An SA Pixar?
JUST AS SOUTH AFRICA is making some inroads in becoming an attractive international destination for business process outsourcing, such as call centres, another buzzing industry – animation – stands to become a source of international investment and job creation. That’s if SA gets it right.
Right now the industry’s still in its infancy and appears to be highly fragmented, localised and unable to raise significant cash. However, various initiatives are under way by studios, training institutions – such as the Depart- ment of Communications’ National Electronic Media Institute (Nemisa) and funders like the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) – to develop SA’s long-form animation industry.
Long-form is animation for television series and film; short-form animation is for TV commercials, corporate videos and the Internet. The short-form currently constitutes the biggest part of the industry.
Tracey Williams, facilities manager at 25year-old Blairgowrie-based animation studio Video Lab, says most animation stories come from Canada, the United States and Europe and their development takes place in countries such as India. There, many studios are sweatshops, utilising cheap labour to churn out animated productions.
Williams says SA is well placed to win animation production business from Europe, given that it’s on the same timeline and speaks English. For example, many animators say they’d prefer to spend a few years in a country such as SA than in Korea.
However, Williams says it is a “chicken and egg scenario” – given that the international studios first want to see the work that studios in SA have produced before they’ll give them business. And it is expensive to set up a studio.
Williams says it costs between R35 000 and R80 000/minute to produce an animated series, and a fulllength series could cost anywhere between R24m and R45m. The SABC only paid between R7 000 and R10 000/ minute for a top-notch filmed production. The only way that broadcasters could afford to produce animation in SA was to collaborate with other broadcasters, she says.
The IDC, which invests in films produced in SA and also has an appetite for animation, has already invested in a series by Red Pepper Pictures and assisted an empowerment group to buy a stake in the Refinery Group, which owns Video Lab.
IDC media and motion pictures business unit head Moses Silinda says there are two industry streams. First, facilitation – which involves international studios using South African talent to produce or manufacture their productions, as is happening in India, China and South Korea.
However, facilitating the production of other people’s ideas means missing out on the creative stage and thus not reaping the rewards associated with owning their intellectual property. While it is more risky for producers in SA to develop their own ideas, source the funding, produce and market their productions, there is greater reward, says Silinda. As with this country’s feature film industry, South African films would have to be marketed internationally in order to be commercially viable.
Silinda says the IDC would like to see SA production making up the biggest proportion of this country’s animation industry. It needed to do some of both and would probably lean towards facilitation in the early stages in order to develop the industry.
Silinda says the IDC would be interested in not only funding specific productions but also potentially investing in a specific studio that has fully funded productions in the pipeline, which can be used to prove the commercial viability of the studio.
Stacey Eberschlag, a Canadian animator who’s worked on projects in Canada, India, China and the Philippines and who recently worked at Universal Studios’ Curious George project in India, says it seems studios in SA were all trying to work on their own small projects. Eberschlag says he hasn’t seen any South African produced animation making its mark outside this country. For the industry to grow, studios needed to also compete with India and China for service work.
Eberschlag says SA’s animation skills are on par with those in India, where it’s a US$9bn industry. However, Nemisa and other training initiatives and projects could start bridging that skills gap, giving budding animators the opportunity to work on real projects. He says it was important for training institutions to form partnerships with producers.
Magic Cellar is an animated TV series commissioned by the SABC and co-produced by the public broadcaster, Mfundi Vundla’s
Morula Productions and Chocolate Moose Media of Canada, which bills itself as Africa’s first animated 3D series. The series uses animation to tell traditional African stories and lessons as an educational tool and has won numerous international awards. Ironically, the series was largely produced in India.
Last week, Eberschlag began teaching a course on animation for Nemisa, which is based on the curriculum of a three-year qualification from Algonquin College of Canada. Many of the university’s students had gone on to lucrative careers at studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, Nemisa says.
Nemisa COO Vuyo Makaya says the Department of Communications (DoC) had commissioned a study of the animation industry in 2004 and it became apparent from the results that SA didn’t have a tradition of long-form animation. Makaya says Nemisa wanted to help change that and was keen on positioning itself as an animation hub for the continent.
The DoC study, conducted by Anamazing Workshop, led it to embark on an international research study of countries that had overcome similar problems. It then formed a programme called the Animation Production Training Ini- tiative (APTI) to try to resolve those.
Williams says while building talent is important, the industry crucially needs to be able to raise funds offshore.
Makaya says Nemisa can be positioned in a role to pull the industry together to form a solid base. That, he says, is important if SA wants to attract investment. At this early stage it would be premature to approach funders.
While SA appears to be a long way from having a local version of Disney or Pixar, it seems realistic to believe that a few years down the line studios here will have set up studios to produce characters for European productions. And, hopefully over time, one or two SA productions will be the Tsotsi’s and Yesterday’s of SA’s animation world.
Keen on positioning themselves as an animation hub for the continent. Vuyo Makaya (right) and Peter de Klerk (left)