Triggerfish Swims with the Majors

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The South African studio ups the ante in 2013 with Zambezia and Khumba, two new CG-animated features that have generated great buzz globally.

Last year, when Capetown-based Triggerfish Studios released its movie Zambezia in several territories, it made animation history: Not only was this South Africa’s first full-length animated feature, it was also noteworthy for the way it appealed to both local and global audiences.

The beautifully crafted CG film tells the story of an adventurous young falcon who leaves the comfort of his home to expand his horizons and to find the famed bird city of Zambezia. Directed by Wayne Thornley, the film also features an impressive voice cast—Leonard Nimoy, Abigail Breslin, Jeff Goldblum, Samuel Jackson, Jim Cummings, Richard E. Grant, Tom Kenny, Phil LaMarr, Corey Burton and Tress MacNeille, to name a few.

The project has been a labor of love for Triggerfish owner and CEO Stuart Forrest, who is also putting the finishing touches on the studio’s second feature, Khumba. Forrest, who joined the company in 2003 as a junior animator, has big plans for the studio.

Zambezia

Zambezia

“We went through a difficult time when new technology was moving in on the traditional clay animation that Triggerfish was famous for,” he says. “Eventually we restructured the company as a computer generated animation studio and turned the business around.”

Funded by a private investor as a pilot about six years ago, Zambezia became a full-fledged project after it was picked up by Los Angeles-based sales company Cinema Management Group (Killer Bean Forever, The Legend of Sarila, Louis La Chance). Using presales money and financing from the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa (NFV) and the Industrial Development Corporation, Triggerfish went full steam ahead with the project.

Zambezia was made at a fraction of the budget of a normal studio film and it has performed very well in comparison to the releases from the big studios,” says Forrest. “The film performed well at the American Film Market last year and it was acquired by Sony for international distribution. We did very well in Israel and became the number one independent film of the summer. In Russia, we hit the number two spot in our second week, with the widest release ever for an African film in that territory.”

Zambezia

Zambezia

According to boxofficemojo.com, Zambezia made about $5.3 million in Russia last year. The film also picked up two Annie Award nominations for its music (Bruce Retief) and voice acting (Jim Cummings) and will be officially released in the U.S. in March.

“We have stuck to the tried and tested rules,” notes Forrest. “Our goal was to make a commercial and entertaining movie for the family.”

Discussing the challenges of launching the film globally, he says the toughest aspect of the job was to get sales companies interested in the movie initially.

Zambezia 3D

Zambezia

“Once we had CMG involved, it sold pretty quickly. We also had a lot to learn. Working with a crew of this size—we grew from a studio of eight to 80 people within 18 months—we had to learn management skills in a very short period. I think the key things that we learned were about marketing, promotion and distribution. There’s a lot that still needs to be done after the movie has been finished—such as creating material to market the movie and cross promote it for distributors. We learned from Zambezia,  and for our second movie, that process is built in as part of the production.”

The studio’s second feature Khumba is another colorful coming-of-age tale about a brave animal hero. Directed by Anthony Silverston, the movie follows the adventures of a half-striped zebra who is unjustly blamed for a devastating drought in his homeland. He sets out to set things right and is joined on his quest by an overprotective wildebeest and a flamboyant ostrich, and they defeat the tyrannical leopard who has endangered his herd.

The plan is to present the movie at the Cannes market this year and have it ready for delivery by December of 2013.

Khumba

Khumba

“We used Softimage XSI and mental ray (for rendering) and Nuke for compositing,” says Forrest. “We also incorporated Solid Angle’s Arnold renderer in our pipeline. We have a bigger, more experienced team on the second film and the results are beautiful. You can definitely notice the maturity of the work. We’re more confident, and it’s definitely a step up from our first venture.”

Forrest and his team are also in development on the studio’s third feature. He hopes to deliver a new movie every 18 months and believes that although many of the studios continue to do fine work in the commercial sector, it’s important for a growing shop like Triggerfish to develop its own features and tell stories that have unique African flavors. To that end, Triggerfish is also launching an animation training school in 2013 to develop the region’s top talent. The studio will also be growing its digital content and games department, which is concentrating on developing games, eBooks, interactive apps and other digital content based on the company’s original IP.

“Both our movies were made entirely here, with a South African crew,” Forrest adds. “We grew up with a certain design aesthetic here. The film’s music is also strongly influenced by Africa—something that we haven’t quite heard in animated films before. Certainly, our stories are African, but we also had this strong need to be universal and to sell them to the world. They have to appeal to a broad market. That’s why we look at all the big American story guidelines and use well-known American actors to do our voices. But it’s also important for us to emphasize our points of difference, too. Our crew embraces this too, this role of representing Africa to the world … It’s exciting to show the continent in a new light to kids all over the world.”

Khumba

Khumba

For more information about Triggerfish Studios, visit www.triggerfishstudios.com.