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South African 3D animation goes to Hollywood

Herman Manson wrote that “Jock of the Bushveld” is leaving for Hollywood, literally, as film director Duncan MacNeillie takes his 3D animated remake of the classic tale to American movie studios in a bid to gain distribution in markets outside South Africa.

MacNeillie was responsible the original film version of Jock, starring Jonathan Rands in 1986. The tale, written by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and first published in 1907, plays out during the gold rush in the then Eastern Transvaal and follows the adventures of Fitzpatrick as a prospector and transport rider, and his heroic runt Staffordshire terrier named Jock. I remember seeing it as a kid and spending most of the afternoon in tears after Jock gets mistakenly shot and dies at the end of the remarkable tale.

MacNeillie confirms that the animated version will see a happier ending than the original, which should come as a relief to parents, as well as the proprietors of cinemas. The movie will be aimed at the whole family and will play out from the animals' point of view.

The project started four-and-a-half years ago with actual production lasting three. Budget figures quoted in the media range from US$10 million to R50 million but MacNeillie says the numbers don't come from him. It was financed by private investors (a story in the Daily Maverick mentions Standard Bank chief executive Jacko Maree and Hollard Insurance founder Miles Japhetand) and a grant from the dti.

Whatever the budget, it is a substantial production (for SA), with around 25 people working on it at Jock Animation, seven being character illustrators.

Release is tentatively scheduled for March 2011 through Ster-Kinekor but the release (and the distribution partner) might be affected by negotiations with international distributors. MacNeillie confirms he will have a clearer picture at the end of December on his return from his US trip.

MacNeillie says putting together a strong animation team in SA proved to be his biggest challenge. There are lots of skilled illustrators, but few who have had opportunities to work in long form and the industry remained largely underdeveloped before production started on Jock. The first year was spent redoing the first 20 scenes of the movie until the team felt that it achieved the desired quality and could guarantee continuity throughout the film.

3D cinema took off mid-way through production. MacNeillie describes 3D as a breakthrough for cinema and a wonderful gift to directors - he definitely wanted in. He did his math and managed to keep additional production costs to between 6-8% of budget, a remarkable feat. Not only does 3D enhance the picture visually, says MacNeillie, it also creates impact and adds to the viewing experience.

Movies make money through merchandising and Jock will be no exception. MacNeillie owns the merchandising rights to Jock and his friends, which he acquired from the Sir Percy Fitzpatrick Trust after the production of his first film version of the tale. MacNeillie was playing around with the thought of an animated version even then, he says.

Expect toys, clothes, lucky packets and numerous product tie-ins from brands like Mr Price, Woolies and KFC. Penguin Books, meanwhile. is planning no less than 12 books aimed at different market segments, from kids to teens and adults, in English, Afrikaans and Zulu. The high visibility is expected to boost audience figures as well.

The Canadian rocker and voice-over artist (apparently the two are not a contradiction in terms) Bryan Adams has been tapped as the voice artist responsible for Jock, and MacNeillie says he never intended to use a SA accent in the movie. In a nod to the period and Fitzpatrick himself, it was originally going to be Irish American.

MacNeillie describes Adams' voice as pleasant but neutral and, of course, the name opens up a few extra doors in the American studio world. Local artists involved include Jeremy Mansfield, Terence Bridge, Bongani Nxumalo, Dianne Simpson, Nik Rabinowitz, Theo Landey, Anthony Bishop, Jason Kennett, Michael Richards, Robert Hobbs, Charmaine Weir Smith, Sylvaine Strike and Michael de Pinna.

The soundtrack itself will also be released for sale, with Grammy Award-winning lyricist Tim Rice and musician Johnny Clegg contributing. Rice previously contributed lyrics to, amongst others, Aladdin, The Lion King and Evita. Clegg was responsible the theme song of the original version Jock of the Bushveld. "Spirit of the Great Heart" remains one of his greatest hits.

MacNeillie hopes to bring back a distribution deal from the US, which would put the movie in a new league distribution and marketing wise, and he acknowledges the impact of the locally produced cult hit District 9 in making the road a little less rocky than it would have otherwise been. Local audiences will soon be reintroduced to Jock, who is bound to once again become a household brand name.

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