by Baird Media

Auteur animation in South Africa, says Diek Grobler, creative director of Ruby & Roach, is in its infancy.  “We didn’t know animation, as children; apart from what was imported.”  

Today’s creators, other than Donald Duck and Road Runner which we watched in years gone by at the bioscope, were not exposed to short films and animation, he continues.  This is in stark contrast with Eastern Europe, France, England and Belgium, where there is an established culture of short, animated films, especially for children.  

The beginnings of a South African art animation culture 

Grobler, himself, is a Fine Arts graduate awaiting the outcome of his doctorate in animation strategies in poetry films (UPDATE: Diek was awarded the doctorate in September 2021).  He makes a subtle yet clear distinction between the technical processes of animating and auteur animation.  The latter, he suggests, is a genre where artists work with animation, almost as a medium.

In South Africa, animation has largely been dominated by live action:  filmed puppet shows.  This was a feature of late 70s television like children’s programmes such as Wielie Walie in which the characters were puppets and only the monkey was animated.  

Wielie Walie Temalied (Herhaling) - YouTube

The monkey from the title sequence of “Wielie Walie”

Art animation

South Africa’s first and best-known art animator is William Kentridge, one of whose traits is reinventing old ways of doing things.  His films are done in charcoal – “incredible artworks – niche, fine art animation” according to Grobler.  Kentridge’s style is one of the earliest ways of making animation – drawing, erasing and redrawing – except in this case it is on a single drawing. 

A still from William Kentridge's new film City Deep (2020)

A still from William Kentridge’s new film City Deep (2020) Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery 


As a young field (or industry), the animation that has emerged in South Africa over the last twenty years has been profoundly influenced by Pixar and Disney.  Without taking anything away from the enormous and deserved success of the Adventures of Zambezia and Khumba, this does emphasise one of the dominant themes emerging from discussions with the team behind Ruby & Roach: the divide between international commercial standards and art.  

Generally, the local industry tends to follow the former, and market driven trends, as opposed to starting with a concept and bringing it to market.  This last is the approach Abyss South Africa took with Ruby & Roach, as did Fopspeen Moving Pictures, with Grobler’s own animated films.  

In Europe and countries like Japan and Korea, art animation is a mainstay of cultural expression, says Grobler, and they, too, have a wealth of children’s animated work.  This is the genre into which Ruby & Roach fits comfortably.  However, in South Africa, auteur animation is considered an outlier:  because it is quirky, handmade and not “a-gag-a-minute”.  

Grobler is on a mission to change this. 

Ruby & Roachmostly hand-made

At certain stages, Grobler points out, especially post-production, the computer is essential to the art animator who does not use animation applications per se. However, art animation makes use of “lots of media”:  from photographs and paper to sand, lightboxes and sound.  Similarly, Ruby & Roach was made the old-fashioned way:  with cut-out animation and different materials. Erentia Bedeker hand cut, manipulated and filmed everything on the screen.  The creative team, led by Grobler, made conscious decisions about colour – or its absence – and certain special effects like the window for the X-ray machine that were “computer hand cut”.  

It is these human skills, practices and techniques, together with the quirkiness of the characters and the gentle, touching story contribute to the final product and its ground-breaking success.  

To contact Abyss South Africa, please click here.