South Africa’s Triggerfish Animation Studios’ debut feature Adventures in Zambezia was nominated for two Annies this month, the first time in the history of the Awards that a studio from Africa has cracked the nomination list. Desmond Davies reports
A South African animated film set in a bustling bird city on the edge of the majestic Victoria Falls, Zambezia, was nominated for the most prestigious awards in the animation industry that are coveted by all the major studios. Adventures in Zambezia was nominated for Best Music by local composer Bruce Retief, with Jim Cummings scooping a nomination for Best Voice Artist in the role of the villain, Budzo, during the Hollywood-based International Animated Film Society’s 40th Annie Awards in Los Angeles on February 2. Retief is also the composer on the studio’s second feature, Khumba, which has been picked up by Millennium Entertainment for US distribution and will be released this year.
The nominees did not win this time, but there are high hopes for the future of Triggerfish Animation Studios, a Cape Town-based media and entertainment company that brings unique stories to the world through family-friendly animated feature films. The company employs South Africa’s most talented animation specialists, software developers and visual artists.
Zambezia is the story of Kai, a naïve but high-spirited young falcon, which travels to the bird city of Zambezia where he discovers the truth about his origins and, in defending the city, learns how to be part of a community. The story is set on the edge of the Zambezi waterfalls in a bird sanctuary led by the wise and battle-tested Fish Eagle Sekhuru.
Adventures in Zambezia was selected for screening at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival and won the Best South African Feature Film category at the 2012 Durban International Film Festival. It has been sold to over 40 territories and within 12 weeks of release in five territories sold over one million tickets. The film was released throughout South Africa in 3D and 2D on December 28.
The Executive Producer and head of Triggerfish Animation Studios, Stuart Forrest, is particularly proud that it was the only independent animation to be nominated in both categories alongside animation giants like Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony, Blue Sky and Illumination. “It’s a huge honor for Triggerfish to be nominated alongside the greatest animation studios in the world and an achievement, not just for us, but for South Africa’s industry as a whole,” he said after the nominations were announced.
Forrest has come a long way in the animation business. He tells The New Republic that he joined Triggerfish Animation as a junior animator working on local and international projects for Sesame Street. When the original owners left, he says he borrowed money to buy the business along with a new partner, James Middleton.
By then, clay animation was going through a difficult time as Computer Generated (CG) animation came of age. For a year the new company did not get any work. “We were forced to sell most of our equipment to pay the bills and we moved the Triggerfish studio into my living room,” Forrest tells The New Republic.
“I realized that in order to survive I would have to shift the company from being an animation service provider to a company that creates its own intellectual property and original content, but without start-up capital this was going to be an almost impossible task,” he explains.
“My breakthrough came when I was asked to direct a short TV film for another company. As the project developed, the US funders decided that they wanted to create a feature film from the material we had developed. I convinced the funders to award the film contract to Triggerfish, persuading them that I could raise the money, write the script and put together a team to make it.”
Forrest brought in two new partners, and together they set-up a small CG department in his living room and started to solicit work to keep them going while he approached the formidable task of raising money from skeptical investors. “Fortunately, we succeeded and now we have two films behind us and built Africa’s largest animation studio,” Forrest says.
But the project was not easy to start with. The journey to nominations for Annie Awards was a long one. “We had very little experience to begin with so we had no idea how hard it was going to be. The whole project, from start to finish, took us over seven years - to write the script, to put the financing in place, to recruit a production team, and to set-up systems and processes to manage the project,” explains Forrest.
“Then we had to sell the film. We faced obstacles at every stage but we also had a ‘can do’ approach to everything. Unlike the major studios, we had no legacy way of doing things, which meant we could come up with our own unique solutions to every problem we faced.”
Triggerfish is indeed a pioneer in the animation industry in Africa, so Forrest sees nothing wrong with being adventurous, ambitious and entrepreneurial. “We have the team and the talent in place to make a success of this,” he tells The New Republic.
Indeed, that is why the company’s first film was nominated for two Annie Awards – the first time an African studio has ever been nominated.
Its second film, Khumba, is a significant commercial, artistic and technical step-up for Triggerfish and the company is looking forward to see how audiences respond to it this year.
Forrest is rather coy about talking about money. Asked about the budget for Zambezia, he tells The New Republic: “Due to the confidential nature of our agreements with financiers and distributors we cannot disclose the exact budget other than our films are made for less than US$20 million. We’ve done an excellent job in producing world-class films that compete strongly against those of the major studios made for many multiples of what it takes to produce our films.”
Then there is the matter of using the voices of foreign actors. Samuel L. Jackson, Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame and Jenifer Lewis, whose Broadway performance includes Dreamgirls, all have prominent voice parts in Zambezia. “We originally cast the film with local voices, but under the advice of our international sales agent we recast the voices using well-known actors,” explains Forrest.
“Our films are sold into the international market and distributors respond positively to familiar names and actors even if they intend to dub the film into a foreign language. Animation films travel well and Zambezia has been dubbed into over 15 languages, but to sell the film internationally, it’s necessary to have Hollywood celebrities onboard to give the project credibility. Our films are inspired by Africa, they are set in Africa, and they are made by Africans, so we don’t feel anything has been lost in the process by using foreign voices.”
But the film’s eclectic cast of well-known actors appears to have paid off. It seems that Triggerfish found the experience rewarding – clearly showing why these actors are the names that they are. They were all class acts as far as the production team was concerned.
Zambezia appears to be a shot in the arm for the South African film industry. What is the future, therefore, for the industry not just in South Africa but the rest of Africa? Forrest tells The New Republic: “We are very optimistic about the local film industry, but obviously we would like to see many more original stories finding success on the world-stage. Local films are beginning to find their audiences locally, and while we have a first-class service industry we must bring our own story-telling and original creativity to audiences around the world. Of course, it’s not easy and it’s highly competitive, but digital distribution means that there are more ways than ever to reach audiences.
“Measured by output, Nigeria’s Nollywood has one of the world’s biggest film industries, so the demand for local content is clearly there. As Africa becomes more affluent, we will see a rise in the quality of local productions. At Triggerfish, we are determined to build a global, animation film and entertainment company that brings Africa’s unique creative voice to Hollywood and audiences around the world, particularly in the emerging markets. We are talking to potential strategic partners who share this vision. We would also like to see more investment into film and entertainment on the continent and the development of ‘creative capital’”
Khumba is also shaping up to be another success for Triggerfish. It is directed by Anthony Silverston from a screenplay by Anthony Silverston and Raffaella Delle Donne. When a half-striped zebra is blamed for the drought, he leaves his herd in search of his missing stripes. He is joined on his quest by an over-protective wildebeest and a flamboyant ostrich; and defeats the tyrannical, sadistic leopard, saving all the animals of the Karoo.
“It’s not all black and white in this colorful adventure with a difference,” proclaims the Triggerfish blurb. Khumba will be distributed in mid-2013. It already has over 20 territories in pre-sales.