Local animated feature film Adventures in Zambezia made history earlier this year when it became the first animated film to win Best South African Feature Film at the 33rd Durban International Film Festival.
While the success of Adventures in Zambezia is a welcome boost for local long form animation, the majority of work for local animation companies is still in the commercials sector.
“Commercials and broadcast design are still core aspects of the South African animation industry,’ says chair of the Gauteng chapter of Animation SA, David Whitehouse. “Despite the “shrinking budget’ phenomenon, these two sectors play a huge role in keeping many South African companies financially viable.’
BlackGinger’s Hilton Treves adds: “If we don’t build a long form industry in South Africa, then I can with conviction state that the animation industry is in serious trouble. The commercials production sector in South Africa is not a very large pie and as such there are a limited number of studios that can survive to provide jobs and income to aspiring artists.’
Long form industry
Triggerfish Animation Studios producer and CEO Stuart Forrest notes that Adventures in Zambezia is doing really well in international territories and their next film, Khumba, is nearly finished.
“By our eighth week in Israel Zambezia sold over 60 000 tickets, which is great for such a small territory. At the end of August we also released on 800 screens in Russia and 300 in Germany. We believe this is the largest release in these territories ever for a South African production – and this is just the start,’ notes Forrest.
“Hopefully our win will give the local long form industry a bit of a boost – it’s still a new industry here and the competition internationally is very tough. Animation is a great medium for South African filmmakers because it travels so easily, unlike live-action which tends to be considered art-house internationally.’
Liesl Karpinski from Aces Up believes that long form in South Africa is not only sustainable, but could be very profitable. “The future of animated features in South Africa is more likely to be in becoming an outsourced supplier to the larger markets. We will never be able to out price the Indians and Koreans but we should not be competing in price, but rather by creating a higher quality product.’
Steve Harris from The Blade Works, however, isn’t sure that there is opportunity for a sustainable long form animation industry in South Africa. “The local broadcasters are unwilling to pay the price for animation series, and the South African prices are not competitive enough to encourage exports to other countries,’ says Harris.
Monarchy’s Delarey Hattingh agrees. “There won’t be a sustainable industry if all the best animators leave for greener pastures overseas.’
Greg Meek from FliC believes a major challenge for the industry is getting people to appreciate that quality work takes time and money to produce.
Treves agrees: “Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched a steady decline in great work in the commercials sector. Writing scripts and boards for visual effects and animation is not easy. Agencies, directors and clients have been to see the latest movies and want to have that level of work in a very short turnaround time. This puts small studios under immense pressure to solve the problem with incredibly restricted budgets and small talent pools of people.’
Spaghetti.TV’s Ryan Crocker notes that the challenge is the buy-in on budget and time allocation required to achieve the desired product. “There isn’t enough recognition for the skills involved in producing animation. The community is quite big now, so some kind of awards recognition is due.’
Whitehouse also states that shrinking budgets and higher expectations from clients are the biggest challenges. “Not altogether bad things though, in that they, by default, enforce efficient production while continually raising the quality bar.’
He adds that piracy is another problem. “There are animation companies ranked among the top 10 in South Africa who run their studios without a single legal software licence anywhere to be seen, or who own one licence of a particular package, which is used by 10 or 12 artists.
“Although this is moral problem, it has another more serious side effect. Individuals and companies who don’t bother to purchase licensed software are awarded work from the same pool of work as those who do license (at great expense) the software used in their pipelines.
Companies using illegal software do not have the same expenses and are therefore able to charge severely reduced production fees while remaining massively profitable,’ explains Whitehouse.
According to Karpinski the major problem with the industry is a lack of local funding available to develop and produce local content.
“There seems to be the perception that animation is expensive and very time consuming. The truth is that it can be time consuming but the cost can be considerably less than most clients realise. The work produced in South Africa has a very high level of polish. We should be pushing for international production partners. We have the goods – let’s get the rest of the world to notice it!’
Harris states that personnel is the main problem. “Even though colleges seem to spit out a large number of students annually, very few graduates seem to view animation as a serious career path. Also there is not a large enough pool of experienced senior animators in the country.’
Hattingh agrees that a big challenge is to get great, talented people for projects. “Although, we have an incredibly talented pool of people, that pool is very shallow and small unfortunately.’
Forrest also notes that brain-drain is a big threat to the industry and the quality of talent available. “As the industry grows there are bound to be more companies producing long form, so skilled talent may become harder to find. However, if the pace of growth is right, there could be a healthy process of generating as many skilled positions as there is skilled talent available.’
Many agree that animation training in South Africa is not at the level it should be. Says Meek: “As far as I can see there is a shortage of competent animators in South Africa. I see no young black animators being trained to take up positions in companies.’
Whitehouse adds: “There are only one or two training institutions nationally whose graduates have at least a basic understanding of the foundations and principles of animation. Training is still very much software-oriented with limited focus on theory. This is a problem worldwide though.’
Crocker notes that there are examples of training organisations that use web print-outs as course material. “Students usually teach themselves in these instances. There are a handful of institutions that do deliver, but the industry must play along. Internships are a great way to train and develop talent.’
Trends and opportunities
One of the trends in the local industry, according to Harris, is that there is a strong call for photo-real animation and realistic animation within live action. “There also appears to be a growth in the requirement for motion graphics and graphic design.’
Treves states that animation offers a solution to things that can’t be created through normal cinematography. “Today, anything is possible with the right tools and talent. I think that local studios should be finding ways to share resources, be it rendering capacity, or outsourcing to the strengths of the relevant studios. This is what saved the industry in the UK, so much so that Soho has become one of the major power houses for VFX and animation worldwide.’
Karpinski predicts that studios will become smaller and more specialised, and more inter-studio projects will happen.
According to Crocker, international relationships should be a big opportunity for the local industry. “Our quality of work is really good. Local costs combined with our no nonsense approach in the country make us an attractive resource.’
Hattingh agrees: “The international market is looking at us and seeing we can do incredible work (some say better than most), at very competitive prices. It is not so much the economic drive that fuels this, but the fact that we have an international view on what is new and trending.’
Whitehouse believes the use of VFX in local film is also increasing. “The fact that production budgets are tighter than ever before is limiting that to some extent, but the new post-production rebate announced earlier this by the Department of Trade and Industry holds a lot of promise and could, in time, be instrumental in growing the South African VFX industry substantially.’
By Linda Loubser
screen africa magazine – september 2012