Lwazi Msipha is a young animation artist from Boksburg who can now boast about having his own show on Cartoon Network. Phumlani S Langa pays him a visit.
It’s a dry and brisk Tuesday in Villa Rosa Boksburg, the grass on the pavements a vivid golden brown and red sand rises off the ground as kids from the neighbourhood walk around, some heading back from school.
Lwazi Msipha gives me a Covid friendly dap at the threshold to his home where he created his show, My Cartoon Friend which has been picked up by American cable television channel Cartoon Network.
“I guess many people tell the same story of how they got into animation and just like them, I started with Dragon Ball Z.”
He’s wearing a large beige jacket to repel the sting of the breeze along with some jet-black sweatpants and matching Reebok sneaks.
He continued, “Dragon Ball Z definitely inspired a lot of us, South African artists. I was very intrigued by what was going on with all the action in this show. It hit me; this is what I want to do. I started drawing Goku [the main character in this show] and all of that on paper.”
This would prove to not be enough for him. The desire to see his sketches move was unshakable.
“I need to see it move; I need to see it animated.”
He began to investigate the art form extensively.
“I enjoyed using the corner of my books to do flip book sketches and turning the images to make my doodles move. I always got in trouble with the teachers back then because I was drawing all the time.”
You would think that this is one of those creative occupations that black parents might disapprove of as it is a riskier field than law or medicine.
“My mom encouraged me actually. She said, ‘You are going to go do animation’ and she applied for me to go and study.”
Msipha was thinking of doing something in the realm of animation but with a corporate structure attached to it, like graphic design or multimedia. Fortunately, that didn’t pan out and now the young artist who trained specifically to work as a 3D animator, has a two-dimensional show on one of the most prolific platforms there is for cartoons.
“My family was very supportive. I think they wouldn't have wanted me to do something other than animation. I'm open to everything that has animation to do with it.”
His face lights up as he speaks about his art. We head to his room where he spends most of his time. A large bed with a dark brown headboard takes up most of the space in this, his dream theatre. He has two 40kg dumbbells in the corner with an iron gym and workout bench.
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“I can’t lift all of that, but we try”, he jokes.
On his desk is a laptop and a tablet, his workspace. Almost with a sense of relief washing over his face he explained, “I’m going to France in September. I’ll be doing my masters in animation at the number one school for animation in the world, number one school for animation in the world – the Gobelins School of Imagery [in Paris] – for two years.”
“I don’t want to throw shade at my country, but I have been getting a lot of recognition internationally. When I started in 2017 the people who picked up on what I could do were from a French company called Digital Lab Africa who worked closely with Wits. The first time I left the country was through them and I went to France to an animation festival, and I did a one-month residency as well. They appreciate the art and I hope South Africa jumps on the bandwagon.”
This opportunity came about through a sponsorship from Netflix.
“It should be very exciting. It’s crazy because with a masters you need to have a degree then your honours. I’m going straight from a diploma to this. Skipping those steps.”
He says Gobelins has that kind of power where all you need is to have had some tertiary training and of course a rare talent burning brightly within you.
“When I come back, I’ll use whatever I learn to grow the local industry. I told this to Netflix in detail. I told them it was in their best interest if they invest in me.”
He is inspired by long standing adult animations like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park.
“I look up to the creators of shows like that, they're very inspirational. They have a successful show, and these keep getting renewed for more seasons. There's a lot of money that they're making out of it too. I mean, Matt and Trey, the creators of South Park, have a very interesting deal with Comedy Central, where they get to own the rights to their show. I think they own 100% of the rights.”
His eyes gleam as though he is living a separate reality in his mind that involves him animating and owning his own show. All in due time.
An animated buddy
His show houses the story of a charter called Themba, who befriends the 2D version of Lwazi. Themba can’t distinguish between the real world and make believe.
“We have these adventures and I’m the one who has to bring him to order all the time.”
The idea is that in the show, Lwazi was on his computer one day and a pop-up for some suspicious animation software appeared on his screen. He clicks on it and Themba is born, emerging from the computer and into Lwazi’s fantastical reality. Msipha is proof that keeping the inner child alive can bear fruit, although so many of us are encouraged to cast away the uninhibited creativity of a youthful mind.
“Pursuing animation to begin with is definitely me, speaking to the inner child like look, all the stuff that you used to see on TV, you're the one that's making it now. I always watched these things [animations] and wondered how they were done. If the seven-year-old version of me could see that I'm actually doing it now, I know for sure he’d be very proud.
The show is 13 episodes and season one first aired on July 12. Each episode runs for around two minutes.
“So, it plays at 4:15pm and it's been very successful. We’re about to finish the season pretty soon. The kids really loved it, I’ve received some DMs and emails as well as comments on my videos on TikTok.”
Those who have praised his creation didn’t believe he was behind it.
“There’s been a very good reception, especially from the kids who I made the show for.”
He hopes to inspire others to follow him and urges anyone thinking of a career in animation not to stop the pursuit of this dream.
He says social media played a huge role in him getting this far.
“I used to post my stuff on YouTube, and it really didn't make that much movement or noise and then I started posting on TikTok and the video went viral.”
This helped him identify a hunger for his content and a more direct means of gauging reactions. His Covid content has definitely pulled people in and our conversation winds down with Msipha demonstrating how he works, using a digital pen to make a cartoon Cyril Ramaphosa smile and move.