Meet Triggerfish: Cape Town’s Oscar-nominated animation studio

Thirty-five minutes outside Cape Town’s CBD lies an unobtrusive farmhouse nestled beneath the Constantiaberg. A decade ago, it housed old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages and 19th century farming equipment. Now, the white walls and thatched roofs are home to Triggerfish, one of South Africa’s leading animation studios.

Triggerfish was founded in 1996 with a focus on stop-motion commercials. But demand died down, and so too did business. By 2005, Triggerfish lay dormant. Mike Buckland, the studio’s head of production, joined in 2007 to help refocus the studio on computer-generated imagery (CGI).

An unobtrusive farmhouse is home to the team that may win South Africa an Oscar

“We decided to reboot the company as a CG studio with the idea that one day we would make Zambezia or other films,” Buckland told me as we strolled through the grounds once populated by a flock of geese. “One day win an Oscar.”

Adventures in Zambezia, the studio’s first feature film, was released in 2012. It made R284.9-million. And now, five years later, the studio may just get that Oscar. On 23 January, its collaborative project with Magic Light Pictures Berlin, Revolting Rhymes, was nominated for Best Animated Short at the the 90th Academy Awards.

The two-part film is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s eponymous collection of poems that tells the “true” (read: dark) stories behind classic fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. Narrated by the Wolf (Dominic West), Revolting Rhymes is a quirky, charming take on a work by the much-adapted Dahl — and it’s now been recognised by the Academy.

“Just to be nominated in itself is amazing,” Buckland gushes. “To have our work up there — a project that we’ve worked on — sitting with Pixar and industry legends like [Disney animator] Glen Keane. It’s amazing.”

The nomination isn’t just a personal achievement, though — it’s also a notch in the belt for South African animation, currently inhabiting the smallest segment of South African film.

But the international world is taking notice: Stick Man, another Triggerfish and Magic Light Pictures collaboration released in 2015, won 11 international awards on three continents. Revolting Rhymes has already won a BAFTA Children’s award for Animation.

“One of our goals is to change the way people see Africa, and South Africa in particular”

“The industry is definitely building momenting and gaining maturity,” Buckland says. “It’s signalling to the rest of the world that there’s talent here in South Africa that can stand up at that kind of level.”

“One of our goals [as Triggerfish] is to change the way people see Africa, and South Africa in particular, and successes like this are really good for the profile of the nation.”

But the Oscar nomination didn’t happen by chance; the 80-person team at Triggerfish worked their fingers to the bone for a year to finish the project they were so passionate about.

Triggerfish was asked by Magic Light to work on Revolting Rhymes after they had completed Stick Man together. The Berlin team had already written the script and created an animatic — a rough draft of the film that acts as a guideline for animators.

“We knew it was a project that had potential from the beginning,” Buckland says.

After sending animators over to Germany to meet directors Jan Lachauer — nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for his short Room on the Broom — and Jakob Schuh, Triggerfish began the extensive animation process back home in Cape Town. The team had two channels of workflow — one designated to creating characters and the other to building environments and sets.

The character animation process is long and, to those unfamiliar with animation, incredibly complicated. First, characters are modelled as static 3D objects. They are then sent over to riggers, who create controls that allow the character to move. The animator then uses those controls to create the movements that make it to screen.

The animation process is long, and none of it can be described as simple

Once the characters are animated and the sets are complete, a virtual lighting environment is set up, “which gives you your mood and time of day, and all that kind of thing,” Buckland tells me. After lighting, the computer calculates how all the elements come together into a flat image, a process called rendering. The final phase is compositing.

“[This is] your last chance to polish every shot,” Buckland says. “You can tweak colours, you can add in little effects. It’s actually quite a key part that you can put your stamp on the film.”

None of this can be described as simple, and the Revolting Rhymes team found itself working through a few challenges. The film’s directors worked mostly from Berlin, resulting in daily Skype calls and the tricky synchronisation of information.

Perhaps more difficult to work through was the project’s scale and tight time frame. By the time Triggerfish’s material was approved to enter the lighting phase, Revolting Rhymes was behind schedule.

“That was a big stress at the end of the project,” Buckland recalls. “‘Are we actually going to finish making this film?'”

“Are we actually going to finish making this film?” Buckland recalls asking

Revolting Rhymes was, of course, finished — thanks in large part to the team over at Triggerfish.

“We’ve got a very strong team,” Buckland enthuses. The producer is unrestrained in his praise for the animators, and he says each one is a perfectionist, dedicated to creating the best piece of art they can. “They’ve got a really, really solid knowledge. They’ve been pushed by what directors are aiming for creatively.”

And while it may seem as if Revolting Rhymes employs a simple animation style, Buckland assures it was anything but.

“When you see it on screen it looks beautiful and simple,” he says of the wooden puppet-like characters living in their painted world, “but to achieve that took a lot of different iterations and a lot of experimentation.”

Triggerfish was working with experienced animators who had already developed an efficient pipeline

Producing a CGI animation that looks like handmade puppets with natural imperfections adds a good deal of time to the animation process — something the project was already running low on. Luckily, Triggerfish was working with experienced animators who had already developed an efficient pipeline.

“We had a really established team and strong workflow in our studio, so we knew we had the capacity to manage the project,” Buckland says. “We [told the Berlin team]: we have a studio that’s just done [Stick Man], we have the knowledge, we have the facility.”

Triggerfish also has a strong desire to create art that is not only beautiful, but meaningful. The team’s passion for storytelling, Buckland reiterates, is what drives them to create.

Appreciating the work as a cohesive story is what keeps the passion alive

It’s often easy to get lost in the minutiae of animation, especially when you’re working on background pieces or subtle expressions that spend but a few frames on screen. But taking a step back and appreciating the work as a cohesive story is what keeps the passion alive.

“You spend three years with your head down, [examining] the individual problems of every single shot. You’re literally looking at frames. [When] you take your head out of that and see it as a finished film, and see people experiencing it as a film and feeling emotions — that’s incredibly rewarding. That’s what everybody does it for.”

With a deep love for telling stories, the studio is set to tell more of its own. Riding off the success of their homegrown features Adventures in Zambezia and 2013’s Khumba — both of which are in the top five highest-grossing South African films ever — Triggerfish is looking forward to developing another feature, Seal Team.

The film, still in the development stage, will follow an orphaned pup from Seal Island who rallies a team to fend off the deadly great white sharks. Once it hits pre-production, Seal Team will take around three years to complete.

In the meantime, Triggerfish is working on another Magic Light collaboration, Zog, a short film about a hapless dragon and a reluctant princess due for BBC this Christmas.

But as Triggerfish sprints to that December deadline, the team would be forgiven for taking a quick pit stop on 4 March. That’s the night the unobtrusive farmhouse in Bergvliet will be pulled into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s biggest night — and it may just be the night it brings home the gold.

Revolting Rhymes will be coming to Showmax in the next few months. You can catch the 90th Academy Awards live on M-Net Movies Premiere at 3.30am on 5 March, and on M-Net the same day at 9.30pm.

Feature image: Triggerfish



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