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With Disney’s kiss, Jerusalem transforms into animation prince

North American animation and production companies bring series to the holy city, as it works to enhance its appeal as a filmmaking destination

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The distance between the holiest and happiest places on earth just got a little shorter.

The Jerusalem Film Fund announced Tuesday that several long-term animation projects, including a new Walt Disney Studios television series, will be based in Jerusalem, starting immediately.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Yoram Honig, director of the Fund, which is part of the Jerusalem Development Authority. “People said it wouldn’t happen, that these kinds of studios wouldn’t come to Jerusalem, that we were just dreaming. We dreamed, yes, but we also learned from previous mistakes and now we have something unique to Jerusalem.”

The announcement marked another notch in the city’s drive to shed its reputation as a stuffy religious backwater and market itself as a creative powerhouse. The renaissance has included efforts to draw in the filmmaking industry, with the animation project the latest fruit born of that initiative.

There are several animation projects in the works. The biggest name is Disney, which will be working with Snowball Studios, a Tel Aviv-based animation company that will open a Jerusalem office for its long-form animation projects, said Yoni Cohen, who owns the studio.

There are several other projects as well, including “Polarizers,” a series created by Los Angeles-based studio The Operating Room, working with Technicolor and Canadian animation company Nelvana.

Neither Disney nor Cohen would comment on the content of the TV series (the video below is a sample of Snowball Studios’ work), but Cohen said the opportunity to work with the animation giant is a dream come true for him.

“I opened the studio because I grew up on the Disney movies,” said Cohen, who is a self-taught animator. “They touched me very deeply inside when I was a kid. Now I’m sending work to Disney and getting notes back. It’s the most amazing thing you can get. And it all improves the project and the studio.”

‘The brains will be in Jerusalem’

It was that kind of cooperative work that Honig wanted to bring to Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Film Fund has worked hard to bring more filmmaking projects to Jerusalem in an effort to spur employment and investment, and the animation industry is a significant part of those efforts.

Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film Fund Courtesy Yoram Honig)
Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film Fund (Courtesy)

These projects will pull NIS 20 million ($5.2 million) into the city over the next two years, as well as “knowledge,” said Honig, “the kind that we don’t have here.”

There are plans to use an existing animation studio in the Musrara neighborhood, and Snowball Studios’ Cohen said he is looking for an additional venue for the project. All the various animation projects will employ some 80 animators and production staff in Jerusalem over the next two years, said Honig.

“This way, we can hire people for a length of time,” he said. “There are around 100 animators in Jerusalem, who mostly do their own thing, or work in Tel Aviv.”

“Polarizers,” the other animation project, is an animated series aimed at ages 5-12. Oded Turgeman, a founder of The Operation Room, calls it his “Jewish pitch.”

“It’s the ultimate war between good and evil, with the message that if you surround yourself with good, it will affect you,” he said.

Turgeman studied at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film & Television School before moving to Los Angeles and opening The Operating Room seven years ago.

The studio’s role in the Jerusalem animation project began with a visit from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Honig to its Hollywood offices, said Turgeman. The Jerusalemites wanted his company to do its work on “Polarizers” in Turgeman’s native city.

“It’s like the closing of a circle for me,” said Turgeman. “It’s a show that’s created by Israelis, leveraging Hollywood and getting to work with Nelvana, which is Canadian.”

From 'Bakugan Battle Brawlers,' part of an animation series created by Canadian animation studio Nelvana which is working with The Operating Room on 'Polarizers,' the project that will be worked on in Jerusalem (Courtesy Nelvana)
From ‘Bakugan Battle Brawlers,’ part of an animation series created by Canadian animation studio Nelvana which is working with The Operating Room on ‘Polarizers,’ the project that will be worked on in Jerusalem (Courtesy Nelvana)

By doing the production work in Jerusalem, the animation projects will each receive a 25% rebate on their expenses in Israel, offered by the Jerusalem Film Fund to encourage filmmaking in the city.

“You give them back that money and then they spend it in Jerusalem,” said Honig.

“What’s smart about how they’re approaching it is that not everything is being done in Israel,” said Turgeman. “It doesn’t make sense to do everything in Israel, but the work in Israel is more of the story work, the design work, the directing work. The approach to this is that the brains will be in Jerusalem. It creates power in Jerusalem.”

The new Hollywood

It’s all part of an ambitious plan for an ancient city reinventing itself. Jerusalem has hosted Formula 1 car exhibition runs, put on sound and music festivals in the cobblestoned alleys of its Old City, and upgraded its annual marathon to a full 26 miles. It’s also become a great location for action movies and TV series.

When Barkat came into office in 2008, he and the Jerusalem Development Authority hatched a plan to coax filmmakers to the holy city.

They established the Jerusalem Film Fund, led by Honig, a former filmmaker. In 2008, the fund was given a government grant of NIS 14 million ($3.6 million), and has since worked with more than NIS 60 million ($15.4 million) and commissioned more than 60 feature films and TV series created by local and foreign directors. The Jerusalem Development Authority allocates the film fund’s government budget and advises and supervises it on management, finance and legal issues, said Honig.

The idea was to help develop Jerusalem and create creative employment opportunities, he explained.

Just 30 films were shot in Jerusalem from 1948 until 2008 — out of the 700 films made in Israel during the same 60-year span — 28 of which were about religion and politics. There are now an average of eight films made each year in the holy city.

A large part of that shift has to do with governmental and organizational changes that helped support the local film industry, said Honig. Israel’s Cinema Law, passed in 2000, designated funding for filmmakers, including the establishment of the Israeli Film Fund.

“Once the Cinema Law was regulated, local cinema boomed,” said Honig. “Artists knew they could make movies from their guts, from their souls.”

The filmmaking was mostly drawn toward Tel Aviv during that first flourishing period in the late 1990s. While production companies had been based in Jerusalem during the 1960s and 1970s, as were organizations that supported filmmaking, such as the Jerusalem Foundation, Sam Spiegel Film School and Maale Film School, the 1980s and 1990s brought Israeli media company Keshet, as well as cable and satellite companies HOT and YES, to Tel Aviv, and that beachside city became the center for film and television.

“Tel Aviv said no one would come to Jerusalem,” said Honig. He’s pleased he proved them wrong.

Since 2008, there has been a spate of filmmaking, including Eran Riklis’s “The Human Resources Manager” in 2010, about the search for the Russian family of a woman killed in a suicide bombing, which won five Ophir prizes, or Israel’s version of the Oscar. The following year brought Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” about father-and-son professors battling for the Israel Prize, which won nine Ophirs and best screenplay at Cannes. In 2012, Nir Bergman’s “Intimate Grammar,” based on a David Grossman novel, was also filmed in Jerusalem and won a spate of international prizes.

There were also TV series filmed in Jerusalem, including Channel 2’s “Arab Labor” and HOT’s “Asfur.”

Honig worked on bringing small European productions to Jerusalem in order to encourage international filming in the city. “You can’t just support local filmmakers, because then it’s just them having a pity party for Jerusalem, supporting the forsaken city,” he said.

He also designated a staff person to sit in City Hall to handle film business 24/7 communicating by email and even fax in order to answer every request having to do with a film production.

“It’s the small things,” he said. “We help with networking, crews, locations. We’re old-fashioned but warm, we make eye contact, you can trust us. Holding hands like that is worth a lot of money.”

Jason Isaacs stars as Peter Connelly in the USA Network show 'Dig,' which was partially filmed in Jerusalem (NBC Universal/JTA)
Jason Isaacs stars as Peter Connelly in the USA Network show ‘Dig,’ which was partially filmed in Jerusalem (NBC Universal/JTA)

So it seems. Besides a spate of European productions, the American television crews have slowly started arriving, including USA Network’s “Dig” series, which was recently canceled after just one season.

While the “Dig” crew left after a Hamas rocket fell in Jerusalem during the start of last year’s war in Gaza — despite the film fund’s protestations that they were far from any danger — there hasn’t been any real fallout from that conflict, said Honig.

Last year also brought Natalie Portman’s production of “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” based on Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel and filmed in Jerusalem.

Barkat also partnered with media company Keshet to bring the annual INTV conference to the city this past spring. He said at a recent Jerusalem Day press conference that it was time to move to the next stage in the development of the film industry in the capital, including hosting a studio.

“The whole idea is to increase the productions’ shooting days in Jerusalem and to bring more Israeli and international productions for shoots that aren’t necessarily about Jerusalem,” he said. “But they could be produced in the Jerusalem studio.”

Richard Gere during his March visit to Jerusalem, when he filmed part of Joseph Cedar's 'Oppenheimer Strategies' (Hadas Parus/Flash 90)
Richard Gere during his March visit to Jerusalem, when he filmed part of Joseph Cedar’s ‘Oppenheimer Strategies’ (Hadas Parus/Flash 90)

For example, Hollywood star Richard Gere came to Jerusalem in March and filmed part of his role in “Oppenheimer Strategies,” a new Joseph Cedar film based in New York, in a repurposed hangar situated at one end of Jerusalem’s First Station complex.

“They turned it into a New York City set,” said Honig. “And it cost one-third of what it costs to film in New York.”

Jerusalem; it’s the new Hollywood.

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