South African Creators Find Success with Kiff

The animated buddy comedy series Kiff, following the titular optimistic squirrel whose best intentions often lead to chaos, is coming to Disney Channel and Disney+ in 2023. The series is a passion project for South African creators Lucy Heavens and Nic Smal, who always dreamed of creating their own show but never thought it would be possible living in Cape Town.

Heavens and Smal make a dynamic duo, as Heavens specializes in writing (with credits for Space Chickens in Space) and Smal is more of a visual artist (with credits as an animator for Caillou). When they met, they found that their talents meshed well together, and they “decided to just ‘make a show’ to pitch,” Smal says.

The two set out to develop a series that was “a vehicle for the kinds of stories we wanted to tell and the types of characters we thought were funny and interesting,” Heavens says.

“What really was surprising was how quickly and effortlessly the characters and world started to reveal themselves to us,” Smal adds. “It didn’t feel like work at all, and we both could sense there was something magical taking shape.”

Heavens initially pitched Kiff to Disney in Los Angeles and, after several months, Disney optioned it. Heavens and Smal worked together with Disney Television Animation to develop the series. “We really took the reins through our development journey, designing the characters and aesthetic, storyboarding the pilot ourselves, and writing and producing the songs,” Smal says. “Disney really let our voice come through in this way, and we are just so grateful for that.”

Though Heavens’ talents are geared toward words and Smal’s are geared toward art, the two have similar comedic sensibilities. “The end result is strengthened by each of us casting a critical eye over the other’s work,” Heavens says. “Somewhere we heard the term ‘the third brain,’ which is created when he and I are working together—it’s kind of its own voice.”

The “third brain” was especially useful when crafting Kiff’s original music, an integral part of the show. Heavens and Smal knew from the beginning that music would be a major part of the project, as “music and comedy is like avocado on toast—they just work so well together,” Smal jokes.

Smal is a musician with experience in musical comedy, while Heavens says her experience consists of “writing funny and terrible songs that make me laugh.” When they work on songs together, “the ‘third brain’ gets to have its say,” she says.

The creators pay homage to their home country with visual environments drawing on Cape Town flora and geography, especially Table Mountain. The series maintains global appeal through its depiction of the universal growing-up experience.

“The show navigates friendships, rivalries, families [and] society in a way that anyone who’s ever been told—or has had to tell their kid—to brush their teeth will relate to,” Heavens says.

Smal adds, “Pair that with the different perspective of growing up in South Africa, and the result is something that feels surprising and familiar all at once.”

Ultimately, “We hope Kiff imparts empathy for all people,” Heavens notes. “Everyone in this show, good guy or villain, is fighting some internal battle of hope, insecurity, longing, expectations, ambition. Hopefully, it sparks curiosity to ask: Why did I just say that? Why did I behave that way?”

Smal adds, “The wonderful message of this show is that it celebrates the magic of life in the big moments, as well as the small and seemingly insignificant. It shows kids how fulfilling it is to find passion, live in the moment and that it is always way better to move through life seeing the glass as half full.”

Heavens and Smal can serve as inspiration for other aspiring animators who might think they don’t have a chance because of where they come from. “If you want to pitch your own show, make sure that it’s going to be something you really want to watch; that’s what comes through in your pitch, your joy for your show!” Heavens advises. “And, of course, remember that a lot of things feel impossible to get to from the developing world—but nothing is impossible. You can figure it out!”