Animation in South Africa: it’s got character

The Snail and the Whale is a 2019 British-South African short computer-animated TV film, directed by Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon, and produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of Magic Light Pictures, in association with Triggerfish Animation Studios where the film was animated.
The Snail and the Whale is a 2019 British-South African short computer-animated TV film, directed by Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon, and produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of Magic Light Pictures, in association with Triggerfish Animation Studios where the film was animated.

The planet is experiencing a boom in animation – thanks to the rise of digital devices and platforms, streaming services and gaming – and spurred by an increase in the consumption of digital content after lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africa is part of that boom and has the most developed industry in Africa with remarkable potential for growth and job creation. The quality and quantity of local animated films and series have increased considerably over the last decade – think of the hit feature films Adventures in Zambezia and Khumba, or the television and streaming series Supa Strikers, Seal Team, Moosebox and Munki and Trunk. A growing global interest in South African stories, styles and characters is leading to more local animation work in film and series done in partnership with larger international studios.

However, the reality is that South African industry has so far failed to capitalise on this global boom on our own shores for various reasons, most notably the high cost of producing animation (for local players) within a weak economy, a lack of commissioned films and series which could grow opportunities and audiences, as well as barriers to entering the market in an unequal society. 

The production of animated films or series relies on funding, government subsidies and commissioning bodies being willing to invest in these famously ‘high-risk’ products which rely on large audiences in order to provide a return on investment.

There is, however, a sense of optimism within the sector about a future where their unique characters and content can find a global audience. South African animators are passionately committed to developing their own features, shorts or series while working on commercial products. 

But, while animated features and series are the dream goal for most animators, the reality is that the South African industry finds itself at the intersection of film, television, advertising and gaming, with the vast bulk of work being made for corporate marketing, and not fictional adventure. There also remains a perception that animation is supposed to be produced for children and not more adult audiences. This is slowly changing.

What the industry looks like

South Africa’s relatively small animation sector is nonetheless the largest and most successful in Africa, with the most diverse output in terms of both style and medium. A recent report notes that international clients have been attracted to South Africa due to the quality of work, animators’ reputation for creativity and strong work ethic, and time zone advantages.

Animation is still in its infancy in South Africa, despite the public broadcaster (SABC) establishing an animation unit as early as 1975 to service children’s programming, title sequences and other broadcast graphics. It was unfortunately closed in 1988. The independent industry was only really established after democracy in the 1990s and only began to generate international interest after 2010.

A recent ecosystem analysis by the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) identified 69 animation studios in South Africa (likely only a small portion of active microenterprises), the bulk established after 2010. Only a small percentage of these are producing animated films and series (a third have done so in the past decade). These studios tend to be the larger ones with the highest profiles. Prominent players are Triggerfish, Mind’s Eye Creative, Sunrise Productions, Luma Animation, Strika Entertainment and VFX houses like Sinister Studios, Chocolate Tribe, Refinery and Black Ginger. Since 2010, 44 original animated products have been released (60% of these series and 40% films), mostly aimed at TV or online streaming audiences.

Difficulties involved in securing funding or partnerships for original animated content have seen most studios offer a wide range of services to survive. The vast majority of these are client-based work for commercials and online marketing, clips and special effects. Thirty-two per cent of companies offer ‘visualisation’ services such as explainer videos and other educational products. Sixteen per cent of companies produce animation for or are involved in the gaming industry. 

While current data is limited, the above-mentioned SACO analysis estimated that the annual turnover for the gaming and animation sectors in the 2017/18 financial year was R476 million. In 2018, the South African gaming and animation sectors created 1,225 direct jobs, a huge increase from 225 jobs just three years earlier. This suggests that animation is a fast-growing sector that offers a wide range of services and can contribute to SouthAfrica’s economy and create jobs.

Energy insecurity, while a problem for the whole country, is a serious issue for the animation sector. Most (if not, all) South African studios are digital studios. Only the wealthier studios will be able to afford energy supplements or alternatives to state-generated supply, creating another barrier to entry for emerging studios.

Funding and opportunities

While public funding for the South African animation industry (both government and non-profit) is by no means limited, to date it has been largely inaccessible, unreliable and unpredictable. This is holding back growth as local studios can’t compete with studios in other countries that are able to more easily access government funding and subsidies. 

The result is that almost 60% of the funding made available to South Africa’s animation industry comes from the private sector and self-funding by animation studios.

Available public funding is often pooled with funding for film or visual arts. The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) is a steady source of development funding, and has recently delineated categories of funding specifically for animated features, series and shorts. The NFVF has also designed an animation slate in consultation with Animation South Africa. There is a growing drive to fund short films, which can allow animators to feature their work at international film and animation festivals and enter competitions, gaining valuable access to networks.

While the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) offers incentives to filmmakers (on a percentage basis, taking B-BBEE points into account) and a rebate to completed projects, there is a growing sense that this department is difficult to access and not performing as well as it has in the past. This creates uncertainty for international companies servicing their projects in South Africa, causing harm to the South African animation sector’s reputation in the global marketplace.

Regional film councils such as the Gauteng Film Commission are also helping fund the development of animation, but the scale is small.

The commissioning of local animation content from broadcasters is a key to unlocking the future of the industry. The public broadcaster has not been actively commissioning animation products and faces financial constraints. Private satellite television companies like Multichoice have also not commissioned significant animation content.

Current local content quotas for film and television do not include animation and so there are technically no local content quota requirements for animated content. Until local broadcasters more reliably and consistently invest in locally-originated animated works, the South African animation sector will continue to be overly reliant on commissioned advertising and foreign features and series work.

Our survey, however, indicates that streaming platforms are starting to fill this gap. Numerous services such as Netflix and Disney are now operating in the region and are commissioning or buying local content. The streaming services are commissioning directly from animation studios, cutting out distributors. This may put more money in animators’ pockets, but limits the marketing of products. 

Many larger companies attend international film markets and festivals to network and to access international co-productions or distribution – such as the annual Annecy animation festival and market, where there is growing interest in South African animation. Access to these opportunities is difficult for smaller companies and individual creatives.

Digital platforms like TikTok and YouTube, and crowdfunding tools like Kickstarter and Patreon, however, have provided animators with new ways to market their ideas, brands and characters, to build audiences and self-publish original content. However, not enough money is being made this way to disrupt the status quo just yet.

Events and organisations

Animation events are growing in the country, especially with the arrival of Comic Con Africa (held in September) and the rebranded Cape Town International Animation Festival (previously Kunjanimation), which is held in April. 

The Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival is held in October in Johannesburg, and focuses on animation, gaming, virtual reality and other digital industries.

Animation Xchange offers monthly networking and feedback opportunities in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The potentially important Tshimologong Precinct in Johannesburg is geared towards digital innovation and offers community-focused networking and training. Tshimologong runs the annual Novembre Numerique Animation Jam that challenges participants to produce a short animation in 48 hours. The Triggerfish Academy also runs competitions.

Film festivals such as the Durban International Film Festival include animation in their lineups and the important Durban Film Mart offers pitching and development funding opportunities. Discop Africa focuses on distribution.

There is a sense that festivals and events focusing just on animation are still a significant area for the future growth of the industry – although this is dependent on being able to get the right kinds of buyers in the room. There is also a lack of industry organisation, with the exception of Animation SA, which represents the industry’s interests and professionals. Animation SA is involved in conducting and participating in research (including mapping the industry to create a database); making trading conditions more conducive to creating and/or maintaining work opportunities; initiatives which transfer and develop scarce and critical skills; initiatives which result in more commercial activity; as well as lobbying around policy.

The Writers Guild of South Africa, the South African Screen Federation and the Independent Producers Organisation are among the industry bodies that lobby for an equitable film and television industry. 

Studying animation in South Africa

The recurring sentiment from more established professionals in the animation industry is that the graduates entering it are unprepared for the practical realities of the job. This does seem dependent on the institution, however, as talented animators are being recruited by foreign companies and South African companies are finding it challenging to appoint suitable staff for their production requirements.

Most institutions that offer animation studies offer three-year degrees or diplomas. While these courses are expensive to access, bursaries are available. 

The majority of animation companies and educational institutions offering qualifications and training in animation are located in Gauteng (38 companies and 11 education institutions) and the Western Cape (30 companies and 6 education institutions) where they have formed clusters.

The Digital Arts Department at Wits University in Johannesburg was founded in 2006 and has grown considerably, with a specialisation field in animation, particularly 3D animation.

There is a high demand for 3D animated commercial products and with it, concerns from our respondents that traditional 2D animation is not being sufficiently taught or commissioned. In order to create successful 3D animation (think of a Pixar film like Toy Story), the tools and craft of 2D animation, are important foundational skills to have.

There are numerous private schools, with the best known being The Animation School in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Tshimologong’s Academy also trains artists.

The future

While the animation industry is growing at a fast pace, it suffers from the challenges outlined above, as well as a difficulty to access it financially and geographically, with major cities offering the bulk of support and work opportunities. The industry is also historically skewed towards white men and must face the challenge of meaningful transformation.

Respondents in our survey discussed numerous other gaps that must be filled – such as space for indigenous language stories, access to the internet and technology and a lack of ownership of intellectual property for creators who are commissioned by bigger production studios – especially in a digital future, copyright needs to be more rigorously protected. The Copyright Amendment Bill (2018) is a contentious issue with opposing opinions, but a concern is that it will allow for educational and animated works to be used without the permission or compensation of the copyright owners.

But these are challenges facing the country at large. Our survey identified a tangible enthusiasm for animation’s potential to grow local audiences and tell local stories at home and on a global scale. There’s the feeling that animation could be South Africa’s next big thing, appealing to a youthful population with unique stories to tell and characters to develop.

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