2023: A breakthrough year for African animation

In 2015, South African animation studio Triggerfish launched a pan-African talent search for animated films and series. Supported by The Walt Disney Company, The Triggerfish Story Lab had nearly 1 400 entries from across the continent. 

Fast forward eight years, and all of the Triggerfish Story Lab’s TV series winners have major animated series out this year. Marc Dey and Kelly Dillon are co-creators of the preschool series Kiya & The Kimoja Heroes on Disney Junior and Lucy Heavens is co-creator of Kiff on Disney Channel. Both shows debuted in the USA in March 2023 and will premiere across the continent soon, with Kiff debuting on Disney Channel (DStv Channel 303) on 21 August 2023 and Kiya & The Kimoja Heroes on Disney Junior (DStv Channel 309) from 4 September 2023. Malenga Mulendema’s Zambian teen superhero series Supa Team 4 premiered on 20 July 2023 as Netflix’s first original animated series from Africa and is currently streaming to 238 million subscribers in more than 190 countries around the world. And Mike Scott is co-creator of a series launching soon across the continent on African streamer Showmax, produced by Braintrust and Mind’s Eye Creative. 

“Talent is everywhere; opportunity isn’t,” says Triggerfish creative director Anthony Silverston. “So when you’re the first to open the door, there’s a backlog of talent queuing up.”

2023 is becoming a breakthrough year for African animation. In addition to helping produce Supa Team 4 and Kiya & The Kimoja Heroes, Triggerfish is the lead studio on the African sci-fi anthology Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire and produced Aau’s Song, the final short film in Lucasfilms’ Star Wars: Visions Volume II

Both anthologies are now streaming on Disney+ – with rare 100% critics’ ratings on Rotten Tomatoes as two of the most acclaimed animation series of 2023 so far. Collider hailed Kizazi Moto as “one of the best animated shows of the last decade,” while Aau’s Song was ranked as “the best episode” of Star Wars: Visions Volume II by Screenrant and described as “gorgeous” by everyone from Empire to Polygon, who called it “a perfect note to end the season on”. 

Next up, Kizazi Moto will screen on Disney Channel (DStv, Channel 303) across Africa, with a double bill of films broadcast at 17:00 CAT each weekday from 28 August – 1 September 2023 and 5-film marathons airing at 15:15 CAT on Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 September 2023 respectively.

The team at Triggerfish are not the only African animators having a good year either. Directed by Triggerfish alumni Sarah Scrimgeour and Jac Hamman, the Julia Donaldson-Axel Scheffler adaptation Superworm won Best One-Off, Special or TV Movie at the 2023 Kidscreen Awards. Triggerfish alumni Daniel Snaddon and Samantha Cutler directed The Smeds and The Smoos, which won the Audience Award for 3-6-year-olds at New York International Children’s Festival and Best Animation at the BANFF Rockie Awards this year. Cartoon Network has just released their first Nigerian animation, Ridwan Moshood’s Garbage Boy and Trash Can. On YouTube, OmoBerry topped 100m views and Sunrise’s Jungle Beat reached 10m subscribers. Two South Africans, Triggerfish alumnus Mogau Kekana and Leroy Le Roux, were among the co-directors responsible for the Sepedi-language Thaba Ye, which won the BAFTA Student Film Award for Animation. And an Ethiopian (Feben Elias Woldehawariat), a Ghanaian (Razahk Issaka) and a South African (Celeste Jamneck, who worked with Triggerfish on both Kizazi Moto and Aau’s Song) were among the co-directors of The Soloists, which was named Best Student Film at the 2023 Annie Awards. We could keep going. 

Triggerfish has also expanded into graphic novels, with Pearl of the Sea, by Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne, and Willem Samuel published by Catalyst Press this year to rave reviews, as part of an increasingly vibrant African comics scene.  

Changing the picture of Africa

To understand what this sudden wealth of localised entertainment means to African children, just ask Mulendema. The Supa Team 4 creator grew up in Zambia, watching cartoons on TV and wondering why none of her heroes looked like her, and why the adventures she aspired to all happened elsewhere. It’s hard to be what you don’t see, so animation wasn’t even on her radar until she saw the call for applications for the Triggerfish Story Lab. “With Supa Team 4, I am delighted that we are contributing to the growing number of stories from Africa that put us and our worlds at the center,” she says. 

“What do you picture when you think about Africa?” asks Tendayi Nyeke, executive producer of Kizazi Moto. “Kids growing up with Kizazi Moto, and Supa Team 4, and Kiya and the Kimoja Heroes, and Aau’s Song are going to answer that question very differently than earlier generations. As Africans, we have always known who we are even when our media didn’t show it. What is beautiful is being given the power, resources and trust to self-define and express on a global platform. Showing the world our swag, quirks, fun, vibrancy and complexity on our terms is everything.”

Jobs for Africa

Looking for talent where others aren’t has become Triggerfish’s trademark. For Supa Team 4, they launched an all-African-women writing lab with Netflix, which resulted in nine placements on the series’ writing team. In 2021, they partnered with Netflix on a pan-African Story Artist Lab, led by veteran Pixar story artist Nathan Stanton. In 2022, they partnered with The Walt Disney Company and The American Film Showcase on a masterclass series, giving a comprehensive overview of the animation pipeline to 41 creatives from eight African countries. They’ve also launched the free Triggerfish Academy training platform and sponsored bursaries to The Animation School, school outreach programmes, and multiple competitions aimed at getting Africans to make their first animation, often in partnership with the likes of the German-funded Employment for Skills and Development in Africa (E4D) Programme, GIZ, the Goethe-Institut, and Wacom. 

This isn’t just philanthropy: to keep up with demand, finding new talent has become a business imperative. In 2015, when they launched the Triggerfish Story Lab, they’d just been named Western Cape Business of the Year at the Premier’s Entrepreneurship Recognition Awards, where they also took home the prize for the Business With Global Reach. At the time, they’d released two animated films, Adventures in Zambia and Khumba, which had generated over R1bn at the international box office, and they employed around 85 people. In 2020, Triggerfish opened an Ireland office in Galway to make it easier to attract global talent – and access the attractive rebates there. Last year, on Kizazi Moto alone, Triggerfish contracted over 1 300 people from almost every continent. The growth has been exponential.

“Parents in South Africa often treat the idea of making a career out of iPopeye [South African slang for animation] with skepticism, but animation is a growing, labour-intensive industry which is struggling to keep up with the global demand for talent,” says Silverston. “Even outside the traditional film industry, there’s demand for animation talent within fields like advertising, app and web design, architecture, engineering, gaming, industrial design, medicine, and the motor industry, not to mention growth sectors like augmented reality and virtual reality. So, in a country like South Africa, with a 32.9% unemployment figure for the first quarter of 2023, animation can make a big impact.”

A 27-year-journey to overnight success

For Triggerfish, it’s been a 27-year journey to becoming the overnight success story of 2023. Since launching the Story Lab, their work for Magic Light Pictures on five BBC Christmas specials based on Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson books earned an Oscar nomination, three BAFTAs and an International Emmy, while their third feature film, Greig Cameron’s Seal Team, cracked the Netflix Global Top 10. At the 2021 Annecy International Animation Festival, Triggerfish was given the Mifa Animation Industry Award for “the pioneering role that the company has played in animation in South Africa, and Africa most widely.”

But 2023 marks the first time they’ve been able to move beyond talking animal movies and international book adaptations into telling original stories about Africans. “Until Marvel’s Black Panther, we were always told there was no market for stories about Africans,” says Silverston. “Then after Black Panther, everyone wanted stories about Africans, but we were told there were no experienced local directors to tell them at the kind of budgets they deserved. After Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire and Aau’s Song, no one can say there aren’t qualified African directors anymore. We have the stories, and we have the directors, and we have the studios. So now we get to open the door to the first generation of African animators to tell our stories, to each other in Africa, and to the rest of the world. That’s an incredible honour.” 

For more information, visit https://www.triggerfish.com/

For more on how to get started in animation in Africa, visit https://www.triggerfish.com/academy/

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