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Triggerfish Animation Studios’ 28-year journey to overnight success

Triggerfish Animation Studios’ 28-year journey to overnight success
Triggerfish Animation Studios’ Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire notched up five nominations at the recent 51st Annual Annie Awards, taking home took home the statuette for Best TV/Media – Limited Series. (Image: Triggerfish Animation Studios)

With Triggerfish Animation Studios scooping two prestigious accolades at the recent 51st Annual Annie Awards, we look at the past, present and future of the South African animation house behind the likes of Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, Supa Team 4, Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes, Seal Team and the Aau’s Song episode of Star Wars: Visions.

It’s impossible to deny that 2023 was a breakout year for Triggerfish Animation Studios, Africa’s leading animation house, which is headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa.

Suddenly the name Triggerfish was everywhere, attached to high-profile projects like Season 2 of the animated anthology Star Wars: Visions, groundbreaking Disney+ Afrofuturist series Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, and two seasons of Supa Team 4, a superhero tale set in Zambia that is Netflix’s first animated show from Africa. Triggerfish contributed an episode to Star Wars: Visions (entitled Aau’s Song); it was the lead studio on 10-part Kizazi Moto, coordinating and supporting animators across the continent and is also the driving force behind Supa Team 4.

This January, Star Wars: Visions and Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire earned six and five nominations respectively at the 51st Annual Annie Awards, arguably the animation industry’s most prestigious awards globally. In the TV/media categories, these series were tied second and third for the most nominations (behind Blue Eye Samurai with seven nods). For Kizai Moto: Generation Fire, Triggerfish is nominated in such notable categories as Best TV/Media – Limited Series (for the episode Enkai by director Ng’endo Mukii); Best Best FX – TV/Media (Shofela Coker for the episode Moremi); Best Character Animation (André de Villiers for three episodes: Moremi, Surf Sangoma and Stardust); and Best Character Design – TV/Media (Lesego Vorster for You Give Me Heart).

André de Villiers and Triggerfish Animation Studios were nominated for an Annie Award for Best Character Animation for three episodes of ‘Kizai Moto: Generation Fire’: Moremi, Surf Sangoma, and Stardust. Images: Supplied/Triggerfish Animation Studios

When the winners of the 51st Annual Annie Awards were announced a month later, on 17 February, Kizai Moto: Generation Fire took home the statuette for Best TV/Media – Limited Series, while Triggerfish’s Star Wars: Visions contribution won Best Music – TV/Media for Markus Wormstorm, Nadia Darries and Dineo du Toit.

Now, if you equate “breakout” with “overnight success”, it’s time for a reality check. Triggerfish’s now headline-making achievements have been decades in the making. Twenty eight years, in fact, as the studio has been performing double duties, pursuing its artistic ambitions alongside the necessary task of cultivating the animation industry on the African continent. South Africans make a plan, after all.

‘Direct correlation’

Triggerfish Animation Studios’ creative director Anthony Silverston. (Image: Supplied)

Triggerfish creative director Anthony Silverston explains: “We’ve always had to help grow the industry at the same time that we have grown our company – they are a direct correlation of one another, as a healthy local industry benefits us too.”

So while Triggerfish was releasing feature films like Adventures in Zambezia (2012) and Khumba (2013), both centred on African wildlife, it was one of the original founders of Animation SA and helped start monthly networking event AnimationXchange back in 2009.

In 2015, Triggerfish, in collaboration with the Walt Disney Company, launched the Triggerfish Story Lab, a pan-African talent search that drew nearly 1,400 entries from across the continent, with the goal of kickstarting new animated projects. Eight years later, every one of the Story Lab’s TV series winners has a major show release. These include Malenga Mulendema’s Supa Team 4, Mike Scott’s co-created Twende, which is Showmax’s first Original 2D-animated series (show run by Triggerfish alumnus Greig Cameron), and Lucy Heavens, who went on to co-create US-South African animated comedy Kiff on Disney Channel.

More recently, in 2019, Triggerfish launched Triggerfish Academy, offering a mix of free and paid online courses for aspiring animators. Meanwhile, in 2021, it partnered with Netflix on a pan-African Story Artist Lab, led by veteran Pixar story artist Nathan Stanton; and in 2022, it gave 41 creatives from eight African countries an overview of the animation pipeline in conjunction with the Walt Disney Company and the American Film Showcase.

These efforts, in addition to helping to connect creators with funding, and students with bursaries, have earned Triggerfish various accolades. It was named Western Cape Business of the Year at the Premier’s Entrepreneurship Recognition Awards and won the Business With Global Reach award at the same event.

Trophy shelf

Triggerfish Animation Studios

The Aau’s Song episode of Star Wars: Visions garnered Triggerfish the award for Best Music – TV/Media at the 51st Annual Annie Awards. (Image: Triggerfish Animation Studios)

Silverston talks of the need to overcome local scepticism about animation as a career. “There’s a lot of education and public awareness involved. A lot of people watch animation, but very few know what it takes to pull off a single short film, let alone a large-scale project, so we have found it important to constantly share knowledge. The more everyone knows what it takes to produce world-class animation, the fewer surprises there will be. It’s much easier to meet expectations when the reality is clear, so that’s why the balance of industry development is needed alongside the company growth.”

Triggerfish has certainly grown – and expanded its trophy shelf. Working with Magic Light Pictures on five BBC Christmas Specials from 2015 to 2019, including an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Zog and The Snail and the Whale, resulted in an Oscar nomination, three Baftas and an International Emmy. In late 2021, the third Triggerfish feature film, Seal Team, about a band of Cape fur seals running special ops missions, cracked the Netflix Global Top 10.

In 2020, Triggerfish opened a small finance- and operations-focused office in Galway, Ireland, to make it easier to attract global talent and rebates. While Covid-19 changed plans somewhat for the new studio (which is the base of Triggerfish CEO Stuart Forrest), the pandemic did hone Triggerfish’s remote-working and collaboration capabilities.

Silverston explains: “When we start work on a TV series, it’s likely the leads will be based in Ireland, working with the bulk of the team in SA. Although of course, with everyone working remotely now, it is almost irrelevant where artists are based – on Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, we worked with crew across the world.” Contracted employees on the Disney+ series included more than 1,300 people from almost every continent.

Typical path of an animator

Seal Team is Triggerfish Animation Studios’ third feature film. (Image: Triggerfish)

Out of interest, the typical path to working for Triggerfish, at least for South Africans, is graduating from the Animation School, or a similar institution with a qualification in computer animation. Hiring decisions are usually based on a portfolio, and the ability to work with others, with students progressing from paid internship to junior positions.

As busy as the last decade has been for Triggerfish, 2023 was unprecedented in terms of series debuts and other announcements concerning the studio. Despite being made as a Disney+ Original, in August, Kizazi Moto migrated to DStv’s Disney Channel across Africa, to enable more locals to enjoy homegrown animation through traditional broadcast channels. This was followed a month later by Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes on Disney Junior (and YouTube), a series about a seven-year-old dancing superhero whose community is inspired by the traditions and cultures of southern Africa. Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes was developed and produced by Triggerfish in partnership with eOne Hasbro, Disney, Frog Box and France Télévisions.

While each case is different, Triggerfish’s high-profile collaborations with the likes of Disney and Netflix demonstrate a surprisingly high level of creative trust. 

Silverston elaborates: “With Kizazi Moto, Disney actually wanted us to do something that was not typical of Disney, and they really let the creatives lead the process – they were open to be surprised by the results – although we could not have obtained the results without their guidance at every step of the way. 

“With (Star Wars: Visions episode) Aau’s Song, it was also a special case, because Lucasfilm came to us already wanting to work with us based on our previous work, and trusting us to lead the creative process, so the directors, Dan Clarke and Nadia Darries, both had a huge amount of freedom. The whole idea of the anthology was to expand the Star Wars universe beyond the existing world, so they were very open to new ideas.”

He adds: “Broadcasters usually understand their audiences way better than we do, so mostly partnerships have actually been a fantastic learning experience. Creatively, the executives we work with have a huge amount of experience and we can learn from them as to where to focus on story, character or art development.”

Away from the screen, 2023 also marked Triggerfish’s first foray into graphic novels, with the publication of middle school-aged Kariba – by Daniel and James Clarke, with story contribution from Daniel Snaddon – and Pearl of the Sea – by Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne, and Willem Samuel. Published by Catalyst Press, these award-winning comics are another avenue for telling uniquely African tales, reaching young readers as they leverage the books’ natural overlap with animation in terms of visual storytelling and literacy.

More in the offing

Malenga Mulendema’s Supa Team 4 is a product of the Triggerfish Story Lab. (Image: Netflix)

There are more practical reasons behind the medium shift as well, as Silverston explains: “It’s an extremely useful way for more visual storytellers to get experience and to get projects out into the world more quickly, as well as to help build a fanbase or prove that the concept works … We are currently working on two more graphic novels – both based on projects that we initially developed in other formats too. We’ve found it really helps to be able to leverage a film/series off something in print.”

Out of interest, Pearl of the Sea started out as an animated feature called Sea Monster, and was on the cusp of being pitched to Netflix when the streamer’s Sea Beast was announced. There are now plans to adapt Pearl of the Sea into a live-action production.

As for what’s on the horizon from Triggerfish, the pitches continue with a large slate of projects in development. Silverston offers a mix of confirmed endeavours and enticing teasers. 

“We aim to start production on our own preschool show called Rosy Days early in 2024. It’s a spin-off from our 2018 short film Belly Flop, which screened at over 140 festivals and won about 14 awards. Meanwhile, we have a big feature in development with one studio and a more adult series with another, so hopefully we can talk more about those projects soon.”

Not even two months into the new year, 2024 is already set to be another big year for Triggerfish, now bolstered by two Annie Awards wins. Watch this space. DM

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