Making Film Animation Lucrative in Africa: A Dialogue With Kabelo Maaka
Kabelo “Cabblow” Maaka is a Animation Director, 2D Character Animator, Illustrator & Animation lecturer. She is the co-founder and Creative Director of Cabblow Studios – an award- winning animation and illustration studio based in Johannesburg. The studio is run in collaboration with her mother Dr Tshepo P. Maaka – Director of Medical Animation and Business Development. Cabblow Studios creates original short films and series, Medical Animation© and client projects. The studio has provided services to clients such as: SANOFI, Boehringer Ingelheim South Africa, ALTRON, Healthforce, Proactive Health Solutions & Sun Pharmaceuticals.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This conversation takes place between a gloomy Venda, Limpopo and Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.
Elelwani: It feels good to be having this conversation with a young black woman who focuses on animation; it is a first for me. I am excited about discovering your world.
Kabelo: I am curious, how did you find out about our film and Cabblow Studios?
Elelwani: I am a filmmaker who is always looking at what is out there, Talents Durban is a great start for me, annually, there is so much to discover. While going through this year’s list I stumbled onto the one and only black animator on the list. I did further research and it happened to be a young woman who is trailblazing, I had to reach out, and here we are.
So let’s take it away, where does your love for animation film come from, and what made you choose the field as a career path?
Kabelo: I honestly think that something inside of me is fashioned for animation. I have loved it for so long, you know how some kids outgrow animation, I did not. My mother is a medical doctor and also my business partner. However, over the weekend we would hire DVDs and watch animation films. My favorite part was always watching how the animations were made, and my best one to date is the behind the scenes of Finding Nemo, where they explain how they made the water effects look real with 3D and just utilizing computers and necessary techs.
I remember watching it and being so amazed, realizing that animation is not magic; it is actually made by people. That is when I knew that whatever it is, I had to do it too, in the end. It also helped that I had been drawing my whole life, thus animation is a natural progression for me, that is where it came from.
Elelwani: I see; a natural progression indeed. It sounds like fate. Can you say that it makes things a bit easier for you?
Given that you shared your first love with your mother, would you say it was then a given to her when you said you were going to focus on animation, that she felt that she really prepared you for it?
Kabelo: You can say that now in retrospect, that all those years we spent falling in love with various characters together, was somehow a preparation of sorts. However, she took a strong interest as a parent. She would help me find places to job shadow or find schools where I could study here in South Africa and abroad. She also really did research to see if animation was a viable industry. That helped to make sure that it could be something I can actually attain and have it as a sustainable career.
“I love to teach animation, and I think it has a lot to do with my experience in learning this craft. It was filled with many awkward and frustrating moments, such that I want to be the best possible teacher for my students.“
Elelwani: I feel that when you are on a creative career path, having a supporting parent counts a lot.
You mentioned that your mother, who is also your business partner, did research about where you can study. Where did you study? How was the experience? How were gender dynamics?
Kabelo: I studied at a university called AFDA, which is a film school; I studied at their Cape Town Campus, then completed my honors at their Johannesburg campus.
Here is the context to the overall experience: I grew up going to one of the oldest girls schools in the country, St Mary’s. It was built on a lot of tradition, all about excellence and owning that because you are a woman. And that has played its role in keeping me motivated and knowing I can do it too, but just transitioning from that traditional space, where there is order and all that, and going to an artistic school was a huge culture shock, because there, everything is subjective. It was a mission to adjust, also it was difficult to deal with the kind of spontaneity of the film industry because I was so used to structure. South Africa also has a very small animation industry and that is also reflected in the teaching institution.
So, when I was doing my fourth year, I had to go to a French animation school in Paris. I did their summer school course in Advanced Character Animation, where my teachers actually worked on Disney films, like Avatar, and it became a more enlightening experience than the four years I did in varsity.
While completing my degree, I got the benefit of learning about various aspects of the film Industry, but being at a dedicated animation school had a great impact on my skill as an animator. Out of a hundred students, only three of us were focused on animation. In my fourth year it was just me, and I had to insist on being taught.
Elelwani: What a journey! I also wonder how schools keep animation modules if there is always one or three students taking it on. It must be a field of the truly passionate.
Kabelo: Well, people aren’t exposed to taking animation as a career option in South Africa in general. So that is playing itself out in an educational context.
Elelwani: With all the experiences you had in film school, knowing that this is not a common route for the film industry, what kept you and your mom focused on pursuing this career, besides passion?
Kabelo: Let me take you back to another situation that is kind of the reason behind my motivation. I remember when I was in grade 12 during career guidance, the counselor asked our year group “who here is certain about what they will do when they leave school?” I was so sure that everyone would raise their hands because my year group was full of students who were top achievers always doing many other things, but only a handful of us raised our hands to that question. I was shocked that in this room of over a hundred of us, only five of us were certain about what we wanted to do. Every time they asked, “what is your plan B?” I insisted that there is no plan B. I have never had to have plan B, I was determined that I will focus my energy on animation as far as my career goes. I am blessed to have had this clarity from such a young age.
Elelwani: Truly, having that clarity is amazing. Most of us have been in the maze for so long and we discovered our true passions later on. And living the vision you have from such a young age sounds exceptional.
How did you convince your mother to partner with you? I remember watching one of your videos online where she says, I am the only doctor in the family, in a very playful manner, I like her energy.
Kabelo: So, my mother always said if you do not make this animation thing work, I will take you to medical school. That was another reason why this had to work.
I never had to convince her to work with me, it was actually the other way round. When I decided to start Cabblow Studios, it was because the company I interned with through NFVF didn’t take me on when the internship ended.
I was okay with not being taken on because their work was not character-based and I wanted to focus on character work. Then my mother came to me and said: “my patients don’t understand what it is that I do. They do not understand procedures and costs. Can you make an animation for me that explains those things to them?” She introduced that collaboration; I wasn’t sure, as I was still feeling like I should do traditional entertainment work.
Now it is undeniable how brilliant the combination is, having done that initial project with my mom, it became very clear to me that this is an excellent idea. With her experience, my mother brings weight to the team of someone who is wiser and has dealt with our subjects for longer, also as a mother who has my best interest at heart.
Elelwani: With your mother having your best interest at heart, it means there is no other way that things could go wrong here.
Would you say the medical projects are your main focus for your in-house productions? Are educational, health-oriented and meaningful stories your niche?
Kabelo: Medical animation for us is kind of the bread and butter for the studio, and it was a very unique way for us to enter into the animation industry, because it is highly competitive. It is an international industry, so medical animation is what we do in terms of the majority of clients that come in. However, we are a fully serviced studio that can do non-medical projects. For example, for Talents Durban, we are choosing an animation project called The Fam. It is an animated reality TV series based on people in my family, not a medical piece. There’s also Dr T’s Nuggets, which is our short animated video series that we post on Instagram every week, where Dr T, my mom in an animated form, shares different health tips, and right now we are focused on COVID-19 related topics. We also have a short film in the works called …And Daughters, which is about running a business as mom and daughter.
With my latest short film, Three Teaspoons Of Sugar, we realized we can expand on it. We are expanding on it with a Sequel, Little Teaspoon of Sugar, which will focus on diabetes in children. We also decided to make a bonus short film about Diabetes and COVID-19 because people living with Diabetes are at risk of getting severe forms of COVID-19. It is a lot of different things we focus on.
Elelwani: So much work! Everything you have mentioned brings me back to something I saw on your live video. The backdrop of the video interview with your mother had the words “movies with purpose”, and I now see that it is something you live by. It is an amazing slogan.
You not only create, but you pass on the knowledge you know to others. What has been your teaching and mentoring role?
Kabelo: I love to teach animation, and I think it has a lot to do with my experience in learning this craft. It was filled with many awkward and frustrating moments, such that I want to be the best possible teacher for my students.
One of my students, who I have taught for so long over the weekends, ended up entering an international innovation competition for high school students. She ended up being a finalist, and she will travel to the US in 2021.
I teach primary school level kids and I also teach university students. Even adults have asked me to teach them animation.
I also offer animation lessons at my old high school. I do that because I have seen that not a lot of people know they can take animation as a career, and I have also seen that places that teach animation do not always give extensive teaching based on practical knowledge, but just theoretical knowledge. And if I could teach and make animation without having to sleep and remain a balanced person, I would.
Elelwani: You are doing amazing; I got to watch Three Teaspoons Of Sugar during the YouTube showcase, it’s a must-watch. Thank you for your time. What are your hopes for the animation industry at large in South Africa?
Kabelo: My hope is that the Animation Industry in our country can grow and compete with the rest of the world. And that broadcasters and funders can see the value of the Animation industry as something that can grow our economy; it also creates a lot of employment.
Elelwani Netshifhire is a filmmaker, writer & director armed with technical skill sets. She is the founder of Thase Media and believes in utilizing any medium possible. Her latest available short film, Story Of A Baked Brownie, won various awards and was later featured on CNN Inside Africa.