Triggerfish Animation Studios: From story to script to screen

“We spend a lot of time wondering how hands move and have in-depth discussions about the way elbows bend”, quips one of Triggerfish‘s head animators, Sue-Mari Sauer, as she works on a character’s individual hair strands for the animation studio’s current collaboration on Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Building a character takes months, so it’s routine to see artists watching videos of themselves acting out the storyboard or pulling faces in the mirror to better understand the kinetic timing of a character’s gestures. Heated debates about the shape of snowflakes and spending days “painting bricks” are of utmost importance if you’re part of this animation team. 

In little over a decade, Triggerfish has gone from animating the much-loved kid’s show Takalani Sesame to scooping multiple awards for their feature films Khumba and Adventures in Zambezia. To appreciate the magnitude of these talented mavericks, know that a feature film is approximately 120 minutes long (that’s 7200 seconds) and on average, the most dedicated and skilful artist can only animate 2 seconds per day. It takes a substantial amount of time to create award-winning work and presently, the most feasible way to sustain their passion is to focus on making family friendly features with global appeal.

“We’re trying to show a positive and inspiring view of Africa. Not all of our stuff is set in Africa, but we do essentially want to change the perception of this continent, if we think about it that grandly. We have a desire to tell stories that entertain and to make magic”, says head of development, Anthony Silverston. The challenge is that the company still needs to reach financial independence, so to balance the development of their own projects and stay afloat they often undertake commercial or service work like Revolting Rhymes. Although not a personal project, this collab with Magic Light Pictures is invaluable as a chance to work closely with international companies, refine their craft and exchange knowledge. Delivering a persistent standard of impressive work on Stick Man, where everything except post-sound and music was done locally, is partly why Triggerfish were sought out for their top-notch animation services by the UK company.

In the roof of an old converted thatch-roofed barn is where head of production, Mike Buckland, oversees the creative process. This is where the technical and animation departments are busy at work manipulating limbs, doing tests on lighting the environment, texturing surfaces and modelling characters. The story goes that the night before they were due to sign a lease for some “horrible commercial place”, Anthony was surfing Gumtree and saw an advertisement for a small spot available in the roof. The next day they visited Longhouse in Dreyersdal Farm Road, and two years later they’ve taken over the whole building and barn.

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Triggerfish’s process and business model is more like juggling than working according to a strict production line. On a typical day, the gaming department is busy with service work, the Story Lab writer’s pop in and out of studio for meetings, and the core team is making Revolting Rhymes come to life. In between all of this they’re also creating new characters and exploring different worlds for future projects.

For a feature film, Anthony explains that “The process depends on the person and project. The idea is that we’ll do an outline and work towards an eight page document notating every scene in the movie in paragraph form to understand what is happening and why. Once that works, we’ll develop a treatment that includes dialogue. In this way, it becomes a full script. Usually, by the time this happens, you realise there are story issues and have to go back to the outline for a few months and then back to the script. Hopefully, the initial script is much more solid and just needs polishing and you haven’t even started the storyboard process yet. We don’t always jump into the next phase because another studio could be interested and might have feedback for the writer. There are so many people involved and pushing for different requirements because we’re trying to appeal to the whole world, so we get lots of notes.”

With script approval, a storyboard that looks like a 2D black and white comic strip is created with scratch or ‘rough’ voices and timing to give the animators an idea of time delivery, and after this comes the modelling of the characters in 3D with aid of the technical team’s rigging. “After the character is modelled, the technical team programs controls into the model so their arms can move around. Each rig is like a basic skeleton that gives animators the tools to create the performance. They put controls in all the fingers, kinda like a puppet”, says Mike. Revolting Rhymes has 80 plus characters including variations, which helps because they can use the same basic model and apply different textures and change outfits for large crowd scenes.

When the rigging is complete, the animation can take place. To the layman, the animator’s screens might look the motherboard of a large spaceship where characters are stuck in Cartesian plains and have arcs protruding from their joints. Quentin Vogel, head of animation, demystified the process by explaining that, “With animation you will pose a character and then key that pose. You save all the poses and together they create the movement, but it doesn’t always come out the way you want because the computer fights you. Sometimes you have to draw over the frame and make sure the character’s silhouettes are clean, and that the energy coming from each pose is clean so you can create great performances moment by moment.”

While some animators create performances, others are texturing, shading and colouring the world and environment. Every object in the frame has a unique reaction to light depending on their nature and the angle of the light source. Each brick, leaf and stone is different so three days spent “colouring in” tree bark or glaciers is average and if you’re a perfectionist, it might take even longer. All final images are then run through a composting team who render the different layers for sets, which means that character and their environment will be placed on a different layer. This gives the team more flexibility and less risk, if after final revision they want to blur things, add extra colour or finesse small details.

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The deadline for Revolting Rhymes is August but Triggerfish is also working on four feature films and four TV series, as well as finishing the script for their next feature, Seal Team, that’s set for production before the Story Lab projects. The gap after Khumba motivated them to focus on script development with the goal to be in constant production without worrying about which project they’d tackle next. Perfectly positioned in the middle of the time zone between Europe and the UK, and with an understanding of British and American humour, a growing relationship with Disney and the ability to provide competitive labour, they have numerous projects in the pipeline and are able to seize opportunities when they present themselves.

Business aside, Triggerfish is a labour of love that’s setting the benchmark for animation in Africa. They’re an enthusiastic and masterful team that’s used to working on multiple projects and open to consistent learning and collaboration. Director of Seal Team, Wayne Thornley, says while busy tweaking a script, that at the core of their work is the “attempt to construct something that will disarm someone, that for a moment, their defences will come down and you can offer a nugget of truth. The great street musicians do it with a little trick. You can almost say anything to anyone then, because in that moment they really listen to you. That’s a powerful driver for me on days when I wonder why I wasn’t an accountant.”

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