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South African Animation: Not Just Elephants and Zebras

Eric Oldrin reveals the animated possibilities and astounding growth of animation and visual effects studios in South Africa.

A shot from Astral Studios' work on Chomp Mom. © Astral Studios.

When most people think of South Africa, they imagine elephants not animation. So, you may be surprised to learn that in addition to one of the worlds most beautiful coastlines, there is a thriving community of talented animators.

Ten years after the birth of democracy, there are hundreds of CGI production companies, several 2D animation houses and an impressive handful of stop-motion studios. Upon closer inspection, overseas producers may find distinct advantages in Africa. With a favorable exchange rate and lower cost of living, South African budgets are very competitive. More importantly, the people take an incredible amount of pride in their work, are hungry for opportunities and offer a unique creative perspective.

Growth of the Industry

South African ad agencies have always had a penchant for dry wit and over the last decade, theyve earned international acclaim. Their success has attracted most of the major players, from Ogilvy and Mather to Saatchi and Saatchi and their work is seen both domestically and abroad.

Theres been a certain learning curve in their relationship with animation, changing a misplaced perception that one resorts to it when they cant afford live-action. This view is changing and many agencies now consider animation a creative opportunity, rather than a fiscal consequence. This is especially true with 3D productions.

South African 3D has reached a very high standard because of commercials production, says Irene Constantinides, exec producer at Astral Studios. Animators have to have excellent control of modeling, lighting, and texturing processes in order to satisfy an over-alert brand manager.

At the tip of Africa, the stakes are raised, competition is rife and the standards are high. The over-alert brand managers have fostered an impressive work ethic and that tenacity has attracted productions beyond the ad world.

Witness the strength of animation in South Africa. © Triggerfish Animation.

The film industry has also grown over the past decade, as Cape Town became one of Hollywoods favorite locations. The skill and perseverance developed through advertising has been recognized in the post-production world and big films are starting to trust their effects with local talent.

Craig Wessels from Wicked Pixels says, We have some of the best creative minds in the world and we are technically up to speed. More and more producers realize that this is the place to post.

Traditional animation and stop-motion have a presence, as well. Most 3D companies have a traditional animation department, though the quality often suffers from the lack of focus. However, a few studios are completely dedicated to non-3D forms of animation and their work is world-class.

Overall, the face of the South African animation industry is quite diverse and holds interesting opportunities for stateside producers.

Face of the Industry

Heres a quick snapshot of a few studios. This is not a comprehensive guide but it gives you a sense of the variety and quality of talent in South Africa.

Wicked Pixels

Wicked Pixels is one of the more popular vfx and 3D animation studios in Cape Town. Founded in 1997, they have produced over 600 TV commercials and are now moving into TV series and film. Internationally, theyve gained recognition, including a Gold Lion at Cannes for their work with clients like BMW, MTV, Smirnoff, Guinness, VW, Gauloises, Shell and Red Bull.

Most of their projects involve input from storyboarding to final delivery. They re equally skilled at working out a complex visual effect shot as they are at character design. They have a good reputation and are worth considering for your next production.

www.wickedpixels.com/

Director Jacquie Trowell. © Triggerfish Animation.

Triggerfish Animation

Outside the masses of the many 3D production studios is Triggerfish, a talented stop motion and Flash-for-Broadcast animation house, also in Cape Town. Triggerfish Animation was formed in 1996 and has developed a reputation for producing quality animation, with over 150 titles to their credit. Theyve worked with Sesame Workshop since 1999 and over the last seven years, Triggerfish has become an integral part of the local animation industry.

We produce animation because we love animation and in the end, I think thats what makes good work, says director Jacquie Trowell. We have a personal desire to experiment, collaborate, and create. That passion is part of everything Triggerfish creates. Thats why clients like Sesame Workshop keep coming back. Talented, enthusiastic, connected Triggerfish is worth a look.

www.triggerfish.co.za

Astral Studios' Irene Constantinides. © Astral Studios.

Astral Studios

In Johannesburg, Astral Studios has a wide variety of production skills for commercials, television productions, multimedia presentations, and websites. Irene Constantinides says, We have seen the local industry rapidly improve in quality and complexity and we foresee that commercials and international work will continue to allow our creative team to push the leading edge of special effects. Shes very enthusiastic about the future of the industry in South Africa.

The new BMW 6 Series commercial On Your Mind is a excellent example of how a project reflects the way the South African creative industry is staking its claim on the world wide stage. Out of a number of top international companies, a South African agency, production company and director were chosen to execute the commercial, she says. Successes like these sends a message out there that South Africa is truly a significant player in the international field.

www.astralstudios.co.za/

The Refinery

If you cant find what you want in one of the smaller studios, youre sure to get it at the Refinery. With offices in Johannesburg and in Cape Town, they are one of the largest post-production houses in the country. They offer a wide spectrum of services, including 3D animation and visual effects. Theyre another a good example of the burgeoning advertising and film industry.

www.refinery.co.za/

The outside view of Astral Studios. © Astral Studios.

Future of the Industry

A lot of the hard work has already been done. Ad agencies and the film industry have helped develop a talented animation community in South Africa. The opportunities of the future are really for foreign producers to tap into this unique creative pool and the distinct cost-saving advantages.

As Craig Wessels says, Cape Town is becoming the new Soho/Santa Monica only more interesting, less expensive and without the attitude. Indeed, South Africa has more than elephants. From 3D to Flash to stop frame, its worth considering for your next commercial, post-production or animated series.

Maybe youll even get to expense a trip to beautiful Cape Town, if youre lucky.

Eric Oldrin is a freelance producer from San Francisco, living in Cape Town. He is currently producing a clay-animated short, inspired by South Africas first decade of democracy and building a world-class Flash animation team.

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