Israel’s Crew 972 is animated about cartoons

Hollywood is the center of the film industry in the West, Bollywood its center in the East. But where is the capital of Toontown? If Crew 972 has anything to say about it, Tel Aviv will be the world center …

Hollywood is the center of the film industry in the West, Bollywood its center in the East. But where is the capital of Toontown? If Crew 972 has anything to say about it, Tel Aviv will be the world center for quality animation.

“Our expertise is in high-quality animation and with a focus on top-tier clients: service work, advertising, film, Internet, and DVD,” says company co-founder Michelle Orrelle, noting the company’s client list. Crew 972 has worked directly for Aardman Animations – of Wallace & Gromit fame; Bren Productions – the 3D animation arm of Spain’s Filmax Studios; Electronic Arts and Super Villain Studios; with advertising agencies Leo Burnett, Ogilvy and Mathers, Young & Rubicam, and as subcontractor on projects for Cartoon Network and others under non-disclosure agreement. This week, a new Crew 972 project is being tested at Warner Brother’s studios.

“We’ve identified that Israel is a boutique provider of talent, innovation and creativity,” Michelle tells ISRAEL21c. “It’s not a mass animation producer like China or India, the Far East, or Eastern Europe. Israel’s cultural compatibility is one advantage that we have; the Israeli sense of humor is one the US audience understands.”

Enter Crew 972′s offices and you’re immediately transported to a place where cartoon characters live and breathe. “These characters come to stay with us,” says Michelle. What becomes apparent upon meeting her and husband Alex, the other co-founder and CEO, is that animation is only part of what Crew 972 does.

British-born Alex came to Israel as a child. After his IDF service, he went to work at Pixel, one of the first Israeli computer game and animation studios. While at Pixel, Alex met Australian-born Michelle, an experienced interactive software producer with a strong background in the visual arts. After being “great friends” for a year, the two fell in love, married and moved to San Francisco, where Alex studied with teachers from legendary digital animation house Pixar. Alex was then accepted at Manex Entertainment where he worked on The Matrix Reloaded and then went on to Pixar where he worked on short films and on features The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc.

Michelle, meanwhile, was working in high-tech. “It was San Francisco at the height of the dot.com era,” she laughs. “We really enjoyed ourselves, it opened our eyes and we met amazing people. But we have three children and the eldest was about to enter first grade. So it was time to go back.”

Alex was recruited to IDT’s animation studio in Bet Shemesh. Unfortunately, the project closed six months after he arrived. The upside was that the Orrelles met anyone and everyone in Israeli animation – all at one go, “And on the back of those relationships we founded Crew 972 in 2005,” Alex says.

The company is self-funded, explains Michelle, which means that initially, “we worked hand to mouth. We look for angel investment for the company and for specific projects.” Crew 972 worked its way up to a staff of 25 but realized it would run better with a strong core group of eight to10 staffers reinforced by subcontractors, which is the model it follows today. “We’re very selective about talent. We want only the best and have become a magnet for Israelis who’ve worked overseas with major companies,” says Michelle.

Building an animation industry

Being able to tap into Israel’s ever-growing pool of freelance talent keeps Crew 972 abreast of who’s coming up in the industry, and comprises the other part of what Crew 972 does: serve as the unofficial connector for Israel’s growing animation industry. The company holds weekly life drawing classes, hosts seminars about animation, leads panels at local film festivals, and even throws the occasional party.

“We’d always planned to come back and be pioneers and build the industry in Israel,” says Michelle. “There is a struggling animation industry in Israel – a kind of a community, really. There’s a lot of love — people who watched cartoons as kids, fell in love with animated characters and paid a lot of money to study animation – there’s more than one decent place to study in Israel. Others study abroad, come back and unfortunately there isn’t enough work in Israel, so part of our long-term vision is to change that.”

Connections are also how Crew 972 does business. “We have a lot of relationships. We partner with other studios. We fly and meet people and show our stuff,” explains Michelle. “We’re doing service work so the business can be financially independent, but also looking to bring in creative work, and the best way to do that is to have our own original properties. So, we’re in the process of making presentations and pitching feature film ideas to the leading names in the industry.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Federation has been invaluable helping Crew 972 meet those industry leaders. “The Tel Aviv-LA partnership program specifically wants to build relationships between people,” Michelle says. “Alex was one of a 12-person delegation to LA. So now, there are great relationships, an infrastructure and a lot of people who want to build up the industry here.”

Consulting at Disney

As a result of that first trip, Crew 972 was invited to consult on animation and story development at Disney Interactive.

And the local scene is improving, Alex says. “In the last couple of years there’s been a marked increase in employment of animators due to renewed interest in new media technologies which require animation,” he explains.

There’s also more demand for characters, which is Crew 972′s specialty. “We’ve been asked to develop a brand character for a large consumer electronics firm here in Israel. They want an original story and the ability to put characters onto different platforms: the game, the ringtone, the TV series, the feature film. Technology now demands a human face,” he says.

Much of the visual development of characters is done by director Jean-Phillipe Vine who came to Crew 972 from Aardman in 2006. Vine continues to do all storyboarding for Aardman’s TV series Shaun the Sheep, and is also co-creator of Adrenalin Lemmings, a new original property by the team that combines live action with the animated high-speed high-jinks of four hopped-up Parkour-loving daredevil rodents.

Crew 972 is also developing another original property, a hybrid live-action/animation short film based on an idea by Kobi Oz, lead singer of Israeli rock group Tea Packs.

Should they get the green light, Vine is confident that Israel’s digital animators possess the skills to carry a major animated film through to completion. “There is really strong talent here, though there haven’t been many really exciting projects in the country yet. Waltz with Bashir was a turning point for Israeli animation. Now, the community needs a project that will act as a lightening rod for the international perception of Israeli animation — and we’re working on it right now.”

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About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.