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‘It’s Africa’s Time For Animation’

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When Vanessa Sinden turned her back on South Africa’s growing movie industry to work in a barn making cartoons, people thought she was mad.

Three years later, Triggerfish, the fledgling animation company she joined in 2009, turned from minnow to big fish on the continent. It has produced award-winning creations on cheap budgets. All thanks to ingenuity, childhood ambitions and the urge to tell African stories, she says.

“My first job in animation was one of the biggest films this country has ever made. I think I fell with my butt in the butter… we had to figure out how to make a film from scratch, we had no clue,” laughs Sinden.

It is an animation business nurtured in a 193-year-old barn with wooden floors, white-washed walls, swinging barn doors and roaming cows beyond.

These days, it’s not only the cows that roam on the farm in the southern suburbs in Cape Town. It is also the computer geeks who roam with their animation tablets amid rows of computers whizzing as they render 3D animations.

Sinden has been on the farm since the beginning. The barn betrays the youthful spirit of its inhabitants. All around are action figurines, posters of cartoon characters, table tennis tables, stock-piled vending machines, popcorn maker and coffee stations.

It is no mean feat for Sinden, who has spent eight years in this barn bringing to life African animation movies Adventures of Zambezia ($35 million) and Khumba ($26 million) that became South African blockbusters and the third and fourth best-grossing films in the country’s history, respectively.

“South Africa is the leading emerging animation industry in the world. We cannot beat Asia in terms of raw costs, but that is just servicing work. In Africa, we are passionate about our own work, our stories being told,” says Sinden.

 Stick Man, a BBC One Christmas collaboration with Magic Light Pictures, has now won 11 international awards on three continents, including the Cristal for a TV Production at the world’s leading animation festival, Annecy.

Such is their prestige, Triggerfish were given rare rights to produce, alongside Magic Light Pictures again, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes which premiered in Africa in March.

In June, this latest work scored a hat-trick: first winning Best Storytelling at Shanghai International Film and TV Festival in China, then Best Animation at the Banff World Media Festival in Canada, and finishing off with the Cristal for Best TV Production at Annecy in France, the world’s premier animation festival.

Triggerfish’s hat-trick follows just days after the release of the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF) second Economic Impact Assessment on the South African film industry, which found that the sector’s GDP contribution had increased from R3.5 billion in 2013 to R5.4 billion in 2016.

“With South Africa officially in recession, it’s more important than ever that our economy finds new avenues for growth,” says Triggerfish Animation CEO Stuart Forrest.

“The animation sector is still the smallest part of the film industry, according to the NFVF’s study, but our three awards on three continents this weekend are further proof that we are punching above our weight. We believe that with continued government support, animation can become a key, job-intensive growth sector in South Africa.”

Animate The Beloved Country

On the international scene, box office successes like Despicable Me, Finding Nemo and Frozen show the heavy demand for animation films. Triggerfish believes it is Africa’s time.

“The animation industry [in South Africa] is still very fledgling. 2007 was the first time someone could work in the industry in this country, since then there has been a couple of films and a couple of 2D studios making content for Disney, but not a lot of people have had the opportunity to do their own stories, their own content. That’s a big deal,” says Sinden.

What it means for Sinden and the animators of Triggerfish is coming up with the next big hit.

It is a lot harder than you think.

“At the heart of this issue, is we don’t have enough stories that are going to hold up worldwide. Universal stories for the family,” says Sinden.

This is why Sinden has been spearheading initiatives like Story Lab, a competition supported by the South African Department of Trade & Industry and US-based Disney that aims to develop African stories by Africans. Triggerfish were looking for four feature films and four TV series for development; they got 1,400 entries from 30 countries.

“We wanted the best stories and we wanted to mentor and nurture them through bringing the best in the world from Hollywood to teach them here. We identified 38 writers to have projects we love. We held a two-week workshop in 2015.”

The cherry on the top was the final eight would be given a rare foot in the door with mentorship at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, Hollywood.

Two years later, and in the present, Sinden says the feature films are in their first drafts and the TV programs are ready and looking for investors.

South Africa is also in the unique position to produce movies at a fraction of the budgets of Europe and the US. It is a cut-throat business driven by merchandise and the young.

“Pixar are sitting at $100 million to make a film and then double that for marketing. Adventures of Zambezia and Khumba was both made under $5 million each… Film is basically a $100 million advert. [Pixar, Dreamworks and Marvel] are alive because of the off-screen sales on merchandise. Disney are the godfathers of this. They have 100 years of creating content it has sold off the shelf. They realized way back in the day its off-screen sales and brands make the money. It wasn’t about Mickey Mouse on the screen. We’re all catching up now,” says Sinden.

In this fast-paced industry, Triggerfish have adjusted their pipeline to focus on television.

“What Triggerfish is finding is with television there is a quicker turnaround time, and there can be momentum. If you have [content] that is interesting, you can get investors to move in quite quickly. For us to change our pipeline from movies to TV series was a massive shift. It means producing a TV episode once a week. But it’s a better business model. It is our own merchandising, our own content and we can make money off that,” says Sinden.

“Triggerfish has always been about passion but we also have realized we need to make money. We thought we would make money off our first two projects but we haven’t yet. We’ve paid all our gap investors and financers, but that’s about it.”

Another reason why Triggerfish is targeting TV is the paradigm shift of gender-based content – especially young girls.

“I see from my nephew, [boys] are given such a platter of all this variety, but all the girls are offered are pink sparkles and princesses.”

“Girls haven’t gone to university with dreams of becoming animators. Why are there so few women in those roles? It is because they weren’t encouraged to do so when they were girls. Now the content to pre-schoolers is saying you can be engineers, you can be scientists, nothing is stopping you, or you can still be a princess in pink. There is nothing stopping you.”

Two new shows set to air will break these sexualized conventions featuring not only girls in lead roles experimenting in science and engineering, but also Africans. One of them is a girl who decided she wants to be a princess and a ninja. The other, called Mama K’s Super Four, features four teenage girls who have to save the world on a budget from their headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. The story is written by Malenga Mulendema, who lives and works in that city.

“Malenga asked… ‘why can’t she see herself in any of those roles, there are no black girls who speaks to who she is and what she does why can’t she see herself as hero’.”

“It’s an all-black girl cast, all shapes and sizes and it just taps on those little buttons, that girls don’t have to be skinny, you can be beautiful and be curvy and busty, and be smart and techie and programmed robots and that’s beautiful too,” says Sinden.

“Four teenage girls living in Lusaka, who save the world, may not appeal to a girl in Germany, but reality is the time is right and content and stories like this will come from Africa and we think there is a market.”

For Sinden, now 39 years old, transforming the animation industry and seeing equal gender-based content come to life is a dream come true. When she was young, she was watching movies like Aladdin and singing along to the cassette in her dad’s car for months.

“Kids love the visual characters and the vibes you get from watching their reactions are the hooks for me… I remember when A Bugs Life came out in my late teens and I was the only adult in the entire cinema.”

There is even more hard work ahead. Around the world only one in five women are in the industry, says Sinden.

“Parents don’t think the film industry is a great industry. My parents were put off when I told them I wanted to work in film and started off working for free and finding a job. They said ‘why would you do that, why would you work backwards’.”

There is even more in store for the company that works out of a barn. On the horizon is Seal Team – an origins story of navy seals.

“It’s seals versus sharks and it’s meant to be true to the genre, seals standing up to the bully sharks. It’s going to be great for the boys. That’s currently going into storyboarding come July. We are currently going into the script at the moment.”

All from a barn where childhood dreams were born, where the tough business of animation is carried out.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work

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Mother-daughter cofounders Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor launched Medley to help young professionals gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work. COURTESY OF MEDLEY

Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them. 

“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression. 

That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.

Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.

Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.

“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.

In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.

Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”

To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership. 

With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.

“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.

Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff, Leadership

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Elon Musk Is Now The Fifth Richest Person In The World

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Elon Musk’s meteoric rise up the Forbes Billionaire List has continued this month, as he’s ascended past luminaries such as Warren Buffett and Steve Ballmer. As of Monday afternoon, Musk’s net worth surpassed $74 billion, meaning he is now the fifth-richest person on the planet.

KEY FACTS

  • Musk, 49, is the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, the electric vehicle company whose stock price has soared since March.
  • Tesla shares gained another 9.5% in Monday’s trading to $1,643.00, giving it a 60% rise in just three weeks since June 29, and a nearly 300% increase in 2020 alone.
  • Musk was ranked  No. 31 on Forbes’ Billionaires List as recently as mid-March, with a net worth just under $25 billion.
  • His fortune has nearly tripled since then, skyrocketing to $74.2 billion at the close of trading Monday, Forbes calculates.
  • Musk owns 21% of Tesla but has pledged more than half his stake as collateral for loans; Forbes has discounted his stake to take the loans into account.

KEY BACKGROUND: 

Musk first debuted on Forbes’ 400 Wealthiest Americans List in 2012 in 190th place with a net worth of $2.4 billion. On January 1 this year, he was the 37th richest person on earth. However, Tesla’s sudden and spectacular rise has propelled him near the very top of the world’s wealthiest humans. Tesla’s surge has confounded some investors, considering it’s far smaller than its competitors and only recently began to log quarterly profits. Tesla produced 103,000 vehicles in the first quarter; Toyota produced 2.4 million vehicles during that same period. In 2019, American automakers General Motors and Ford generated ten times more sales than Tesla. Late last month, analysts from Morgan Stanley warned that Tesla stock, which was trading at roughly $1,000 per share at that time, was “grossly overvalued and set to plunge.” Earlier this month, Musk said that Tesla would produce virtually fully autonomous self-driving vehicles by the end of 2020, a claim that was met with skepticism by an auto industry accustomed to a heaping of hype from Musk on the capabilities of self-driving technology. Musk has not sold shares of Tesla since 2010.

CRITICAL QUOTES:

“I really couldn’t care less,” Musk emailed Forbes about his net worth earlier this month. “These numbers rise and fall, but what really matters is making great products that people love.”

“Moves like we are seeing in Microsoft and Tesla and Amazon are truly insane and unlike any i have ever seen in my life,” tweeted analyst Jim Cramer on Monday afternoon. When asked if Tesla was a ‘Covid Stock,’ Cramer replied, “i don’t even know if it is a stock. it is something else entirely, like a new species discovered in the wild.” 

TANGENT:

When Kanye West initially announced that he was running for president, he said he had the “full support” of Musk, a longtime close friend. In a since-deleted tweet, Musk responded, “We may have more differences of opinion than I anticipated.” However, Musk later told Page Six, “Kanye explained afterward some of the reasoning behind why he said what he said. It makes more sense than many people, including me, realized.” On July Fourth, Musk tweeted, “You have my full support!”

Tommy Beer, Forbes Staff, Business

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