It’s not every day that a creative studio from Cyprus makes it into the New York Times. Last October, the Cyprus-based animation studio Zedem Media made it to the paper’s headlines for its exciting collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In their efforts to stir appreciation for ancient ancestry through technology, the museum commissioned Zedem to create a short film focusing on the moment a potter – believed to be Andokides – discovered the red-figure pottery technique. But the collaboration with the Boston-based museum is not the only major international project the studio has worked on; some of their other collaborators include organisations such as TED, The school of life, PwC and Deloitte. Funny enough, animation was not what the studio was originally set up to do.
For Michalis Kalopaidis, the founder of Zedem Media, the love for animation began around 2007, when the medium started becoming more prominent in ‘explainer videos’ for corporate training. He originally studied Arts Entertainment and Media Management with a special emphasis on TV and documentary, at Columbia College in Chicago, and continued with a master’s degree at Middlesex University in the UK, focusing more on cultural studies. Right after his studies, he started working for a company specialising in short corporate training videos specifically produced for mobile phones. Back then they were simple videos, but for the pre-smartphone era, they were still quite innovative. When at one point he decided to leave the company and return to Cyprus, the collaboration with that same company continued for the next 10 years, bringing in important projects for the studio.
During his first steps Michalis’ main mission was to create higher quality content, so he started growing a team of motion designers, which gradually forged the studio’s path into animation. Between 2007 and 2009, animated explainer videos were about to explode. “In 2022, we take these for granted and they seem like second nature to us, but at those very early stages, using animation for purposes apart from film and tv was a completely new medium,” he says. After all, the internet in its entirety felt very much like a revolution for his generation. He saw the potential commercially and creatively, so he tried to find people who could join the team and invested in their professional development through trainings, and the studio’s development by seeking the right collaborations. Fourteen years later, the studio has flourished into Cyprus’ largest and longest-running animation studio.
At its core, there’s one key principle that has taken the studio and Michalis himself forward throughout the years; passion projects. In his presentation Passion Projects: A Catalyst for Progression for the Thessaloniki Animation Festival last autumn, Michalis explained the vital role passion projects played for the course of the studio, as they helped open door after door while also keeping the team motivated and creative. A major turning point for Zedem was precisely a passion project: their participation in the 2009 competition for IEEE with an animated video explaining how fuzzy logic (a predecessor of AI) works. Demetris Eliades, a Research Fellow at KIOS Research and Innovation Center, wrote the script for the video and the collaborative work went on to win the first prize. Even though the video itself did not make any profit, the exposure earned for the studio turned out to be priceless, as TED saw their work and soon got in touch for a partnership. So far, the partnership has yielded almost 30 videos for the Ted Education platform, which have collectively amassed several million views. The massive exposure of Zedem’s work through this collaboration brought in even more high profile clients like The School of Life, Canva, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Apart from gaining the attention of prestigious clients, Michalis stresses the importance of passion projects in keeping the team creative and allowing them to be experimental, bold, and imaginative. Another great example is the animated short film The Parrot Lady, which the studio released in 2020. The film, inspired by a true story, is an artistic interpretation of a woman’s life who chose to live on the streets with her parrots, afraid of dying alone in her home.
“It’s a lyrical film with a lot of voiceover to it, as it was originally written as a monologue for theatre. We wanted to touch the subject of old age, and the fear of dying alone. Growing up in Cyprus, the sense of solidarity and community were strong between people. These still exist, but not on that level, and not for everyone. We wanted to raise awareness and make people think about this aspect of our society.” The film was selected by major film and animation festivals around the world such as Raindance and Interfilm Berlin. It has also won multiple awards, including the 1st prize in the Los Angeles Animation Festival in the Humanitarian category.
It was a bold move from the studio, as it was a completely different approach artistically and technically from what they were doing up to that point. “We see short films as an investment, to the studio, to the team, to fulfil these projects that will lead us to the next step, whether as a proof of concept for a series that we want to do or as an opportunity for creativity and learning and development of the team.” Encouraged by the reaction to The Parrot Lady, the studio is currently at the pre-production stage of their next animated short film, titled Mesut.
Mesut is based on the true story of a young Turkish Cypriot from a village in Mesaoria, who at the young age of 12 is sent to Nicosia to learn a craft and find work as an apprentice. “When Mesut was a teenager while walking in Ermou street, he walked past a tavern and saw someone dancing Zeibekiko. He immediately thought that he wanted to learn how to dance like that. At the time, the first conflicts started happening on the island, which resulted in its separation in 1974. Mesut never got the chance to learn how to dance. At the age of 72, once the barricades were open he decided to go back to the Greek/Cypriot part of Nicosia, to find someone who could help him learn Zembekiko.”
Michalis met Mesut in 2011 when he interviewed him for a documentary. “He loved Cyprus a lot. With the support of his family who granted us access to their archive, we wrote a script that hopefully pays justice to who he was as a person. We are trying to bring forward an aspect of Cyprus modern history without romanticising it… It’s a story that’s trying to remind people that the things that bring us together are stronger and more important than those that bring us apart. We are always focusing on films that have something to say.” The mission of the studio shares that same philosophy, “to create a positive social impact through the Arts & Media”, which is why a lot of their client work is for Non-Profits or innovative start-ups.
That doesn’t come without its challenges though. One of the biggest issues the studio is facing is scalability, as there is a significant lack of talent for animators in Cyprus. “While local universities do offer multimedia courses, most graduates are not specialised enough to become animators right after their studies,” Michalis says. In the job market, there’s not a lot of demand for animators to justify fully specialised degrees either, and most people who study Animation abroad, tend to stay abroad and seek opportunities there. “As a studio, we are trying to find a balance between investing in new employees and offering the right training and development.”
Despite the challenges, Zedem is unafraid to dream big. Educational videos and short film productions aside, the studio has also set its eyes on developing the first-ever animated tv series made in Cyprus. ‘The Makers’ is their first concept developed for a series, about a group of kids who may not be superheroes, but their thirst for knowledge, intelligence and creativity is enough to help them change the world. “We are trying to show that learning is fun, in an inspirational way,” Michalis says. The studio signed a Distribution & Co-Producing agreement with Bejuba! Entertainment last year, taking them one step closer to bringing the ground-breaking project to life.
One thing that can be said for sure, is that Michalis and his studio operate consistently with an eye to the future. The multi-awarded short films and international projects have successfully put Cyprus on the map of animation, giving opportunities to young talent to work on bold, imaginative, and creative projects that can also have a positive social impact. As the Cypriot creative industries are gradually blooming, Michalis paves the way for production studios on the island to believe and invest in local talent, and to work beyond the limitations of the local market and its sparse demand. With major and exciting productions on the way like Mesut and the first-ever animated tv series made in Cyprus, we’ll be definitely keeping our eyes peeled for what the future holds for Zedem Media.