Kenya’s animators toon up with tech tools

Artists reach globally to draw biz

NAIROBI — As Kenyan tech companies push for their vision of a “silicon savannah” in this East African nation, local animators say their industry is set to ride the high-tech wave toward becoming an animation powerhouse.

Buoyed by the success of “Tinga Tinga Tales,” a toon for the BBC’s children’s web CBeebies co-produced by the U.K.’s Tiger Aspect Prods. and the Nairobi-based Homeboyz Animation, Kenyan animators are hopeful that their country will emerge as the next big market for outsourcing.

Allan Mwaniki, director and lead animator at Homeboyz, says that the scale of “Tinga Tinga Tales,” which involved nearly 50 animators in Nairobi, was proof that the Kenyan industry could effectively handle a large-scale production. “We’ve shown the world we can do it,” he says.

Kenya’s animation industry began to blossom with a series of U.N.-sponsored training programs from 2004-2006, which brought Kenyan animators together with artists from around the world.

Dubbed Africa Animated!, the initiative was created to enhance the ability of African animators to compete with the Western imports, which dominate children’s programming on African TV stations.

The workshops gave Kenyan artists an important platform to show their work on a global stage, eventually leading to the “Tinga Tinga” collaboration.

The series was a watershed moment for local animators.

“Before ‘Tinga Tinga,’ every artist used to work in their own small corner,” says former “Tinga” animator Pete Mute. “The artists that came(from “Tinga”) and the experience they carried out of that project — most of them have gone on to set up their own outfits,” he says.

Animators still face limited opportunities in the Kenyan market. Kwame Nyong’o, creator of the well-regarded animated short “The Legend of the Ngong Hills,” says the Darwinian nature of the local industry forces artists to be avid promoters of their own work.

“You have to create the opportunities for yourself,” he says.

The arrival of a broadband fiber-optic cable in East Africa last year has many animators anticipating more “Tinga”-style collaborations.

Growing demand for local content from Kenyan broadcasters, as well as increased government support, has also led to optimism over the future of the domestic market. Homeboyz is working on pilots for two series it hopes to air in 2012.

As the market evolves, some animators are already looking ahead to where the industry is going.

Mute launched an animation company called the African Sci-Fi Factory two years ago, with the hopes of “starting a conversation with film producers and TV producers and figuring how animation fits into their businesses.” The industry, he says, is just beginning to realize the potential that animation offers.

Mute has begun work on a short that combines animation and live actors.

In spite of his efforts, he says there are still financial and technological hurdles preventing his vision from being fully realized.

“You wish it could grow faster, but it takes patience,” he says. “It’s still early days.”

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