To understand the success of Triggerfish, the fast-rising, Cape Town-based animation house, which won the prestigious MIFA Animation Industry Award this week in Annecy, one need look no further than the circumstances of its birth 25 years ago.
South Africa was finally emerging from the shadows of apartheid, a cruel and exploitive system of institutionalized racism that had oppressed its Black-majority population for nearly 50 years. Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first Black president, and after years of being ostracized on the world stage, South Africa was finally rejoining the global community.
“I think it was a very heady time for the country,” says Triggerfish CEO Stuart Forrest. “Everyone was very excited. We were the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ and we really felt we could do anything.”
That boundless optimism—a sense that, as in the world of animation, even the impossible could be rendered possible—was baked into the company’s DNA. From a small, stop-motion animation studio based on a farm on the outskirts of Cape Town, Triggerfish has grown into a multinational venture that is collaborating with the likes of Disney and Netflix and winning some of the most prestigious awards in the animation industry.
Founded by Jacquie Trowell and Emma Kaye in 1996, the studio emerged at a time when the post-apartheid animation industry in South Africa was still in its infancy. Triggerfish was one of a handful of animation studios focused mainly on commercial work, taking their first, tentative steps toward growing into a viable industry.
The studio’s first big break came in 1998, when the Sesame Workshop—then known as the Children’s Television Workshop—commissioned it to produce animation for “Takalani Sesame,” the ground-breaking, South African version of the iconic children’s brand.
Forrest joined the company as a junior animator in 2002, lending his hand to what at the time was the largest ever animation commission on the African continent. “We used 10 other companies to help us,” he says. “The whole industry came together, probably for the first time…and it was hugely successful.”
For the next decade, Triggerfish produced animation for “Takalani Sesame,” as well as for the U.S. and international versions of the show. “We were drawing on an African aesthetic, but we were working with Sesame Workshop in New York, who had this deep experience in pre-school education and TV,” Forrest says. “We were using our raw materials and working with them to create something that worked for our audience, and eventually for their audience, too.”
“Sesame Street” would keep the young studio afloat at a time when the South African industry was finding its feet, although due to the technical limitations of stop-frame animation, Triggerfish was still a small-scale operation that hadn’t grown beyond 10 animators. “You only had two cameras, so you could only really have two units at the same time,” says Forrest. “And then stop-frame started to die off. When CG came of age, all the agencies stopped wanting to use stop-frame, because it suddenly got dated.”
The industry-wide shift to computer-generated imagery, or CGI, “changed the game,” says Forrest, and gave the company a chance to reinvent itself. In 2007 Anthony Silverston joined Triggerfish as creative director, Mike Buckland joined as head of production, and the company relaunched as a computer animation studio.
The focus shifted from service work to creating its own original IP. “We were a little bit agnostic about what we were going to create,” says Forrest. “It was just to be able to create things that we love.” Recognizing the deep pool of South African animators whose talents he felt weren’t being fully utilized, he and Triggerfish began developing their first feature film, a coming-of-age story about a young and spirited falcon who travels to the famed city of Zambezia and learns some lessons about teamwork and himself along the way.
Featuring voicework from Jeremy Suarez, Abigail Breslin, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy, and Samuel L. Jackson, “The Adventures of Zambezia,” released in 2012 by Cinema Management Group (CMG) and Sony Pictures Entertainment, grossed more than $34 million at the box office worldwide. The studio’s sophomore effort, “Khumba,” about a half-striped zebra who sets out on an epic journey to gain acceptance by his herd, was released the following year and raked in more than $28 million globally. The films were distributed in more than 150 countries and dubbed into nearly 30 languages, ranking as two of the five highest-grossing South African films of all time.
Despite the break-out success of their first two features, Triggerfish’s philosophy as an animation studio hadn’t yet fully evolved. “At that stage, I think we were still quite nervous as a small company,” says Forrest. “I was still choosing properties to develop that I really felt had commercial appeal. There was no point developing something that couldn’t be made. We were still very pragmatic.”
But the studio’s ambitions took a leap in 2015, when it launched the Triggerfish Story Lab, a pan-African talent search that aimed to discover the next generation of animation talent on the continent. Backed by the Walt Disney Company, the initiative opened Forrest’s eyes to the potential to bring African storytelling to the forefront of the animation industry. “That was the key to us realizing, ‘Wait, the world actually might be ready for this,’” he says.
The years that followed brought a slew of accolades and critical acclaim, bolstered by a collaboration with Britain’s Oscar-nominated Magic Light Pictures (“The Gruffalo”) that’s produced four multi-award-winning BBC Christmas adaptations, including “Stick Man” (2015), which scooped the Cristal Award for best TV production in Annecy, and Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes” (2016), which was nominated for an Oscar and won more than 15 international awards, including a Cristal and an International Emmy.
That success dovetailed with a growing desire in the animation industry—as with the worlds of film and television—to bring a greater range of voices and stories to the screen. Forrest also points to the blockbuster success of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which upended long-held notions about the formula for a box-office hit, and rewrote the script about what studios thought audiences wanted. “After that was released, I felt a tangible shift in all our conversations,” he says. “It was suddenly, ‘Wait, a movie set in Africa with an all-black cast—people loved it.’”
That global phenomenon put Triggerfish in an enviable position it had never been in before. “We happened to have quite a lot of material at that point that we’d been developing for years, and it was ripe for the picking,” Forrest says. “The market just lapped it up. We made deals left, right and center after that.”
Triggerfish is now planning the upcoming release of its third feature film, “Seal Team,” sold globally by CMG, which features a star-studded voice cast including Dolph Lundgren, Matthew Rhys, and J.K. Simmons. Also currently in production are two Story Lab alumni: “Mama K’s Team 4,” the first animated Netflix Original series from Africa, which Triggerfish is producing with British kids’ and family entertainment production company CAKE, and the series “Kiya,” produced for eOne, Disney Junior and Disney Plus.
This week in Annecy, it was also announced that Triggerfish would be the lead studio on “Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire,” a Disney Plus Original anthology of animated films set to premiere on the Mouse House’s streaming platform in late 2022.
The studio’s sudden growth in recent years has underscored one of the greatest challenges to the South African and African animation industries, where there is no shortage of talent but limited resources, educational tools, and access to steady employment that would discourage up-and-coming animators from seeking greener pastures elsewhere.
To that end, Triggerfish has developed the Triggerfish Academy, an online training course that is used to both develop in-house talent and nurture aspiring animators across Africa. The studio has also been instrumental in bolstering the South African animation industry by playing a key role in initiatives like the industry association AnimationSA, the showcase and networking event AnimationXchange, and the Cape Town International Animation Festival.
Last year Triggerfish opened a studio in Galway, Ireland, a move that not only expands its talent base and offers access to European funding, but reflects the increasingly globalized nature of animation—a fact that was only underscored by the rise in remote working during the coronavirus pandemic. “The wonderful thing about the world today is we can hire from all over,” says Forrest.
The changing nature of the industry will only strengthen Triggerfish’s position in the South African and pan-African animation industries and spur the studio as it continues to pursue its global ambitions. “We want to stand shoulder to shoulder with any company in the world,” Forrest says. “We want to be the leading animation studio and be able to make films at the same quality as everybody else.”
He continues, “For me, the challenge has always been, as an African company, to develop a studio that can bring underrepresented voices to the world. And I think the world is asking for that more and more. I wouldn’t want to be based in Hollywood.”