South African animator on what gives the country’s industry a global edge

The rights to Sunrise Production's latest TV series, Munki and Trunk (targeting children aged 4-7), have just been bought by UK-based world leader in animation, Aardman.

The rights to Sunrise Production’s latest TV series, Munki and Trunk (targeting children aged 4-7), have just been bought by UK-based world leader in animation, Aardman.

Does South Africa’s animation industry have the potential to become a global competitor? According to Phil Cunningham, founder at the Cape Town-based animation studio Sunrise Productions, the answer is a definite yes.

“South Africa’s industry is still very much in its infancy… I think that is the big difference between us and a lot of the world. It is a vibrant and exciting space with a lot of talent and growth, but there is still a lot of structure and development that has to happen for the industry to mature.

Cunningham points out that a weak rand means that South African animated shows or films are a lot more affordable for global broadcasters than those produced by developed countries, such as the US and UK. And while they are still not as cheap as Asian products, Cunningham argues that the South African industry competes when it comes to quality, as well as its sensitivity to different cultures and global values.

“I think South Africa typically has quite good international sensibilities, which is very important in animation and storytelling [for a global audience]. So although we are not as cheap as Asia, I think we bring something different to Asia in the form of international sensibilities.

“I would say our quality of work is better than Asia’s too. So we should really [lean on] our sweet spots as a country in order to grow and become a genuine world player.”

Demand for African content

A couple of Sunrise’s animated film and TV shows for children have been picked up by international broadcasters. Its award-winning TV series Jungle Beat has been broadcast in over 180 countries, including on channels such as Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Boomerang.

The rights to its latest TV series, Munki and Trunk (targeting children aged 4-7), have just been bought by UK-based world leader in animation, Aardman. The series is set to be showcased this weekend at MIPCOM Junior – an annual event in Cannes that brings together global buyers and producers of kids programming.

Cunningham says that there is a growing global interest in African-themed content.

“It is a very vibrant, colourful, energetic, growing continent and there is definitely an international interest in stories that come out of Africa. It has a real wealth in stories and colour… So I think we are sitting on a gold mine,” he adds.

“The challenge is to tell stories at an international standard. So although we have this incredible base of raw material in which to tell stories, I think for us the challenge is to tell it in a way that is accessible to the rest of the world.”

Targeting an international market

While demand for local content in South Africa is growing – especially since the country’s public broadcaster, the SABC, adopted a 90% local-content quota for its TV channels – Cunningham says it does not make commercial sense for animators to make South Africa their sole focus. The market is still too small and production costs are too high to make it viable.

“Even in many other places in the world, if you made an animation show just for your market, the business model doesn’t work. The only way the model works in animation is if you have got a world market in mind,” he continues.

Children’s changing consumption patterns

Cunningham adds that while the rest of the African continent is still a small market for animated content, it is showing strong growth.

He explains that the way children are consuming media has changed from a push model – where broadcasters choose an afternoon line-up on a TV channel, for example – to a pull model, such as Netflix – where children (or their parents), choose their own programmes. For this reason, he believes that growth in Africa will be on phones and tablets, rather than traditional TV.

“It is absolutely a market to keep an eye on and not ignore,” he says. “The rest of Africa, in terms of the media space right now, is a very small part of the financial model currently. But what I can say about kids’ content consumption on the African continent is that it will be a very exciting space over the next 10 to 15 years.”