Springboarding from South Africa’s vibrant live action production scene, Chocolate Tribe is putting the country’s VFX on the map, working with the likes of Netflix, BBC One and Disney, writes Laura Swinton
Think film production in South Africa, and chances are the first thing that pops into your mind is live action. Reliable weather. Skilled crews. Talented directors. But Chocolate Tribe is determined to put the country on the map for visual effects and animation.
The company was founded in 2014 by Nosipho Maketo-van den Bragt and Rob van den Bragt, who spotted an opportunity to grow an industry that had been seen as fairly niche locally. Their timing couldn’t have been better and since then they’ve not only worked on some of the most iconic South African brands, they’ve also grown a substantial international business, which has seen them work with global partners like Netflix, BBC One and Disney - and they’ve also collaborated with studios around the world like Passion Pictures, Glassworks and The Mill. That international work has continued to grow as the studio has sharpened up its skills with platforms like Unreal Engine and has raced ahead of the curve on virtual production.
Chocolate Tribe believes that the time is ripe for a boom in VFX and animation in South Africa - and that’s in part due to the country’s strength in live action production. Chocolate Tribe has found that international productions have made good use of their on-set VFX supervisors - and as the pandemic continues to restrict travel and encourage remote working, that sort of on-the-ground know-how has become much sought-after.
As Chocolate Tribe grows, they’ve got ambitious goals not just for themselves but for the South African VFX and animation community. They dream of a local festival with the international clout of Annecy and would love to reach beyond South Africa’s borders to grow ties with VFX and animation communities and studios in other African countries.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with the team to find out more about Chocolate Tribe’s tasty journey.
LBB> What’s Chocolate Tribe’s origin story – who were the key founders and early team members? And what inspired you to launch it?
Chocolate Tribe is an animation and VFX studio that started in 2014 with the key founders being Nosipho Maketo-van den Bragt and Rob van den Bragt. We were later joined by our executive technical director - Tiaan Franken in 2017.
From the onset in 2015, we as the founders of Chocolate Tribe wanted to create a studio that nurtures creativity, fosters technological advancement and builds key skills in the animation and VFX space. Our timing was impeccable as South Africa was ripe for this kind of growth in the film industry. And we saw an opportunity to make a difference for young aspiring animators and VFX artists who would never have imagined themselves in this part of the industry.
LBB> What did Chocolate Tribe bring to the South African market that was new at the time?
When we began, we saw ourselves as being part of a larger movement that was cracking open the animation and VFX space on this side of the pond. In South Africa this specific part of the film industry has been a bit obscure or niche and not generally seen as a viable mainstream career or business path. Also unique to Chocolate Tribe is that we wanted to create a new way of working with creatives by allowing them to have a sense of belonging, family, and teamwork of a tribe. Early on, we normalised a multi-cultural space that embraces all types of people so that they see themselves in this industry as being creatively worthy and successful. We would like to believe that, through our work and training, we inspire creatives to challenge their skill and embrace new technology in animation and VFX.
LBB> How has the studio evolved over the years?
As a studio we have evolved in a lot of ways. In the beginning we started off as a typical mom and pap studio, a two-(wo)man team, namely - Nosipho and Rob. Now we are a mid-sized studio and still growing even through these challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have expanded in terms of studio workflows, numbers, representation and the kind of work and services we offer to our partners. We have made the gradual transition from being a local studio, to an international one. Working with global partners like Netflix, BBC One and Disney. As we continue evolving and work with creatives both locally and internationally, we believe that we have a responsibility to continue impacting the space positively.
LBB> What were the projects early on that really helped establish Chocolate Tribe in the market?
There were several projects that set us apart right off the bat. Robot and Scarecrow was one of them. It established us both locally and internationally as a studio to look out for. We were the first South African Animation and VFX studio to do a complete facial and body replacement across a whole film. The scarecrow in the aforementioned short film required the actor’s face to be completely replaced (including the eyes) by a beautifully crafted wooden face with highly emotive expressions. The robot VFX went even further, by requiring a full CGI body replacement. We delivered more than 127 VFX shots. Producing such a number of shots at a consistent level is no small feat both in time and expertise, especially as back then we were new kids on the block and our studio was still relatively small. For us, this was a key moment, as we laid a firm foundation of trust based on successfully delivering a technically challenging project to our client. The film went on to win the top prize at the Ciclope Awards in Berlin (winning the Direction Award). In turn, this project attracted new collaborators.
Building on our robotic skill sets acquired with Robot and Scarecrow, the commercial Sbu 2.0 for Chicken Licken was another great success. The mechanical model was seamlessly integrated to such a level that reviewers thought the robot’s body was built in real life instead of modelled and animated in post-production. This ad did extremely well, and won multiple prizes across the globe.
A special mention needs to go to the full CGI ad for Lexus “Out of this world”. This ad campaign was directed in-house by our own Rob van den Bragt and Tiaan Franken. It represented a major move to further expand our service offering, and respond to changing needs of clients and be an all-in-one solution studio.
LBB> And what are the more recent projects that you’re proud of – and why?
We are hugely proud of Showmax’ ‘Game Changers’ and Chicken Licken’s ‘They Also Crave It’. With both commercials, it was yet another opportunity to flex our animation and VFX chops. The thing is, tackling a full CGI recreation of someone as big as Mohammed Ali for Showmax’ ‘Game Changers’, while a huge honour; there is an enormous responsibility to get it right. Mohammad Ali is a legend. And the technical skill required to produce a photo-realistic 3D person within various complete 3D sets in CGI during lock-down added to the pressure. Based on the response to the ad from different quarters, we were happy if not giddy to be appreciated for hitting the right notes technically and creatively in this project. The biggest compliment is that most people didn’t realise that 70% of the ad was full CGI.
In Chicken Licken – ‘They Also Crave It’, Zezorc the cheeky alien was fully produced at Chocolate Tribe. From concept to final composites, we enjoyed the trust and creative freedom to bring the alien to life for our clients and audience.
Both projects individually won the international award at Ciclope Africa 2021 for VFX and Animation.
LBB> As we see new developments like remote production and virtual production shake up the pipelines, how has Chocolate Tribe been responding and how are these developments opening up new opportunities?
The pandemic quickly pushed us to work remotely, which was not entirely alien to us. As far back as 2015, Robot and Scarecrow was for the most part a remote project as our collaborators were in the UK - Factory Fifteen and DMC studios, as well as in Greece, India and various other locations. When Covid-19 hit, we had schooled ourselves in this mindset already. As it stands, we have a happy mix of remote working and in-studio working depending on the project. The key is flexibility and adaptability. Remote working has afforded us bigger and more diverse teams from all over South Africa and the world, which provides an amazing cross-pollination of skill and ideas.
LBB> As well as working in the local market, you also work with international production companies, broadcasters and agencies. What would you say the split is between local and international work and how have you developed that side of the business?
It used to be a fairly even split in terms of local and international business, but as our studio grows, we attract larger and larger international projects each year. We take on complete shows as the sole VFX vendor, delivering full CGI set extensions and creatures. We continue to develop the business by always keeping in mind that we are as good as our last job. We are constantly training ourselves even in down times so that we are prepared for the next project. We understand the danger of being complacent. We are constantly marketing and training ourselves for growth and harnessing our skills in incoming tech like Virtual Production, Unreal Engine, AI, etc... Pushing ourselves to surpass our previous work.
LBB> As a non-South African, I usually associate South Africa most with live action production and great commercials directors – so what’s the general health of the South African VFX industry?
The South African animation and VFX industry is vibrant and ripe for massive growth. A lot of international productions get shot in South Africa because of readily skilled teams, versatile landscapes, great weather, infrastructure, large studios and competitive rates. Being a studio that does both animation and VFX we have become one of the go-to studios for all VFX services including on-set VFX supervision. It has become common ground for international studios to consider VFX and animation collaborations in South Africa. Particularly because we have comparable skills, are located in the same time zones as Europe and there is no language barrier since most of our team members are multilingual. Of great excitement for us is that, as Netflix, BBC, Disney and other players in this space establish themselves in Africa there will be greater growth as well as confidence in this industry.
LBB> Obviously, it’s been a really challenging year for all of the industry, but how did you find responding to the pandemic?
Even through the challenges that this pandemic has created, we’ve seen more collaborations with a bigger pool of studios globally, seeking partnerships and working relationships. We’ve seen more access to a global talent pool with creatives no longer seeing location as a barrier and VFX and animation becoming more of a popular and vibrant creative space. There is a hunger for content like never before. We are definitely seeing a huge boom taking over our industry.
LBB> Chocolate Tribe has a Level 1 BBBEE (Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment) status. Can you give our international readers a brief overview of what that means and what sort of things Chocolate Tribe has done to achieve this and why it’s important to you as a business?
Some background behind BBBEE – The South African government’s intentions through this initiative is to ensure that previously disadvantaged people are meaningfully integrated into various business spaces including the creative industry. Therefore, they implemented the BBBEE system as a leveling exercise to create more diverse and equitable employment opportunities. The BBBEE system requires that businesses hire more people of colour, more women, more differently abled persons as well as young people. Chocolate Tribe from the onset understood the importance of this. It is the first female black owned Animation and VFX studio in South Africa. This was very intentional as we wanted to be game-changers and pioneers in this industry. As mentioned in the beginning, our vision was to bring about positive change to this space and re-imagine our creative work spaces as not only fostering skill, but also as a multi-diverse Tribe.
LBB> What are your goals as a business for the next year?
Our goals as a business for the next year is to continue the trajectory of growth in all aspects. In size, representation, skill, partnerships, and collaborations. Our vision continues to revolutionise the industry. We would absolutely love to get to a space and a place where South Africa is seen as a VFX and Animation destination. We aspire to have a South African equivalent to the glamorous film, animation and technology events, such as Cannes, Annecy or Siggraph. A place which includes other African countries in these important creative events and conversations.
While we are a great safari destination, we would love to be also appreciated globally as an Animation and VFX creative hub. A place where blockbuster movies are not just filmed, but also fully serviced for the VFX and animation industry.