Triggerfish Animation takes cinema audiences by storm

  • The barn production area at Triggerfish Animation studios Credit: Triggerfish Animation
  • The barn loft area at Triggerfish Animation Credit: Triggerfish Animation
  • The long house production area at Triggerfish Animation Credit: Triggerfish Animation
  • To ensure the story was as believable as possible, the animators at Triggerfish had to take into account natural phenomena such as gravity, Newton’s three laws of motion, atmospheric effects such as wind, flowing water, and depth perception, to mention just a few. In this image, Ezee hangs upside down in a tree in Adventures in Zambezia. Credit: Triggerfish Animation
  • Rendering each frame – that is, crunching all the various layers (topography, sky, lighting, textures, characters and so on) into a visual image – can take anything from one to 19 hours, depending on its complexity. Credit: Triggerfish Animation
Date:1 December 2012 Tags:, , ,

The story behind Cape-Town based Triggerfish Animation studios whose new film, Adventures in Zambezia, is making box-office waves overseas

Bumping one’s head, either literally or figuratively, may very well be the best way to learn and grow, but nothing builds confidence quite like a rollicking success – and that’s exactly what Triggerfish Animation Studios has achieved with the international release of its first 3D animated film, Adventures in Zambezia.

Being realists, the creative types at Triggerfish knew they represented mere blips on the international animation-film scene, but this fact was quickly dismissed in favour of something far more relevant: they firmly believed they had what it took to produce a blockbuster. Vigorous ticket sales in six overseas territories suggest that this young production studio, based at the historic Dreyersdal Farm in the leafy Cape Town suburb of Constantia, has pulled it off.

Granted, the company’s rise to international stardom has only just begun. After a mere 12 weeks on the international circuit (it’s scheduled to be released in 70 countries), this heartwarming coming-of-age story has already sold a million tickets – and that’s just in six territories. It still has another 38 to go.

To put these figures into perspective, consider this: our most successful movie export to date, Tsotsi, managed to rack up a total of 500 000 sales – and that after winning an Oscar and spending two years on the international movie circuit.

Adventures in Zambezia won the Best South African Feature Film category at the 2012 Durban International Film Festival. Israeli movie buffs voted it the number one independent film of the summer. It was shown on more than 800 screens in 150 cities across Russia (making it the most widely distributed South African-produced film ever), and achieved that country’s No 2 box-office spot, coming second only to the action thriller, Bourne Legacy.

Soaring with the birds

The story – featuring the voices of numerous Hollywood heavy-hitters – revolves around a plucky young falcon named Kai (Jeremy Suarez) who just knows there has to be more to life than hanging around a remote outpost with only his strict dad, Tendai (Samuel L Jackson), for company.

A chance encounter with the kooky stork Gogo (Jenifer Lewis) and her co-pilot, a cute weaver called Tini, confirms his suspicions. From them he learns about “Zambezia”, a bustling bird city located in a majestic baobab tree perched on the edge of the Victoria Falls. After discovering that Tendai knew about Zambezia all along, Kai falls out with his Old Man and begins his journey to the fabled city in search of fame, fortune and, of course, himself.

As with all great stories, there’s a love interest – in the person of a beautiful, feisty black-shouldered kite named Zoe (Abigail Breslin), adopted daughter of Sekhuru (Leonard Nimoy), Zambezia’s founder. There’s also the obligatory arch-villain: Budzo (Jim Cummings), a sinister egg-eating leguaan who’s hatched a plan with his henchmen, the marginalised marabou storks, to attack and plunder the city.

Fortunately, all ends well. Thanks largely to Kai, Budzo’s schemes are thwarted, the marabou storks switch their allegiance, and our hero is finally able to enter the city. Kai not only discovers his true origins and reconciles with his father, but also learns the all-important lesson: “No bird is an island.”

From humble beginnings

Like so many great ideas, the inspiration for the plot came from an unlikely source. It all started in 2006 when Mike Buckland, the movie’s technical producer, got together with a few buddies and began discussing their mutual appreciation of the Zambezi Valley. Realising they were on to something special, they came up with a basic concept for an animated film.

Although Triggerfish had never tackled a project of this scale, this didn’t mean it was clueless. Quite the contrary, in fact: the company was established in 1996 as a boutique stop-frame animation studio for the television commercials industry. In 2001, it was invited to produce content for the first season of South Africa’s version of the American educational programme, Sesame Street, which went on to win numerous awards.

On the strength of this success, Triggerfish was commissioned to produce animation for the American series of Sesame Street. Over the next six years, it producing animations for three seasons of the local programme and four seasons of the American show. Since then, it has grown into the largest CG (computer graphics) animation company on the African continent.

But although the company had plenty of animation experience, the challenges it encountered during the making of Adventures in Zambezia were formidable. Recalls Buckland with a laugh: “We decided to use birds as characters, mainly because it had never been done before – and then we found out why! We knew we were in for a shock, but it proved much more difficult than we ever imagined.”

Creating  a virtual world

Finding a way to realistically depict feathers proved to be a huge wake-up call for the creative team. However, as it turned out, creating credible characters was just one of the technical hurdles they had to overcome. That’s because it isn’t easy to create a virtual 3D world from scratch when operating on a small budget (the movie cost less than 20 million dollars, which is small change in respectable animation terms), especially if you want to faithfully depict the myriad natural facets of our living world to make the story believable.

To make this happen, Triggerfish had to take into account natural phenomena such as gravity, Newton’s three laws of motion, atmospheric effects such as wind, flowing water, and depth perception, to mention just a few. Everything, from the plants in the foreground to the distant horizon, sky and everything in between, has to be conjured up from a blank computer screen, and that’s before even considering the complex animated characters that make the story. In short, it’s a process that requires formidable artistic talent, mathematical formulae and intimidating complexity and a whopping amount of computing power.

Most artists – the real footsoldiers in this endeavour – aren’t generally renowned for their mathematical prowess. To get around this, Triggerfish settled on Autodesk’s Softimage visual effects software and Interactive Creative Environment (ICE) platform.

Working together, these tools effectively act as a transition medium, spanning the divide between three-dimensional mathematical equations and computerspeak (two entirely different languages). Sue Sauer, the technical director for character effects, explains: “ICE makes it possible for us to do physics… by that I mean actual natural science, but in a visual way that the computer understands.”

So, instead of going cross-eyed staring at long strings of complex code, Sauer and her fellow artists create “ICE Trees” – an interlinking web of visual nodes, each one displaying a variety of options, that can be configured in multiple ways via simple clicks of a computer mouse.

Creating feathers that respond realistically to the elements took serious effort. After much experimentation, the studio adopted an ICE-based plug-in that handled the placement and motion of feathers. The average number of feathers per character is a whopping 50 000.

“Feathers are incredibly dynamic; they move with the wind, they’re affected by gravity, and they ruffle when they collide with objects. The character itself is also a force when moving through space. Just a simple turn of the head can influence feather movement. Fortunately, there’s so much flexibility built into the system that, for example, if the director wants a few feathers pointing up, it’s easy for me to modify them later.”

The beauty of ICE lies in its versatility. Sauer elaborates: “Every artist uses it for their specific needs, be it for topography, lighting, rigging or effects. It’s the common thread that runs through our entire pipeline. Each one of us can pretty much make it our own.”

Crunch time

Although the artists see their individual creations as images on their computer screens, all the network sees is reams of dense code. To crunch all the various layers (topography, sky, lighting, textures, characters and so on) that make up each frame into a single visual 3D image requires an immense amount of computing power.

To accommodate this, Triggerfish’s network comprises two server arrays set up in a RAID configuration (one main array plus a backup located in a different building) comprising 100 nodes. There are also about 80 custom-built PCs, featuring 12 GB RAM apiece, which the artists use. The system runs flat out 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To help speed up the process, once the artists knock off for the day, their PCs are brought online to boost the processing power.

Even then, rendering each frame – that is, converting all the 3D algorithms into a visual image – can take anything from one to 19 hours, depending on its complexity. Technical supervisor Sandy Sutherland explains: “When it comes to something like a large baobab tree with all its leaves, time becomes really hard to quantify. This is the epitome of ‘how long is a piece of string?’.”

Intent on speeding up the process, Sutherland and his colleagues had to think smart. “When we started with the film, we had nothing in place. At first, we built these huge sets – then we got a real fright when we saw how long it was taking the system to render. This forced us to get creative and re-think the way we worked in all sorts of different ways.”

To cut down on the huge volumes of data clogging the system, their only option was to remove what detail they could from each scene without compromising the film’s visual quality. The first and most obvious solution was to cut all excess terrain from the sets that were outside the viewing angles of the two “virtual” cameras.

Another ploy was to reduce the detail on background characters (for example, by giving them fewer feathers), depending on how prominent they were in the shot, making them much more manageable. If an artist needed to add detail to a specific character, it could be done.”

Says Buckland: “Creating something from nothing into something real is an incredibly painstaking exercise, but it’s a huge amount of fun. Thanks to the experience we picked up during the making of Adventures in Zambezia, we now have all our systems in place and are ready to show the world what a small animation studio like ours can do.”

Triggerfish is currently wrapping up its second movie, Khumba, about a young zebra born with only half his stripes (it’s expected in cinemas in early 2014), and its creative team has already started work on the next feature film. Still in the concept phase, this one is set to be the studio’s most ambitious yet.

Adventures in Zambezia hits our cinema screens on 28 December.

Video: <i>Adventures in Zambezia</i> movie trailer