Getting animated: South Africa’s nascent studio scene on the cusp of growth

South Africa's animation industry has a lot in common with its geography - tons of natural potential just waiting to be discovered. And if a local lobby group called the Cape Town Film Commission gets its way, the region could soon become a lot more interesting to the international market.
January 6, 2009

South Africa’s animation industry has a lot in common with its geography – tons of natural potential just waiting to be discovered. And if a local lobby group called the Cape Town Film Commission gets its way, the region could soon become a lot more interesting to the international market.

The org has been pushing an animation agenda hard for the last couple of years, and it won a small victory last spring when The Location Film and Television Production Scheme, which provides a rebate of 15% for service work productions, opened up to include animation among its eligible formats.

CTFC also pushed to get animated projects in on the action of the South African Film and Television Production and Co-Production Scheme, available to official treaty co-productions with total budgets of at least US$260,000. The fund provides a rebate of 35% on the first US$623,000 spent on production in the region, and then 25% after that.

The inclusion would benefit a relatively small community of animators who have been quietly cutting their teeth on CGI work for commercials and feature films including Blood Diamond and Lord of War over the past few years. ‘The problem with feature films,’ says Sean Rogers, MD of Capetown-based live-action and 2-D animation studio Clockwork Zoo, ‘is that after the three- to five-week shoot wraps, you’re not creating regular income for people. Our aim is to build an industry that can support 200 to 400 people earning a living 12 months of the year.’

Part of that growth will depend on the community building connections with potential partners in the wider global industry. This past October, a larger contingent of South African studio heads than ever before was at MIPCOM pitching for service work and co-productions. Such profile-raising efforts have certainly paid off for Rogers’ shop, which is about to grow from 50 animators to a staff of more than 200 in order to take on a slew of new animation projects and, if all goes as planned, develop an original series. Clockwork is also mapping out blueprints to build a new complex in 2010.

Paris-based Xilam, Wish Films in the UK and Welsh studio Dynamo are all Clockwork clients, and Rogers is in the process of closing a deal with Toronto, Canada’s Cookie Jar Entertainment. He has discussed three original series concepts with these existing partners, but for the time being, finding more service work is top of mind. ‘You’ve got to get the balance right,’ says Rogers. ‘Long-term scalability is based on creating IP. But in terms of gaining skills and credibility, the service route for us is very much a key focus.’

Fellow Cape Town shop Triggerfish Animation Studios is also trying to juggle original IP development against a steady service business. The company made a name for itself in the kids industry by creating some stop-motion characters for Takalani Sesame Workshop, the localized version of Sesame Street that debuted on SABC in 2000. Triggerfish has since developed a technology for lifting stop-motion images and placing them in CGI settings that gives its characters a unique aesthetic. This expertise has helped director of animation Anthony Silverston attract US service work, including a pilot for Alabama-based Studio 125 called Me + Jesse D and half-hour direct-to-DVD series Life on the Pond from Isaac Entertainment, also in Alabama.

At the same time, Triggerfish has two of its own animated features in the hopper – Zambezia and Khunda – and Silverston has hired sales agency Cinema Management Group (credited with selling Hoodwinked to the Weinsteins) to ramp up presales for Zambezia in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Benelux, Turkey and China.

To encourage skill development and information-sharing amongst South African animators, Canda Kinces started up the AnimationXchange, a monthly networking event and discussion forum for animation professionals, about four years ago. ‘At that time, in terms of government support, we were quite off the radar,’ says Kinces, a director at Cape Town’s Breakdesign. ‘Most people haven’t heard of the animation industry in South Africa and aren’t aware that we have specialized needs.’ So Kinces and her colleagues organized a Cape Town chapter of AnimationSA, a trade org that lobbies the government on behalf of the industry to create sustainability, as well as globally competitive content and services. Across South Africa, AnimationSA now has more than 2,000 members.

‘We’re doing a lot to encourage people to invest in the infrastructure that we need to drive up the animation industry significantly,’ says Kinces. In particular, that means ramping up education and training. Cape Town has a 25% unemployment rate and a wealth of talented people who Kinces believes not only need to be informed about animation as a viable career path, but need assistance in getting the education that will start them on it. ‘We want to set up training facilities in the areas that were previously disadvantaged during the apartheid years, and that are still carrying the legacies of poverty,’ says Kinces.

Already, the AnimationSA chapter in Johannesburg is building a training model. Funded by national public broadcaster SABC, the organization is putting six young adults under the age of 25 through an intensive 10-month 2-D animation pilot learning program. Natalie Delport, a director of AnimationSA and owner of Portal to Learning, which is facilitating the program, has ushered the group through the entire process and says the class will walk away with a specification in 2-D animation endorsed by the South African department of education. As well, SABC has committed to airing the five x four-minute original series the students created in class.

‘The whole point is empowerment,’ says Delport. ‘You don’t just put someone through this program and then walk away; you help them to help themselves, to create their own jobs,’ she says. To that end, her dream is that ultimately the SABC series will help the group land another commission and partner with an industry production company to get it off the ground. ‘They’re hoping they can stay together as a team and become the first self-sustained black animation production company,’ says Delport. Her next goal in January (after the formal learning portion of the course is completed) will be to guide the students through an exercise on setting up their own animation business, with the help of an industry mentor.

Delport says the course costs roughly US$10,000 per person, from start to finish and includes transportation costs and course material such as books, software and computers. Other animation studios are planning to run similar programs based on the success of Delport’s pilot effort, including Clockwork Zoo. Rogers says he’d like to have a first class going through a course in his Cape Town studio by the end of 2009. Triggerfish’s Silverston also has a training budget in place as part of his overall production budget for Zambezia. He says it will be used to bring in 10 fledgling animators for five months of background training, in expectation that they will then be able to help churn out the film.

Animation software manufacturer Toon Boom has taken an active interest in investing in South Africa, and now has more than 200 licenses up-and-running in the country. ‘We’re very interested in emerging countries,’ says Joan Vogelesang, Toon Boom president and CEO. ‘If we help to create an industry and there’s a reasonable percentage of return for us, then it’s a great investment for us.’ So far, Toon Boom has set up an office in Cape Town with a service representative who has a background in animation and can liaise with studios to help grow the market. That includes offering education licenses to the likes of Delport’s SABC pilot program, as well as committing a set amount of time to teaching part of the course curriculum.

Vogelesang is also keen to facilitate introductions to animation studios in other territories and encourage potential partners to view South Africa as a destination point in an industry that is always on the lookout for new outsourcing and co-production opportunities. ‘Right now, we’re seeing a lot of acceptance in Europe and Canada; they’re the early adopters,’ says Vogelesang. With many years of experience backing it up, Vogelesang predicts the South African animation industry is just 18 months away from having the infrastructure to support an international animation industry.

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