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LAist Interview: Charles Zembillas

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Animators are a breed apart. Their refusal to accept limitations in space, time and conventional wisdom constantly amaze us. But we don't mind because the imaginations of these playful geniuses often first inform our dreams as children and reawaken our playful sides when we are adults.Charles Zembillas is the consummate animator, creative entrepreneur and visual developer: he's funny, fiesty and energetic. He not only works on his own projects but also runs an animation school, the Animation Academy, in Burbank when he's not organizing animators to resist abuse and bad business deals offered by this town's entertainment-industrial complex.

Indeed, he hosts an annual, non-partisan gathering for animators on
April 1st. This year's meeting on Friday, 4/1, the 7th year in a row, is going to be held at the Museum of the Burbank Historical Society and start at 1:30. It's always an experience and may prove inspiring for all Angelenos intent on marketing their creativity. You must register to attend so send an inquiry to Tom "the Mod" Narey at anim8or([at])adelphia.net. It's important that you do this.

Zembillas has also assumed a role in the redevelopment of Burbank. His school, the Animation Academy, will take up residence in a new mixed-use development called The Media Center Project, which is due to be completed in 2008 or 2009. The Project will include 220 luxury condominiums, thousands of square feet of retail and restaurant space, a church, a preschool and a community center which The Animation Academy will operate from and help to design.

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Zemibillas involvement occurred when the school's landlord, PW LLC of Santa Monica, solicited the Academy's help in proving the development's positive impact on the community after initially failing to obtain city approvals for the project.

The developer invited the school back into the future complex so The Academy has vacated its building on West Olive Avenue in Burbank in anticipation of the upcoming construction of the property.

It's nice to see that the arts can prove their value to Southern California and be included in mixed use development instead of being chased out of the area by high rents when redevelopment occurs. Let's hope the development will have minimal impact on the other renters who live and work in that area.

Age and Occupation:

Age: Sharp cheddar.

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Occupation: Educator, animator, character designer, intellectual property developer, director, producer.

Where are you from?

Gary, Indiana.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?

Lived in Burbank since October, 1982. In Southern California since August of the same year. Spent some time in Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and assorted areas of neighboring Conejo Valley. Also San Diego.

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What is the Animation Academy and why did you start it?

The Animation Academy is a school I founded in the back room of a local 24 hour restaurant, the Coral Café on Burbank Boulevard. I started it at the suggestion of the owner, John Leousis. I’d been teaching at another area school and was approached by one of my students on my last class about starting a school with him. He had money and after checking out some potential locations together, he didn’t want to go any further with the idea. Hanging out at the Coral and working numbers with John during the search for some space, he encouraged me to go forward and offered the back room so I booked it for 8 consecutive Monday evenings. I used my Christmas card mailing list and sent about 35 flyers out to some former students and friends. I spent about $15 on stamps and envelopes and sold all 20 available seats. Our students became the bank and we kept going from there.

I don’t know exactly why I started the Academy. There were several reasons. The need for something like this being the most prevalent I would say. It made sense on many levels. Before the Academy, there wasn’t a single school dedicated to animation education in all of Burbank, the international capital of the industry. It seemed obvious and natural. The right thing to do at the right time.

How has the animation industry influenced Southern California and vice versa?

The industry is a magnet and a major creative and employment core for the greatest artistic talents on Earth. It’s been a huge factor in establishing Los Angeles as a mecca for artists and creative people in general from many different areas of interests and disciplines. Many world class artists call Los Angeles home in one way or another by virtue of the creative community in animation. On the flip side, artists who deal with LA have to adapt to an environment that is extremely competitive. Artists have to be the best of the best in order to break into the industry and that means a dedication to the art and to personal excellence. It takes time, like aging cheddar cheese.

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You started the 4.1 group in 1999, what is the status of your efforts to get Los Angeles animators more politicized and engaged with demanding better treatment within the industry. Have you succeeded in your goals? What do you hope to accomplish for the group in 2005

Actually, 4.1 is a code that I used back in early ’99 to mobilize a half day walkout of the local animation industry on April Fool’s Day, the 4.1 meaning April 1st. We met in the afternoon at the Sportsmens Lodge in Studio City. It was organized through a website I started called AnimationNation.com.

My beef was what many artists were complaining about privately for a long time. An industry managed from top to bottom by non-creative executives with little to no animation production experience but lots of attitude. It was a destructive thing causing a lot of problems and something had to be done so I launched the website and took to the mountain top to shout it out to the world.