Khumba: Have you herd?

2013-10-23 11:00

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There’s a host of new animated characters coming to our screens when the movie Khumba opens this week. 

Hold onto your popcorn! Put on those special glasses! A new locally produced 3D animated movie is about to hit cinemas around the country.

Set against the backdrop of the Karoo, Khumba tells the story of a half-striped zebra whose herd rejects him because he looks different. The hapless youngster is also accused of causing the severe drought that sets in shortly after his birth.

Ostracised, ashamed and curious about the outside world, Khumba and his motley crew of hangers-on set off on an ambitious quest.

In true lump-in-the-throat style, his misguided goal is to find the magic waterhole where, legend has it, he will be granted those all-important missing stripes.

‘It’s really hard to separate myself from the character of Khumba,’ says Anthony Silverston, the movie’s creator and director.

‘I first started thinking about the story 10 years ago and we share a lot of characteristics and experiences. Like Khumba, I too struggled to work out what it meant to be me – and how to deal with feeling different. We both battle with issues of identity.’

The great message in the film is that Khumba learns to celebrate his uniqueness. ‘It’s a powerful story of learning to accept oneself and to realise that being just like everyone else – like the rest of the herd – isn’t always the solution. This was something I, too, had to realise.’

Anthony, a former scientist, is now a partner in Triggerfish Animation Studios, an innovative computer-design company that has put South Africa on the map as a 3D animation force to be reckoned with.

Forbes magazine has even likened the Cape Town-based outfit to American heavyweights such as Dreamworks, Disney and Pixar, a comparison that can’t be taken lightly.

Operating out of a converted thatch-roofed barn in Bergvliet, the Triggerfish team has created a number of award-winning commercials, local Sesame Street segments and last year’s full-length animated feature film Adventures in Zambezia.

‘We aim to change the way the world views Africa,’ says Stuart Forrest, Triggerfish’s co-founder. ‘We want to show that Africa can produce excellent quality on par with anywhere in the world. We have the skills and we have the talent and we are gathering experience.’

Although animation as a South African industry is still in its infancy, Triggerfish hopes Khumba will be as successful as the internationally acclaimed The Lion King.

‘It might be ambitious considering it is only our second feature film, but we’re hoping it’s a film South Africans will be proud of for generations to come,’ Anthony says.

In fact, when Anthony and Khumba co-writer Raffaella Delle Donne were still in the production phase, they were able to enlist the help of Jonathan Roberts, one of the scriptwriters for The Lion King.

‘For better or worse, The Lion King has cast a pretty long shadow,’ Jonathan told Animation Magazine recently.

‘With Khumba I learnt how tricky it can be to present a fresh animated fable set on the African plains, populated by African animals.’ Jonathan concluded that by focusing on the distinct and original elements in the story, Khumba will shine in its own well-earned light.

The inspiration for the story came from a combination of places. ‘As a genetic scientist, I was fasinated by the fact that there is actually a half-striped zebra known as a quagga that is being bred back from extinction in Cape Town,’ he explains.

It raised all sorts of questions about what makes a zebra a zebra. There are many themes in the movie – and the theme of identity is a very strong one.’

The geneticist-turned-director adds that his mother was involved in ceramics, and he remembers often playing with clay as a child. ‘My father studied film in Germany and during some of my visits we created a Wallace-and-Grommit-type short film.

That’s where my interest in stop-motion short films originated,’ he explains.

After graduating from UCT and working in a lab in Canada, Anthony realised the pull towards animation was simply too strong to ignore – and initially joined Triggerfish as an intern.

During the Khumba development process, the story was reworked through several incarnations.

‘I initially thought Khumba’s nemisis could be a pangolin (often called a scaly anteater), until I realised how ridiculous that idea was,’ Anthony says. ‘We eventually settled on a more suitable villain – the fercious leopard Phango.’

It has been an organic process and the Triggerfish team is delighted that their little zebra has come of age and is ready to go out into the world as a lovable ambassador for South African animation.

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