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Viva Virtual Mandela!

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on February 11, 1990, David Phume was an eight-year-old in short trousers… Now, through 22 years of change, the lives of the two men are entwined.

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The old man would be proud. David Phume has grabbed, with both hands, the chances proffered by a democratic South Africa.

Walking around his Johannesburg offices, Phume shows pride in his work—the fruit of years of slog and training.

They call him South Africa’s first black animator and he’s been doing it since the tender age of 17. Phume is a down-to-earth, charismatic creative who is not afraid to dream big.

“It all started when I was 12 years old. I was tinkering and was fortunate enough to be exposed to high-end animation software.”

Phume studied 3-D animation at Boston Media House in Johannesburg, then went to San Francisco and trained under professionals from international studios like Pixar, Reel FX and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

David Phume

It would have been easier for Phume to slide into a career in the United States, but instead he chose to bring his skills home. He founded Penthouse Motion Pictures, a broadcast design and animation studio, in 2005.

These 3-D films are incredibly complicated and expensive, especially on the scale Phume wants to create. The two-hour, 34-minute Spirit of Mandela pilot took him three years to complete, while holding down a day job. He hopes to turn it into a full-length blockbuster to be shown in more than 100 countries.

“I have always wanted to animate an African story and this [Nelson Mandela’s life in prison] is one that resonated with my soul,” he says.

Phume may have to find another story to tell on the big screen. You cannot simply take the story of a world icon, like Mandela, and do with it as you please. Phume went to ask permission from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The Foundation was established on August 19, 1999 to protect and develop the former president’s legacy.

Phume found out the rights are not the Foundation’s to give. The Foundation spends close to R2 million ($240,377) a year to protect Madiba’s intellectual property and says various bodies are entrusted with rights pertaining to him. Some lie with his lawyer, others are guarded by the state, the Foundation, his family, or the man himself.

But the only person who has the rights to his life story

is film producer, Anant Singh, a man Phume has yet to speak to.

Even if the rights were there, making an animated film is expensive. Movies like Megamind, Wall-E and Smurfs came together on budgets of between $110 million and $180 million, taking 4.1-35.7 million man hours. Interestingly enough, it is said that the more detailed, reflective and silent the film, the higher the budget.

In the South African animation industry, strides are being made with films like Jock of the Bushveld, released in July 2011, and the impending release of Zambezia, as well as the production of Khumba, from the Cape Town-based Triggerfish Animation. Zambezia was screened at the American Film Market on November 6 and the company is in talks with the Americans for distribution. If the trailer is anything to go by, there is a lot of talent and potential in Africa.

Gustavo Corrêa, the training centre director and 3D Max instructor at Learn 3D Computer Animation Training Centre in Johannesburg, says: “To put together a complete 3D animation production you need a talented and relatively big team of people, working full-time for five to six years; you need money for salaries and infrastructure way before reaping any return from the end product. In that way, you need serious investment from either government and/or the private sector to sustain the business while in production.”

While Phume works out his next move for a film and funding, he is in production with an animated television series for Tshwane TV, a community television channel broadcasting in Pretoria. Phume is the executive creative director and has won a Promax BDA Africa Gold Award for the channel’s promo.

Who would have thought more than 20 years ago that a young black child in South Africa would grow up to become a creative director of two companies, an executive board member of a multimedia body and chairman of the Miss Tshwane pageant? Twenty-nine-year-old David Phume is living the life that Nelson Mandela sacrificed 27 years for—and loving it.

A Handshake For Your Thoughts

One man owns the rights to one of the world’s greatest stories. Anant Singh is a world renowned South African film producer and the proud owner of Nelson Mandela’s life story. Since 1984, he has notched up more than 75 films, including Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country. Mandela has referred to him as “a producer I respect very much…a man of tremendous ability”.

Anant Singh

FORBES AFRICA (FA): How is it that you hold the rights to Nelson Mandela’s life story? Anant Singh (AS): I started writing to Mr Mandela, while he was still in prison, about making a big-screen film about his life. I felt then, as I do now, that the journey he had been through was compelling.
FA: What does it mean to you? AS: It is indeed an honor and privilege to become the custodian of the Mandela legacy and his amazing journey. It is also a very daunting challenge which I am up to. His life story is complex and vast, and the adaptation to a motion picture has many challenges. However, I feel confident that we will be able to tell Mr Mandela’s story in an effective and powerful way. The benchmarks are the epic films, Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi.
FA: Is there a formal written agreement or was it all settled with a gentleman’s handshake? AS: It was a combination of the two. He initially granted me the rights verbally with a gentleman’s handshake, and thereafter a formal, written agreement was concluded as is necessary for the legal aspects of the rights for a film adaptation of an autobiography.
FA: What are you planning to do with the rights? AS: As you may know, I have been developing the film, Long Walk To Freedom, which is based on Mr Mandela’s life. We are currently in pre-production on the film.
FA: Do the rights cover film and animation? AS: The Mandela story lends itself to multi-faceted components of the various mediums of film, animation and stage. We feel that there is potential to integrate all of these. We have all of these rights.
FA: A young animator hopes to create a 3-D animation film on Mandela’s imprisonment. Are you open to sharing the rights or selling them? AS: As with film, animation requires an extremely intricate storytelling technique. It is also very expensive to produce; in fact, more so than a regular film, if done well. We are very happy to look at initiatives that would be able to complement the motion picture and which are able to do justice to this powerful and epic story. Animation, however, has to compete with the big Hollywood studios of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks. World-class animated films are produced on budgets of over $200 million.

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