By Hendrik Baird

South Africa boasts a film industry that is as old as that of Hollywood. The epic movie De Voortrekkers, produced in 1916 and directed by Harold Shaw, is on par with the D.W. Griffith epic Birth of a Nation, produced in the same year. South African film was vigorously supported by the Apartheid government and, although mainly aimed at a small white audience, did produce a great number of films, some of which managed to break into the international market, such as those by Jamie Uys. His documentary Beautiful People won a Golden Globe Award in 1974, while his 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy was released internationally and enjoyed considerable commercial success.

Since the dawn of the New South Africa, films like Tsotsi  and District 9 have shown that South African filmmakers have not lost their flair for producing movies that are on par with international releases, although these have been few and far between. This is mainly because there is limited funding with which to produce film, which is generally an expensive endeavour.

Animation in South Africa, either short or feature films, has a much shorter history. It started with the advent of television in the mid 70s, with very short animations for advertising (think the Simba Lion) and children’s programmes (the monkey on the barrel for Wielie Walie). Some people lump puppet shows produced for television under animation, such as the TV1 production of Interster, flighted between 19832 and 1986, but these kinds of productions are not animation in the strict sense of the word, but rather live action. Animation on television only really started in 2003 with Jungle Beat, a computer generated (CG) animation series, with another six animated productions made for local television in the years up to now.

The list of animated feature films are even shorter. Tengers is a 2007 clay animation that seems to have been the first of its kind in the country. Of the five full length animated feature films, only Zambesia (2012) has made a blip on the radar, the others mainly unknown.

Diek Grobler is a visual artist who has worked in animation for a few years and has just completed a PhD on the subject. Over the years he has produced a number of animated short films, most notably producing two series for the ATKV called Filmverse. In these, various local animators used South African poetry to produce little animated gems.

South African Visual Artist and Animator Diek Grobler

According to Diek, the animation business in South Africa is very small, with only a handful of people actively working in it. He highlights an acclaimed local artist as being a pioneer in local art animation: ”William Kentridge came in from the Fine Arts perspective when he started doing his art animations. He uses charcoal and erases it and redraws over it. There are younger artists who emulate that style. In Kentridge’s case it’s a niche in terms of accessibility. You can’t own a William Kentridge film because they are made in editions. If you buy one of his films it will cost you maybe half a million rand and then you get one of 20 copies. So the only way people can see them are in museum shows or maybe at an art gallery once a decade. The style he works in is actually one of the earliest ways of making animation. One of the very first animators made drawings and erased it. That’s sort of one of Kentridge’s style traits, re-inventing old ways of doing things”. 

Diek says he’s been working with independent animation. He doesn’t really call it an industry as there are a small handful of people working in this medium. He started making animated short films in 2000 and has won several international awards for his efforts. 

Any new animation that comes from South Africa therefore is breaking new ground, as there is not a rich and varied history to draw on. Take for instance The Abyss South Africa production Ruby & Roach,which has already won numerous awards at international film festivals. It uses paper cutouts to tell the story of two toys who are on sale and the adventure they go on. Diek was the Creative Director on this film, directed by Erentia Bedeker. He says Ruby & Roach was made the old-fashioned way, manipulating pieces of paper and taking thousands of photographs, which were then stitched together using computer technology.

Abyss South Africa produced Ruby & Roach

Says Diek: “It’s doing quite well on the festival circuit. You have to take into account that the average festival has 1,200 entries, most of them entered by major agencies. So just getting into a festival is already an achievement. I think the very unusual look of the film and the quality of the animation is very special. It is also a very gentle story.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why animation in South Africa has not yet been developed to the degree it deserves, is because it’s a very time consuming process to make such a film. Ruby & Roach is only eight minutes long, but it took two years to make. Another aspect is the lack of funding, which is slowly but surely being addressed by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and through support by organizations such as Animation South Africa.

That a film such as Ruby & Roach has been so well received internationally is an encouraging sign, not only that the animation coming out of South Africa is on par with international standards, but that the uniquely South African stories resonate with audiences from around the world.

Let’s hope that South African animators can create a rich history so that when we look back on this industry in a hundred years from now, we can be proud of what has been achieved.