The South African film animation industry is about to break through onto the international virtual stage, with major local productions set to debut on two of the world’s most popular streaming platforms.
This week Netflix announced that its first African animated series, Supa Team 4, will launch globally on 20 July. Created by Zambian storyteller Malenga Mulendema, it has been produced by South Africa’s Triggerfish Animation Studios.
And this week Disney+ debuted a short film in its animated Star Wars: Visions anthology, directed by South Africans Nadia Darries and Daniel Clarke, and also produced by Triggerfish.
“Africa has a rich storytelling heritage with a dynamic young population that is stepping forward and proudly making an impact on the global stage, and we’re investing in that energy because people want to see themselves and their stories on screen,” says Dominique Bazay, director of kids animated series at Netflix.
“We are committed to investing in telling African stories of every kind across different formats and genres. Netflix believes that great stories come from anywhere, and strategically, holds the view that the more local the story, the better. We strongly believe that in Africa and South Africa, not only are there great creators but there are also many established and up-and-coming talents that deserve more global recognition.”
One of the most remarkable breakthroughs is represented by the Star Wars episode, which was a major landmark for Triggerfish and the young directors of the episode.
Nadia Darries, who grew up on the Cape Flats, and Daniel Clarke, from Bergvliet in Cape Town, says they could not quite believe they had been selected.
“Triggerfish put out a call for story pitches after being approached by (Star Wars creator) Lucasfilm,” says Darries. “My pitch got shortlisted, and then Daniel and I met. We decided to approach the drawing board together and collaborate on a final pitch to Lucasfilm. A few weeks later, we were told our pitch was selected.”
Says Clarke: “It took a while for it to sink in, but we immediately started to prepare. We were both aware of the gravity that… Star Wars had, and wanted to find a way to simultaneously honour the world that so many people love while at the same time tell a story that was true to our own lives and experiences.”
Triggerfish was approached by Lucasfilm due to a formidable track record in animation, including an Oscar nomination in the category in 2018. CEO Stuart Forrest, who founded the company 27 years ago, says he presides over a core team of around 40 people, made up of department heads and key supervisors.
“On a project, we can have around 200 contract workers, and we also outsource a lot of our work to third party studios when we are at max capacity. Last year we had around 1,500 people around the world working on our original African titles.”
The secret to Triggerfish’s global success, he says, is “an extraordinary team”.
“We also have a very clear vision—to bring creativity from Africa to a global audience. So it’s easy to be consistent over a long period of time, and this consistency—together with a great team–is a huge part of why we’re successful.”
Ironically, the Covid pandemic provided a boost, as remote working became more accessible, “so location is no longer an issue for many creators”. However, the global slowdown in streaming growth has posed major challenges.
“It’s been a tough couple of years across the industry, and the slowdown has had an impact on nearly all animation companies, as the streamers recalibrate. If you’re creating kid’s content, you’re especially vulnerable. as you’re always competing with the streamers’ own library of content which is already full of great titles. We specialise in kid’s content that comes from Africa-based creators, so we’ve been a bit more immune to this, as there is no back-catalogue to compete with.”
Bazay says that Supa Team 4 also represented a landmark for African animation.
“We’re so proud of Malenga, who grew up watching stories she couldn’t see herself in, for offering this unique series to this generation of kids across the continent, and around the world.
“As a global business that spans the world, it’s incredibly important for us to make sure our slate reflects the diverse cultures and experiences of our members, especially in the different African countries. More people deserve to see themselves, their lives and their cultures reflected on screen, and African stories deserve to be seen on the global stage. Ultimately, we are not only making content from Africa, by Africans for Africans but also for the world to enjoy.”
Supa Team 4 was produced by Triggerfish in collaboration with London-based kids’ entertainment specialist CAKE, with support from Superprod Animation in France.
Says Mulendema: “I was interested in using live action films and TV to tell African stories. Thanks to some brave local Zambian artists who used their own resources to put together film workshops, I had spaces to learn, try and fail creatively. But because these opportunities were few and far in between, I decided to look to the rest of the continent, and that’s how I came across the Triggerfish Story Lab call for concepts. This was the first time I ever considered using animation to tell stories.”
They told here that selected storytellers would potentially have their concepts developed into episodic TV content or an animated feature film for the global market, but she says she did not believe them.
“I guess I had never seen it so I couldn’t imagine it happening. Every step the project has progressed in the last seven years, from idea to final product, has been a wonderful, surreal experience.”
According to homegrown streaming service Showmax, African audiences prefer local content.
“At the end of 2022, across all their key markets, local content came out on top,” says Showmax CEO Yolisa Phahle. “In 2022, seven of the ten most streamed titles in South Africa, eight of the top 10 titles in Kenya and Nigeria, and nine of the top 10 in Ghana were African.
“While it’s early days for Showmax’s investment in animation, their first Showmax Original animation in Nigeria, Jay Jay: The Chosen One, has similarly ranked as the most-watched kids’ content in Nigeria and Ghana, ahead of international smash hits like Minions: The Rise of Gru and Sonic the Hedgehog 2.”
On Thursday, animation on the continent was given another shot in the arm when Disney+ released the movie poster for Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire. It is a collection of ten animated films set in Africa’s future, from film-makers in Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Due to air later this year, it provides the ultimate proof that the world has embraced African animation and that the industry has spread across the continent.
* This feature first appeared in Business Times in The Sunday Times.