With four animated feature films in the offing, an increase in animated commercials, and a global surge in long-form animation, the local industry is discovering the delights of creating original animated content. Is it sustainable or just a flavour of the month? Andrew Worsdale investigates.

During the depths of last year's credit crunch Dreamworks Animation Chief Executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, told the Los Angeles Times: "We drew the right straw. We're in the part of the entertainment business that just continues to show tremendous growth, in the international market in particular."

The Commercials Producers Association's Survey for 2009 showed that in addition to a huge growth in commercials being shot in HD, the year also saw a big growth in the production of animated commercials. Erik De Jager of Joburg-based 'whatwewant' agrees: "With the recession taking its toll on production budgets last year, many companies were looking at affordable and creative solutions. Animation is a power medium that is cost effective, after all animated characters don't have to be paid license fees. The production expenses are also usually a lot cheaper, as it is far less demanding than a live action shoot. Also, with technology becoming more affordable and more advanced, the production costs have been driven down."

'whatwewant' is a branded entertainment production company with a division focusing on African commercials and specifically animation production. They have been involved in numerous successful productions with some of the top agencies and creative talent on the African continent. De Jager says, "Last year we had an exceptionally successful year, with our expansion into the African markets. We have worked with countries such as Kenya, Botswana, Madagascar, Senegal, Benin, Gabon and Reunion - on a number of high profile accounts like Coca Cola, Peugeot, Orange and Vodacom to mention a few."


De Jager acknowledges that last year was a tough one with some companies (including Anamazing Workshop) closing down due to the recession, despite the increase in demand for animated productions. He believes that "the companies that survived the economic downturn weathered the fall by diversifying and expanding on their strategies. We will continue to grow and invest in our African clients this year and we are also aiming at developing and grooming more South African talent within the industry. 2010 appears to hold new fortunes for the industry, and we can only hope that we have all learnt from the difficult times in order to reach greater potential in the future."


For more go to http://www.whatwewant.co.za

Paul Meyer of Luma agrees saying: "In a recession, agencies are dealing with lower-budgets and so therefore are more creative and animation simply gives them more bang for their buck." Based at Johannesburg's Video Lab, Luma was founded in October 2001, since then they have positioned themselves as one of the leading creative studios in South Africa specialising in character animation, visual effects and game development.

Meyer says: "We create engaging digital content and work on some of the most high-profile TV commercials in the country. At present we are currently busy with an animated TV series called Bun&Bunee. We have also released our very first iPhone game (Marble Blast Mobile) and we are in the development of two more games with titles for the Xbox and PS3 in pre-production."

For more info on the studios and a massive showreel go to Luma.

Masters & Savant has also grown exponentially over the past five years, having grown from a small operation to one of South Africa's most formidable animation studios. Co-Founder, Roger Smythe, says: "With the companies continued growth we are looking to increase our creative and project management base with the best of what South Africa, Africa, and frankly the world has to offer."

The company introduced motion capture suit technology onto the South African commercial production landscape, thereby creating new possibilities in advertising outputs as well as firmly positioning the company as a leader in commercial character animation in South Africa.

However, service work continues to account for the bulk of work. "As South Africa is the continent's economic powerhouse, with strong international relationships and an overall good perception and reputation, South African companies are therefore well placed to service international clients," says Smythe, citing the country's reputation for creativity, time zone advantages, favourable exchange rates, and a strong work ethic as benefits of working with local studios.

And the World Cup has not been left out of the equation: "The official sponsors, such as MTN, FNB, BP, MacDonald's, Telkom, VISA and Coca-Cola, have already commissioned large advertising campaigns, many of which have utilised animation as one of the creative cornerstones of their campaigns. As the countdown continues, companies wishing to capitalise on the soccer hype will no doubt also start using the World Cup to market themselves, and while advertising budgets may be down, production techniques like animation still allows for greater creative license within budget. Whatever the future situation of the SA economy, the financial injection of the World Cup will definitely be welcomed in the advertising industry."

For more go to http://www.mastersandsavant.com

In an article in 'Animation World Network', Karen Raugust wrote that South Africa "has the most diverse animation output of any nation on the continent, both in terms of style and medium. Much of the work to date has been completed on a service basis, with a significant focus on commercials. However, more studios are starting to be active in the entertainment arena, including developing proprietary properties and investigating co-productions down the road."

For more click here.

She quotes Phil Cunningham of Sunrise Productions, co-producers with Character Matters on CG animated feature Lion of Judah, "In the short-term, the industry needs to go through some usual challenges facing a growing industry, but in the long term I think the South African animation industry will be a serious player, not only in commercials and TV but more and more so in CGI feature films."

With the release of the family friendly Lion of Judah in April and Zambezia and Khumba, two animated features from Cape-based studio Triggerfish in the pipeline, Johannesburg is joining the bandwagon of long-form animation with Jock, a stereoscopic 3-D version of Jock of The Bushveld, Percy Fitzpatrick's 1907 classic story about pioneers in the lowveld, which is in production for a release at the end of the year.

Producer Duncan MacNeillie, who made a successful live-action version of the story in 1986, began raising funds for the film in 2007 and production started in early 2008. "This is very different to commercials. We are achieving a minimum of two approved seconds of animation, per animator each day. Obviously this fluctuates depending on complexity." MacNeillie built a studio and sourced a team of more than twenty animators for the project: "We set up our studio from scratch. We have some very talented people but everyone has developed and learnt a huge amount. My goal is to continue with other projects, it would be a pity to have built up a good team and then lose that momentum."

MacNeillie says that it's been a huge learning curve for him. "The possibilities from CGI and animation are creatively unlimited, more and more successful pictures are incorporating this in live action. Avatar is at present the icing on the cake; it is an inspiring work of art. The decision to incorporate Stereoscopic 3D into our pipeline has worked well, it is certainly the future."

He's confident that the film and its extensive marketing campaign and merchandising will make large dents in Christmas stockings, "We need success to create a surge in animation. Without that it will not be sustainable. It is important to support one another, we all benefit from success. Long form, feature films, are my interest. Let's hope there is a surge as we need to develop depth and skills in this area."

For more on the film go to http://www.jock-animation.com/

The global animation market was predicted to make around $950 billion last year, of which South Africa contributed roughly less than 0.1%. De Jager says: "There is huge growth potential for us to expand into these markets, however a tremendous amount of investment and support would need to be given to the local industry in order for us to establish ourselves as industry players, this has yet to be the case."

The Western Cape Film Industry's most ambitious training project to date, the first phase of the Animation Industry Development Initiative is showing rewards with 30 of its young students having taken up jobs within the animation industry, which makes the closure of the Anamazing Workshop in Gauteng due to funding problems all the more tragic (the SABC were a major funder).

Government should take note, India's Chamber of Commerce body The National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) has forecast the Indian animation sector to have a gross overall turnover of US $950 million in 2009.

And we can tap into that market. As Toper Taylor, President and Chief Operating Officer of Cookie Jar, among the most respected executives in children's and family entertainment, said on a visit as part of his partnership with Cape Town's Clockwork Zoo, "South Africa is uniquely positioned to be a player in the animation business because there is an intelligent and culturally-aligned labour pool. For comedies and preschool shows that need to be ethnically diverse, the animation community in South Africa is far more aligned with Western Europe and North American than for example, Asia."

For more on this and South African animation you should sign up at: http://www.animationsa.org