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Andy Stead


The changing face of post

“A lot of us have gone through difficult times and change in the market requirements will force change in the supply market. I foresee that the post-production process may be required to be more directly or indirectly involved in production at some stage but it’s a difficult one to predict accurately…” – Steve Harris

Post-production has come a long way. I remember the days of cutting 2” Quadruplex tape with the aid of a blade, a microscope and fine iron filings! And if film was the originating format, having to telecine using a photoconductive machine with very little colour correction capabilities – and this was state of the art back then!

The big changes came with Flying Spot telecine’s with colour correction and non-linear off line editing. Who remembers endless EDL’s and hoping and praying that the EDL would match the on-line edit? Nowadays of course most of this has changed and with the phenomenal technology spurt into the digital domain, film cameras are virtually a thing of the past and 4K origination with its infinite range of adjustments and imaging is the norm.

So too with post-production. Large facilities opened. They had the ability to transfer negative and grade it. They could also provide all the required off line and on line editing, digital effects and sound post-production facilities, and provide deliverables under one roof. The capital outlay was huge. Many items of equipment cost several million rands and thereby precluding small time competition. This also changed over time and currently for commercial post-production in the main, these large all-in-one post-production facilities are almost a thing of the past.

Bladeworks Steve Harris has an interesting take. “I think that Bladeworks is one of the last two post-production facilities for commercials in the country,” he says. “There are still a few smaller facilities that offer boutique type services, but no one offers the whole package as Bladeworks does and I doubt there will be a need for this going forward… Bladeworks will keep a core of talented people as we always have, so we won’t be out of television commercials but the heydays of commercial-making are no-longer. The simple fact is that agencies have gone in-house, and off-line companies are, largely, completing the process in-house. I think there is still hope for larger local post-production facilities in terms of long-form work.”

“A lot of us have gone through difficult times and change in the market requirements will force change in the supply market. I foresee that the post-production process may be required to be more directly or indirectly involved in production at some stage but it’s a difficult one to predict accurately… But times are tight so money is tight, and we have had to regroup to deal with the reduction in work and budgets. An interesting ride is ahead for advertising, and the supply chain to advertising,” he comments.

Whilst this may apply to commercial post-production, how do things look on the long-form front? Refinery Cape Town’s Lauren van Rensburg is positive: “The group purchased Waterfront Film Studios (WFS) in the middle of last year, which included the post-production arm. Thereafter massive renovations were done to get the facilities up to spec. The teams from WFS and Searle Street Post Production (SSPP) were then merged as part of the restructure. We moved in September and the decision was made to rebrand as Refinery Cape Town. This made the most sense in terms of the history of post-production here at 1 Port Road.”

“We are a generalist facility. We run two DI grading suites for both film and television. The cinema grading suite now includes a fully post-production calibrated 4K Barco monitor. We do still service commercials, but have experienced a downturn in this market. We are strongest on dailies processing for the international clients and deliveries and finishing for our local market.”

“I think there is always a negative perception when it comes to the local market, that being a larger facility we are more expensive. We aren’t,” she continues, “And our experience in fact saves producers on their bottom line. We have a good split on the work – the international clients mostly utilise a different set of services to the local filmmakers…”

“There is a realisation that with the post rebate there are more opportunities to finish here than just the VFX work which has also seen a sharp increase over the last two years. We don’t have a large VFX team in Cape Town, but our Johannesburg branch has an extensive VFX team, and that is certainly an area we will look into in the future,” she concludes.

One individual who is bucking this trend is well known post-production supervisor Barry Strick.

Enter Pop Up Post: “It started with an idea to start a post-production crew agency in Cape Town,” says Strick, “So a year ago I founded Post Production South Africa, partnering with accountant and tax practitioner Michele Bailie. Our initial intention was to provide an agency and support structure for creative crew – editors, assistants, VFX crew and sound editors… Our new concept is what I call a Pop Up post facility. I don’t have permanent space or equipment so I work with Worx Digital, who have a lot of high-end hardware available and technical expertise in the form of Reg Nance-Kivell, and are able to provide everything I need for high-end digital cinema post-production. So I rent office space short term, Worx comes in and puts in all the kit, and I use my crew from the agency to complete the package. We literally Pop Up and create a post facility for the duration of the project. When the project is completed we simply send the equipment back and effectively scale down until the next project,” he says.

“Doing this, the overheads are kept at an absolute minimum as nothing is permanent, and if the client has space in their own offices we can even set up there so there are huge cost savings for the client. I am able to undercut a traditional large post facility by as much as 40 per cent… Since there is somewhat of a monopoly regarding big post facilities in Cape Town there was a need to do a bit of lateral thinking to secure work from the only large Post House here,” he adds.

“I am not pitching myself as able to handle big NBC/Universal type action movies, and trying to do dailies for Warner Bros – I am focusing on local content – local features as I believe there is a need for cost effective quality post-production… The barriers of entry have been dropping for years and anyone can set up in their spare room – but are they able to do deliverables and will they be accepted internationally. These days it’s not so much about the technology but about the people.”

“Sound is more difficult for Pop Up Post to handle as suitably treated rooms are required for sound mixing. There are several sound facilities both in Cape Town and Johannesburg that have spare capacity and there are many sound editors available, so once again for me it is about matching the right person to the production and then finding suitable space for them to work,” he continues, “And there are many studios available in Cape Town – I think we have more Dolby Atmos mixing studios than cinemas in the Cape at present!”

“I think large facilities have their place in the filmmaking landscape globally – but in South Africa, unless they are very busy, the overheads are just too large. There is a lot of work around in Cape Town at the moment and there are several movies being shot, but again most of the post goes overseas. Keeping overseas crews here for extended periods does make economic sense with the extra 25 per cent DTI rebate on all the post and we have the people and equipment here to do it. I don’t think there is anything overseas that you can’t get here, but big studio productions feel more comfortable working with post crews they know and facilities they are familiar with, which is why so much post returns to LA or London.”

There seems little doubt that by continually improving the standard and skills of our local post-production offerings, we will gain the trust of international producers and more and more productions will choose to finish here – and we have the tools and skills to compete world wide…

By Andy Stead

The mixed fortunes of Waterfront Film Studios

With the recent announcement by Silverline 360 that they have purchased Waterfront Film Studios at the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town, a look back at the history of this studio complex which has changed hands several times may well be of interest as it tells a rather fascinating tale…

Now a studio landmark at the V and A the complex was not always so and in fact started life as a bus depot serving the Cape Town area. The transformation into what it is now shows a somewhat beleaguered and sometimes very profitable history. It started as far back as 1997.

Well known facilities company The Video Lab – based in Blairgowrie, Randburg – decided on an expansion strategy and set up a small facility in Gardens, Cape Town.  Having outgrown these premises and seeing growth potential the decision was made to move to new premises at the V and A Waterfront directly next to the historic Time Bell Tower, built in 1894, and just off Portswood Road. Initially the facility consisted of a Radio Studio, but expanded into a Betacam editing facility with a Rank Cintel Telecine and a Quantel – state of the art for the time!

It was the only major post production company in Cape Town and garnered much business including the increasing number of overseas filmmakers. “We had been in this locale for about two years,” recounts Mike Smit, MD of Video Lab at the time, “when it became apparent that we needed more space and since there was now a demand to provide studios as well as post-production.

“During a drive around I noticed a large building at the entrance to the Waterfront with a ‘To Let’ sign outside. The building had been used by KIC, who manufactured washing machines there. I phoned the letting agent and started negotiations”.

The building itself had originally been used by a bus company and all the floors were sloping in order to facilitate drainage after washing. The interior dimensions were however ideal for studios. In order to secure a lease a presentation had to be made to the Waterfront Company and there were other contenders…

“During a visit to look at studios in Australia I met a studio expert named Veronica Sive,” says Smit. “I brought her out to South Africa and together we prepared a pitch which was accepted and we secured a long term lease.

“The building was very derelict and had not been occupied for many years. There was also a homeless community living in the locale under the highway and part of the lease agreement was that we would re-house them – which was done.

“We renovated the entire structure of some 9000 square metres” says Smith “We installed a double roof, air conditioning and leveled the floor. We created three studios – two to very high specifications – and one a shooting stage. We also built very comprehensive post production suites capable of handling anything, even that which the overseas market could throw at us. We had a front end film laboratory and we opened our doors as Sasani Studios.”

As time progressed, and through several mergers and acquisitions (including the establishment of Condor Cape in 2003) the facility was re-branded as Waterfront Studios. At this time, the facility still benefitted from a booming industry.

In 2010 one of the major Waterfront shareholders, MFP, went bust and although there were several options on the table, in 2011 Waterfront Film Studios (WFS) as it was then known went into liquidation.

The good news for 2012 was that a purchasing entity came to the table. As of January 2012, Autumn Star Trading 905 (Pty) Ltd trading as Collective Dream purchased the assets of WFS and continued trading much as before. Collective Dream was part of a large family business comprising a group of some 24 companies headed by Sean Else, managing director of Creative Dream.

At the time, Else commented: “In our view the traditional post-production facility business model is becoming outdated and unlikely to succeed in the longer term. Our goal is to become a one-stop shop, taking the journey with our clients from conceptualisation, through pre-production, production, post-production, broadcast and distribution.

“The conflict between the previous shareholders of WFS really distracted focus from the core business.  The sound stages, studios and facilities were a mess.  We immediately started a major clean-up and upgrade of all facilities.”

Sadly the dream was not to last. In late 2013 a new joint venture partnership between The BladeWorks, LaserNet, Hilton Treves and Alun Richards acquired the assets of Collective Dream Studios and the partnerships began the process of putting together a specialist services company which would not follow the traditional facilities model.

“The reality” says Steve Harris of BladeWorks, “is that when involved in the studio-only business, one becomes entirely dependent upon income from a single source. While my experience with some of the service companies like Film Afrika and Out of Africa was great, my experience of the international companies using their services was not great at all.

“The result of contracts being terminated at the last possible moment, or even worse a major international company not arriving at all for a long term contract, was to clarify our view of cash input versus cash output. Each of the partners involved in Waterfront Film Studios have established core businesses that are owned-operated – none of the partners were prepared to invest further time or money into a business that is dependent upon most of its income being derived from a single source, ie. studio revenues.

“I must say that we were blessed in the sense that we became involved in a number of local film and television productions. That aspect of the business was very exciting for me. I can only thank all the local production companies that entrusted us to provide post-production services. Other wonderful experiences included working on international television series like Wallander and Tutankhamun.”

Late last year discussions commenced regarding a joint venture in the VFX business with Silverline. Whilst this side of the initial discussions came to nought, it became apparent that Waterfront Film Studios would be an ideal addition to the Silverline stable, mostly because of the extent of the services that Silverline could offer to support and grow the studio revenues

On 1 July 2016, Silverline 360 advised that they had purchased Waterfront Film Studios and thereby added it to the existing  stable of companies that include Media Film Service, Searle St Post and Refinery amongst others.

“This is the first step in consolidating all the Silverline 360 Cape Town operations to the new premises, including Media Film Service, Searle Street and Movie Mart. Media Film Service is predicted to take occupation of the old Arena building mid-next year,” advises a Silverline 360 spokesman.

“Personally” adds Harris, “I will focus mostly on The BladeWorks in Johannesburg. The BladeWorks specialises in post-production of television commercials; under the guidance of Warren Bleksley.”

So – another spoke in the wheel of the somewhat chequered history of Waterfront Film Studios. Whilst the acquisition by Silverline 360 is seen as a good thing in the industry – one wonders – what next?

A Story of Hope – Mitchells Plain – The Movie

Mitchells Plain local Robin Van Der Byl combined his passion for movies with his love for his community to create a 100 per cent self-funded film addressing the ups and downs of this complex, historic township.

Mitchells Plain, situated some 30km from Cape Town CBD, is one of the largest townships in South Africa. Populated predominantly by the coloured community, it was conceived as a ‘model’ township by the then apartheid government and was built in the 1970s to provide housing for the forced removal of coloured victims as a result of the Group Areas Act. While it’s impossible to be accurate – it is estimated that over 300 000 people live there and the township has gained a reputation for drugs and violent gangsterism leaving local residents living in a constant state of concern and fear.

Local resident Robin Van Der Byl was a member of a group called C.I.A. (Children in Action), which organised holiday clubs for children in the Mitchells Plain community, as well as surrounding areas.

“I also did various youth camps for the city,” says Van Der Byl, “but this had to stop when I started working. I then decided to do a community project at least once or twice a year, and because I have a passion for media, I decided to make a difference by using this passion and I started to write a script. I became part of a media group and we made one movie – but I felt I had to do one more focused on the community in which I live.”

The movie which Van Der Byl conceptualised covers various social elements that are found in Mitchell’s Plain. These include gangsterism, drugs, rape, teenage pregnancy and various other issues. The movie tells the story of three matric students who are faced with different challenges that are found in life today. They manage to conquer these challenges after the message about change gets out on the streets. The change starts when the main focus of the movie, which is love, is shown to the kingpins who basically control the gangster elements in the township.

“There was no funding for this project,” says Van Der Byl. “Right in the beginning, when I met with the cast and crew at the start of our weekly meetings, I made it clear that this is a community upliftment project and that there were no funds to pay any of the cast and crew. Everyone, without exception, agreed to be part of the production on a purely voluntary basis.”

All the locations were in Mitchells Plain. The cast and crew all came from Mitchells Plain including the lead players Sergio Miller (Ryan), Miche Gilbert (Tammy), and Anthony Walters (Romano) – none of whom had previous acting experience.

“Transport, location bookings, refreshments, supply and maintenance of equipment were problematic as a result of the location, but we were fortunate to have all our equipment sponsored by AB Video Productions. We shot with a Sony V1 HDV camera, used normal flood lights and boom microphones. We used Adobe Premier for post-production. We did everything at the same time. We would film over the weekend, and then during the week we would edit what we had filmed the previous weekend. So basically, everything came together as we went along.”

Mitchells Plain – the Movie was launched on Saturday 14 May at the City of Grace Living Waters Auditorium in Belhar. “The premiere was a great success,” enthuses Van Der Byl. “I would say around 400 people attended the premiere. We had a pre-gala ceremony for the cast, crew, media and invited guests, just to say thank you for all the hard work. Ward Councilor Eddie Andrews was the Master of Ceremony for the evening.”

Van Der Byl is planning a road show at various Schools, churches and community halls right across Cape Town, the Western Cape, and if all goes well, the whole of South Africa and the international market.  He is also optimistic for a flighting on local TV channels.

“I believe that this movie will open and change people’s mindset about Mitchells Plain and any other community in the Cape Flats. Not everyone is a gangster, drug addict, or prostitute. There is good in these communities as well and I hope this movie shows this.

“I feel really proud for what the team and I achieved with no financial aid and considering all the limitations imposed on us as a result of this – we did it.

“I really believe that change is possible in Mitchells Plain, and that there is still hope for this community. There is no doubt that there is amazing talent here and it just needs to be identified and cultivated and who know where we could go.”

There will be a further viewing of Mitchells Plain – The Movie at the Shikenah Full Gospel Church in Mitchells Plain on 6 August.

Encounters introduces 2016 line-up

The Encounters South African International Film Festival held a press launch recently in Cape Town and offered an opportunity to meet the festival’s new director Darryl Els. It also introduced the first six films selected for screening at the event, which takes place from 2 to 12 June at the Labia in Cape Town and the Bioscope in Johannesburg.

Portraits, human stories and activists are all part of the new-look Encounters and submissions include all kinds of topics from international arms dealing to the late great American poet /writer Maya Angelou.

“We showed excerpts of some of the films at the launch,” says Els.  “These included: Action Kommandant, Alison and Walking in My Shoes – a film which takes us to the heart of the current educational crisis. There were also international entries including Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise, Requiem for an American Dream and Shadow World (based on the best-selling book by Andrew Feinstein, who will be at the festival). It was great to talk about the six films and the new additions for the 2016 programme – and also to give insight into where the festival is going.

“I am very pleased with the quality of films we have been able to programme. We will be locking down the line-ups, and also moving into other areas, taking a more expanded approach to non-fiction storytelling. I am interested in exploring how documentaries can operate across different disciplines – as an example this year we have live music, a virtual reality (VR) exhibition and a live podcast event.

“This year Encounters will be moving beyond the screen and will tap into different mediums. For me ‘the documentary’ is a malleable concept in a way, and the genre fits into different forms. I think this approach certainly makes for a more contemporary experience, and one that should attract a wide-ranging audience to the festival’s screenings and events.”

As an audience-centric festival, Encounters is about people having that unique festival experience. “I valued this highly when I was an audience member attending Encounters,” says Els.

“The festival is also about brokering new opportunities for filmmakers. We’ve seen new growth areas, for example the rise on popularity of short online documentaries – and so I think there is an interesting opportunity around shorter content that can be shared more widely and offer greater visibility and impact for filmmakers.

“Similarly, we’ll be launching the Virtual Encounters exhibition at the festival and this will be a space dedicated to non-fiction VR and interactive documentaries. Ingrid Kopp (Tribeca) will be curating the programme and we’re really excited to have a dedicated space to new media at Encounters and we’re looking forward to growing and expanding this in the coming years,” adds Els.

Encounters will be bringing a VR producer to host a masterclass on producing VR content. “We’ll be screening a feature documentary that also has a VR aspect and will be premiering both at the festival this year. These are made by different producers working together.”

He concludes: “I really like the idea of programming in this way as once again it offers up a range of new possibilities to both audiences and filmmakers in terms of watching and making documentaries.”

South African at heart


While viewing the Jaguar F-Type at Ellerman House Wine Gallery in Cape Town’s Bantry Bay, Screen Africa’s Andy Stead also got to meet Sharlto Copley – who was in South Africa for a few days as a brand ambassador for the iconic sports car.

An intimate media lunch at Ellerman House provided such an opportunity, not only to get to know Copley a little better and to meet his wife, international supermodel Tanit Phoenix, but also to savor a delicious meal created according to themes from Copley’s movies – and to see the delectable Jaguar F-Type.

All this and a brief one-on-one with the star rounded off a perfect function organised by Jaguar and Copley’s producing partner and international media liaison Stephanie Macrides.

District 9 was Copley’s introduction to international stardom as this pioneering production became a world-wide success. Released in 2009 and directed by Neill Blomkamp, it was nominated for four Oscars and Copley’s leading role as harassed bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe was instrumental in the film’s success.

Copley then starred in 20th Century Fox’s version of The A Team. In 2013, he played fictional astronaut James Corrigan in Europa Report and in the same year he portrayed Agent Kruger, the secondary antagonist in Elysium, and also played villain Adrian Pryce in Spike Lee’s Oldboy.

He then starred opposite Angelina Jolie in the 2014 Disney film Maleficent and played Chappie in his first motion capture performance role, also directed by Blomkamp, shot in South Africa for several months in 2014.

Copley discussed his latest film, Hardcore Henry,“The studio films like The A Team, Maleficent and Elysium are important and do well at the box office – but my new movie Hardcore Henry, which I also executive produce, is ridiculously pioneering and regardless of what it does or does not do at the box office it will make a big impact on filmmaking.

“It’s a small indie movie that we sold at Toronto and it won The Audience Choice award at Midnight Madness at the Toronto Film Festival and got picked up for wide release in the US. It is different in that the audience is the central character in the entire movie.”

 Hardcore Henry is shot in Russia and targets gamers and action fans alike – it is clearly a significant movie as the industry is talking about its pioneering spirit – as they did with District 9. Post-production is now complete and the movie releases on 8 April in the USA and is out in South Africa on 8 July 2016.

“What I’d like to do next is to direct something I write and even better to act in it as well just to see if I can tell myself what to do,” Copley laughs.

“But getting back to why I am here. Being a Jaguar brand ambassador has big upsides. I had some great fun this morning with Championship racer Deon Joubert – even did doughnuts in the F-Type!

“Even though the Jaguar F-Type was launched some time ago – they have been meaning to get me back with a really professional driver who could teach me some of the awesome stuff this car is capable of.”

Copley is something of an enigma. He now lives in the hills overlooking Los Angeles and works in the heart of the Hollywood dream factory. Yet he remains true to his roots, unlike many other South Africans who have made this move. Even as his film work goes from strength to strength he appears to remain an easygoing South African guy, characterised by his sense of humour and friendly personality.

He is philosophical about the differences between his two home countries: “I find that I need to be in LA when I am not working. So I don’t know if that means that I am based there – but in my head I am always based in South Africa,” he says. “At times it has been tempting to live as an American – you know, the accent, etc, but I just felt I was losing myself and my sense of myself so I am still very South African.

“The beauty about being in LA is that the respect and the support for creative endeavors there is incredible. This was always and area of frustration for me in South Africa. I guess it’s that we (South Africa) are essentially a gold mining country – and so it’s not really a country that has grown a thriving entertainment industry. It’s become powerful because it has the minerals. So it’s a different ethos, and if you are going to spend $225 million dollars based on a piece of paper it’s quite a different business mindset that is required than when you are pulling something from out of the ground.”

Where to now CFC?

Following the recent announcement by the Cape Film Commission (CFC) that it will cease business as from 12 February this year, WESGRO, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape, confirmed that they intend fulfilling their commitments to the media sector in the province.

“We remain focused on our mandate to promote film and media in the province and with the support of the Department of Economic Development and Tourism and the City of Cape Town we will continue to collaborate in a strategic and sustainable manner to further this important sector of the economy,’ says WESGRO CEO Tim Harris.

The team will be headed by Monica Rorvik and the focus will be on promoting WESGRO key services to the industry. These include assisting local and international companies looking to either produce or find distribution and co-production parties in the Western Cape, assisting business-to-business interactions, inbound mission hosting, project mentoring and more.

How did it come about that South Africa’s only film commission accredited by the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) is no longer operational?
Appointed in 2010, Denis Lillie, who holds a master’s degree in Film and Television, took over the reins from previous incumbent Laurence Mitchell. Funded by both the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Provincial Government and using the AFCI in Los Angeles as its model, the CFC operated successfully and achieved its mandate of attracting and facilitating business to the province. This is borne out by observations from the industry.

ZenHQ Films producer Chris Roland observes: “We used the CFC regularly to address questions specific to a variety of issues, such as locations, permits and visas and facilitating critical introductions. The CFC also provided guidance and direction to other agencies for queries which it did not handle. We relied on the CFC’s newsletters for staying informed on industry matters, such as changes in regulations, indabas, road closures, etc. We were part of CFC outgoing missions to international markets and events such as Sundance and the International Emmys, which led to introductions that closed deals with international distributors and brought business back into the country.’

Says Lillie: “The structure was fine but following a suggestion from the MEC for Economic Development that an agency be created which would include “special purpose’ vehicles such as the CFC, things did not go as planned. I was tasked to ready the CFC to merge into this entity and we had to disband the board of directors. In the end the organisation consisted of me, the chairman and representatives from the city and province.

“The merge however was cancelled and we were asked to continue just as we were. Rather than rebuild the board we decided to create an advisory board involving institutions related to our industry. Although before I arrived there was a communication from provincial government saying that they would continue supporting the CFC until 2015. In late March 2012 we were advised that this funding had been switched to WESGRO.

“We had made commitments which we were unable to keep, but fortunately we have formed relationships with both MICT SETA and the National Lottery Commission (NLC), both of which gave us project funding which allowed us to cover our overheads between that point and today.’
The funding from both MICT SETA and the NLC could have continued for the next three years but because Lillie had entered into litigation with both the city and provincial government for failure to honour their commitments, he felt he could no longer continue to accept further funding from these organisations. According to Lillie due to poor communications with all parties including WESGRO, the NFVF and the dti as well as a “slow wheels turning’ syndrome, nothing has been resolved and as a result the final cut-off date for the CFC came and went with no resolution. The CFC proposed arbitration between the City and the Province in an effort to resolve the outstanding matters which has, to dare, been declined by both.

“I am still busy, however, as I need to go through files and archives to determine what needs to be retained for the next five years for legal reasons and required by SARS.’ adds Lillie. “It is tragic that an organisation which is 15 years old and is respected internationally for its efforts, has archives of information and is a well-known brand has to cease to function.

“I just wish that the industry in the Western Cape would pull together and work cohesively. There are a lot of factions and politics and I believe if we all worked together we would be a top international film country and reap the benefits thereof.’

Brigid Olen of DO productions observes: “First prize is a neutral and apolitical body that networks and stimulates opportunities, creates workshops, industry get-togethers, smooth visas – permits and licenses. One which could seek out sales and distribution opportunities and coerce regional and government agencies to support all individuals and projects in the related industries. The process should be smooth – a formality not a strangulation.

“I am inclined towards the business concept of eliminating the red tape and fast forwarding to the red carpet. This should be the basic step that offers a benefit to all media related industries whether facilitating or growing our own content.’

The last word from ZenHQ Films’ Roland: “Perception is everything, and the combination of closing the CFC’s doors and not having a film commission for international companies to reach out to tarnishes the industry. The Cape is currently not represented internationally by an informed authority that understands the intricacies of our industry. There is a need for another film commission. The question is, why start a new one when one was already operational?’

Written by Andy Stead

It was 40 years ago today, SABC asked the band to play!


In January this year, South African television celebrated its 40th anniversary. Andy Stead was there when that famous test pattern first appeared on black-and-white screens around the country and knew many of the then young, bright-eyed technicians who helped found and develop the South African TV industry.

Where were you when this test pattern was first broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in 1975? This image was the start of it all: television in South Africa – albeit several years after many other countries in Africa had already switched on.

I can tell you where I was. Broadcast television in South Africa was my goal when, in late 1972 and with little experience in the field, I made the decision to travel to England and study television technology in advance of the commencement of broadcasts. Southall College of Technology in London was to be my home for the next three years, and systems technology, studio design; transmission engineering and general principals were studied and learnt on a full-time, no-nonsense basis.

Before completion of the course I was fortunate enough to be accepted by the Independent Broadcasting Authority as a network operations and maintenance (NOM) technician operating from their Brompton Road premises. The function of NOM was to ensure that the standards of all commercial television stations in the United Kingdom met the standards required, as well as to broadcast an engineering programme on a weekly basis from an OB van parked in the basement.

This programme went out live from either a Rank Cintell Mk11 telecine machine or an RCA TR70 Quadruplex VTR machine, and woe betide if there was a fluff on air – I mean after all we were the blokes setting the standards!

On completion of the courses I returned to South Africa full of knowledge and enthusiasm. Did I get a job at the SABC? Afraid not. Lack of Afrikaans was a factor, as well as other reasons – but we won’t get into that. I ventured immediately into the commercial arena.

Breeding ground for talent

The SABC was however the breeding ground of many great technicians and engineers, some of whom remained with the corporation in senior roles up until retirement. Others made their mark on the commercial and production industry. Most have extremely fond memories of the start-up 40 years ago, and also of the introduction of commercial television in 1978 when the first locally produced TV spot the Big T Burger TV aired.

The SABC did in fact commence its own in-house training and most who underwent this course agree that the standards were extremely high. One such trainee was Dave Keet, who went on to make a name in the private facilities business. Keet recalls that the SABC began training technicians for TV at their then brand new premises in Auckland Park.

“I was on the third training course, which started in April 1975,” he says. “Training instructors were brought out from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to train personnel. For the first three months trainees were trained in all disciplines such as camera, sound, lighting, telecine, editing and even set building. After your initial training you specialised in your particular area of expertise.

“I did studio sound on the first broadcast – 5 January 1976. It was an amazing adrenaline rush after such anticipation and incredible nerves. I think things went pretty much as planned. Commercial TV started about two years later and the whole country sat in front of their TVs at 6pm to see the first TV commercial! The start of commercial TV heralded the beginning of facility companies which provided services to independent film companies for the production of television commercials and indeed programmes – the SABC commissioned a lot of series and one-offs.”

I remember the advent of commercial television well. By this stage I worked for an advertising agency – Van Zijl, Schultz, Lund and Tredoux – that had several large accounts, including SAB, Lever Brothers and Transnet. All their commercials were shot on 35mm film and these had to be transferred to tape for broadcast. While the SABC had telecine machines, they were photo conductive and the quality was deemed not equal to the result one got from a flying spot scanner. There was however a Rank Cintel Mk11 telecine at Lintas advertising on the 11th Floor of Sandton City. An OB van with a 2-inch VTR was hired from the new commercial facility company Video RSA and feeds were laid from the OB van parked in the basement of Sandton City, and the 11th Floor. All Van Zijl and Schultz’s commercials were transferred via this route.

The resulting commercials, when shown on the SABC, certainly showed the superior quality achievable from the flying spot technology – a technology which was to become a bye-word in the industry.

SA’s first post facilities

Video RSA was in fact the first of many commercial facilities companies in South Africa, and became the home to well known industry player Mike Smit. “Kavalier Films started the first video post facility, Video RSA, mainly to finish television adverts for the launch of commercial television in 1978,” explains Smit. “They had a few technical challenges and approached the SABC for help. I was the lucky guy to be seconded to Video RSA by the SABC where I ended up being employed. Although I enjoyed my tenure at the SABC, a significant increase in salary was the main reason for leaving along with the opportunity to be part of the commercials industry. In 1980 I started discussions with Trevor Hill of The Film Editors, who had the backing of Gallo and Argus, to start a new post facility which we called Video Lab. I do however have very fond memories of my time at SABC and it was a privilege to be working in television at the very beginning of this new industry.”

Perfecting outside broadcast

Outside broadcasts (OBs) were an essential part of early television and the SABC was able to meet the challenge. Former head of OBs Nick Bonthuys reminisces: “When I finished my studies I chose to go to OBs and luckily was accepted. I probably would have left if my application was not successful since TV OB was where I saw my future.

“When I arrived at the beginning in 1976 they had just completed a number of training productions. Ex-employees of the BBC were contracted to do the training and they did an excellent job to get the SABC OB teams up to speed. Names like Ron McHardy, Alan Joy, Charles Mickey and Brian Taylor come to mind. Many of them stayed on to play roles in SA broadcast history.

“SABC TV OBs started with three four-camera units and one three-camera unit. The three-camera unit had a handheld camera which was a nightmare to get to work. The OB units had to be running for at least three hours before one could attempt to line them up to produce broadcast standard pictures. Each unit had two Ampex two-inch video tape recorders housed in a separate truck since they were so big and needed special air conditioning and used noisy air compressors to guide the video tape. The equivalent and more of what those tape recorders could do can now could fit on a single USB stick!”

Others who spent time in the OB department included former head of Sony Broadcast South Africa Jess Goedhals. “In 1973 the SABC had advertised, looking for trainee operators for the upcoming television service, so I applied, was accepted and started on 2 January 1974, two years ahead of the commencement of television,” says Goedhals. “Among my listed skills, which I’m sure made me successful, was my passionate Super 8 filming of the motor racing at Kyalami.

“The SABC trained groups of 40 operators over an intensive four-month course using experts from the BBC. My original position was trainee cameraman and after the training course, I moved to the OB department, where we covered many events prior to the launch of TV in 1976. Going live on air was always a thrill and things did usually go wrong but, because the viewers were new, nobody really noticed!

“I left the SABC in 1981 after rising to the position of principal cameraman and not seeing a future by staying on just as an operator. The emerging television facilities company market had started and they were offering substantially better salaries than SABC could pay. I joined Trillion Video in Kramerville where I came across the production of TV commercials for the first time.”

There are countless other people, involved in pioneering South African television, who are still in the industry or have since left and retired – too many unfortunately to list here. Most will, I am sure, agree that the grounding they received at the SABC was the catalyst for long and successful careers during a time when a spirit of bold curiosity and a sense of adventure were probably the best requirement.

Things have changed a lot since those formative years, and the fortunes of the SABC have been overtaken by subscription television services and streaming. Indeed the SABC has missed its deadline for the switch over to digital with this year 2016, being the absolute final deadline. Will they meet it and if not what are the repercussions? Time will tell. But in the meantime, nothing can detract from that historical launch back in 1976 and the keenness and enthusiasm of the dedicated staff that helped to make it happen.

TV Connect 2015

AfricaCom is said to be Africa’s largest communication conference and exhibition and is now in its 18th year. The event took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) from 17 to 19 of November this year. The conference programme covered the most strategic issues affecting companies in Africa’s digital market – services, efficiency, profitability, customer experience, partnerships, policy and more – and featured four co-located events: VSAT Africa, TV Connect Africa, LTE Africa and Apps World Africa.

Of particular interest was the TV Connect Africa 2015, which is in reality a conference within a conference, and offers exhibition space to targeted suppliers as well as a programme of speakers, discussion groups and workshops. Conference manager for the TV Connect Global Events, Georgina C Wilczek explains: “It’s a series of international events bringing together the television industry around the world, run by the conference and information group Informa, based in London. I have worked as a conference producer within Informa’s Telecoms and Media division since 2006, and before that, I worked at the BBC in London as a Radio Producer for BBC Radios three and four.”

“This was the fourth TV Connect Africa conference, and it has always taken place in the CTICC. The intention is to bring together the television industry from within Africa for three days of case studies, discussions and debates, bringing together content providers, OTTs, IPTV operators, mobile TV operators, broadcasters, regulators, media analysts and app developers”

Topics of interest on the first day included:

  • ‘Understanding the inhibitors to digital switchover in Africa’;
  • ‘Lessons learnt and strategies for digital switchover’;
  • ‘Journey to the digital era: Cost effective routes for Broadcasters in Africa’; and
  • ‘Strengthening your pay TV proposition to the consumer by improving the quality of your content.’

Each session was followed by a vigorous discussion and Q and A from the floor. Of particular interest was the ‘Understanding the inhibitors to digital switchover’ discussion, where Christoph Limmer, vice president of video at Eutelsat pointed out that at the beginning of 2015 the population of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was about 900 million, and that the number of households will be 161 million by the end of 2015 which shows a 7% growth in three years.

“Africa’s population of consumers with disposable income is booming,” said Limmer, “and is growing from 35% in 2000 to 52% in 2020 (McKinsey). Africa’s population is heavily dispersed still and not concentrated – despite massive urbanisation”. Limmer believes that by 2040 SSA will have a population of 1.4 billion with only 240 million in cities. With 1.16 billion people classed as rural, this will create an environment more favourable to satellite distribution.

Today there are about 37 million digital TV homes in SSA. The number of digital homes is expected to grow to 69 million by 2020, assuming a smooth roll-out of digital migration across the region. Satellite and terrestrial television are the two infrastructures driving digital migration, and cable and IP based television does not play a major role in Africa.

Aldred Dryer, chief technology officer at the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, pointed out during a panel discussion, the success of Namibia’s switchover. He stated that digital terrestrial television (DTT) launched in Namibia in October 2013. Analogue TV switched off in Windhoek on the 31 January 2015. Decoders are now available for sale to the public at selected retail outlets. There are 16 services on air which cover 67% of the population. A call centre has been established and a consumer campaign is continuously being implemented. Unfortunately the rest of SSA and indeed the southern African region are far behind schedule.

Overall, the show attracted well over 10 000 attendees and this represents a growth of at least 10% on last year. Also TV Connect Africa had at least 300 exhibitors at the event on the main show floor, plus extra exhibitors in the Ericsson A-Hub upstairs and extra companies who took meeting room spaces (overall about 350 companies). This was a record for the show this year – nevertheless the market is still expanding and it is anticipated that this figure will continue to grow in the future.

“TV Connect Africa is a part of the TV Connect Global Events series, which also includes TV Connect Asia, TV Connect MENA and TV Connect London (the annual global event),” adds Wilczek. “The TV Connect London event is a large-scale free-standing event which takes place every April in ExCel, London, attracting well over 7 000 attendees. Many of those who speak and exhibit at TV Connect Africa are also present at our London event.”

“It was great to hear about new content launches across Africa (such as ipiditv in Kenya and OnTapTV.com by PCCW Global in South Africa),” concludes Wilczek, “and to hear about plans for digital switchovers across the continent. The Country Roundtables on the afternoon of day two were also a fascinating insight into the different stages of development in TV operations in a wide range of African markets – the Nigerian case studies attracting a huge level of interest.

“And there was a very interesting debate as to what kind of content African audiences want – Hollywood content works in the main, but there is a large appetite for locally-driven content too. Nollywood content in particular is really taking off.”

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