James Clarke was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and educated at University of Cape Town, where he studied history and literature, completing his Master in Creative Writing as a Harry Crossley Fellow. In 2016, he was the South Africa finalist in fiction for the PEN International New Young Voices Award.
Daniel Snaddon is an artist, illustrator, and film director of Scottish-South African and Chinese-Australian descent. He has worked in the animation and film industries for fourteen years, best known for his work with Triggerfish Animation Studios and with Magic Light Pictures’ animated BBC Christmas specials. Among these, Daniel served as animation supervisor on the Academy Award nominated “Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes”, co-director on the BAFTA nominated “Stick Man”, and as director on both the Annie award winning “The Snail and the Whale” and the International Emmy winning “Zog”. Daniel’s most recent film adaptation, “The Smeds and the Smoos”, was awarded the Audience Award at the New York International Children’s Film Festival in March 2023. Daniel served as the founding director of CTIAF, South Africa’s premiere animation festival, for 4 years.
Daniel Clarke is a Cape Town based artist working in animation, film and Illustration. He started his career in animation in 2008 at Triggerfish Animation Studios; a collaboration that has lasted up until today and has seen him act as Production Designer and Art director on projects such as the feature film Khumba, BBC’s Stick Man and Snail and the Whale. As an illustrator and designer he has worked with, amongst others, clients such as Netflix, Animal Logic, The Line, National Geographic Kids, Nike, Adidas, Penguin Random House – amongst others. Daniel has worked as an illustrator and art director for international feature films such as Chronicle (2012); The Giver (2014); and Chappie (2015). Daniel recently directed Aau’s Song, a Star Wars: Visions film from Lucasfilm.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place at various locations via Zoom.
Kris Van der Bijl: Maybe, to begin, you can all say who you are and how this project began.
Daniel Clarke: I’m Daniel Clarke. I’m the artist behind the graphic novel.
James Clarke: I’m James Clarke, Daniel’s brother. I wrote the words. Daniel failed to mention that he was also the originator of the idea. It is a Daniel Clarke baby. We are the midwives, if you like.
Daniel Snaddon: I’m the assistant to the midwife [laughs]. My name is Daniel Snaddon. I worked with Dan on the Kickstarter campaign, along with a couple of other good friends. We formed an independent publishing company originally to try to launch a Kickstarter. I also helped Dan and James out with the initial story. We wrote the story together originally, then James took over writing responsibilities on the project. The initial idea was to adapt the comic for animation, so that’s something that Dan and I have been working on a little bit. We’ve both been directing short films, so we’ve been pretty busy the last couple of years.
Daniel Clarke: I cannot remember what year it was that we pitched to Triggerfish. Maybe 2014?
Daniel Snaddon: 2012 was when they asked us to do something for them. Then that did not work out. And then in 2013, you came up and stayed with me in Joburg and you told me about this idea.
Daniel Clarke: The idea of Kickstarting a script for a film did not make any sense because, what would the backers get? And then I think it was actually Dan’s idea to do a graphic novel. There’s some great films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind from one of our favourite directors, Hayao Miyazaki, that began as graphic novels. So we ran the Kickstarter, and it went really well. We got more than double what we asked.
Daniel Snaddon: Although it turned out we needed all of that money.
James Clarke: Well, we also delivered double what we promised.
Daniel Snaddon: We originally promised what, like a 90-page or an 80-page book.
James Clarke: And what is it, 220 pages?
Daniel Clarke: After the success of that we took two years off to write. James and I did story stuff with Dan helping at the beginning, and then James wrote that year. And then I took a year to draw. So it was about two years in total. The book launched in 2018.
Kris Van der Bijl: And then in terms of the content of the novel and the mythology behind it, what drew you to a Southern African River God?
Daniel Clarke: My grandfather was an architect and he worked on some of the surrounding buildings near the dam. My mother is from Zimbabwe. So we had some sort of a connection. I did not know the story that well. I knew the tourist version or the version I’d heard from them, but we later discovered that there is not a single story. There’s many stories, and it is all very confused, like most oral traditions. But the idea of damming a river and a giant river serpent God being stuck on the one side – one of the legends is that he is actually separated from his wife – and the displacement of 50,000 people. I mean, it is just full of potential and it’s a fascinating subject. So why not?
“We’re in an imaginative space. Kariba is the world, but it is not the world. You become the gods of this new world and how you treat the dimensions of your world says a lot about you, no matter what you do.“
Kris Van der Bijl: I think I was reading somewhere as well about when they were constructing the dam, it was one of the worst floodings that area has ever seen. It seems to add some sort of truth to the mythology. There’s a weirdness around it. Surely interesting to write into?
James Clarke: I think, at the moment, the way that our modern minds like to think about existence and non-existence is in a very alien way to the way that people thought about these questions in the past. Existence was not simply a physical manifestation. Nyaminyami’s being might have been felt in the river without what we would consider a ‘physical manifestation’. Obviously, the way that we chose to portray it in the book is very much in line with the way that people today apprehend things. We found lots of conflicting tales of the construction, basically of every aspect of the period and the mythology. I spent a fair amount of time in the UCT African Studies library looking at resources, and promptly forgot all of that and let it kind of enter into the subconscious to see what would come back up. I think that helped us along quite a lot. But it also helped us recognise that there was no single account. And what we wanted to be careful not to do was to go into an archive and rewrite history. What we wanted to do instead was to let history work upon us so that we could create from it a true fantasy. When we were children, that is exactly what was happening to us when our grandfather was telling us these stories.
Daniel Snaddon: Just to add to that, the conversations we were having 10 years agoaround these kinds of stories we were seeing coming out of South Africa at the time, or out of Africa at the time, there seemed to be an opportunity to try to do something that was more specific and local, but for a big audience, using something like animation or comic books. It felt like a lot of the stuff that our colleagues in the animation industry were interested in making was very much towards trying to emulate Western stories and Western storytelling in an American style of filmmaking. As Dan mentioned, we are big fans of Miyazaki. And what we were thinking is that there is an opportunity to use what we know and what’s local to us and what’s unique to us as inspiration to do something original. Something that we really love about Studio Ghibli is how they draw not just upon Western stories and iconography and mythology, but upon their own history and mythology and present it as something. They are not saying that this is the definitive version of anything. They are saying: this is inspired by where we come from and they create a unique world. We thought that we’d love to see that come out of Africa. We’d love to see something of that quality and of that standard with that amount of depth to it come out of South Africa. So this is our attempt to do what they do over there.
Kris Van der Bijl: I suppose the river is a nice place to start as well, with water always flowing. It is able to exist in this transitory place. It does not have to be held in these regional ways.
James Clarke: The idea that the river is the same river relates to the Hericlitean proverb. The same river that is different all the way along its course.And different people seeing the same river and with a kind of slowly morphing existence and mythology. That is one of the things that we discovered—that the myth morphed along the river. So it’s an interesting frame for thinking about this.
Kris Van der Bijl: Am I correct in calling it a graphic novel? Any particular reason for using it? What kind of advantages and disadvantages did it pose?
James Clarke: There’s a great line in ‘Kingdom of Dreams and Madness’, which is a documentary about Miyazaki. There’s a shot of him talking about why he chose animation as a medium. They cut to a scene where there’s someone flying across the rooftops of a town, and he says, “that’s why, that’s what you can do with animation, that you can’t do any other way.” And I think the graphic novel was chosen by the Dans because it works in a primal way.
Daniel Clarke: I do not have any particularly coherent answer. Firstly, I have only really worked in animation and a bit of live action. I’m not sure what a novel would offer. A lot of people have said it feels a bit like a film, which makes sense as it is where we’re coming from. But the difference with filmmaking is that you can set the rhythm. The audience does not decide at what speed they’re gonna watch the film. With a graphic novel, you have to think through the placement of panels on a page and what’s happening, instead of the movement of the characters. You have to create a rhythm that you hope the viewer will go along with. But they don’t have to. There are many differences in that each page has to be its own story, which is quite different to film. You have to give the reader a reason to turn the page each time, so you want to have a question at the end of each page. But yeah, there’s a lot of overlap between animation and the graphic novel. I’d say probably more than between the graphic novel and the novel.
Daniel Snaddon: Only thing I’d add to that is I think that, even though graphic novels range in terms of who their audience is – you get very adult graphic novels and you get comics and graphic novels for young kids – I think that what it does do is make it more accessible to younger people. It is something we’ve been speaking about with our publisher. Young people love graphic novels, they love reading stories in this kind of way. I mean, I’ve got a four-year-old and we’ve been reading The Smurfs. It is amazing how much more information they can pick up. I think it gives you a chance to layer the images and words to create more meaning. If you have words, what you’re trying to do is create an image in somebody’s mind. But it’s primarily linguistic, right? The words are going in and the image is happening. Here, we’ve got the combination of two things: the words and the image. It can compound the meaning. You can have the images telling one story, the language saying something else. Creating dissonances and contradictions. So it has all these wonderful little tricks in creating a rich experience for a reader. I think that some of that is translatable into film, but some of it is actually just particular to graphic novels.
Kris Van der Bijl: I think one of the most striking elements of this book was the characterization. A lot of these characters felt very real. You couldn’t really trust a lot of them; they had both good and bad motives at the same time. The father figure might be a good example of this. He disappears at the beginning. He also hides a lot about what’s going on and why he ran away. When I read about the mythology, it seems to stand as some kind of representation of this. You have to appease this river god otherwise it’s gonna destroy everything you have. As with water, it’s both destructive and creative. It seems to be how the book functions.
Daniel Clarke: I mean, I think to answer very simply, we wanted to tell a story about people, not characters. I think that observation is true of all people, that they’re good and bad. It becomes quite boring when a character just becomes a sort of mouthpiece for an idea. I think gods have traditionally also been capricious. They can bless you or curse you. Like you’re saying, depending on the quality of the offering, or just their whim, they are inscrutable in some way. You are not quite sure exactly why they are doing what they are doing or whether it will be in your favour or not. I think all of those things are just our attempt at some sort of truth. I’m sure you have thoughts on this, James.
James Clarke: Daniel and I used to sit in his lounge and have long arguments about this sort of thing. When you are working collaboratively on a story, you have debates about things like this. You have to make explicit what is often intuitive when you are writing alone. When writing a novel you can go off on a long tangent for two weeks and then just scrap all of that work. But when you are working in a team, there is an investment of shared time and resources. There is more pressure. There is often no clear sense of why the world is the way that it is. And I suppose that is the reason why children are so often asking the all-important but simple question: Why?
Daniel Snaddon: We are dealing with a history that is complex and it’s about the meaning of at least two, maybe three or four worlds. What history taught us is that people with the best of intentions often acted with disastrous consequences. We are dealing with a sensitive time in Zimbabwe’s history. You want to approach all those characters with a certain amount of openness and let them tell you what they think they are up to. I’m always drawn to something that works on different levels. When we work in animation, we always talk about who the audience is and the age of the average audience member. And the simpler, the more black and white things are, the more clearly good and evil the characters are, the younger the audience. But very young kids hate it when someone you think is good turns into someone who’s not good. That’s something they cannot handle, and then they’ll stop watching cause it’s too scary or too weird. But I think the idea is to sort of create a world where people have all these different competing motivations, just like it is in reality. As you get older, there are layers that you can enjoy when you are aware of history. All the best things that I’ve grown up reading or watching have that quality. There’s something really great and simple at the heart of it. And as you get older, there is some richness there that you suddenly realise, “Oh my gosh, it’s not what I thought it was.” And it is exciting, you know? So, I think that was kind of also part of the thinking. Wanting to create something that many kids could read, that adults could read, where there would be something for everybody.
James Clarke: W.H. Auden said “There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children.”
Daniel Snaddon: As a reader of a lot of books for children, amen to that.
Kris Van der Bijl: Might the colonial background be part of this? I have to say I quite liked the way the story followed two children during this time without it overbearing on what the story is trying to achieve. That being said, I imagine that there are going to be a few critics who’ll be against this. I suppose the question of ownership over the story needs to be asked as well.
Daniel Clarke: It is something we talked about a lot before, and in some ways, yes, the myth isn’t ours, but mythology never belongs to one group of people forever, you know? I think what gave us some sense of freedom is, when we visited there, we realised that there would be almost infinite versions of the story, and ours would just be another one. And just the encouragement and enthusiasm from all of the local people about the fact that we were writing the book. But yes, we consciously did not try to make the focus of the story about the displacements. That just seemed far too much responsibility, and we were not the right people for that. But, at the same time, we also wanted to acknowledge what was happening, and that was the backdrop for this fantasy adventure. I’m sure there’s precedent for that sort of thing. There’s always something serious going on in the world, and we try to deal with it in the best way. And we tried not to draw any conclusions or to pin it all on specific individuals or anything.
James Clarke: I think what we felt very strongly was that the greatest mistake we could make would be to try and tell this story as a kind of truth of colonialism or the truth of what it means to be a young person in Africa. What we wanted to do was to give a sense of real adventure that we experienced as children.
Kris Van der Bijl: So within this history of dislocations, your goal was to tell some kind of an adventure story. I think it succeeds in that way.
James Clarke: I think that’s a good summary of that.
Daniel Snaddon: I would add to that that I think that when we started the idea, we had the idea of developing it into a film. But we felt pulled towards the underrepresentation that was happening in animation at the time. And I remember the first time we started talking with a film executive, he said the protagonist has to be a boy. He has to be because girls will watch boys, but boys won’t watch girls. There was all this sort of stuff back then. I think the journey that we have been on as creators sort of thrust us into this conversation around authenticity. And as you say, who has the right to tell that story? It has been a real learning process for us as well. I think that we have always been open to these kinds of conversation. But I think the original intention was that we wanted to see more pop culture stuff from Africa. We want to see stuff that has the same chance of having wide release all over the world. There’s a really fantastic director I just worked with called Wanuri Kahui from Kenya. She has a Ted Talk called Afro Bubblegum. She talks about how the expectation from Africa is serious content about real issues because we are essentially victims of colonization . The truth is that we are like everyone else in the world. People who have all sorts of different things that happen to us, good things, bad things, etc. And I think that our intention was always to try to find a way to get something from Africa out there. I think it has changed the way that we have thought about adaptation.
Kris Van der Bijl: It’s a fascinating thing to navigate, and definitely adds to this story in some way.
Daniel Snaddon: I think the other thing is that we’re in an imaginative space. Kariba is the world, but it is not the world. You become the gods of this new world and how you treat the dimensions of your world says a lot about you, no matter what you do. So the fact that we made the antagonists like someone who looks a lot like Dan lets you read what you like.
Kris Van der Bijl: The benefit of a graphic novel is that it does not have to try with the real world. You know, if you look at the cartoon, it’s very, very difficult to realistically say that it is the real world. Maybe more than a traditional novel can?
Daniel Clarke: It gets away with more than other genres. You know, you can make a character run so that it looks how it feels to run rather than what it actually looks like to run. Then you can extend that sort of idea to everything. Conveying how things feel, through feelings, rather than being literal about it gives you a whole new way of dealing with all of these things, even important historical things.
Daniel Snaddon: We have always tried to kind of have a degree of openness. So as the conversation evolves and these kinds of questions come up, we want to be open to thinking about them. If there’s something that we can learn, we want to be open. When we have talked about this kind of stuff, especially the big question of who has the right to tell that story, it is a very tricky one to solve. We are not going to make anyone happy who thinks that it is inappropriate to do that. I think that we are interested in who the story connects with and why. We are really interested to know if we have succeeded. We are really interested to know if it does connect. If it does not connect, if it does not feel true, we have to be very open to that possibility.
Daniel Clarke: When it comes to who has the right to tell what stories, it is often framed as if it is some sort of a zero-sum game. We are not preventing other people from telling stories. Hopefully, we are inspiring other people to tell theirs.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.