Meet the man behind Triggerfish, Africa’s answer to Dreamworks and Disney

Earlier this year, Triggerfish Studios, a Cape Town-based animation studio released Zambezia, South Africa’s first full-length animated feature film. Zambezia tells the story of a young, naïve yet exuberant falcon who leaves the desolate desert where he lives with his father in pursuit of action and adventure in the famed bird city of Zambezia.

So far, the movie has been a modest success and has enjoyed significant critical acclaim. Zambezia has been screened in cinemas in over 50 countries, from Israel to Switzerland and France, and Triggerfish recently signed a distribution deal with Sony for rights in English-speaking territories.

Triggerfish is already concluding work on its second full-length animated feature, and plans are in the pipeline for a third. Triggerfish is already Africa’s largest animation studio, but Stuart Forrest, the owner and CEO of the company, is keen on growing his 3D animation studio into a behemoth entertainment enterprise – up there with Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney and the rest of the big boys. He told me about his dreams…

Take me back to the earliest beginning of Triggerfish Animation Studios. How did the idea come about, and how did you start out?

Triggerfish started out in 1996 and I joined them in 2003. As an aspiring stop-frame animator, Triggerfish was my dream place to work as they had secured some huge Sesame Street and Takalani Sesame commissions from international clients. I got a job there as a junior animator and worked my way up. We went through a difficult time when new technology was moving in on the traditional clay animation that Triggerfish was famous for. When the company became available for sale, I raised some money and bought it with my first business partner, James Middleton. Eventually we restructured the company as a computer generated animation studio and turned the business around.

I’m guessing it costs a tidy fortune to set up a world-class animation studio. How do you raise money to fund your operations?

We had a private investor who seeded the development of our first film, Zambezia, which enabled us to create a pilot. Once the pilot was created, we found a sales agent in Los Angeles (Cinema Management Group) who was willing to take it to market. Distributors reacted favorably, and we did quite a large amount of presales. We got a gap financier from LA (120dB Film Finances) to cashflow the presales. We also got some money from the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa (NFVF). With that in place, we were able to get the remainder of the funding from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). As soon as we closed that deal, we started on our second film with the same process, although the second time we didn’t need the LA money – the IDC cash flowed the presales.

Going forward we are speaking to potential investors in our efforts to move from a project-by-project funding model to securing slate financing for several films. Alongside this, we will build our gaming division, which will create digital content deeply integrated with our films’ intellectual property.

Last year, Triggerfish released Zambezia, its first feature movie, to critical acclaim. Tell me a little more about the movie (including the deal with Sony Pictures). How much did it cost to produce the movie?

The film is really a remarkable achievement from a remarkable team. We were able to hand pick the very best talent available in South Africa and I think everyone was surprised by just how good they were. Zambezia was made at a fraction of the budget of a normal studio film and it has performed very well in comparison to its much more resourced competition. We showed it publicly for the first time at the American Film Market in LA, and within a few days we were asked to deliver it to the Sony acquisitions people. It took a while to close the deal (with over 2,000 pages of legal documents!), but we are very happy with getting the support of such a prestigious distributor. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to divulge production costs.

How much did Zambezia do at the box office?

To date, we’ve released in just a handful of markets. Notably, we did very well in Israel to become the Number 1 independent film of the summer, and at the time of writing, we have been in the Russian Top Ten for 5 weeks, reaching the Number 2 position in our second week, having released on 738 screens – which we believe is the widest release ever for an African film in that territory. Hundreds of thousands of people have been to see Zambezia and we are still in the early stages of its release. Box Office Mojo shows Zambezia pulling in $4.8 million at the box office in Russia through Sept. 23

Triggerfish is almost set to release its second animated feature, Khumba. Tell me about that.

Khumba is the heartwarming story of a zebra who is born with half his stripes in a herd where stripes are everything. It’s full of great characters and is a great second film from a mature team who didn’t sit back and rest on their achievements. They took advantage of everything they learned on the first film and built an exquisite world on screen.

How has the reception been to Triggerfish releases? Do Africans and the rest of the world get excited about indigenous animation productions?

We were very proud when Zambezia was selected for screening at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival – it was a huge accolade for us. We showed it at the Durban International Film Festival to local audiences for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the praise we received in the media – the film won the Best South African Feature Film category. I was concerned that locally we’d get a reserved response as South Africans are generally quite critical of local films, but we’ve had huge support. I think it is going to be a film phenomenon when it releases in South Africa this December. We hope that the continent gets behind us as we bring Africa’s unique creative voice to Hollywood and the world.

How many employees does Triggerfish have? How big is the company?

At its peak, we had 103 people working on site at our premises in Cape Town. I think it’s the largest animation studio in Africa.

Give me an overview of the animation industry in Southern Africa today.

Compared to many filmmaking countries, we’re still in our infancy. The majority of studios are small and vie for work from the commercials industry. There are a few players who have ventured into original storytelling, but commercials provide the bread-and-butter for nearly all of the studios. However, the industry has grown in leaps and bounds over the last 5 years. Throughout the country we probably have around 100 animation school graduates per year, and we’re steadily building an industry.

What’s the future of the industry?

The global media and entertainment industry is a huge market. We believe the internet and digital distribution present massive opportunities for independent studios to get closer to their audiences. We’re also excited by what we see in the casual and online gaming space as the internet brings multiple opportunities to build and monetize an audience with high-quality entertainment experiences. We can already see this disruption happening in Hollywood with mobile and tablet technology transforming the way we consume media.

There is pressure on film budgets to come down, and Triggerfish is a world-leader in developing original content at sensible price points. We are less reliant on generating box office “hits” as the other major studios are. We think the convergence of digital media will see popular original content properties being developed and monetized across multiple platforms.

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