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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.

I asked students who worked at the studios and attended other area schools to get involved. In two separate waves, I provided several hundred tabs with "4.1" printed on them. The first with the code, the second a couple weeks later with the website as well. They placed them in microwave ovens and refrigerators in break areas, in lavatories, on people's desks when they were away, very covert. By April 1, we had a showing of perhaps 200 people including the Union President and many of its members and lots of independents. It was the first time in the history of our local animation industry that a unified alliance had been initiated and created thanks to the AnimationNation movement that took root at the school.

A great deal of progress has been made since. The artists of several studios voted to go Union. I should point out that I'm an independent myself, but I and many others of the same status marched with the Animation Union (now called the Animation Guild) in April of 2000 in front of the KCET studios in Hollywood to protest the unfair practices of outsourcing animation production for tax payer funded public television to other countries. There's a new and encompassing communication involving the worldwide industry now. Artists and creative people involved in animation are understanding each other better and that's helping to strengthen our local community in many ways. I see many positive things developing all the time as a result and I'm confident that this energy and spirit will continue to grow.

What are your thoughts about the trend toward 3D animation and the status of 2D animation created in Southern California?

The trend towards a full embracement of 3D was an inevitability. There are many production advantages to 3D animation as opposed to traditional hand drawn content and the possibilities of the medium are without limit. Regardless, I don't think that the abandonment of the 2D medium at the major studios is warranted at all. It's like throwing your mother out on the street. There's still a strong market for traditional 2D. Audiences haven't abandoned traditionally produced animation. I think that 2D is evolving in this new world and that exciting things will be coming from 2Ders. Artists create. It's their nature, no matter what the medium, and 2D artists continue to use this medium as their choice of _expression whether they're in Southern California or Madison, Wisconsin, where cheddar is everywhere.

Now that the dollar has lost value on the world market, has it mitigated the runaway production in the animation world?

I don't really know for certain. Most of the artists I know seem to be doing okay. If you can do quality work, you're going to stay busy. That's our best weapon against outsourcing in animation. We're not subsidized by our government as are many other countries, so we stay competitive by striving to be the best in the world.

What's your take on the global economy-people all over the world doing jobs once held stateside and vice versa- and its role in the animation industry?

Everyone wants to feed their family and if you can do it by working in animation, then you're fortunate.

Do you consider John Lassiter someone who rose from the ranks of animation to become an animation executive or do you see him in the independent animator mold?

A little of both. Mostly as an independent.

How do you feel about Michael Eisner's planned retirement from the Disney Co. Who should succeed him?

He can't leave fast enough as far as most as concerned. I think Roy Disney should succeed him, or should at least have a say in who his successor would be. It was announced the day before [when Charles answered this questionnaire] that Bob Iger will be the new CEO. There are many who aren't enthusiastic about this since he's Eisner's right hand man. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and see how it goes before I pass personal judgment.

Do you think Disney should try to retain Pixar or what would you do to invigorate the company if you found yourself running it?

Involvement in a Pixar film is better than no involvement at all. Continuing to distribute Pixar product is an opportunity that only a fool would give up. Especially if their departure meant that they would be a competitor. If I were running Disney I'd make this as high a priority as I would in re-establishing a 2D animation department on the lot.

Any plans to make an animated film yourself?

I've already done it.

Now that the games industry has matured, where do you think it's headed in the next 3 years?

New technology will likely lead its growth, followed closely by new creative properties. In third place, advancements in game play. On the inside is merchandising tie-ins. Coming round the bend, continued inroads into ancillary markets.

What's your opinion of Hollywood raiding so many games and graphic novels for ideas?

If the creative content is there, why not?

What's your preferred mode of transportation?

Besides walking, I like riding trains. I've gotten used to flying regularly

How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?

Not very often. Most of my business and personal life are centered in and around Burbank. I've taken the subway on a couple of occasions from North Hollywood to downtown. I enjoy the experience whenever I do.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?

Movie, I'd say "The Player" and "LA Story", both came out around 1990. TV show, probably "CHiPs". That's the show that got me thinking about moving here.

What's a favorite animated film or game or comic book world based in LA?

It's yet to be created.

How is LA conceived in an animated universe? Was "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" accurate?

In many ways it was. Especially concerning the demise of the Red Line. If Roger Rabbit were to take place in the animation universe of today, he'd probably be a sequel.

Best LA-themed book(s)?

The one about script writing by Syd Fields.

Share your best celebrity sighting experience.

There's been many of them. The one that stands out the most was when my cousin was taking acting classes at the Lee Strasburg School here in LA. There was a small, intimate performance theater and all the kids enrolled in the program had to put on a show. Sophia Loren was in attendance as well as Sonny and Cher, Norm Crosby the comedian, several others. What an experience that was to be sitting in the middle of this crowd watching my little cousin dance and sing with their children.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?

Sleeping in.

What's the best place to walk in LA?

Don't walk around Burbank in the middle of the night unless you want to make friends with police officers.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where

are you going?

I ask myself the same question.


If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

I think I'd enjoy the 1920s when Hollywood was really beginning to burgeon.

What's your beach of choice?

Zuma. Good memories.

What is the "center" of LA to you?

My office.

If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which

would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

I'd like to live in a county where there is a culture distinct enough from LA to make it interesting, yet close enough to qualify it as an answer to this question. Riverside County maybe, up in the mountains. The area around San Luis Obispo is nice

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA,

where/which would you choose?

I like Burbank. The Toluca Lake area, Magnolia Park, Media District. Burbank is a great town. I'm lucky to be living here. Great people. Made a lot of good friends.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?

It's tough to establish friendships, but I've made some of the best friends of my life in LA. It does take time. Patience.

What is the city's greatest secret?

I swore never to tell.

Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably

linked. How do you handle this conflict?

I don't feel that they're inexorably linked. It's a personal decision that people make. Having had my school located next door to a popular bar for 6 years gave me a window into this behavior. Drinking is not breathing. It's not something that an individual absolutely has to do. You may need to drive in LA, but you don't need to drink.

Describe your best LA dining experience.

On my first Christmas Day in LA, I hiked to the top of the Verdugo Hills from Brand Park in Glendale. At the summit, I shared my trail mix with a rattlesnake.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?

Perhaps they should form a political party.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?

I find it preferable to the threat of a threat.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

In God's hands.