Triggerfish’s Anthony Silverston

In 2015, the South African animation studio Triggerfish launched a pan-African talent search for animated films and series. Supported by The Walt Disney Company, the Triggerfish Story Lab had nearly 1,400 entries from across the continent. Fast forward eight years and all of the Triggerfish Story Lab’s TV series winners have major animated series out this year. Indeed, 2023 is turning into a breakthrough year for African animation. Anthony Silverston, creative director at Triggerfish, tells TV Kids about the strengths of this market.

***Image***TV KIDS: How has 2023 been a breakthrough year for African animation?
SILVERSTON: This year, there have been more animated projects released that originated from the continent than any other year and at a scale that has never been seen before.

From Triggerfish alone, there is Aau’s Song, a 15-minute short film, part of Star Wars: Visions Volume 2Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, a ten-part anthology that spans six countries from Africa; Indlela Yokuphila: The Soul’s Journey, a 2D short film we supported; the series Supa Team 4 and Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes; and our first graphic novel, Pearl of the Sea. Then there are two award-winning student films that include South African directors, the Annie Award-winning The Soloists and the BAFTA-winning Thaba Ye. Ex-Triggerfish Story Lab writer and directors Lucy Heavens (Kiff) and Mike Scott both have shows coming out this year; there’s a feature film called Headspace from Luma in Johannesburg releasing in September; Sunrise is working on a Jungle Beat movie sequel and has hit 10 million views on its YouTube; and another graphic novel, Kariba, which had a successful Kickstarter that we supported, is also coming out this year. Across Africa, there are also various other properties being created, such as Garbage Boy and Trash Can or Kunda & Friends. So, audiences of varying ages will all see a perspective of Africa they’ve never seen before and be introduced to worlds and characters that show a range of cultures from the continent in a dignifying and entertaining way, which is extremely exciting.

TV KIDS: What are some of the strengths of the African animation market as a whole?
SILVERSTON: There is huge passion and drive—and a bit of uncharted territory—so that means a lot of invention and entrepreneurship can happen, which can lead to some inspiring results. When it hasn’t been done before, who’s to say what not to do or how to do it right? We just go for it and make stuff happen—with or without all the resources to do it.

There’s also a huge pool of incredible talent on the continent, especially in storytelling and visual arts. We may not always have the experience, but that often brings something fresh. You only have to look at all the incredible art from young African artists being posted daily on Instagram to see the wealth of creativity.

TV KIDS: And how about for Triggerfish, specifically?
SILVERSTON: We’ve always aimed high and have been ambitious with the scale of our projects, so we’ve managed to secure some really awesome projects. That allows us to attract the best talent, and so we have built a good reputation in the industry as they are the ones doing the incredible work. We now have an extensive database of writers, artists and technical and production crew, mostly from the continent but also globally, and we have a good understanding of who is best at what, so we know who will work well together creatively or is best suited to which project.

It’s clear from the work that has come out of our studio that we don’t have a single studio style, and our development slate shows the diversity of our original content, so that is also what sets us apart. We back talent, and there is no shortage of it on the continent, so we support creators who have a strong vision, and that means our work is distinctive and varied.

TV KIDS: Tell me about the Triggerfish Story Lab and how Disney came on board as a supporter.
SILVERSTON: The initiative was launched in 2015 in partnership with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition and The Walt Disney Company. The idea was to stimulate the industry, and it has definitely done that, even if it took a few years to see the fruits. We worked with Disney EMEA and, as Orion Ross, VP of animation, said, they had done a lot of work in Europe and Asia but nothing in Africa. We put a call out across the continent, on TV and radio, inviting anyone to submit their ideas for either a feature or a television series. The key was that people did not have to have prior experience in the industry—only a passion for it—so that allowed people such as Malenga Mulendema, creator of Supa Team 4, to enter, even though she was coming from journalism. We shortlisted 23 feature ideas and 14 series, and all of those creators came to Cape Town for intensive training, so even the creators that were not selected still benefited from the learning. We went on to work with many of the writers on theirs or other projects, for example, Greig Cameron, who went on to write and direct our third feature film, Seal Team. Others went on to successful careers, such as Lucy Heavens, who co-created and is showrunning Kiff for Disney, or award-winning African futurist author Nnedi Okorafor and Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu.

TV KIDS: How is Triggerfish looking for talent, perhaps where others aren’t?
SILVERSTON: We have run a number of labs, each of which started off with a wider search for talent from outside of the existing industry. The Story Lab was set up to find writers, and Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire was partly a way to find directors—although in that case, we did a lot of research and invited artists, writers and filmmakers who had made some kind of mark in their field to pitch their ideas for a short and then worked with them to help execute their vision. The writer’s lab for Supa Team 4 was specifically for African female writers. Because not many opportunities had previously existed to write comedy or for animation, we invited the 90-plus shortlisted candidates (out of 750 applicants) to write a sample scene from an existing comedy show, which helped in our selection process. We also knew storyboard artists were key in the process of animation, and yet not many people get the chance to get experience in that very specific area either, so together with Netflix, we ran a Story Artist Lab, which helped to train over 20 board artists, six of whom then went on to work on the feature. It’s only possible to do these kinds of initiatives with partners, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some great support along the way, but it’s also just about putting in the hours and growing the relationships. We run a monthly Director’s Club, for example, which has been such a fun way of meeting new creators and all learning how to navigate this crazy industry together.

TV KIDS: It’s been a 27-year-long journey for Triggerfish. What have been some of the major milestones that have brought the company to where it is today?
SILVERSTON: The original founders, Jacquie Trowell and Emma Kaye, started in stop-frame animation. A large commission for Sesame Street almost set the company on a path that we continue today, collaborating with other studios across South Africa to create narrative shorts. In 2002, Stuart Forrest joined, and in 2005, he and James Middleton became the sole partners. In 2007, I joined as a creative director and Mike Buckland as head of production. At the same time, we moved away from stop–frame and into computer animation. We had a run of talking-animal films—Adventures in ZambeziaKhumba and Seal Team. Then, a run of service work on BBC Christmas specials for Magic Light Pictures, animating Julia Donaldson and Roald Dahl adaptations that won multiple awards and put us on the map internationally. In 2021, Triggerfish received the Mifa Animation Industry Award at Annecy. And now we’re on a run of stories about Africans, like Kizazi Moto: Generation FireSupa Team 4Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes and Aau’s Song. We’re particularly excited about this phase because there’s been so little animation about Africans until recently.

TV KIDS: Where will Triggerfish be focusing its energy in the 12 to 18 months ahead?
SILVERSTON: We’re currently in development on a couple of graphic novels based on shows that we are developing, so we’re excited about exploring that route more, but besides continuing service work, our primary focus is on our own preschool show Rosy Days, which will go into production early next year. It is based on our short film Belly Flop, by Kelly Dillon, which has shown at over 140 festivals and won about 14 awards (many of them children’s audience awards). We’ve started the writing process with Kelly and the creative team, all of whom also worked on Kiya & the Kimoja Heroes. We also have a large slate of feature and TV projects in development, with a couple that have already been in development for a while with partners, so they should be in production soon! We are also raising funds for our own slate, in addition to our service work facility, so the next few years could take us into a new, even bigger era.