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Toonzone Interviews Stuart Forrest, CEO of Triggerfish, on "Adventures in Zambezia"

Stuart Forrest Triggerfish CEOStuart Forrest is a longtime animator and the current CEO of Triggerfish Animation Studios, based in Cape Town, South Africa. He began Triggerfish by doing stop-motion animation in his living room (much to the annoyance of his wife), before going on to doing animation for Sesame Street for six seasons, along with commercials and 30-minute specials. He has been pivotal in the growth and development of the studio, and won the Innovator of the Year award in 2012 from the Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year Competition.

Forrest is one of the producers for Adventures in Zambezia, South Africa’s first feature-length animated film. The movie is set in the mythical city of Zambezia, which is populated with nearly every type of bird and defended by the elite Hurricanes. The movie focuses on a spirited young falcon named Kai who journeys to Zambezia against his father’s wishes, but has to grow up fast when a deadly threat raises its head against his newfound home. Toonzone News was able to interview Forrest via telephone to talk about the film and its production.

TOONZONE NEWS: I believe I read that it took about 3 years to get from start to finished product. Is that about right?

STUART FORREST: In terms of production, yes, it was about three years of writing and development and then two-and-a-half years for production.

TOONZONE NEWS: What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced in getting Zambezia onto the screen?

STUART FORREST: We were a young studio. I think when you’re doing your first film, everything is a bit challenging. From getting the script to getting things ready for production to getting the funding to building the team, it was quite a significant learning curve on everything. So I’d probably say (laughs) getting the money was probably the hardest job. Once that was in place, it took on a life of its own.

Adventures in Zambezia Zoe KaiTOONZONE NEWS: The animation was all done in South Africa, but it seems that American and British actors dominate the cast. Was there a reason why you didn’t cast with South African actors instead?

STUART FORREST: We did initially some tests with South African actors and with American actors, and the test audiences responded better to the American and British voices. I think it’s about familiarity. In most of the world, I think it’ll be dubbed into a different language. The distributor that we were selling to is more familiar with the American and British way of speaking, so it was to make it as easy to understand to the distributors as possible so they would respond well. We always believed we were going to put some celebrity voices on, so the mix of South African voices and American voices actually sounds more jarring and more noticeable, so we just decided to unversally go with the American voices and the British voices. It seemed very easy with that.

TOONZONE NEWS: That’s interesting. I would have thought you could have gotten away with the mix of accents because of the mishmash of different people…or different birds…in Zambezia itself.

STUART FORREST: Yeah, we did actually have a bit of a mish-mash right at the end. The ones that we had kept from South Africa…we had 3 or 4, but they ended up being changed to being celebrities right at the end. In future movies, we’re going to try to use a lot more local talent, but for this one we were taking such a big risk already, so we kind of wanted to make sure everything we had was working optimally.

TOONZONE NEWS: OK, fair enough. The animated features is a pretty competitive business these days, certainly even moreso than it was 5 or 10 years ago. What would you say Triggerfish brings to the table to differentiate it from productions from other animated film studios?

STUART FORREST: I think that we are coming with a different voice. We’re the only studio in Africa creating feature films for broad international release. Africa as a continent is pretty silent when it comes to any kind of participation in the world media stage, so that’s really what’s driven us as a company. Everybody who worked on it lives in Africa and has had that experience to draw from. For me, it was that there’s a voice missing in world animation, and we were trying to be that voice. We’ve seen a lot of resonance in other emerging markets, particularly in Russia and Europe, and some of the other markets that are more, I think, similar culturally to what we have here. So it’s just interesting to see that perhaps outside the primary territories, there’s an appetite for a different kind of voice.

Adventures in Zambezia Kai, Ezee, and weaver birdsTOONZONE NEWS: In the bonus features on the DVD, either you or the director talked about wanting to do a film set in Africa, but that was oriented around the urban experience rather than the stereotypical images of Africa — the wilderness or the veldt or the jungle.

STUART FORREST: Absolutely. Almost every film that is made in Africa or even with foreign people making it in Africa has to revolve around a sterotype, and it’s usually war, famine, genocide, or disease. Or violence of some sort. For us it was really important to say, “No, there’s really a lot more to Africa” and part of what we’re trying to do is break stereotypes and say this is is a rich continent, it’s massive, it’s a billion people, and it’s very diverse and it’s got something to say even though up until now, it’s been silent.

TOONZONE NEWS: Related to that, I was hesitant to ask about this until it was brought up in the bonus features, but one of the things I love the most about the film is the message of inclusion that’s introduced at the end. It felt like something very distinctively drawn from the African experience and South African experience pretty specifically. I was going to ask how did that come into the film?

STUART FORREST: The funny thing is that when we started writing, we specifically didn’t want to make another apartheid allegory, which is pretty much 90% of the movies made in South Africa that have this heavy subject matter. It is quite heavy and it’s 20 years on now, so we wanted to say, “Let’s just make an entertaining family movie and adventure story.” But looking back as it was made, it was almost like we surprised ourselves at how much the apartheid story was there. It’s part of the fabric of our lives. If we’re trying to be authentic about our voice, then it’s kind of hard to get away from how much the end of apartheid and the time since then has impacted us. Because inclusion is a difficult thing. It takes work. It’s not just something that comes naturally. It means that community is not a simple thing. It’s something that takes work, but the benefits are worth it.

TOONZONE NEWS: I thought it was introduced very organically and it didn’t feel like it was preachy or heavy-handed. I can imagine it gave you a lot of trouble to get that balance right.

STUART FORREST: I think a lot of novice filmmakers have something to say, and all their energy is spent saying something. We were trying not to say anything, but just having fun. I guess what’s nice is that what we had to say still did come through.

Adventures in Zambezia Kai, EzeeTOONZONE NEWS: You had touched on money earlier, and I know you probably can’t talk about what the total budget of the film is, but the numbers I’ve seen are at least an order of magnitude lower than the numbers that you see coming out of the big Hollywood studios. Is that roughly accurate? Are those budget numbers about right?

STUART FORREST: Yeah, you’re right, we aren’t allowed to talk about it. We did set a number of $20 million as a gauge of the production value, and in reality that includes a lot of above-the-line costs. The actual production budget was a lot less than that, but definitely not more than that. I think there’s a lot of advantages of being in South Africa. First of all, we’re the only company doing it here. There really isn’t any competition, and the market is quite new. A lot of people got together and just worked really hard to do something on a shoestring.

TOONZONE NEWS: How did you produce something that can stand up against the big boys who are spending so much more money on their films?

STUART FORREST: I can tell you that we weren’t as efficient as we could have been because it was our first movie and we had to learn so much. We had to go back and redo some things. It surprises me, to be honest, when I look at the big budgets and what they spend. It’s like the last 20% that really takes 80% of the budget. In America, perhaps, the market is fairly established and easy to access for the studios, so spending that money can be justified, whereas we couldn’t justify spending that much. We just did what we could with what we had, and learned how to do it. I think also the benefit is that we don’t have any legacy way of looking at how movies should be made. We come from a commercial background. Our background is in industry animation, so to expand that to a feature is just a different process than maybe a background in 2D animation or ideas on how animated feature films have been made since the 20’s.

Adventures in Zambezia Sekhuru and AjaxTOONZONE NEWS: I know you’re working on wrapping up your next film, Khumba now. Can you talk about other stuff you guys are working on?

STUART FORREST: Khumba is in the late stages of post-production — we’re doing the sound mix, so it’s being released in September in the US. We’ve also got a slate of five films that we’re working on at different stages of development. We haven’t gone public with any of them yet.

TOONZONE NEWS: is Triggerfish still working on the commercial stuff?

STUART FORREST: No, we’ve moved to a model of only producing our own features, and had quite a good success with Zambezia, so we’re going to keep going and keep making our own stories. We’ve got five planned and by the end of next year, we should have established ourselves as a studio.

Toonzone News would like to thank Stuart Forrest for taking the time to speak with us. Adventures in Zambezia is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, currently as Wal-Mart exclusives.

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