SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:
Sony Pictures Animation is creating a platform for emerging storytellers… and two South African projects are on the bill.
This past June, at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, Sony Pictures Animation announced the launch of an international division headed up by veteran producer Aron Warner (Shrek).
While the division’s pilot slate is still under wraps, Warner divulged earlier this year at the Cape Town International Animation Festival that he is in talks on two local projects. In fact, he credits South Africa as the inspiration behind the entire career move.
“Your political history and the social issues here create this tension that needs a creative outlet,” said Warner. “I saw not just the hunger and the desire, but the readiness to do the work.”
Warner is not the first to notice the potential here. As a voracious market, bristling with new platforms searching for stories, Africa has emerged as a treasure trove ripe for mining. The question preoccupying African filmmakers is, Are we ready to tell those stories before someone else tells them for us?
With films like Pixar’s Coco, Disney’s Moana, and Marvel’s Black Panther pulling in hundreds of millions at the box office, the phrase “cultural appropriation” has emerged out of niche academic discourse and into the big business of mainstream content.
This is where Sony’s approach is refreshing. Rather than appropriating stories and then developing them in-house, Warner’s division will help emerging filmmakers make the most of their own ideas.
The journey started when director Chris Appelhans came to Warner with the proposal for Wish Dragon – a feature set in modern-day China. “I said yes in the room,” says Warner, though it would be some time before the right team came together around the film – ultimately a co-production between Sony Pictures Animation, Beijing Sparkle Roll Media, Tencent and Base Media.
Idaho-born Appelhans could scarcely have been less Chinese, however, and authenticity was a serious concern. “Sophie Xiao, who worked at Base, helped us localise it,” Warner explained. “I started to see the power of a film about a kid growing up in present-day China, and how the Chinese-American crew was feeling about it, and how important representation was. That idea started to spread in my brain, and I ended up in South Africa. I saw this light in the people I met, and the industry teetering on the verge of an amazing time. I sat down and thought, how do I make a living doing this?”
He approached Sony with the idea of starting his own division and was met with resounding support. To date, projects are already in development in South Africa, Mexico, Korea, Colombia and China. As it gets harder to stand out in the market, this might be just the reinvigorating tonic that Sony Pictures Animation needs – not to mention the impact it will have on South African animation if the two local projects make it to the finish line. As Warner points out, finding filmmakers with enough stamina is the hardest part of his job…
Julia Smuts Louw: I find it interesting that you picked up on this moment in South Africa, because it’s a really confusing moment, politically and socially. We had apartheid, as you know, and some of our most iconic art came out of that period. Then we had a transition period that was very hopeful… and it turns out that artistically, hope is just not that interesting. You need something pushing against it. Now, we have a complex mix of factors and emotions.
Aron Warner: Exactly. Tension is a necessary part of creativity. It’s unfortunate that a lot of good stuff comes out of bad shit. Sometimes why you need to make animation or speculative stuff is because people aren’t ready to look at this stuff head, on but they’re ready to look at it through a filter.
JSL: I guess the other question is ‘who has the right?’ Are we allowed to tell a story from another race, or is that cultural appropriation?
AW: Every side has a good point. When the people who could be telling their own stories don’t have the opportunity, then there is something wrong with that. I think partnership is very valuable, and people shouldn’t let their egos get in the way.
JSL: What’s it been like working in China?
AW: The director I work with jokes “multiply everything by 12.” One of the issues we came up against on Wish Dragon is people without feature experience getting really tired and not knowing you’ll come out the other side okay. And I can understand that.
JSL: I get the impression they work pretty hard.
AW: They work incredibly hard. But the bar for this film is very high. And sometimes it breaks people.
JSL: There’s a perception of Asian animation studios that the teams want specific frame-by-frame instructions, and that makes creative collaboration difficult where you want to be able to just say “Here’s a shot, go wild.”
AW: I think there’s an artistic freedom that’s burgeoning there. I think they didn’t have permission. And there’s a lot of insecurity, but I’m telling you, it’s happening. I saw people blossom on our film.
JSL: I get the feeling they are reaching out more. More co-productions, more exchange.
AW: Part of that is because there are a lot of Chinese Americans who are going back to China, to work and be a part of it. So there’s cross-pollination.
JSL: I was interested in what you were saying about [2018’s surprise hit] Crazy Rich Asians – how your Asian American friends had tears streaming down their faces. It’s similar to how Black Panther played here. It’s definitely flawed. But it had such a powerful effect – who am I to say there’s anything that’s not working about it?
AW: You can’t know what it feels like, and I can’t either. In some ways I can, as a gay Jew growing up in LA, not being particularly beautiful, I used to see movies with gay characters, and it was like, there’s the flaming queen, the serial killer, or the pathetic old lonely person. Those were my three examples of what gay people were, growing up.
JSL: There was a book, Shrill, by Lindy West. She wrote about the experience of being fat.
AW: My friend Ali [Rushfield] is doing a show about that book for Hulu.
JSL: She said something similar – her role models were an old teapot, a villain, or a harmless matriarch. Wonder Woman showed that just women in general needed to see someone powerful whose thighs jiggle. And the #MeToo movement has proved there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
AW: Absolutely, and there’s incredible power in it.
JSL: Is there anything you look for between one project and the next?
AW: I just want something I haven’t seen before. And I know that’s hard. If it’s really unique and has someone behind it who actually has the capacity to make it through that movie as a creator, then that makes it a lot more attractive.
Wish Dragon is due for release in 2020.