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Yoram Gross: A pioneer of three countries

Yoram GrossMillions of Australians grew up watching Dot and the Kangaroo and Blinky Bill, but the story of Yoram Gross, the man behind such beloved characters, is far more interesting than any piece of fiction.

Jerzy gross was born in October in 1926 in Krakow, Poland, where his family owned a couple of fine home mart stores. His father disappeared, presumably killed, when Gross was almost 13 and preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. But that coming-of-age ceremony would never take place; the German forces invaded the country in 1939.

The following years, documented in his new autobiography My Animated Life, saw the Gross family divided, constantly on the move and eventually managing to survive the war – a true story that would make a fascinating film.

Gross had no filmmaking dreams when the war ended in 1945. Poland’s prolific film industry had disappeared during the Nazi occupation, but after the war it started to come back to life. A school offering short practical courses opened in Krakow; Jerzy’s older brother Natan attended that school and got a job in the film industry soon after graduation.

“He’d tell everyone that he had a brother who studied musicology. I wasn’t very happy with my career prospects in music, so I decided to jump into the film business. I had a short job interview and they decided I was good enough to be the first assistant of director Eugeniusz Cenkalski,” recalls Gross. “The first film I worked on was Jasne Iany – or White Field – in 1947. I learned a lot from Cenkalski.”

Aware of his “ignorance of the art of film”, Gross would attend lectures at the National Film School in his spare time. Shortly after, he had the opportunity to assist the legendary Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, who was visiting Poland to work on a documentary entitled Pierwse Lata, about the development of the new socialist states.

“It wasn’t because I was very clever or a great assistant, but my German wasn’t bad and Joris couldn’t speak Polish,” says Gross with a cheeky grin that seems to be an intrinsic part of his personality. “Ivens was happy to teach me the language of film, and how to make films that would not only appeal to people, but were also representations of truth. I realised that when making a film you have to make
sure the story is a good one, well told by the actors whom the director is there to assist.”

Those rules, says Gross, haven’t changed since and will never change, no matter what new technologies may be available to tell stories.

““People have been using the same letters to write books for thousands of years. There are no new letters, just like film today uses the same language, the same ABC as 100 years ago,” he explains. “It’s true that films are faster today; in the old days shots would last a minimum of one meter of film, which is two seconds, and today you have shots of only a few frames. However, for a film to be good you still have to understand what the director and the screenwriter wanted to say. If it’s not good, if you don’t really understand what it is, you could just be polite and call it an ‘experimental’ film.”

After three years working in Poland, Gross decided to migrate to the recently established state of Israel. Upon arrival in 1950, he changed his name to Yoram and discovered there was no real film industry in the country: “In Poland I was an assistant director trying to become a director. In Israel, I couldn’t find a job as a film director because the industry didn’t exist, there were no features being made.”

Gross used his transferable skills and became a newsreel camera man, responsible for bringing the latest news to the audience. He soon realised the public received sensational, dramatic stories – such as a car crash, or soldiers shooting their guns off into the air – much more enthusiastically than the ones he thought were “good news”: “I wasn’t very happy in that role, but at least every week I was earning a few dollars”.

After a stint in the army, where he was enrolled in the film unit, Gross had the ambition to make films. The lack of resources made him discover the art of animation, and soon he produced the first of his short films, Chanson sans Paroles.

“I couldn’t ask actors to work for free, but I found three actors in a matchbox. I told a love story using animated matches; I developed the film in the bathroom, all by myself. It was very primitive, but in those days some people thought it was very charming and that short won a lot of prizes at film festivals, because the idea was so new.”

In 1962, from a script written by his brother Natan and starring home-made puppets, Gross’s made his first feature: the biblical Joseph the Dreamer – the first animated film ever produced in Israel.

Even with support from the Israel Film Commission, the $10,000 film was a challenge to make: “We had a crew of five people. We receive permission from the municipality to use a storage room as a studio, but in those days the studio lights were so hot that we couldn’t film during the day. It was so hot we could only shoot at night, with open windows and doors.

The puppet film took Gross to the Cannes Film Festival. It didn’t win any awards, but it was highly praised by the Israeli authorities to the point that the Minister for Education announced that all schoolchildren had to see it – but they’d only pay a quarter of the normal child’s ticket price. According to Gross, the film was a financial flop, because the few cents the kids paid to see it didn’t cover its exhibition costs.

His next project, however, would be the commercial hit that Gross needed to keep his company afloat. The comedy One Pound Only screened at sold-out cinemas for weeks.

“That film brought in enough money to cover the deficit of Joseph the Dreamer. It wasn’t ‘one pound only’ that we earned, but a few pounds profit. It didn’t make us extremely rich, but it covered our expenses,” says Gross

EATING AUSTRALIAN BREAD

Gross continued to make his experimental animated films including We Shall Never Die, which used candles to tell the story of the Holocaust. That film screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and a critic at The Age critic said – in a review that Gross keeps to this day –that Australia needed filmmakers like him. “I never met him, but I did send him a thank you letter”.

In 1966, Gross and his second wife Sandra had their first child, award-winning composer Guy Gross. After his experiences during WWII, Gross didn’t want his family to experience the violence that threatened their peaceful lives in Israel. The 1967 Six-Day-War finally convinced him to move to Australia and, with his knowledge, reputation and the animation equipment he brought all the way from Israel, the Gross family was received “with open arms”.

He got a job almost immediately, illustrating the song of the week for Nine’s Bandstand. Gross didn’t speak much English, so he just guessed the lyrics and assumed they were love songs. These clips – including John Farnham’s first ever music video – combined live action with animation, proved to be quite challenging because of the quickly turnaround.

“I had to produce these three or five minutes during the week and it was very fast-paced. After one year, I’d had enough, and I’d developed high blood pressure,” says Gross.

His company was also working on TVCs, at a time when there were few animation houses operating in Sydney. Gross created spots for Smarties, Sorbent and Kellog’s, and when the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit became Film Australia in 1973, Yoram Gross Films Studios was one of the first to apply for support, for their upcoming feature Dot and the Kangaroo.

Based on an 1899 children’s book by Ethel C. Pedley, Dot and the Kangaroo was a quintessentially Australian story – something that Gross was deliberately trying to do.

“Your country is the one whose bread you’re eating. I was eating Israel’s bread when I migrated there; it was my new country and I succeeded to make Joseph the Dreamer. Coming to Australia, I was now eating Australian bread so I knew I had to do something for Australia; this was my country now,” says Gross.

The 1977 film combined animation with live action backgrounds shot in and around the Blue Mountains. The same style was used in 1979’s The Little Convict, from Gross’s own inspiration and starring Rolf Harris as the lead live action character.

“The rest of the actors were drawn, so they didn’t ask for wages. My wife Sandra believes that was the best film I’ve made in Australia and, as a good husband, I agree.”

But the box office results were not what Gross expected.

“It was screening in the mornings only, which is bloody nonsense. We continued to make Dot films, but after the experience of screening the first one in cinemas, we realised that we’d always be struggling for screens because those big companies were committed to American movies. We were playing against The Muppets, so why would they invest any money to promote our films? That’s when we began to move more and more into television. For the rest of the Dot films, we didn’t even bother with a cinema release and, to our luck, pay TV and video began to grow and provided new channels for our work,” he explains. “It’s a huge competition and we didn’t have enough money to promote our films. Australian cinemas ignored us and I understand why; it’s very simple. But TV is a more level playing field, and therefore, we could compete more easily and enter that market, in Australia and throughout the world, and that’s what really kept the studio growing.”

Yoram Gross Film Studios had another big hit with a version of Blinky Bill, the koala created by Dorothy Wall in 1933. An emporium of merchandising was built around Bill, Dot, Skippy and the many other animated characters created and developed by the studio.

In 1995 Gross was awarded the Order of Australia for his outstanding achievements and for his contribution to the Australian film industry. Today, from his studio in Woollahra, Sydney, Gross is still working on his Art Alive series and his classic creations – currently owned by Flying Bark Productions – are still very much alive, with plans for a stereoscopic 3D re-imagining of Blinky Bill… not bad for a 13-year-old Krakow boy who did not only managed to survive the war and be a pioneer of three film industries, but whose work has become an indelible part of the childhood of many generations of Australians.

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