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.”
“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.