Luma director Paul Meyer. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Luma director Paul Meyer. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

SOUTH Africa is starting to make its mark in the world of digital animation and will this year release its second full-length animated feature, Khumba, created by Cape Town’s Triggerfish studios.

This follows the local industry’s first animated film, Triggerfish’s Adventures of Zambezia, which proved to be the most successful African film export since The Gods Must Be Crazy, released more than 30 years ago. It is also the first African film to have received two nominations for the Annie Awards, the animation industry’s Oscars.

Triggerfish chief financial officer Jean-Michel Koenig said studios and production companies based in Africa were better positioned to tell authentic African stories and could do so at a lower cost than the big players such as the US and New Zealand.

“We have seen the global success of franchises like  DreamWorks’ Madagascar franchise and the box-office success of Disney’s Lion King. We should be taking the initiative in bringing our own stories to the world,” said Mr Koenig.

“Also, South Africa is able to make films cheaper and is sometimes more resourceful than Hollywood, which has a very traditional approach to animation. This has certainly been our experience at Triggerfish, where our budget constraints meant we had to look at every problem with a fresh eye. It forced us to be resourceful and inventive.”

In the US, animation films are produced on budgets of $50m-$200m and account for more than 15% of the US gross box office, which was above $10bn last year.

New Zealand also has an established special-effects industry, primarily through a company called Weta, which benefited from Peter Jackson’s successes, including hits such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and James Cameron’s Avatar.

But, despite this, New Zealand has yet to produce its own original animation feature film, something that South Africa has accomplished.

The local digital animation industry is pegged at close to R3bn a year and employs about 3,000 people, according to Luma, a sizeable player in this small, but growing sector.

Luma director Paul Meyer said generous tax incentives paired with good-quality animation skills had seen the local animation industry grow significantly in recent years. “Luma has grown at about 10% a year since we opened our doors in 2001.”

In line with South African tax regulations, companies are allowed to produce an animation or film anywhere in the world and still claim tax breaks of 25%-30% if they spend R3.5m or more in South Africa.

“This makes the country extremely attractive when it comes to doing some animation work here,” said Mr Meyer.

Triggerfish’s Mr Koenig agreed that government support had bolstered the local industry.

“We would not be where we are today without the support of the Industrial Development Corporation, the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Film and Video Foundation.

“In South Africa we have a fantastic service industry doing world-class work for the major studios, but no one is really investing in original storytelling to the extent that we can build a sustainable industry. This needs to change and, until we see the private sector playing its role in allocating capital to the creative industries, the government has a role to play,” said Mr Koenig.

Mr Meyer said the digital animation landscape was evolving from being US-centric to one in which much work is done in other, cheaper jurisdictions. “While the US is still perceived as being the best, it is very expensive to do animations there.”

He said animation skills in South Africa were good and getting better by the day, with between 100 and 200 people graduating in the field every year.

“There is a lot to be excited about in the local industry and when you look at the international market there really is an infinite amount of work,” said Mr Meyer, who assisted with India’s first major sci-fi movie, Ra.One.

Mr Koenig said Africa would continue to “self-actualise” over the next 10 years or more. Filmmakers and animators have a role to play in the process.

“We have some amazing talent in South Africa. As we become more confident in our abilities, the world will sit up and take notice.”

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times