Andrew Worsdale has a chat with Isabelle Rorke, a major mover and shaker in animation production, training and development in the heart of Gauteng.

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Anamazing Workshop’s Isabelle Rorke
“When I was around eleven years old I remember saying to my brothers that I will never stop loving animation. My favourite movie of all time was a Cinderella story with Mexican mice!” It was the 1964 Friz Freleng cartoon Senorella and the Glass Huarach that captivated the young Isabelle Rorke whilst growing up in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal.  The strains of Speedy Gonzalez howling, “Ariba, Ariba, eh-hah!!!” haven’t died inside her soul and at age 33 Rorke is still in love with animation and making major strides in the local industry.

Her parents were very nomadic so Isabelle attended over ten schools and two universities and she relishes the fact that she got to know and love all sides of South African life.

“My parents hired movies for us almost every weekend. I loved horrors and thrillers, and my brothers loved Karate movies. I couldn’t get into that kind of violence and I outgrew Cowboy movies pretty quickly, because superheroes came on the scene and I found an everlasting love!” Rorke says with her tongue firmly in her cheek,

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Andrew Worsdale has a chat with Isabelle Rorke, a major mover and shaker in animation production, training and development in the heart of Gauteng.
“My only regret is not being born a superhero! But I have created a super-heroine called Black Forest and she kicks ass. She's a bit of an expensive concept and is shelved for the day that Animation in S.A is big enough to handle someone of her enormity.”

Rorke, though, is a real-life super-heroine in her own way. In 2004 she was the first winner of the DTI’s Technology for Women In Business Award. As a result of the award she travelled to Denmark to meet animation companies to help her set up Anamazing – a creative animation production and design company based in Johannesburg.

“I even got a chance to meet the great Lars Von Trier,” says the easygoing and bright filmmaker, “I don't really get his films but I love his company’s business model. His production partner Peter said to Lars, "If we want to make Arty films then we have to justify it and make commercially successful films. Hence dogma. I loved their marketing strategies; they were so off the wall. It was a great experience, because Denmark is so small and yet so rich and they have the luxury to do a lot of experimentation in animation so I was blown away by all the innovative and creative stuff that every company was doing. It was inspirational.”

Rorke and her producing partner Dumi Gumbi pooled their savings and used a grant to employ an economist to conduct a feasibility study on the animations sector. The findings inspired them to set up an animation production-training centre in May 2006 with funding from the National Film & Video Foundation, the Department of Arts & Culture, and the National Electronic Media Institute of SA.

Their initiative to go out on a limb and leave ‘secure’ TV production jobs with the national broadcaster was a leap of faith mixed with some kind of creative madness, Rorke says, “The faith was based on the research that we had conducted in the industry and the madness was a requirement to ensure that we stayed through the tough times. We were young and ambitious and had an incredible love for the format. I did not really like all of that hardcore reality that journalism fed me when I was in TV news. I find the arts way more fulfilling for my soul.”

She believes the main motivation behind going into animation was because it “has a better business model than live action. There are more platforms to exploit your material for broadcast and then there’s merchandising, it also has a much longer shelf life and while kids may be tough customers they are a hell of a lot more fun to work for then adults!”

This past Christmas saw some of the production company’s offerings on the big screen – five short movies were flighted on Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro screens as curtain raisers for feature family-fare. The films ranged from Bhovas and Sam, a rags to riches story of two rapping dogs from the ghetto, to Kwaito’ s Big Hit where a young Mongoose wants to make it big time in the world of boxing. Other films included the Culprit a funny garden-based story about an Indian inspector who tries to figure out who is eating the garden. Blunder Hunter is a metaphor about the pointlessness of war, dramatised through a young man who battles with mosquitoes – unfortunately he loses in the end! Snail Trail is also a garden based story about a young snail that goes on an adventurous journey to climb a mulberry tree.

Planned as a 13 part series of five-minute movies the “Backyard Shorts” initiative played incredibly well to local audiences over the holiday season.  Rorke says, “The format does not work very well for international broadcast sales, however they are perfect for the cellphone and Internet market as well as direct to DVD. We are in discussions with various providers to exploit these films on these platforms. Then there are the films that work very well like Bhovas and Sam. We are extending this film into a series and this is what the interns are working on next. This all forms part of our self-sustainability strategy to ensure that we do not require ‘funding’ forever.”

The major question though is how do they survive? Bread and butter does not come from creativity alone. “We are entrepreneurs before we are creatives. We believe in making money, as a company we have never ran at a loss and we don't plan to start now. We are young and a bit crazy so we take the necessary risks when it is required. We have had to be extremely flexible and agile over the years, we have been tested on many fronts and proven that we have guts of steel when the ISHT hits the fan!”

Rorke smiles with glee when she mentions their next project, “It’s Liewe Heksie, yes you know the song!!  My naam is Liewe Heksie, ‘I know you can finish the song’. That is part of our company strategy. The project needs to have strong brand presence like Shaka Zulu or a book that sold well and travelled overseas. Our slate is strong and we believe they will make profits.”

The training has gone through highs and lows says Rorke, “It started two years ago with an intake of 12 interns. The funders included the Department of Arts and Culture, the NFVF, NEMISA, and the SABC as broadcast partners. In 2007 we increased our students to 15 interns, the funders were, Mapp Seta, NFVF and NEMISA. Even though we increased the number of interns in 2007 we had reduced funding but Anamazing covered this shortfall. In 2008 we have not received any funding and have had to reduce the number of new interns to 4 as the company is funding it, but we remain resolute in our aims to create wonderful content and operate a profitable business.”

Rorke’ s achievements really are astounding, no wonder that she was awarded the Passing The Torch Award for 2007 from the Gauteng Provincial Government’s Department of Economic Development. All this success and acclaim haven’t made her haughty or self-important, in fact Rorke is disarming, funny and very, very down to earth – especially about the future challenges facing the local film and TV industry.

“It is a very exciting time for the film and television industry right now. However, I have to say the only way we are going to make successes is if we put time and money into script development. It is the most crucial part of the entire value chain. It is your foundation, if that is not strong the entire structure will fail. The other is identifying your target market. Who are you making films for and what do you know about them? Test your material with your target market. If you are making films for yourself please stop wasting money and go into fine art or something, film is too expensive to be seen by only 1000 people. Our biggest challenge going forward is to show investors that this is a viable business and that we can make films that will show return on investment.”

And what about a long-form project – South Africa’s “Shrek”? She says
there are a few projects in the pipeline but warns, “Anamazing cannot afford a financial flop, it will have huge repercussions on investors going forward. We are already carrying the burden of the live action failures, investors do not trust this industry, and therefore it is upon all of us to try our best to ensure successful films.”

The company is based at Video Lab in Blairgowrie and Rorke is happy to be there, “Gauteng is the economic powerhouse of Africa, there's nowhere better to be based,” and she is a firm believer in the region’s love of entrepreneurs, “Entrepreneurship is a calling. If you know you have what it takes to run your own business, relieve yourself of all debts and go after your dream. It is the most challenging experience of your entire life. Nothing will teach you more at a faster rate than running a business. Nothing will make use of every single skill and talent you have like running your own business.”

It all shows what falling in love with Speedy Gonzalez can do…..

For more info call Anamazing Workshop on 011-781 6173 or visit their cool website at www.anamazing.co.za