You think you know the Triggerfish story? You don’t. The real one’s much more gory

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Triggerfish recently collaborated on Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes for BBC1

Triggerfish Animation is 21 years old this year. The Cape Town animation studio has established itself as one of the leading feature film exporters in the emerging markets, with nine million cinema tickets sold globally and overall viewership of their feature films in the hundreds of millions. CEO Stuart Forrest looks back on the fairy tale highs and nightmare lows of building one of the world’s most successful platforms for packaging and exporting African creative excellence.

At the time I joined in 2003 as a junior stop-frame animator, Triggerfish was a small stop-frame studio run by Jacquie Trowell and Emma Kaye, which had just been awarded two seasons of animation for Sesame Street. The Sesame Street project had given Triggerfish an international credibility unprecedented in the South African animation landscape, so when an opportunity came along for me to become a partner, I jumped at it.

I borrowed money from friends, family and banks, and myself and colleague James Middleton became co-owners of Triggerfish. James brought his technical expertise and helped convert the studio from film-based production to full digital. But it became clear that the stop-frame landscape had dried up in SA, and for a year we couldn’t find any work at all.

While waiting for the phone to ring, I started a website called Animation SA to build a database of all the animation professionals in South Africa. In those days there wasn’t much of an animation industry at all, but within months we had over a thousand members, which was much higher than anyone had anticipated.

After a painful year of paying overheads on the studio rental, and getting deeper into personal debt, we were forced to liquidate most of our equipment and cancel our studio lease. The original owners of Triggerfish resigned. I produced a new commission for Sesame Street from my living room and kitchen, but the income could barely support the production costs.

So when I was offered a job working for another animation studio directing a TV special, I grabbed the opportunity and Triggerfish became dormant. The TV special ran into its own problems, and I was fired from my role there, along with the head of production, Mike Buckland.  Mike was an extraordinary computer generated (CG) animator and a genius at problem-solving and building teams.

With another animator, Anthony Silverston, the three of us decided to revive Triggerfish and relaunch it as a CG company.  Anthony had recently won a national competition for his feature script, Khumba, and had a deep passion and great instinct for story craft.  Most of all, the four partners (including James) shared a commitment to excellence at all costs.

Feature films

The owners of the TV special (which was called Zambezia) wanted to keep working with us to get it produced as a feature film – provided we could raise the money – so we found ourselves with a shell company, and a teaser with a first draft of a feature script but no funding.

Our new CG department started producing a series of commissioned 10 to 30 minute films, which helped us to develop a CG pipeline and earned enough money to support my fulltime job – raising money for Zambezia.  Even though the budget we were looking for was miniscule compared to the US animated movies, raising money was hard for a small studio from Africa who had no experience in producing feature-length animation, and even less in international film distribution.

Looking for a partner who could bring credibility, I spoke to Michael Rose, who produced some of my favourite films, including Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit.  Michael was supportive and gave script notes, but wasn’t able to commit to a role on the film.

After about two years of hustle, we found a sales agent, CMG, who agreed to pre-sell the movie to distributors – an essential part of the funding process, which gives investors comfort that the film can recoup its budget.

We did very well on the presales and CMG introduced us to gap financiers who provided the budget shortfall (at a price!).  With the IDC, NFVF, DTI and the gap – plus major fee deferments from us – we were fully funded.

It was an exhilarating time, even as we faced considerable scaling issues – we grew from eight to 80 people in two months.  The Animation SA website proved to be a terrific asset – within days we had over six hundred job applications for the film. We hired and hired and hired – technical people, production designers, receptionist, riggers, animators… it was a huge undertaking.  We built our dream animation studio, handpicking the best talent in the country.

We had lots of fun making the movie, crafting the story points in endless workshops, designing the sets and characters and working with Hollywood celebrities – living the dream!  The team came from all over South Africa and had extraordinary skill despite their very shallow experience levels.

Making an animated feature film is logistically insane.  The director had to make 36 000 approvals to move the 1 503 shots through all eight departments – not counting reworking and story changes.  Each animator created an average of 1.3 seconds of final animation per day. At full capacity, we had to line up 680 hours of work every day for the crew to be working optimally.  At times we had people drawing storyboards at night for animation the next day, and the director, Wayne Thornley, had to deal with notes from producers, investors and distributors, as well as a ridiculously low budget and a generally inexperienced crew.

Somehow, the picture was finished and the thrilling finale was mixing the sound and orchestra at Skywalker Sound in San Francisco – spotting Brad Bird and David Fincher in the canteen, and having George Lucas wander around the corridors visiting his Oscars.

Shortly after starting Zambezia, we got our second feature funded. Khumba was a big improvement technically as the team was more experienced and they were getting better and better.  Triggerfish was gaining momentum, attracting the best artists in the country and building a reputation for delivering production value far beyond budget expectations.

After the Los Angeles premier, Zambezia got picked up by Sony in all available English-speaking territories – a first-class distributor.  The first cinema release was Russia, where it opened at number two and earned $5.8 million at box office – more than the entire budget.  It was dubbed into 25 languages and released theatrically around the world, smashing records for a South African-owned film since The Gods Must Be Crazy!  We were thrilled.

Realising we had a financial weakness, and in preparation for the deluge of money we thought we’d be receiving, we signed up a fifth partner with a financial background, Jean-Michel Koenig, an accountant poet with a film finance background and an ambitious vision for the company.

Khumba finished at last, and our team was up to 107 people, all deeply talented, experienced and tightly efficient after two feature productions together. Khumba premiered in competition at Annecy to a standing ovation. We got press on CNN, BBC, Forbes and all the major media.  William Morris Endeavor (WME) – the Beverly Hills superagency who represent Oprah and Charlize and half of Hollywood – contacted us and we got signed up.  After years of singular, focused effort, we’d achieved international recognition.  WME introduced us to some of the key people in Hollywood. Everything was going to be easier from here.

After Khumba 

During production of Zambezia and Khumba, we’d been trying to write a third script, but we’d been so busy with the films that it wasn’t ready for production and we hadn’t even begun the process of raising the funding.

So we had to let everyone go.  This was the hardest thing in the world to do – not just for the impact on the personal lives of the crew, but for the fact that we would have to start again after everyone had worked so hard to become a super-efficient team.

We borrowed development funding to write the next script and keep the lights on.  We were broke again and getting deeper in debt.  Again, we had no work for nearly a year, this time while carrying the overheads of keeping the facilities going.

We went out to potential investors, trying to raise money for Triggerfish so that we could develop more scripts and build out the company’s vision.  But despite our success, we discovered that the six-year feature film turnaround time and the high risk made the investment hard to sell.

Khumba finished its release around the world, but despite doing exceptionally well in certain territories, it had to compete with an increasing number of studio animated films and Disney’s smash hit Frozen, which just wouldn’t let go of the cinemas.

Then we had the crushing news that our largest distributor on Khumba went bankrupt, which meant we lost nearly half our expected income.

We also discovered how “Hollywood accounting” works – exorbitant expenses outweigh reported earnings, so that distributors drastically reduce payments to the producer, meaning that, despite both film’s worldwide success, to date we’ve not earned anything from the release of these films.

After a year, we found ourselves back at square one, with mounting debt and no work, and I had to sell my house to survive.  I had to decide whether it would be better to shed the overhead of running a company, let go of our expensive lease and aging equipment and move operations back home, or hang in there a while longer.

New Partnerships 

Just as things were looking at their worst, Michael Rose – who’d seen Khumba at Annecy – asked for Triggerfish to quote on Stick Man – a 26-minute short film for BBC’s Christmas programming, produced by Magic Light Pictures.

We pulled the team back together (with some shiny new recruits) and produced an exquisite short film that went on to win awards around the world, including best TV production in the world at the Annecy Animation festival. It was nominated for a BAFTA and recently collected four Kidscreen awards – including Best TV special. 

After Stick Man, we collaborated with Magic Light Pictures on more BBC Christmas specials, including Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, and are currently in production on Highway Rat.

We still had to deal with our lack of original scripts to put into production, so we put together a programme that partnered with the DTI, DSTV and Disney to find the best animation writers on the continent – which we called The Story Lab.   Although the funding later collapsed – which brought considerable challenges and heartache with it – the program has been a huge success and we now have a network of 1 300 writers from 30 different countries on the continent, and we’re in full development on four TV series and four feature films from this group – some of them with high-profile distribution partners already in place.

This year we’re launching Animate Africa, a new programme to find the best directors and animators on the continent, and find ways for them to make their films. I don’t know where it will end up, but I’m excited to take the next journey. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people, and I’m meeting more talented people all the time. It’s our vision to connect our networks and production experience to the top creators on the continent, to produce films and TV series that will show that our country and continent is bursting with talent and is ready to bring our stories to the world.

Over the next 20 years Triggerfish intends to produce 15 more feature films, each one better than the one before.  If we can keep our focus and intent, there’s no reason we can’t one day produce a film that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best animated feature films, and establish ourselves as the leading independent animation studio in the world.

By Stuart Forrest, CEO, Triggerfish Animation

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