Lucy Heavens and Nic Smal’s fun and energetic new 2D animated series, about an optimistic squirrel and bestie bunny navigating school and relationships in their often-eccentric home town, channels the best of shows like ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ and ‘Animaniacs;’ series is now playing on Disney Channel and Disney XD, and streaming on Disney+.
She’s a magic-wielding, party-crashing, history-making squirrel, leaving plenty of destruction in her wake while also offering viewers valuable coming-of-age life lessons. Kiff, named after the show’s nutty main character, is the latest 2D animated series is now playing on Disney Channel and Disney XD, and streaming on Disney+.
The show, produced by Titmouse, is developed and executive produced by South African creators Nic Smal and Lucy Heavens. The buddy-comedy series follows optimistic squirrel Kiff Chatterley and her chill bunny bestie Barry Buns as they navigate school, relationships, and their often-eccentric community in Table Town, a world where animals and magical oddballs tackle day-to-day life together. Inspired by the people and places Heavens and Smal experienced growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, each half-hour episode is comprised of two 11-minute stories and includes a new original song.
Smal, who also serves as an animator, writer, and storyboard artist on the show, is previously known for his work on animated series like Team Jay, Boxed Warriors, Florrie’s Dragons, and Caillou. Heavens, who heads Kiff’s comedy writing, has worked on DreamWork’s The Mighty Ones, Disney’s Space Chickens in Space, and Nickelodeon’s Moosebox. The two creatives first met while working at South African animation studios on shows like Seal Team.
In addition to their creative roles, Smal and Heavens both voice characters in the show – Smal is Principal Secretary, the principal of Table Town School, and Heavens is Helen, the school's drama teacher. Smal also writes and co-produces the original songs in the series.
This is the first animated series Smal or Heavens has created and we got the chance to sit down with the duo to talk about the personal stories that inspired different episodes, why they chose to keep some inconsistency in the hand-drawn 2D animation, and how they hope Kiff encourages other South African animators and writers.
But first, take a look at the Kiff series trailer:
Victoria Davis: You’ve said in other interviews that there aren’t many opportunities to create a comedy like this in South Africa. Why is that? Especially since Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Plettenberg Bay, Johannesburg and Durban have major animation studios.
Lucy Heavens: There are great animation studios in Cape Town and a wealth of talent, just not huge budgets. So, a lot of those budgets come from service work for those studios. And a few have found a way to do original stuff, but few. It's just limited in comparison to the huge opportunities that you get here in the USA.
Nic Smal: You know, we're a long way from home and it has been quite an eye-opening and wonderful experience. We just are super stoked. We keep pinching ourselves every day.
VD: I love that you two bonded over your love of comedy but also, specifically, millennial treasures like The Simpsons, Monty Python, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Animaniacs. These are all very different shows, but they have some similarities. What were the most important aspects of those shows to bring to Kiff?
LH: The ones that are just relatable and about being a human being and being alive. That’s the kind of thing you get from The Simpsons.
NS: In The Simpsons, with the whole community, the town, and everyone, you get to know each character so well and what's going on with them. They've obviously done such a great job with that. And we love everyone in the town that we created in Kiff. We definitely have taken away that kind of sentiment from The Simpsons.
LH: The other side of the coin is the absurdism we saw in these shows when we were kids that, even to this day, is something that makes us feel more sane in the world as opposed to less. Things don't make sense. So, the absurdism aspect is married to the relatability aspect in Kiff, and we really enjoy that.
VD: Of course, more than anything, this show is based on both of you growing up in Cape Town. And there are a lot of things in the show that are meant to be relatable to everyone, on a more universal level. But what are some of your Cape Town-specific memories that you’ve infused into the show that were specific to you two growing up?
NS: Well, visually, it's very derivative of Cape Town. We've got a huge mountain in Cape Town called Table Mountain and our characters live on a mountain called Mount Table. So, there are some of those straight-up visual comparisons, like the plant life and the colors as well. At home, when the sun hits the mountain at a certain time of day, you get these really nice, warm peachy tones, and you see those colors in the show.
LH: There are there are amalgams of our friends and our family and the experiences we had going to school, but we start every episode with experiences that are very universal, and they become specific in Kiff’s world. There are instances like, ‘I have to tell my friend that when he comes over, he can't drink all the juice in the house.’ Or ‘I'm going to the grocery store with my parents and it's a chore, so I have to keep myself entertained.’ So, though they are all things that we've experienced, they are pretty universal, a lot of them at least.
VD: When you’re going through all the things that you want to include in the show, what were some of the more fun Easter eggs you included in there for yourself, from memories of growing up, that you’re excited for people to see, or that they should look out for?
NS: I once attempted to try and give myself my own nickname, which doesn’t work. You cannot give yourself your own nickname. So, there’s an episode where Kiff and Barry feel quite wronged because the ticket broker at the movie theater is nicknaming everyone except them, and they try to convince him to give them nicknames that they’ve picked out for themselves. It doesn’t work out too well.
LH: We also lean on things that we did last weekend, not just in our childhoods. Nick and I recently had an argument about who exactly should be able to eat the last slice of pizza the next day, and that found its way into an episode with the “Chatterley Family Courtroom.”
VD: The animation style you’ve chosen is so well fitted to this series because there are so many aspects of the characters, like in SpongeBob, that you can morph and exaggerate while still keeping their essence. Was that something you guys thought about when deciding on the design? What other reasons were there for choosing this style of 2D?
NS: When designing Kiff, right in the beginning, she started off with this big, almost like a light bulb, head with so much real estate for expressions. And then the same thing happened with Barry, who had this very simplistic shape language, just a circle, something that's quite easy and fun to draw. And, because it was so simplistic, we could go anywhere with facial expressions, and we could really bring out those emotions that you identify with once you see that face change. And Kiff’s got a large amount going on within her. So, it's the perfect canvas.
But the simplicity also works for understated, neutral expressions. We wanted the character to immediately be funny on the page, even in a neutral stance. We have a lot of fun with all the nuances of the acting and the character expressions because of this style.
VD: For all the advancements the animation industry has made in 3D technology, we’re seeing a big comeback of 2D these days, as well as hand-drawn animation methods. And I know that you chose to hand-draw the show, and then scan that into Toon Boom Harmony. Why choose hand-drawn for Kiff? How did this style help with your goals for the series?
LH: It has soul, and it felt like the right style for our sense of humor. It also gives us so much freedom to change her face and expression to fit the moment in the best possible way.
NS: And there’s a certain feeling to it that’s reminiscent of what we grew up watching.
VD: Now, any mistakes or inconsistencies or differences in character design frame-to-frame made with hand-drawn animation can be fixed in the computer, but were there instances where you decided to keep some of those inconsistencies? Or did you want it all to still look pretty uniform?
NS: We walk a line. We’ve got style guides, character do's and don'ts. But the really nice thing about Kiff’s design, and that simplistic design, is that it's always Kiff. Her spirit and her energy are always there. Even if she looks slightly different from one shot to the next, it feels more like that's just an emotion coming through in this particular shot. And it works. We kind of like that there's a little bit of that shift from scene to scene.
VD: Lucy, as you mentioned, there are a lot of talented animators in South Africa, and a lot of very busy studios. How do you hope this series inspires Cape Town and South Africa’s growing animation industry?
NS: We did not know much about the animation process or the pitching process when we started, and we learned a whole lot as we went along. Hopefully, we can help demystify that process for other people and show that it's achievable. I’ve spoken to college students and people at animation festivals, sharing our experience with getting Kiff off the ground. It's not a far away, unobtainable thing.
LH: It felt that way for us in the beginning, like this was only possible for people who either live in the USA or have proximity to the USA, England, or Europe. But it isn't. You just need to know that it's possible and then you can set out and do it.
2023-0313 - article was edited to reflect the show's early debut dates.