Interview with Stuart Forrest – CEO OF Triggerfish Animation South Africa

If you have ever sat in a Cinema watching animated Hollywood movies such as the likes of Shrek and Ice Age, you probably sat in awe at the genius and hard work that went into making movies. Even for another group of audience the question they ask is “can we have such animated movies produced in Africa?”

That question had already been answered in the affirmative with the birth if Triggerfish animation studios in South Africa and the production of the movie ‘The adventures of Zambezia which grossed $34.4 million in the box office and won multiple awards both locally and internationally.

CG Africa spent some time with the CEO of the company Staurt Forrest where he shared with us the inspiration behind Triggerfish and the movie, the challenges, the vision and his personal views on the state of the industry in Africa.


CGA: We are happy to have you with us Stuart and we have to say it feels wonderful speaking to the CEO of the continent’s leading animation studio.

Stuart: Thanks for the opportunity!

CGA: The amount of impeccable works coming from the studio is mind-boggling. How do you do it and how did it all began? – If you tell us how it began first.

Stuart:  Triggerfish was first started in 1996, initially as a stop-frame animation studio, primarily doing commercials and other short form content.  When Sesame Street came to South Africa, Triggerfish started to produce animation for the pre-school show using local street art as an inspiration.  The work went down very well, and between 1998 and 2008 we did 7 seasons of animation for Sesame Street’s US domestic and international shows.  We learnt that working with the New York-based partner and using local artists enabled us to be both global and local at the same time.

CGA: How do you manage to maintain the consistency over the years?

Stuart: We are rigorous about excellence, and we’re exceptionally proud of our talented artists, so we try to give them the opportunity to do their best work at all times.  But it’s mostly in the hiring – if you hire the best they will produce the best, so we’re extremely selective about both the people we hire and the work that we take on.

CGA: Let’s talk about Zambezia. It’s perhaps the best feature-length animated movie from Africa up till date. It earned a total of $34.4 million, won many awards and featured some great casts, was there any point before or during the production that you doubted if you can pull it off?

Stuart: Probably at every point of the production we doubted that we could pull it off!  It was a huge leap of faith to begin with, emboldened mostly by our ignorance of just how difficult it was going to be, and the fact that we put a lot of trust in the executive team and continued to maintain that trust even when things were going horribly.  The biggest regrets I have today is the times when I wavered on that trust and enforced a solution that was suggested outside of our trusted processes.

CGA: it is reported that the movie cost $20 million to make. How did you raise this money?

Stuart:  It was a lot less than $20 million, but it was still tough to raise the money.  We had initial funding through investors out of San Francisco, some money through gap financing out of Los-Angeles, another layer of funding from Dallas, money from the Department of Trade and Industry of South Africa, the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa, and the bulk of the funds as an equity investment from the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa.  Our sales agent managed to do some good pre-sales before we even got funded, so the pre-sales convinced the investors that the project was viable.

CGA: Obviously you have worked on numerous projects, which is the most rewarding and why?

Stuart:  Zambezia remains the biggest challenge and the most rewarding.  At the time we were convincing people that we could make a feature film in Africa that would play on the world market, when that hadn’t ever worked before.  It was such a tremendous hurdle to overcome that it was rewarding just to see it finished – not to mention tracking its success as it released around the world.


CGA: It is commonly held by certain groups that the animation industry in Africa is now ready to compete globally; from your experience being the CEO of Triggerfish, how would you respond to this?

Stuart:  Oh yes – we are already competing globally.  Our films have been dubbed into 27 languages and have played theatrically in the 40 main territories, competing for cinemas with the big studios.  My favourite story is when Khumba was released in Poland, and Sony released Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 on the same day.  It was rewarding to see that by then end of the run of both films, Khumba had generated more box office revenue than a successful franchise movie with 10 times the budget released by a major studio.

 Interview with Stuart Forrest – CEO OF Triggerfish Animation South Africa

CGA: In your opinion which would you say is the greatest drawback for the industry in Africa? Finance? Technical know-how? or market?

Stuart:  Without a doubt, it’s know-how.  If we had high level technical skills, both in writing and producing, the doors would open wide.  Great quality will always find a market. Of course, if we had a significant market for African content, the market would drive the financing and development of animation for that market, and high quality would improve competitive advantage.  So they’re all inter-linked, but the easiest way to create the market is to provide exceptional quality content that everybody really wants and is willing to pay for. 

CGA: What exciting project are you working on at the moment and what should we expect from Triggerfish in the future?

Stuart: We’re currently in development on 6 feature film and 4 TV series.  The writers are from Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and South Africa, and the development is being supported by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Walt Disney Company.  One of the features will hopefully be in production by next year, and we’re looking forward to getting the chance to build on our previous successes with a film that is far superior in heart, humour and pacing.

Over the next 15 years I’d like to release 8-10 feature films and 3 or 4 TV series. Behind every film is the drive to improve from the previous film – getting better at handling emotional moments, humour delivery, suspense, and character development.  Underlying it all is a rigorous emphasis on character-driven scripts, and our goal is to build one of the best script development departments in the world.  By the time we’ve produced 10 films, there’s no reason that we can’t compete with the major studios.  We’re constantly searching for world-class directors and writers who have a distinct voice and a love for audiences.

CGA: Finally what advice would you give to anyone who wants to start Animation Production Studio/produce animated film in Africa?

Stuart: Hold yourself to a world-class quality.  Too often we compare ourselves with our peers and other companies in Africa.  We should be constantly comparing ourselves with the best in the world, and asking ourselves what we need to do to be better than they are.  Building a world-class company takes decades, so be prepared for a long and exciting journey.  And it’s very rewarding – animation travels globally unlike any other storytelling that can come out of Africa.  It’s exciting to be at a time where technology can allow smaller studios to bring our imagination to the world stage.

Finally – care about your audience.  This sounds obvious, but our natural instinct is to make work primarily for ourselves.  The greatest artists make art both for themselves AND their audiences.


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