether as we witness the horrific, live-action documentary footage of the massacre (or its aftermath) that Folman has spent the course of the film trying to remember. Folman concludes matters on an ambiguous note - leaving the audience to decide whether or not he is responsible for the crimes committed in the massacre - while also blurring the line between a documentary and narrative feature.      

$9.99
, as had Waltz With Bashir, continued to push the envelope for Israeli animation. In many ways, the film is a logical progression from the stop-motion, Clayground method, of Rony Oren. Tatia Rosenthal, the film's director, uses Oren's method as a touchstone while, at the same time, building upon it and creating her own unique style. $9.99 is somewhat more ambitious than the works found in Oren's canon, which are essentially fables. In many ways, the film is a mediation on the meaning of life, and perhaps more. It is told, somewhat unconventionally, through numerous, converging narratives, which slowly and inexorably build toward the film's conclusion. Based on the short stories of Etgar Keret, the main narrative concerns an unemployed 28-year-old, Dave, who prefers the search for life's unanswerable questions rather than gainful employment. The stories of Dave's family and neighbors are also woven in, allowing Rosenthal to examine what hope looks like in an increasingly fragmented world.  



Rosenthal
 is someone who defies convention, or simple categorization. She served two years in the Israeli defense force, attempted a career in medicine and studied photography in Paris before moving to New York City to study and work in filmmaking.

Rosenthal, like the makers of Bashir, faced great obstacles in getting her film off the ground. In no small part due to the popularity of the film's writer, Etgar Keret, she was finally able to get the film made. According to an interview with Rosenthal in Animation World Network (AWN), "The support from Israel came because of Etgar's talent and reputation and establishment in the industry. I think the fact that I complemented his stories helped, but I don't think the film got made based on the state of the animation industry in Israel. There was no infrastructure."

With the great strides made by $9.99 and Waltz With Bashir, among other Israeli animated features and shorts, the once constrained world of Israeli animation is now something of the past. Animation Lab, an animation studio based in Jerusalem and Los Angeles is currently in development on Israel's first CG feature film, The Wild Bunch. Directed by Doug Wood, the film is based on a script by Phillip LaZebnik-screenwriter of Pocahontas, Mulan and The Prince of Egypt-concerning farm plants that are attacked by genetically-modified corn stalks.

By the same token, lesser known animators from Israel are competing for and landing work from clients all over Europe and North America. A growing number of animation schools in Israel are producing talented and creative graduates eager for the opportunity to do world-class work in animation.

Judging by the considerable strength of work consistently popping up in Israel's three major animation festivals, its ever-growing influence on the national cinema seems insured for a long time to come. Appropriate considering its paradoxically fledgling and storied status, contemporary Israeli animation's success seems rooted more than anything in a beautiful embrace of the juxtaposition between a healthy reverence for its past and a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the future's bleeding edge. 


Read/see more from: Joseph Bau (Official Website), Yoni Goodman (You Tube Channel), Rony Oren (Official Website), Waltz With Bashir (Official Website), The Wild Bunch (IMDB Page), $9.99 (Official Website)