Daniel Snaddon on Animation in SA and Beyond

Based in Cape Town, his three directorial efforts between 2015 and 2019 attracted a stunning 18 wins across the notoriously fickle gamut of animation industry awards, while his latest, adapting Julia Donaldson’s The Smeds and the Smoos, was watched by more than 9.5 million viewers over the 2022 Christmas Season. With animation experiencing an unprecedented cultural revival, we sat down for an extensive conversation with Daniel Snaddon, perhaps South Africa’s premier animator.

From an outsider’s perspective it seems we’re at the start of a kind of golden age for animation on the whole, and especially for animation coming out of Africa. As an insider, do you agree with this?

From a South African point of view, it’s kind of amazing. I was mentioning this to someone the other day, as an animation director; it’s a role that you don’t really get trained for. It used to be at Triggerfish that there would be maybe one director at a time, maybe two. So, when they were making their original features – Wayne Thorne directed Zambezia and Anthony Silverston directed Khumba, before a little break and then there were the Magic Light projects. I co-directed one and directed two at Triggerfish. We had two other projects there which were directed by people from outside South Africa; great, talented directors that we learned a lot from. But, aside from that, it was quite linear.

Then suddenly, with Kizazi Moto specifically, you’ve got exponentially more! Many more directors, many more films being made, which is wonderful. I was directing my own special with another director from Triggerfish then, and at the same time as another directing pair who came out of Triggerfish – so it wasn’t just the Kizazi Moto directors, it was a whole bunch of us. The next Magic Light special, that’ll be coming out this year, is by two ex-Triggerfish directors as well. The pie is not just this big anymore [forms a small phantom pie with his hands], it’s *this* big [forms an enormous phantom pie with his hands]. It’s a really wonderful thing.

Since you entered the industry at a pretty young age, to take it very far back, I wanted to ask about your earliest artistic stomping grounds; you staged a play in high school…

Oh, The Case of the Fallen Star? That’s a deep cut.

Well, I wanted to ask whether you could say there were any lessons, any experiences along those lines, when you were younger, which are still worth mentioning today?

When I was a kid, I used to draw a heck of a lot. It was kind of my way of escaping things that didn’t interest me, of which there was tragically quite a lot that didn’t permeate, and I wish I had paid more attention sometimes. [laughs] But, the joy of getting together with a bunch of mates and deciding to put on a show – all of a sudden, a couple of months later, you’re all there; you’ve got your best friend getting his makeup put on and you’re running around, telling your other best friend where he should set up his drums… and moments later you’re in front of the whole school. And people are out there saying your words, getting laughs or not [laughs], feeling the joys and defeats; it was very formative for me because I felt we had created something from nothing (just a space and people who had time and interest). I remember the school wasn’t going to do a play that year, I think because the staff was stretched a bit thin, so we just said: “Well, we’ll do it!”, and did it with very little supervision. No one edited the content too closely.

I saw a few pictures of the cast covered in blood; it looked intense?

It had quite a morbid sense of humour… I’m under no illusions; I don’t think it was very good, we weren’t going to take it on the road, but getting into the industry after college and getting a sense from all the different shops- I went around and did a lot of interviews… Joining David Whitehouse, who was the president of Animation South Africa, we went around and asked all the shops in Joburg; “Well, what do you want to do? How could we serve that as an industry body?” The two big takeaways from that were: trying to get a sense for who was out there, what were they doing, who was good? How do you access the talent, and then how do we create a showcase for the schools? The quality levels are varied, so let’s create a competition for all of the schools, a public space where there’s glory to be had (if you get it right). [laughs] There’s real talent here, how can we bring them together and how do we use that to face the world and say: “This is who we are, and this is what we’re capable of”, *and* get paid money to do what we like doing? [laughs] That’s the big trick in life, right?

I know a handful of writers and actors in America who might agree with you on that front right now.

Yes. [laughs]

Speaking of life after college, you worked on quite a lot of ads and commercials at Bugbox before joining Triggerfish. I must admit watching your Coco Pops TV spots specifically, there was a certain wave of nostalgia from having seen them around 2009 or so. Do you have any projects from your commercial days that you remember fondly or feel “We really got to do something there”, creatively speaking?

It’s lovely that you mention the Coco Pops ads, because I don’t know if you remember the fan-parks around the 2010 Soccer World Cup? They were free and there was one between Sandton City and Alexandria Township, just across the highway in Joburg. We parked and walked across the bridge with the fans coming from Alexandria. It must have been tens of thousands of people jammed in there, and before the opening game (Mexico versus South Africa, which we drew, so it wasn’t a depressing one) they played one of our Coco Pops ads on the huge screens. We were just like, “What the hell is going on?!”. I think that was the only time that I’ve made an ad and seen it with a proper audience. I don’t think anyone was paying attention, but I was there with a bunch of people from Bugbox and we were super pumped. It helped us get in the ‘gees’.

In terms of my time at Bugbox, I would say the weirdest assignment we ever got, which may also have been the most fun assignment we ever got, was an adventure game based on… I don’t know if you would have heard of a game from the ’80s called ‘Leisure Suit Larry’?

Oh yes, absolutely!

So, check this out; Nestle had a new chocolate they wanted to introduce, and they wanted to make it super edgy. The pitch was: “Why don’t we make a game where you collect these chocolate bars, and it’ll be like Leisure Suit Larry, and you can go on the website, you can download the game and every month we’ll release a new chapter of the game?” So, my friend Neill Vermaak (who’s quite a multi-talented guy) and myself, because we love those old point-and-click-games, the old Scenery and LucasArts games, downloaded a game-making studio and we adapted some 3D assets into these low-res versions of the characters. We worked with one of the creators of the agency, and I think this guy was going completely off piste [laughs], and we basically made a tiny, little adventure game with all this innuendo. One level was a sendup of the Sandton nightlife and another of the mine dumps, all around Johannesburg, like a love letter by way of making fun of it. That was one of the weirdest things I’ve been asked to do but one of the most fun and creatively exciting.

I certainly wasn’t expecting Leisure Suit Larry to come up today…

Just for the good people at Nestle to know; it wasn’t nearly as raunchy as Leisure Suit Larry. I think the character’s name was T.K., and it was for Toffee Crisp, which is something I don’t think you can get there anymore. You might need a DOS-emulator to run it or something like that.

It seems as far removed from your BBC Christmas Specials as possible, not to draw a connection…

Not to look for Leisure Suit Larry

Exactly, but I do sense a cynicism in modern animation sometimes, that there needs to be a sort of irreverent humour or action every so often, but your specials are so benign, full of lessons that I think kids can use. The characters aren’t saving the world (which I don’t know kids relate to so directly); they’re calling for help or persevering (as in The Snail and the Whale). It’s valuable, since you’re competing with just plopping them in front of YouTube, so do you feel a certain responsibility when making children’s films or do you just focus on trying to tell a great story?

That’s an excellent question, and I think, when you’re someone who’s as fortunate as I’ve been to have had a couple of go’s at making stuff- the first time you make something, you’re doing it to see if you can, and to see if anyone will care! [laughs] I have to say, the more time I’ve spent making those specifically, I do think you have a responsibility to yourself, firstly, because it takes so long. It can be quite demanding of your time and your attention. If you’re going to sacrifice your hobbies and time with friends and family, you’re responsible to yourself to make sure that that’s what you want to do, that the results are worth it.

Whoever you ask, they’ll have a different answer, but for me, what I’ve come to appreciate about the work that we’ve done with Magic Light and on the Donaldson & Fletcher films, is that they have something to say without going up and hitting you in the face. [laughs] I almost want to say they’re slightly subversive at times; one of the reasons people say The Gruffalo hasn’t taken off in America in the way that it has elsewhere is because in America the good guys win and the bad guys get punished, while the Gruffalo character lies his way out of his initial predicament and then lies his way out of the next. Bolshie, bolshie, bolshie, all the way through. Adults in America, you know, for young kids, they’re a bit squeamish about ‘Is that really what we should be teaching our kids?’

Another thing you learn making the BBC Christmas Specials is that they’re the kind of thing that gets watched over and over again by kids growing up. They’re on every year; we made a movie called The Smeds and the Smoos last year, and if things keep going the way they are, it’ll be on this year again. So, the DNA of the narratives you’re ingesting become part of your childhood. It’s almost like weaving a spell, or a prayer. An incantation you repeat and repeat and repeat again. I think you have to be pretty confident about the contents of that spell and its effect on strangers. [laughs]

I have to say, it’s so lovely to hear what you had to say about The Snail and the Whale because for every one I feel we can stand behind the heart of the film we’ve made. Maybe the lessons can be a little bit vague, but the heart is good. I think they encourage children to, depending on what the story is about, think and engage with and to extract the goodness out of it. I’m really pleased about the material… Julia is an amazing writer, and as successful as she is, it’s for a good reason.

As I understand it, when you had the interview for your first project with her, you weren’t aware of just how successful she was (which is what kept you from “botching the interview”). In this spirit, I’ve avoided catching up on some of the books as I wanted to ask about the adaptation process without presumptions. There’s got to be certain challenges in expanding them while remaining so close to the text, especially in working with these illustrious casts?

Absolutely. As you mentioned, the big reason we’ve gotten to turn these books into animated specials is because we are very, very faithful. We haven’t tried to turn them into features, or into a TV series; they’re dramatized versions, but it’s pretty much Julia’s words being spoken by the cast. It is a challenge, but what made a big difference to us are the films that came beforehand, Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child. Those movies, which were done by our friends at Studio Soi, by Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer, Uwe Heidschoetter, Johannes Weiland and Max Lang. They showed us what was possible, and a sort of sense of the limitations as well. To be perfectly pragmatic, the biggest trick is to make sure that it doesn’t feel as though you’ve stretched something which should be a seven-minute book into something that’s outstaying its welcome. Where, all of a sudden, you’ve added all this extra stuff, but why? [laughs]

That’s always something I have in the front of my mind; where can you add entertainment, and those films really proved that you could do that and still be true to the rhythm of the verse. What we try to do is we look at what’s been done really well in the book, how do we use that as our base layer? And then, what kinds of entertainment do we want to layer on top of that? Is it visual humour? Is it character moments, where you get to see what the characters are thinking and feeling? Because that’s not always explicitly stated in the text.

A lot of the fun is to get a line, and then to work with the actor or the animator to give it more meaning or to turn text into subtext (so, even though it’s a line from the book, they’re referring to two things now, so it becomes loaded). I really enjoy doing stuff like that because it allows you to spend time with the characters… and what you’re up against is the imagination of everyone that’s read the book, so it has to be quite thorough. Everyone likes their own version, you know? [laughs] Or the voice they did when reading for their kids and people comment on that. Parents in reviews will say, “Well, I didn’t expect that for this character’s voice, I would have done it like this”, which is great, to have a dialogue with your audience like that.

And then for the cast, what we do are scratch voices when we do the storyboards. So, we time everything out till we’ve done a pretty thorough plan of the whole film: every single shot, every single line, so we know the timing and the tone. It’s a tool we use to communicate with everyone on the team; ‘this is what we’re aiming for, only better’. What we tend to do with the actors is show them the animatic once… we try to get fantastic actors and comedians to do the voices, but we’ll cast them for their natural speaking voices (except for Rob Brydon, who’s been in every special, and because he can do loads of voices that all sound great, we’ll use him for multiple characters in one show). We’ll listen to interviews since we don’t want them to put on cartoon voices. We then work with them to find lots of different takes for a line, because they’ll come in for an hour and only have about five or six lines each, the narrator being the exception (who reads the entire book). We try and push them and find interesting ways to deliver the lines, ones that bring out different kinds of meanings, different kinds of flavours.

Depending on the actor, they can really get into it. I remember working with the wonderful Tracey Ullman, and she just knows exactly what to do; she’s worked in animation for a long time. She’s worked with Tim Burton, and I think she said she did the original voice for Marge on The Simpsons for a couple of years. So, she knows exactly how to vary up the takes, and Rob’s the same; it’ll be something different every time. You go into the edit, and there’s sometimes like thirty takes per line. You listen to them in the context of the image and in the context of the other recordings, and sometimes you might go back and forth, or you record something with someone else and go: ‘Ooo, that would go nicely with that other bit of dialogue by this other person’. So, it’s quite organic and… quite micro. It’s fiddly and it’s iterative, but it’s a lot of fun, trying to get the richest version of the thing.

Smeds And The Smoos

One of movies that had a great effect on you as a kid was Ghostbusters, and for that reason, I wonder whether you would ever take on a project in a more sci-fi vein?

Well, there is something I’m developing with my friends at Diprente, who readers might know as the kings of South African comedy, having had a lot of success with Queen Sono and Catching Feelings. I’m not sure people will know that Kagiso Lediga’s partner at Diprente, Isaac Mogajane, is one of the directors on Kizazi Moto, and a fantastic animation producer, creator, artist. We’re partnering up on something new that might be sort of in the direction you’re hinting at. We have signed a development deal and there’s sort of an NDA around it, so no details can be disclosed. [laughs] But I think it wouldn’t be giving the game away to say it’s playing to an older space. It’s much more about comedy and about combining an African perspective with genre stuff and animation. It’s a really great project, the people at Diprente are fantastic; they really know what’s funny and what’s happening, [laughs] and how to do big stuff, and that’s proven to be an enormous amount of fun so far. Again, we’ve gone from Leisure Suit Larry to family viewing on Christmas day and now maybe back to something a bit more like Leisure Suit Larry [laughs].

Now I’m very curious.

We’ll see what they come up with, I’m only really involved at an executive kind of level, but it’s a cool project. With Kizazi Moto, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You drill a little deeper and you get so much out of the talent here. It’s like lava; it needs to come out. Hopefully all of the stuff that’s out there now will feed confidence, even though it is a bit of a difficult time for the global industry with all the strike action and the hangover from the streaming wars (the numbers are coming back, and people are having to readjust their business models and figure out what they’re gonna do next). Once that has happened, I really hope that they’ll look at what was produced right now and single out that it’s really interesting, and then put some marketing muscle behind it. That’s the other part to it, you can make a great movie but if you don’t tell anybody about it… It won’t do what it could do. That’s just common sense. [laughs]

And it’s an original project, that you’re working on?

Yes, and hopefully we’ll get to make it in South Africa and not have to outsource too much of it overseas… maybe only a section of it could be overseas. The hope is to keep it local. The animation, everything.

Well, that’s something that surprised me about the specials, that many came out of Cape Town? That most of the talent working on international projects haven’t jumped ship, which has turned out for the best since by now the animation houses are more robust than I would have guessed.

There was enough of a concentration of talent here to attract Magic Light, and they kind of showed through things like Revolting Rhymes what we were capable of. I’m talking about character animation specifically, VFX has a different story to character animation… That has proven to crowbar the doors open, places like Triggerfish and Mind’s Eye… I’m working with a company called Sunrise on a project that they’re doing… it all adds up. There’s a company called Polycat who have a YouTube channel; Noodle and Bun, which is this wacky, partly animated, partly simulated group of characters that look completely bizarre (they kind of move as if they’ve got springs in their bodies). It’s hilarious to watch, very visually ticklish and they were on America’s Got Talent! They played an Aerosmith song and were voted by, like, Heidi Klum and Sofía Vergara and all of them onto the next round. I was like: “Well, there you go!”

I have to say, I think the most underappreciated resource in South Africa is imagination. We’ve got tons of it, and it needs to be cultivated and it needs to be supported, because that’s what those ‘leading nations’ have; they have vision, they know where they want to be, they know how to get from A to B and then they do it. [laughs] We should be really excited when we see stuff like that, because it’s not a given. It’s not something that’s just going to happen, because of the mechanics of the way the world works. It’s the energy coming from the individuals, and that’s really cool.

Apart from the expanding industry, it’s also that our animators are getting some more recognition. Your work has garnered an array of awards scattershot across the various big player-festivals and ceremonies. With Covid you weren’t able to attend in person, though, being the animation-insider’s award, receiving an Annie must have meant a great deal?

The Annie was a wonderful surprise, and quite welcome. We got onto the Oscars longlist, and unfortunately didn’t make it to the nominations (there was a lot of stiff competition). I think CG films that have one foot in TV and one foot in film… since we’re essentially a TV special (though we try to make the films a cinematic experience too). Both The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom made it all the way to the Oscars, because they had a really novel approach to their animation where they would use real sets with CGI characters, which suited those stories, but the scale of the stuff we started doing after that wouldn’t allow us to take the same approach. I think when the Academy sees more CGI coming their way, they get a little huffy about it. That’s what I tell myself at least. [laughs]

But the Annie was amazing because it’s awarded by your heroes, people you really look up to in the industry who are in the know as to what it takes to make something like this. They can kind of see the hand in the images; they see the modellers, the riggers, the texture artists, the shading artists, the lighters, the compositors, the designers, the storyboard artists. Each of those, grouped together, have individual prizes at the Annies, so it’s really wonderful for the team.

Also, to get some recognition in the U.S., because they’re quite a closed market that side. They tend to see their industry as the industry, which they have good reason to, but coming in with a foreign offering, you have to be quite pushy to get noticed. [laughs] I’m very grateful to Magic Light and the team who ran that campaign, because I do think that is what brought us to the attention of the voters. For all the technical artists involved, I think it’s a real feather in their cap.

You mentioned that the specials become a tradition, seen again and again. Another challenge to that must be that you’re creating them for the entire family to sit down and enjoy together. How do you go about that?

It comes back down to the layering of the entertainment. The bad version is that you just put a lot of adult-centred jokes, like you were saying, using that kind of cynical take to wink at the adults. “So sorry you’re being dragged into this… People drink and smoke and stuff, amiright?”. Sly nods can be funny if they’re done well, but if that’s all you’ve got, it can be a little tedious. As an adult with kids, that’s been my experience, certainly. I think the hope is to reach for a level of subtext that the adults can get. To layer up the meaning a little bit, and also make the characters as believable as possible. I think if a character is done well, it doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, they become a bit real to you. That’s where my instinct goes first.

Another thing that you can do; I went to this wonderful presentation on comedy and animation at Annecy one year, and one of the speakers was Mic Graves, who created The Amazing World of Gumball. That show is so sophisticated in its humour, and Mic explained the way that they keep the humour working is by knowing that different people have different senses of humour. Some like snappy sitcom dialogue, and you’ve got people who love silent movie styled slapstick humour, and people who like meta-humour, postmodern, breaking the fourth wall, that sort of thing. What they did on Gumball was make sure as they were writing and boarding the show to never follow one kind of joke with the same kind of joke. They would never follow a conversational gag with another conversational gag, it would instead be something visual, and follow that up with something else to keep it turning.

What that means is that even if you don’t like one kind of thing, you know that they’re going to give you something you do like very, very shortly. Man, I thought that was such a smart way to serve an audience. And I’m talking about a very broad audience. They say you can’t please everybody, but Mic is like: “Well, what if you tried?” [laughs] I think that’s what gives that show its flavour, and I’m always knocked out by it.

It’s clear that you take inspiration from every corner of animation. For the aspiring animator, what are some films to look into that they may not have heard of?

I would say for anyone starting out who doesn’t have an idea of what’s possible in the medium, it’s good to watch a broad range of films. I think the kind of stuff that gets programmed in South Africa tends to be fairly narrow; you have to go digging if you want to see some alternatives. That said, because of the internet, I’m not really sure how hidden this stuff is anymore, so I’ll rattle off a couple of titles that are worth checking out:

For short films, I would highly recommend the Aardman stuff, the ones even before Wallace and Gromit like Creature Comforts or Adam. That sort of thing you can look at and think: “Man, I can do that… if I could just have a great idea and a room that no one needed and even a cellphone now with a couple of lights and some plasticine…”

There’s a beautiful film called Father and Daughter by Michaël Dudok de Wit. You can see it on YouTube, it won the Oscar for animated short in 2001. It’s so simple, but it’s elegant and very sophisticated. It doesn’t feel like it’s for children, but it also isn’t adult in that Rick and Morty kind of way. It’s like poetry in motion; very gentle.

There’s one called The Danish Poet, another Oscar winner, and I would highly recommend that. It’s a very personal story recounted with an enormous amount of humour by the animator. I don’t think she narrates it herself, but it’s her writing. The animation is super, super simple. It looks like it could have been done in Microsoft Paint, but it’s very charming and very funny.

If you’re starting out, check out those films because they’re the kind of things you could imagine yourself making, as a young person in high school or college. You don’t need a huge team or an enormous amount of artistic acumen. If you look at a Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks film, and you see the amount of people who work on those, how many people touch each frame; it’s very intimidating. So, start with the small stuff. Have a look at how cool something simple can be. You can say a lot with very little in animation. It’s also a form that works off of those poetic principles.

Well, circling back for a moment, you mentioned silent movies earlier. Could you speak to your inspirations outside the field of animation?

Well, you know, the Disney animators who wrote the book on how to animate, The Illusion of Life, trace the origins of that type of animation (which became really popular at Disney and then Warner Brothers and then on to the rest of the world) to Vaudeville, where a lot of those silent clowns like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, came from as well. That broad pantomime acting worked very well for the limitations they had back then. Pencil and paper, celluloid and film, it was all a bit unwieldy, so those big movements and actions, big contrasts, it all suited the medium.

I’m sure you’ve noticed animation has gotten more and more… maximalist? In something like the new Spider-Man, or Nimona, which I thought was great, I believe Ninja Turtles has a similar vibe, there’s an enormous amount of information in each shot being compressed into your eyeballs. It’s pretty amazing, and I think a sign of where the world is going with how much information young people can take in, with social media platforms giving you really small chunks and getting a lot out of them.

For me, to be inspired, it can come from multiple places. There’s a real danger to looking at animation and trying to be inspired by it, because what’ll happen is you’ll just end up regurgitating the same stuff… and it won’t be as fresh. [laughs]

In addition to looking at live-action movies (I thought Everything Everywhere All At Once was really fun), I would encourage people to go see plays. I feel more inspired to animate when I’ve seen good theatre with good performances than when I’ve seen a film. I feel more engaged, like I’m using my imagination more. Seeing the poses, the staging; it’s a bit heightened (playing so the back of the room can feel it). Samantha Cutler, my co-director on Smeds and the Smoos, studied dance, so I’ve gone to see things like that with her. That’s always wonderful because you get a sense of motion and design in what the body can do to create beautiful statements, just out of patterns and shapes moving through space. If you can see puppetry, that’s good. What’s the one that was on recently? I’m devastated that I didn’t get to see it…

The Life and Times of Michael K at the Baxter?

Yes. It’s very sad, right?

Oh, absolutely. The best part is when they’re puppeteering him through the ‘water’ on stage, and it’s all non-verbal- I loved it.

That’s the kind of thing I think animators should go and see. Watching film and animation, there’s already a lot of imagination put in. There’s no work left for you to do, so it’s not really inspiring, it’s intimidating. [laughs] ‘They’ve done it all. Who am I? What have I got to say?’. Whereas, if you watch something like that, in a different medium, and wonder ‘What would I bring to it if I did something like that in animation? What would the medium bring to it? Drawing it, how would it feel?’ That’s my advice.