Clover Way Better won Shy The Sun First Place at The Mobius Awards and Best International Animation at Infocom EME Awards in 2011.
African animation at a tipping point
“We’ve achieved the most difficult part; we have real feedback from the market that the world likes our work,” says Sea Monster’s Glenn Gillis, who also used to run Clockwork Zoo (RIP). “At an individual and company level, South Africa can compete with the best in the world.”
But while Africa – and South Africa in particular – can point to a growing list of animation accolades, the overall picture isn’t as pretty as many think.
As Shina Ajulo from Sporedust in Nigeria says, “The industry faces the threat of sustainability if capacity building and market scalability are not set right to meet the upcoming challenges.”
“We’re at a critical point where we need to achieve some measure of scale,” echoes Glenn in South Africa. “I sometimes say rather flippantly that I’m not sure that we do have an animation industry: we have projects that we gear up and run down.”
The problem is what happens between these projects. Clockwork Zoo is the classic warning in this regard.
Once Africa’s largest animation company, Clockwork Zoo had a staff of up to 120 animators working on successful international TV series like Caillou (Cookie Jar), Florrie’s Dragons (Wish Films for Disney Channel UK and Playhouse Disney), Happy Valley (Dinamo, Wales) and Mr. Bebe (Xilam, France). But Clockwork Zoo shut its doors in 2010, due largely to the crippling costs of keeping that many staff, that much hardware, and the necessary software, between jobs.
“As successful as those projects were, the company wasn’t sustainable in that form,” says Glenn.
“The project-to-project production model, which is used by live action production companies, is inefficient unless there is a critical mass of similar production companies which can continue to employ crew and hire equipment,” says Triggerfish’s Stuart Forrest. “In animation, the setup costs of a 100-seater are very high if you’re going to wind down again after the production closes, and due to the length of the production, it is usually cheaper to buy than to hire equipment.”
Triggerfish managed to dovetail their two feature films – Adventures in Zambezia and Khumba – so that most of the crew went straight from one onto the other. But Stuart knows this is unusual. “Because of the intrinsically creative nature of the development process, it’s difficult for a studio to line up productions back to-back and you never want to go into production on a script you’re not fully signed off on.“
With the closure of Clockwork Zoo and the end of feature film projects like Adventures in Zambezia, Khumba, Jock, and Lion of Judah, South Africa has a larger pool of freelance animation talent than ever before, even with the inevitable brain drain of top talent overseas. “There are some great animation schools, so there are a lot of new artists being trained every year,” adds Stuart.
So the sector seems to be moving towards a contract-employment model similar to live action, where even the largest production companies scale down to just a handful of employees between jobs.
“Software keeps getting faster and easier to use, so it doesn’t take long to train people up anymore and get them working in your pipeline,” says Claudio Pavan from Lung. “From our experience, it’s better to use contract artists as a small studio. When the job is done you scale back down to save money till the next project.”
Shy the Sun’s Jannes Hendrikz agrees. “South Africa finally has a good pool of freelance animators, designers and painters. We still have a long way to go in terms of experience but now we have reliable people available who can help out on a need-be basis based on their personal expertise and specialization. The other great thing is that local freelancers can finally survive on their own, as it seems that there is enough work to keep them busy. This in turn helps companies to keep their overheads low by not having to employ permanent staff.”
Rather than staffing, the real challenge in scaling up and down is the hardware and software costs, especially since most of the software requires monthly maintenance subscriptions.
“I can own R2 million rands worth of software, but instead of that being an asset, it’s actually a R400 000 a year liability because of the associated maintenance fees,” says Glenn.
While Adobe Creative Suite is now available to photographers and designers on a month-by-month cloud subscription, Glenn doesn’t expect this to be rolled out for animation software for a while. African data speeds and costs make cloud storage difficult across the continent, especially when you factor in the huge amount of data animation uses. Animation companies also customize their pipelines, which is tricky within a month-by-month model. “We’re not just using software out-the-box,” says Glenn.
One solution is to stop fighting and outsource the bulk animation like everyone else. “Why build a staff of 30-50 when you can just own the creative process?” ask Glenn, who’s currently keeping the animation in South Africa on Sea Monster’s projects but points out that it may have been cheaper to outsource this to the East or even places like Canada. Supa Strikas repeatedly came up as an example of effective outsourcing by an African animation company.
To overcome the terrifying times between projects, Triggerfish is rather developing a model of doing five films back-to-back. The first is likely to be Here Be Monsters, a story about a boy and a sea monster set on South Africa’s West Coast, written by Raffaella Delle Donne (Adventures in Zambezia, Khumba). Stuart says they’ve decided not to move forwards with a Zambezia sequel yet.
“Slate deals like this will shift us towards a studio model, where there is far more control over the scheduling due to the fact that the studio has a number of green-lit projects ready to go and fully funded at any given time,” says Stuart. “But it’s a question of having access to the capital that allows for this model.”
United Airlines Sea Orchestra by Shy The Sun won a Gold Loerie, a Silver and Bronze Clio, and was featured in the D&AD Annual and at The Communication Arts Awards.
Finding a Business Model For Investors
In South Africa, the average film in the first half of 2013 made a measly R242 000, down a whopping 50% from the same period last year, which makes raising capital tricky, especially when you think that an African animated feature like Khumba costs around R100m, which is still at least ten times less than a Hollywood animated movie.
“We’ll only attract private equity into the industry when we can prove that we can give a return on investment,” says Sea Monster’s Glenn Gillis. “If you rely on government grants and the rebate and so on, it’s clearly not sustainable in its own right. This is a problem that hasn’t yet been solved by the film industry as a whole in South Africa, let alone animation.”
Thankfully, the box offices figures for animated films in South Africa are well above average – Jock made over R12m, while Adventures in Zambezia made around R9m, although it’s probably too soon to draw major conclusions from just two films.
Most promisingly, Adventures in Zambezia cracked the illusive international box office. Wayne Thornley’s debut feature film made over $30m at the global box office, the most money for a South African-owned film internationally since Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy in 1980.
“Animation does travel a lot easier than live action, as it’s easy to dub into foreign languages and therefore crosses cultural boundaries,” says Triggerfish’s Stuart Forrest. “Zambezia was dubbed into around 20 foreign languages.” Khumba even became the first animated feature dubbed into Afrikaans.
Animation also creates more opportunities for merchandising and licensing revenue, the driving force behind Sunrise Productions’ Jungle Beat series.
“We’ve had great licensing partners on Khumba and manufactured over 350 000 toys for distributors to sell around the world,” says Stuart. “However, in the independent feature film space, it’s still tough to co-ordinate a full merchandising strategy because it’s hard to get manufacturing commitments before the release date is set, and independent films are usually only booked into theatres once they are completed – which doesn’t leave much time for the manufacturing and distribution process.”
Triggerfish is working with a Cape Town games company, Sijo, on developing a Khumba game, and have internally developed several apps, e-books and online games over their two feature properties.
But even with those additional revenue streams, film financing is, at best, about delayed gratification. “The other major challenge in the animation sector, especially in feature films, is the long time it takes to develop, produce, distribute and collect earnings from the production of a feature film,” says Stuart. “Financiers have to be very patient to see their investment recouped after many years, and producers have to be even more patient to finally see earnings.”
Stuart’s noticed a downturn in the amount of Minimum Guarantees (MG) that distributors are willing to pay for an animated feature. “So our model has gotten tougher in our local industry, where our financiers base most of their revenue estimates on MGs alone. On the other hand, we’re collecting overages so this does balance out the lower MGs. But budgets are unlikely to rise by very much in the short term, unless we have a breakout hit.”
Goldfish Get Busy Living by Mike Scott has nearly 1.7m views on YouTube
Technology: Maya, Toon Boom & everything inbetween
Thankfully, technology advances are helping animation companies do more with less.
“Technology has improved substantially over the last decade – both hardware and software – so it’s become feasible to make high quality feature films on a very reasonable budget,” says Triggerfish’s Stuart Forrest.
The preferred technology depends on who you speak to. “The same big players are still at the top: Maya/Max/Softimage for 3d and Nuke pretty much owning the VFX compositing,” says Lung’s Claudio Pavan. “Adobe After Effects still seems to have its grasp on the motion graphic stuff. Let’s not forget Flame and the cappuccino machines that the agencies just love. That said, tides do seem to be changing. I imagine the new soon-to-be player will be Modo, now that The Foundry has bought it. We will have to see how the ‘mighty’ Autodesk, destroyer of all, responds to this and if they can respond in time.”
“Autodesk dominates with several products, the most popular of which is Maya,” says Stuart. “In South Africa, Softimage is also very popular, especially in the more high-end studios. There is a new renderer that we used on Khumba called Arnold, which is affordable yet extremely good and enabled us to get a whole new look on Khumba.”
Glenn Gillis says Sea Monster works mostly with Toonboom for 2d animation and Qualcomm’s Vuforia for augmented reality work.
In contrast, in Nigeria, Ebele Okoye says Shrinkfish works mostly with Modo for modeling backgrounds in 3D and with Toon Boom for 2D work. Shina Ajulo from Sporedust seconds Toon Boom in Nigeria.
Kwame Nyong’o from Apes in Space Animation says, “Most animators in Kenya are using 3ds Max, Maya, After Effects and Toon Boom.”
Sunrise has won numerous awards for their Jungle Beat children’s TV series, including both the Audience Award and Second Place at AnimaMundi in Brazil
Competing on price: the race to the bottom
Despite more affordable technology, Africa still struggles to compete on price alone.
“The East has a formidable combination of government subsidies, low salaries, huge economies of scale and vastly experienced teams,” says Triggerfish’s Stuart Forrest.
Kwame Nyong’o from Apes in Space Animation echoes this. “Animators in Kenya still have the problem of being undercut by production houses in India when it comes to TVC productions.”
Lung’s Claudio says animated commercials companies have been protected slightly from this outsourcing trend. “It’s a little harder to farm commercials out to India and China with the tight deadlines and approval times needed. I say a little harder, but we need to be careful because if the incentives to outsource get too juicy, then we will find that work leaving our shores. I don’t think we are immune to the challenges faced by animation studios overseas; it normally just takes a little longer for us to get the symptoms.”
There’s a danger in joining the race to the bottom and undervaluing animation’s value. “There’s a lack of respect that animation or the people in animation get from the rest of the industry,” says Claudio. “Budgets are shrinking all the time and animation really gets the brunt of it. This is on a global scale. A good example is how the animators were treated on Life of Pi, receiving very little, if any, credit at all for the amazing work that made the film what it is. In the end, Rhythm & Hues was even forced to close its doors – not cool.”
He also believes the market is becoming dangerously saturated. “One could compare the animation industry to what happened to graphic design and DTP in the late 90s,” he says. “Anybody can buy a PC, download some crack software, do an online tutorial and presto they are an ‘animator’ and they can work for very little.”
Shy the Sun’s Jannes Hendrikz agrees. “It’s getting tough. Worldwide we have a saturated market, where too many small companies are competing for the limited amount of work out there. On some international jobs, we end up pitching against 20 other directors, if not more! Because of the tough competition and the fact that there are many small companies who will come in with very low quotes, the clients now know that they can get away with offering way less money than before. The honest truth is that good animation is expensive. When budgets are slashed the quality usually goes down as well. Most work comes from large umbrella corporations and most of the time quality takes second priority to money for them. Many companies are closing down due to these austere circumstances.”
Big Game won a Gold World Medal at The New York Festivals for The Animation School
For now, despite Africa’s untapped audience of one billion people and rapidly growing economy, there’s no monetized pan-African market for animation. This should change quickly though.
“As the African middle class continues to grow, we will see African parents seeking out quality content for their children that relates more closely to their own specific culture and deals with our own stories,” says Triggerfish’s Stuart Forrest. “Because of the high cost of animation, it is first going to be a type of pan-African content that gets developed. Once the market starts demanding it, there will be no shortage of producers willing to create production that will fill that market need. With the rate of growth of mobile and tablet devices, new markets are opening up and new ways of distribution are being tested.”
Sea Monster’s Glenn Gillis agrees, “As Africa is getting more connected, people are realising that games and animation in particular are very good ways to cut across language and literacy levels.”
Stuart warns that it’s important for this pan-African market to open up quickly, because the international market is only going to become harder to crack. “Animation is only really successful when it appeals to a broad family audience – and then it can be super successful,” he says. “So the biggest challenge is going into a space that the international studios are very focused on because it’s a big money spinner for them. The major studios are lifting their output to create sometimes two new animated features a year each. There is a very real limit to how many times the average child can go to the cinema per month, so the amount of films that can play well to children are limited to just a handful – and the studios then spend huge amounts on advertising to win that audience, making it very hard for independents to compete in theatres.”
For South Africa, Glenn warns, “Africa is both the opportunity and the threat. We’re in real danger of being left behind. It’s a combination of complacency, arrogance and accessibly – South Africa is not the gateway to Africa it’s promoted as.”
He points out that South Africa’s falling behind in the two areas where it counts the most: internet access and maths and science skills.
South Africa is fifth in Africa when it comes to the percentage of households with internet access, but sixth when it comes to internet speed. And in a recent study of 148 countries measured for maths and science literacy, South Africa came stone last. “Being an animator is not just about drawing pretty pictures,” says Glenn. “Who will be writing the algorithms and code that keep us competitive?”
HomeBoyz Productions for Warner Bros
Kenya: animation in the Silicon Savannah
Kenya is becoming known as the Silicon Savannah and may yet overtake South Africa in the animation space.
“After the success of projects like UNESCO’s Africa Animated! and productions like Tinga Tinga Tales, animation has come into the spotlight in Kenya,” says Kwame Nyong’o from Apes in Space Animation. “This exposure of animation has led to some fun initiatives like Kula Heppi, an online comedy series supported by Safaricom. Local ad agencies are taking Kenyan talent seriously and giving the likes of Fatboy Animations opportunities to produce animations for their clients, where before the agencies would almost always outsource animated work to countries like India and Malaysia. Buni Media is now on its eighth season of its puppet/animation show, The XYZ Show. And Recon Digital recently released a bunch of short animated films as well.”
Kwame’s Legend of Ngong Hills is about an ogre of the forest who falls in love with a beautiful young maiden. The short won Best Animation at The Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2012 and at The Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2011, while Kwame was a Creative Focus Finalist at Annecy in 2013 (as was Senegal’s Yancouba Dieme).
But, as in South Africa, challenges remain. “For animators in Kenya to produce original content is still a big challenge, as the local broadcasters don’t have budgets available to commission new animated series,” says Kwame. “This leaves animators with the challenge of looking for support elsewhere, whether it be the development, corporate or other sectors. There is also no government support to help finance productions but we understand there is a new film fund, so we hope this will be changing soon. The animation sector needs more investment. There is a lot of buzz and excitement but not enough investors. The producers of Adventures in Zambezia and Tinga Tinga Tales put millions of dollars into those productions, and are now reaping the benefits. This proves that the world is hungry for African content! Let more investors come on board and take advantage of this industry that is currently in its infancy.”
Kwame believes “the time is right” for pan-African collaborations, “especially with the leaps in app development and the opportunities that are presenting themselves with the high speed connectivity and expanding skills base in the region.”
Chicken Core: The Rise of Kings by Sporedust
Animation in Nigeria
Shrinkfish in Nigeria is pioneering a pan-African approach to animation. They’re currently working on the 23-minute The Legacy of Rubies, the first official Nigerian/German co-production, for Focus Features’ Africa First short film platform.
“This involves people from Nigeria, Germany, The Philippines, India, the UK and Ghana,” says Shrinkfish’s Ebele Okoye. “The structure at Shrinkfish allows for adjustments in line with the current social, economic and globalized lifestyles. Production is no more tied down to one physical location. With the advantage of our own server, co-ordination of projects is effectively carried out when these involve creatives from different parts of the continent – as well as different continents.” They’re currently looking at screenplays from Ghana, Togo and Nigeria.
Sporedust’s Shina Ajulo says that within Nigeria, most animation production companies are developing for gaming and short form, rather than longer work. However, Sporedust is developing Chicken Core, about the adventures of chicken warriors trying to free their land from a tyrannous boar king, for a range of formats, while CNN called Adamu Waziri’s Bino and Fino series “Africa’s answer to Dora The Explorer.”
Ebele says, “A lot of people are starting to take animation more seriously than in the past few years. A few dedicated persons who cannot afford training are teaching themselves through online materials. Shrinkfish is training people in the Shrinkfish Media Lab (smedLAB). The first run of the smedLAB animation course started in March 2013 and has yielded some surprising results in the progress shown by the students through professional backing.”
Ebele believes the biggest challenge is the accuracy of perceptions of poor-quality African animation. “Animation aspirants refuse to start with the basics of animation. They jump into 3D animation for the glitter and end up producing half-baked, unfinished, bad quality work, which they put out and classify as ‘African animation,’ thus solidifying the cliché already built around the industry.”
She urges African animators, “Invest in knowledge. Individuals who are interested in becoming animators should invest their money into visiting animation training institutes, instead of wasting their money on expensive gadgets like iPhones, iPads and ‘swag.’ Pull out your pencils and paper and start the natural way and you will only excel when you transfer these to the technological tools.”
The Animation School won a Gold World Medal at The New York Festivals for In Sickness
New avenues for animation
The future of African animation may have very little to do with traditional feature films or TV series though.
Sea Monster is increasingly expanding outside of 2d animation for TV series into animated explainers, augmented reality, branded entertainment, e-learning, games and gamification. “Our strategy at Sea Monster is to build a business that’s not dependent on long-form projects, so that we can do long-form projects,” says Sea Monster’s Glenn Gillis, admitting: “It’s the long way around.”
Similarly, Shy The Sun’s Jannes Hendrikz says, “The industry is opening up a bit, which is quite refreshing. There are lots of new opportunities for business, like gaming (console, mobile or web). Interactive work has changed the scene quite a bit. Animators are collaborating with programmers more and more on projects that involve physical interaction, like interactive stage shows, viral interventions like projection mapping, information booths or interactive museum exhibits.”
African Animation Playlist
Accolades for African animation
In addition to the success of Adventures in Zambezia and Clockwork Zoo already mentioned in the main article, recent accolades include:
•Among other awards, Shy the Sun’s ads have won first place at The Mobius Awards and Best International Animation at Infocom EME Awards, as well as Gold at New York and Silver at London and the Clios.
• Among other awards, Wicked Pixels’ ads have Grand Prixs at New York, Epica and Anifest, as well as two Golds at Cannes Lions.
• Among other awards, The Black Heart Gang’s Tale of How won a Special Distinction Award from France’s Annecy International Festival, widely considered the main animation festival international.
• Triggerfish’s second animated feature film, Khumba, screened in competition at Annecy and The Toronto International Film Festival’s Kids Programme.
• Sunrise has won numerous awards for their JunglBeat children’s TV series, including both the Audience Award and Second Place at AnimaMundi in Brazil.
• Luma has just createdancing greek cows for Kemps in America, while their children’s TV series Bun & Bunee
• Mike Scott’s Goldfish music videos have around 8.3 million views, while Mike recently sold his HappyLand series to China.
• Tincup founder Matt Torode’s Washing Over Me music video for Goldfish has over 600 000 views.
• Bryan Devlin’s Flood Runner game has over 35m plays.