Click for Animagic Museum website

by John Townes

BERKSHIRE TRADE AND COMMERCE, Vol. 7, No. 4, August 2003

One of the newest schools and museums in the Berkshires is not located on a sprawling campus or in an imposing landmark building. Instead, it occupies a storefront at 77 Main St. in downtown Lee, behind a shop window filled with a quirky display of toys, gadgets and artwork.

Animagic Museum of Animation, Special Effects and Art is a new venture that showcases the story of the visual effects industry in the Berkshires.

Animagic also teaches people how to create their own visual trickery. It sponsors workshops in the basics of animation, computer graphics and visual effects.

While the Berkshires' visual effects and animation industry may seem to be an esoteric subject for a museum, proprietor Eugene Mamut believes this sector of the economy is one of the region's hidden assets that deserves more public recognition.

"I want to help to increase awareness of the important contributions the Berkshires have made to films and visual effects," said Mamut, an Academy Award winning optical technician who moved from New York to the Berkshires in 1996.

"Most people don't realize how many amazing visual effects and important technical breakthroughs have been created in the Berkshires since the 1980s by industry pioneers and other professionals here," he said. Mamut pointed out, for example, that some of the eye-catching special effects seen in popular films such as the X-Men and Matrix series were created here. Animation and effects seen in many television shows, commercials and other media also originated in this region.

Mamut opened Animagic this winter. He operates the venture with his wife, Irina Borisova, an artist who also has an extensive background in visual effects, animation and illustration.

While Animagic is about a high-powered and high-tech industry, the museum has a distinctly homespun flavor that reflects its proprietors' personalities.

Mamut has an infectious enthusiasm for his profession, as well as a general love of gadgetry and technology. The whimsical nature of Borisova's artistic style is evident in the displays of illustrations and sculpted characters she has created that are on view there.

The business includes a small shop at the entrance, where Borisova's illustrative work and an assortment of toys and other items are available for sale. A center room is the main museum display and workshop area. A smaller workshop is in the rear.

The couple have managed to pack a lot of material and information into a relatively small space at Animagic. It is filled with an eclectic assortment of devices ranging from high-tech computer workstations to a deceptively simple-looking wooden box that Mamut built, which uses the patterns of moving balls and levers to demonstrate the concepts of digital technology.

"You could call it the world's simplest computer," he said, describing the home-made box. "But it works on the exact same principle as the most sophisticated electronic equipment. I love finding ways to make complicated things easy."

One wall includes a giant graphic "family tree" with photographs and descriptive cards. It charts the evolution and relationships of people and companies in the visual effects and animation industry in the Berkshires.

Exhibit cases include graphics, models and other displays. There are also visual demonstrations of effects displayed on the computers. In the rear is a video setup that shows how modern stereoscopic technology creates films that simulate a three-dimensional experience.

How-to workshops

Animagic relies on sales from the shop and workshop fees for its revenues. Admission to the museum is currently free, although Mamut said they may evenetually charge a small fee once it has become more established. He noted that Animagic is oriented both to local residents and visitors to the area.

The workshops are designed for all ages, including children and adults. They are intended both for amateurs who simply want to create animations for their own amusement, and for those who are interested in learning these techniques for professional purposes.

While high-end professional effects often require sophisticated techniques and equipment, Mamut said personal computers, software and video equipment make it possible for anyone to create special effects and animation on their own.

"People think you need a big production studio to do it," he said. "But today, you can do it at home on your own computer. You can create a film just to show your friends. Or, it's possible to create animations for clients professionally."

Most workshops are two-hour sessions that combine instruction and hands-on experience in creating short films. The standard fee is $20 per workshop, including the cost of materials.

The visual effects and animation industry developed here when Douglas Trumbull, one of Hollywood's leading inventors of visual effects equipment and techniques, moved to the Berkshires. He established a company that created multimedia "ridefilms" for amusement parks and other venues, which simulate experiences and motion using multimedia technology.

Trumbull brought in many other professionals from California and New York to work on projects. While some only stayed temporarily, others chose to remain in the Berkshires after their projects were completed. These professionals established other companies or worked individually here. This formed a network of people who work on projects for films, amusement parks, advertising and other media.

After a period of rapid initial growth and high expectations, the industry went through a shake-out period in the latter 1990s here (as detailed in the May 2003 issue of BERKSHIRE TRADE & COMMERCE). For example, one of the largest companies, Mass.Illusions in Lenox relocated to Californiia in the late 1990s. Many of the specialists who had come here also moved back to New York or Los Angeles.

However, a core of people and companies remained, such as Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, who operate the Kleiser-Walczak visual effects firm in North Adams; special effects pioneer Joel Hynek, who is based in the Berkshires; and Tome Gasek, who operates Out of Hand Animation in Great Barrington.

Mamut was among those who came to work on a project and decided to stay. He is a camera and technical specialist, who won an Academy Award in 1986 as part of a team that created an optical printer used to create effects for the film Predator, and which has been used in numerous other films since then.

Borisova's specialty is creating characters. She draws illustrations for books and cartoon animation, and she creates sclupted models used in filmed animation.

The couple, both natives of the Ukraine, met while working in the film industry there. Mamut emigrated to the United States 24 years ago, and Borisova moved here tot marry him 10 years ago.

Mamut had previously worked with several of the people who had come to the Berkshires, and he moved here originally to work at Mass Illusion. Borisova worked with the company Suspended Animation.

After Mass.Illusions left, the couple chose to remain in the Berkshires and pursue their professions here. "We love it in the Berkshires, so we decided to find ways we could continue to live and work here," said Mamut.

Mamut currently is focused primarily on launching Animagic, but he also works on other projects.

Borisova continues to work as an artist and in illustration and animation, including projects for Out of Hand in Great Barrington.

Mamut pointed out that, despite its low public profile, the visual effects and animation community is still active here and is an important aspect of the region's economic diversity. "One of the things I hope to accomplish with Animagic," he said, "is to show people that this industry and its accomplishments here is something people in the Berkshires can be proud of."