The Creative Scientist – An Interview with Anthony Silverston

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Tim Burton

It is always a pleasure meeting a fellow Tim Burton fan and I came to this interview knowing that Anthony Silverston, director of the upcoming animation feature Khumba, was one such person.

“He’s such a pain,” Anthony tells me when I bring up the subject. “I wish all his films were hits, because he does have some misses. Nightmare was so groundbreaking. It made me think it was possible to do animation as a feature film.” On a trip to Los Angeles, he was able to attend a retrospective on Burton’s work, “What impressed me is, he really is an artist. He’s a stronger artist than a filmmaker. Each drawing really told a story and I responded to that.”

khumba Anthony Silverston

As an animator himself, it is easy to understand why Burton serves as inspiration and Anthony’s own past is quite colourful . Having obtained a Bsc (Hons) from the University of Cape Town, his love of art, science and stories could easily see him fit into a Burtonesque world. “Animation was my first choice,” he says by way of explanation for the deviant career path he found himself on at first. “In a way I always wanted to do it, but it didn’t seem like a career. Science seemed like a better career. I worked for one year and realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I started a short film. It was my way of practising. That was my showreel. I showed it to Triggerfish [Animation Studios] and started working with them on Sesame Street.”

The risk paid off and he is now one of the members of the founding team of Triggerfish, the studio behind Adventures in Zambezia, as well as Khumba. “I always wanted to work there. I met Stuart [Forrest – CEO of Triggerfish] while we were studying. He said ‘finish your degree’ and I went overseas to work in a lab. In 2003 things started dying down in stop-motion. There wasn’t much happening, that’s why I did the short. So I did freelance work for Triggerfish and worked my way up. I bought into Triggerfish in 2006. It moved to CG after that.”

Finally on track, he was able to pursue his passion – and it is clear that this longing was entrenched in him for a long time. Growing up as I did in an era dominated by Disney, I am intrigued to meet someone well-versed in animation and ask him quite simply what his favourite animated film is. “As soon as you mentioned it I thought of Madame Tutli-Putli. It’s a stop-motion that composited eyes onto it and I think that was very effective, [but] Wallace and Gromit got me into animation.” After some reflection, he faithfully settles on The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Anthony Silverston

His fondness for stop-motion is evident from the latter choices and, way back in 1996 when it was established, Triggerfish was actually a stop-motion company. Given his fondness for the form, how does he regard animation today? “In terms of technology it’s become a lot easier, so a lot more people can do it in their bedrooms. The only reason I could do it was because of my digital camera. I could take a lot of photos and not worry about processing fees. The computer enables us as a company. We can try and compete with other studios, because we are using similar technology even if we don’t have the same resources.” He does accede “It’s a pity that we lose traditional 2-frame and stop-frame,” adding “With the computer, when everything is perfect, you lose the artist behind the work. The better technology gets, the harder it is to see the human behind it.”

As we delve deeper into the topic we eventually careen towards his latest film, Khumba, and a candid discussion about the making of the film ensues, starting with the inspiration for the story. “It’s definitely the most asked question. I’ve tried to think of a quick answer, but it boils down to three things from my logical, science mind. One: the quagga story, the half-striped zebra which everyone thought was extinct and they were trying to breed it back. My interest in the story itself comes from a genetic point of view. Two: I get faced with the question – what is it to be South African, so it’s a search for identity. Three: my own personal journey of being comfortable with myself. I struggled with that and it’s had a lasting effect.” But he is not just directing, his involvement manifesting itself in the writing as well. “It started heavy, but I knew it had to be entertaining and get the message across in a way that kids can enjoy.”

Anthony Silverston triggerfish

The next question is inevitable and has been dancing at the tip of my tongue for some time: why the foreign voice cast when it’s a South African story? Going back to Zambezia, he explains that it actually started with a South African voice cast. “We wanted it to be South African, but found when we were trying to sell it, it was different to live action and you’re selling it to Europeans [as well] who are going to dub it anyway. The other side was the training with the dialect coach. All these actors hadn’t done voice work before. They were trying to speak with a clearer dialect, but it made the film less natural compared with the American performance. There is such a market for voice work and it’s much more natural. The market demands more professionals. Africa makes for 4% of the global box office, we can’t cater for that small amount.” Speaking about Khumba specifically he explains “The theme is about difference and diversity. Each species has a different dialect.” There is a plethora of reasoning, but one of the simplest facts is that a large part of the [English-speaking] market just doesn’t understand our accents. “When District 9 came out, it set a precedent. But it’s different from animation. And there were even subtitles in District 9.” But Anthony point out that some voices in the cast have remained South African . “Rob [van Vuuren – who voices Captain in the film] was in it from the beginning. The Springboks were South African, they had to be South African.” In addition, Khumba is being dubbed into Afrikaans and they are looking at dubbing it into African languages for the DVD. “It’s being dubbed into a lot of other languages,” Anthony says, “so why not locally? There’s not enough access to theatres to support African languages, but with DVD there is.”

“It [animation] is an expensive art form. It requires a lot of manpower. Either you need one person doing a lot of things or a lot of people. It’s a risky investment. Film in general is. It takes a lot before you know it’s a success. It takes a long time before investors make their money back. So animation is split in two – one as an art form, one as a business.” In many respects all art is like this and because people fail to see the business aspect it becomes waylaid or neglected, not receiving the support it should. “The Department of Arts and Culture won’t fund it because it’s film. The National Film and Video Foundation won’t fund it, unless it’s commercial. It’s hard to prove commercialism until you have a precedent. Zambezia was the first time we got numbers in terms of the box office.” As the films prove an ability to draw audiences, hopefully the shift towards localisation will occur more and more.

Anthony Silverston triggerfish

The next film from Triggerfish, the brainchild of its main writer Raffaella Delle Donne, will be set on the West Coast, possibly in Paternoster. “Hopefully we will have more local accents,” Anthony says. The film will revolve around a sea monster and include human characters. “It’s more challenging because it’s humans. We want to tell a human story and make it a little older. The boy is an aspiring biologist and wants to make a big discovery and he finds a sea monster…We’re still working out the details. It’s going to be a magical film. It’s fun for us to be inspired by eccentric fishermen and to try and find the South African humour.” Clearly South Africa is making its presence felt in many arenas, and while it may be slow at times and always a challenge, it’s definitely getting there. We may be a tough sell, but the best things usually are.

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Follow Anthony on Twitter.
Khumba was released on 25 October.

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