Comexposed’s Converge conference this year was quite eventful (as expected) but one of the things that grabbed my attention was the 3D Animation in Zimbabwe talk By Pious Nyenyewa, an animator at Alula Animation Studio. A short preview of their work popped up on screen and we were just wowed by the level of detail in their work. I didn’t know there were people making these kinds of strides (the video below is a perfect example) and I felt we had to sit down and talk about the animation industry (or lack thereof) in Zimbabwe. We also touched on what aspiring animators should do to achieve their dreams and the process of filmmaking.
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You can read the interview below. The interview is edited slightly for purposes of clarity and length.
TZ: What’s the animation industry in Zimbabwe like right now?
AA: So, first of all, what we always try to make sense of is the fact that there’s no industry yet. It’s more of a community because most people are doing hack jobs. For it to be considered as an industry there at least has to be a net value. However, the community is growing and we have a lot of people now coming out of their bedrooms and taking charge because we’ve realised that it’s really hard to wait for someone to hand over the keys to you and you have to do it by yourself.
You get a lot of people now doing research on how things are done and when another guy does something else everyone is very interested in knowing how they got to that point. So a lot of people are now waking up because it’s become very apparent that it can be done.
TZ: Speaking of communities, and because the idea of shared experiences is so vital in art, do we have a culture of collaboration within these communities?
AA: The community is very small. In fact, there’s a high chance that if you bump into that guy he knows that other guy, but when it comes to collaboration there is a limit because of our economic situation since everyone is looking out for number 1. So sometimes we might actually try to collaborate but because animation takes a very long time to complete we sometimes end up branching off from one project to another and that makes collaboration even trickier.
We have successfully collaborated with a few artists. In our commercial business, we’ve worked with Afro Tokyo. They have done storyboards for us and concept art. When it comes to things like that (the commercial business) we do collaborate because we’ve noticed that trying to collaborate on passion projects is usually trickier as they don’t have a value to them at times. Monetary value that is…
The setup we have here; it’s all collaboration. All these guys here are coming in from their ‘grinds’ and when we have a project we are working on we come together, complete that project and they retire back to their ‘grinds’.
TZ: So this is not a permanent setup and you guys come together when there’s a new project on the table?
AA: The biggest problem with it not being an industry is that the market is also very small. If there’s a smaller market it’s hard to keep something alive. Basically we take it one day at a time. We’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve managed to stay afloat for just a little bit longer in terms of getting consistent work. So, we would love to have a full-time team – and I think they would love to be here full-time because it’s a passion for them- but sometimes when we finish a project we don’t know when the next one is coming in and because that’s the case paying them fulltime would be harder.
I should go ahead and say, even in the first world countries that’s what they do. They hire artists based on the workload that’s there. So if they work on a film and they are done, they then release you. That’s essentially the same structure we have but we are doing it at a micro-level.
TZ: You mentioned that in 2018 you’ve managed to get projects more consistently. How has this year compared to your previous years as an animation studio in terms of workload?
AA: We all studied animation for entertainment, which meant we wanted to work in movies. Some have successfully worked on big movies. Will Jaravaza (part of the Alula team) worked on Thor and Avengers Infinity War and we all wanted to take that route but usually, it’s really hard for you to get to that point. That’s why many people are so inspired when they hear Will’s story.
So, previously we tried making our own short stories and we actually have another one we are working on right now. We tried that and we also tried getting funding. What we realised is; not a lot of people believe in animation enough for them to give you a substantial value for you to actually be able to see a project through all the way to the end. It’s like this because previously there hasn’t been anyone producing the right quality of work that competes at international level.
From the time we worked with Steward Bank a lot of people started watching and engaging; be it agencies or companies. When we did the Lobels ad –that’s one a lot of people are aware of- and the Big Brother Chickens, a lot of people really loved those two commercials and that led to a lot of other clients calling us.
TZ: You mentioned short stories, can you walk us through the filmmaking process?
AA: The thing about working with stories is you have to figure out, what you want to talk about. From there you think “what’s the target market?“ You then start drafting your story around that. You look at what interests whoever you’re targeting and try to combine that with what you want to say and you start writing the script around that. It’s important to solidify the story before you get into anything. Out of that story, you’ll get the characters and out of the characters, you’ll get the look. The story is the driving force of everything. The technical stuff can be done by anyone but story is the key part. In one short film, we are working on, it took us about 6 months to write the story- and this is a team of 8 people. Writing 5 minutes took 6 months, so the story is very key.
Out of the story you get into character development. The characters are what people see and they should also be able to tell a story.
Once the story and the characters are out of the way, you start world building. There are two types of world building. The world building that you do at a story level, where you want to create a universe that you can put in a novel without technically doing anything or drawing anything that people can visualise. But now if we are getting into film, you want to do the thinking for the audience. We come up with a storyboard based on the characters and whilst we are creating that storyboard we are conceptualising the world, the objects that will be in this world etc.
We then create an animatic – which is just a summary of what film is going to look like. It contains length, story beats, and sound. The animatic will show the scope of the story basically.
From there, we start cleaning up everything and this is where the director is going to come in and he’ll say, “no shoot this from this angle,” “let the character run from there” and so on.
Once that’s done we get into technical things like texturing, animation – which also then brings these characters to life. We then take some dummy takes for voice to actual voice artist who then does a clean take. We then put together the visual effects, lighting, rendering out the frames and then we take it out to compositing and we make sure that the colours are right and then editing which is another key phase. Finally, you then output the final product.
TZ: You touched on many roles there, and previously you mentioned that there is no industry, rather a community. How then do you source for all these roles?
AA: When it comes to sourcing out roles, we start with the technical people we are working with on projects. Most of them are our friends because like I said it’s a community. High chances are if you do CG (Computer Graphics), you know 4 people who do CG as well. We try to call people on a very personal level. Everyone’s connected somehow and we take a similar approach to other things like voice acting because remember there is no industry. Industry means there are people who are specially working on specific things like voice. Because there is no industry, a lot of people don’t know they can do certain things.
Personally, I choose random people who are friends. That’s how Ruvheneko got to work on the Steward Bank commercial we did plus she already has a great voice. But sometimes, I just choose friends. The Steward Health Commercial with the girl- that was a friend and I just said to her ‘I think you can do this.’ She had doubts cause she had never done it before. When she did it she ended up enjoying it so much.
TZ: We talked about short stories and the market for that being small, and ZBC has been promising to go digital for a while now. It seems like they might finally be some action on that front. Do you think this is an opportunity? Essentially will there be a market after this move?
AA: I think it’s the right time. We call it the golden age but personally I think it’s the Black Panther era and Marvel and Disney just showed us that it can be done. There’s been a perception that Africans do not want to take their own content but $22 million dollars out of Africa? In one week! That’s amazing.
For us, I think this is the right time and it’s the birth of an industry. We are storytellers. This whole craft is the way we like to tell our stories and these stories define the people. The reasons why we know the Asians is because we know their story, the reasons why we know the Americans is because we know their stories. The biggest problem we face in Zimbabwe is that we don’t like our stories and because that’s the case we have no identity. A story defines an identity and it saddens me every time when we get an older person in a family dies. He/she takes a part of your identity with them because there’s a bunch of stories he never told you because you were not interested.
The only reason why America is where they are today is because they have told their stories. You had the government really punching in money back in the World War days because they know the only way you can reach out to mass is through entertainment.
We are trying to tell stories and the digitisation of ZBC is good for us…
TZ: You guys have a home studio, but for aspiring creators who are working from their room they might be thinking, “What’s the best place to work from?”
AA: Your room is the first place to start from. There’s no other place because that’s where you are alone with your thoughts.
The room is a great place when you are starting out but from there you might quite possibly move into the dining room. That’s what I did because I was thinking “I’m alone with my thoughts in my room but now I need to go somewhere where people can see what you are doing.” You don’t want to create something for you, you want to be somewhere where someone else is passing and they are like, “I think that head is too big,” even if they don’t know animation. They are the audience who take in whatever it is you’re making so having your mom walk by and critique your work is a good way to know that a whole bunch of people might not like that character.
Once you feel like you need to reach out, there are hubs like Moto Republik and you can start using places like that. It’s a step above your mom looking at your stuff because your mom can look at your stuff and just smother you with love – because that’s what mothers do. Here, you have people now who are already professionals and in different fields; be it bloggers, writers, web designers and they can give input. Another cool thing about hubs is that they offer you an opportunity to start monetizing whatever you’re doing because that’s where other people will notice what you can do for them.
Once you pass that stage and you’re getting some money and you feel like you now want a place where you’re most comfortable working, then you can start looking for office space. It’s a bit funny because small office space is very affordable, depending on how much you’re making.
The key part of being a creative is that you CANNOT work from your bedroom forever. You have to find a group of people; a pack essentially. You’re only as good as the people you work with, so if you work alone you’re only as good as you but if you work with other people you can draw inspiration from them.
TZ: Talking again to the aspiring animators, I can imagine being a 16-year-old kid who’s about to finish high school and is thinking “Where do I go from here?” How did you manage that?
AA: I’ve always wanted to be an animator since I was a kid. When I got older I knew what it was and from there I knew what to look for. When I graduated from high school in 2007 we were pretty much still in the pre-internet days so it was really hard for you to know where to even study. I did not know how much it was going to cost but I knew that if I had to leave the country it was going to be really expensive and we couldn’t afford that.
At the time I was already a good draftsman, I could draw. So, I went to art school at Harare Polytechnic. I took it thinking, “at least it has some element of drawing in it.” So for me, that was a start. What’s cool about an institution is they have a lot of stuff you can use, that you wouldn’t have access to at home. So, while I was learning art I was also teaching myself animation because they had internet at the time. As bad as it was they had it. So I was using that after my studies I would go into the lab and Google how to do that and download tutorials from YouTube and just trying to get as much as I could to get myself equipped. By the time I finished my studies at Poly I was already doing freelance work as a 3D artist. From there I went to ZIVA which was offering animation studies and I showed them my portfolio and I only did one year there because they felt I knew quite some stuff already.
Now coming to the younger guys, who are a bit more fortunate cause now there are trailblazers. I would say there are two ways to do it; you can either go to film school, animation school or vfx school and if you have the opportunity to go outside the country it’s great cause they have pretty much everything.
Sometimes that option can be a bit too expensive though and the best alternative is to use YouTube. A $1 can get you a couple of hours on YouTube. You can also check out internet cafes if data is too expensive. You should read a lot, as there’s tons of information just lying out there online. Going out is also essential. Going to places like Comexposed especially helped me a lot because no one is going to know you exist when you are in a bedroom.
Utilise the little that you have. If you have a computer that’s not too impressive, use that! Show me your 20-hour render and maybe we can give you a platform where you can something like 15 seconds a render. Most people would say, “My computer is very slow,” but that’s not going to stop you from developing.