The handful of Lebanese companies working in animation have had to come up with enterprising business models in order to be seen. Despite the presence of a pool of talented animators working in creative and commercial projects, there is no Lebanese animation industry per se to speak of. An increase in the number of regional workshops, conferences and competitions on the subject, does however, reflect a gradual, noteworthy shift offering a glimmer of hope for the future.
Though commercial output dominates, some animation films have made it to local and international festivals, notably Amin Dora’s “Greyscale”, Ghassan Halwani’s work in “The Lebanese Rocket Society”, Lena Merhej’s work for “The Women of Ain el Helwe” and most recently, “Fouad”, a short animation by Joan Baz and David Habchy, which broached the harrowing subject of the disappeared in Lebanon.
“Animation is seen as medium for kids and even ad agencies do not know the work it entails,” Jad Sarout, co-founder of Yelo Studio says. “Animation is incredibly difficult, one of the toughest jobs you can do on a desk. People don’t understand that animation is costly. It’s long and painful.”
Amine Alameddine, creative and managing director of Caustik says that a lack of knowledge of the intricacies of animation hampers a more fruitful relationship with advertisers. “The problem with advertisement agencies is they like the medium but don’t know it that well,” says Alameddine.
Others echo the sentiment. “Animation is less expensive than shooting but it’s more than clicking a button. For a Raid [insect repellant] ad we spent three months of work for 30 seconds — and the budget of a Lebanese feature film,” says Mahmoud Korek, CEO and lead animator of the animation department at the postoffice.
Set up in 1998 by Korek and Nizar Hatem, the postoffice is a full postproduction facility for cinema and commercials, and while 80 percent of the revenue is derived from commercials and 20 percent from cinema work, time is equally divided between the two.
Animation encompasses a broad range of techniques and highly sophisticated skills, most of which cannot be acquired in Lebanon. “It’s being perceived as very expensive. We tried to streamline it to make it cheaper, [but] still agencies stay away from character animation,” says Sara Maali, director of the biennial Beirut Animated festival.
Korek explains that producing adverts is neccesary in order to make a living and supplement his independent projects. “We work a lot in commercials to finance the things we like to do,” Korek said. “We have clients from Russia to Pakistan to Morocco, doing a lot of work for shampoos, detergents, diapers ads… and cinema.”
“We’re cheaper than most countries; better than India, cheaper than India. Almost half price and more or less the same quality,” Sarout says.
The drawing board
The main competition has for the past decade been coming from Eastern Europe, which has a longstanding history in animation and competitive rates.
Currently the postoffice employs 18 people. “In 2006 we were around 30,” Korek notes. “We had to stop things we were producing. We also stopped making long-term contracts. It’s very risky to go into long-term productions living in Beirut. We’d rather go for [work that takes] weeks than months.”
“We work for advertising agencies, but in 2006 we reached a point where we were working as an animation studio. Then key people left Lebanon,” he says.
Two years ago, Korek set up the first DCI (digital cinema initiatives) compliant 2K resolution grading theater in the region. “That’s the international standard for high-end film finishing. It was a huge investment of $800,000 and was not done to serve advertising but cinema.”
Caustik, which began in 2010, consists of a team of six with a diverse range of skills and backgrounds. It offers digital content creation (DCC), focusing mainly on animated content, including 2D and 3D animation as well as visual effects.
Eighteen months ago, the three-year-old company actively sought the attention of agencies. “We knocked on every local agency’s door and introduced ourselves.” Over the next six months, their volume of requests started to increase notably. One of Alameddine and Ghanem’s targets has been to expand regionally and internationally. So far, they have received requests from Russia, Vietnam and France, but 90 percent of their clients remain local.
High production costs pose a burden to animation companies in the region. “The Power of the Tire”, a satirical piece on Lebanon’s political and economic situation was an in-house project using infographics. “It’s 90 seconds long and would have cost a client $15,000. Generally, one minute of infographics animation can cost between $7,000 and $15,000,” said Alameddine.
Yelo Studio, established in 2003, is a freelance network, founded by Sarout and Chadi Aoun. Instead of staff, Yelo Studio has a pool of collaborators. The business model started when both founders were juggling their first clients while studying at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA).
The current approach is to work in collaboration with their clients and to opt for quality clients rather than being paid top rates. They presently refuse to work with advertising agencies. The duo have consistently grown and managed to reach their target of doubling their income this year.
Alameddine, Ghanem, Korek and Sarout all agree on the dire need for institutional support. Indeed, in many countries, notably India and South Africa, governments have realized the immense job creation potential in animation due to the labor-intensiveness , and have acted accordingly, creating schools and an enabling business environment.
“In Iran, I know of a company of 15 some years back that grew to 400 after it was decided that all Iranian kids’ series should be made there. Here? Zero. Nothing, no official support,” Korek says.
At present, specific courses are offered at ALBA and the American University of Beirut, but no curriculum does justice to the multitude of animation techniques there are.
Production-ready talent is a big issue. “You have to bring them in, have to train them, and by doing so, lose time,” Sarout says. It’s like assembling a bicycle before every ride.”
Sketched out of business
The other problem they face is competition from bigger-name companies abroad. “We take people with basic knowledge and train them on the job, but then they are leaving — not because they’re underpaid — animators earn between $1,500 and $8,000, plus benefits ,” Korek says. “Still, a good animator or VFX artist will accept lower pay to work for Pixar or another animation company.”
Without significant infrastructure, animators face prohibitive costs. “We lack the structure to take on large projects. It’s growing but not at a point you could make a living out of it. Hence there’s no pure animation studio. You have to diversify. You get good enough but you never get to be the best,” Sarout says.
“Technology has cut down costs a lot,” Alameddine says, “but it’s still nowhere compared to the international market. Animation is still perceived regionally as a medium for children.” But Lebanon is beginning to embark on its first steps into grown-up animation.
“The shift in technology has helped a lot. It has progressed so dramatically that a person interested in it can learn it. That’s new. This interest has created a group of people that create independent short films, giving the animation medium a better standing, for example [illustrator and animator David] Habchy’s experimental work. He tries new techniques, and ad agencies are embracing it and trying to push it towards their clients. The interest in general in animation has shifted. The main problem is education as is the image of animation itself.”
An epic story that could have boosted Lebanese animators is the animated version of Khalil Gebran’s “The Prophet”, which Salma Hayek is producing with co-financing from FFA Private Bank Beirut.
“We met and tried to get in the film,” Ghanem says. “They were very positive about us, but they wanted an animation director that had experience in feature film and series. There’s nobody in Lebanon who has that.”
“Locally, we have the skills and talent to start producing actual feature films. That’s what we’re aiming for,” Alameddine says.
Korek, who plans to offer high-quality courses for young animators, says “there will never be an industry without the awareness that we need to produce to exist.”