Tinga, Tinga: Africa’s first major animation series production set for release in 2010

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Tiger Aspect’s Head of Animation and Children’s Claudia Lloyd travelled to East Africa and fell in love with Tanzania’s Tinga Tinga art and the classic African childrens’ tales about the origins of animals and why they are the way they are. She first did a pilot three years ago and chose to work with Kenya’s Homeboyz director Myke Rabar. Together they set up an animation studio in Nairobi and will be ready to release the 52 x 11 minute series in January 2010. Russell Southwood spoke to Claudia Lloyd about how it all happened.

In her travels across Africa, Claudia Lloyd came across two things that were the basis for the Tinga Tinga series. She had been involved with Comic Relief and wanted to teach herself Swahili so started reading childrens’ stories. These tales about - Why Lion Roars?; Why Giraffe has a long neck?; Leopard spots and Zebra stripes? - were all traditional African tales for children in the much the same mould as the Just So stories that Rudyard Kipling “borrowed” from India.

In the course of her travels she also came across the Tinga Tinga style of art production that through the efforts a local artist flourishes in Tanzania. Looking at this work, she thought that its flat and graphic style would easily lend itself to 2D animation.

However, neither of these discoveries were the “bolt of lightning” that led immediately to the production idea but after a while she thought to herself that it would make a good animation:”I thought I have to go and do this.” UK production company Tiger Aspect where she worked liked the idea enough to give her development money and she set off to recce possible production bases in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Nairobi.

Soon it became clear that neither of the Tanzanian possibilities had either sufficiently reliable power supply or Internet access:”(Modern-day animation) needs lots of computers and good Internet access.” In Nairobi, she found a local production company called Homeboyz run by Myke Rabar, who is heavily involved in the local music scene and has started radio stations:”He was a pragmatic, open-minded risk-taker.”

She persuaded him that she would bring the pilot programme to him if he would set up 25 computers, an Avid edit suite and a network connecting the lot. True to his word, he did and it all worked so Claudia Lloyd moved to Nairobi with her three heads of Department from Tiger Aspect in the UK:”There was six weeks when we were experimenting to see how to do it. The idea was to do two minutes but we actually ended up doing 8 minutes.”

The production team was assembled by word of mouth in Kenya but included two Tanzanian animators and also Tinga Tinga artists. Although some had had animation experience on commercials or done short-training courses, experience was limited and many were self-taught. Nevertheless in Kenya there was a strong tradition of cartoonists and caricaturists and much interest in comics that the production team was able to build on.

The production employed 16 animators, 11 designers and 5 Tinga Tinga artists (reducing to 2) along with a music person, a sound department of 4 people (who it trained in the UK), a production team of six, 3 Kenyan writers and voice overs. (Lenny Henry is also one of the voice over contributors.)

What of the overall level of production skills in Kenya?”There’s a relatively small TV industry and hardly any animation. Local programming is heavily underwritten by advertisers and they don’t appreciate what they’re funding and why. It’s beginning to change but it feels like sponsorship controls the whole show.” She cites the example of the success of local Spitting Image-style political satire show:”Its ratings grew and grew. Kenya needs more risk-taking and creative programme making but it’s definitely changing.”

Everything is produced in Kenya and then delivered to London on a laptop in HD:”There’s no HD capacity here in Nairobi.” For work in progress, it is uploaded to FTP sites so that comments can be got from Tiger Aspect in London:”Each tale takes a day to upload. Internet costs were very high but are likely to come down (with the arrival of the international fibre). Power and water costs are also very expensive and are going up. Final deliveries are by myself on hard disks.”

Nevertheless the whole production has been produced 15% more cheaply than it would have been in the UK:”But there were enormous start-up costs. Myke invested in it and I hope they make money out of it when we leave.”

There then followed 18 months when Lloyd took the pilot and pitched to major potential backers around the world. BBC childrens’ channel CBeebies agree to put up 25% of the money and Disney Playhouse in America 6%. Once these two major channels committed, she was able to add on a series of subsidiary rights sales for World TV sales to distributor and producer Classic Media and a publishing deal with Puffin.

The attraction of the series, according to Lloyd, was that the African stories were “so fresh” and “a return to big storytelling.” But the these things had to be moulded for a global audience:”We had to adapt the stories so they would work for global audiences. We had to create a cast of six different characters who feature in the different episodes.”

Each episode is 11 minutes and they will either be shown as 11 minute episodes or packaged together in half hour slots. The 52 episode series will launch in the UK on the CBeebies channel and then have its American release in Q1, 2011. Its African and Middle East distributor is Tanweer.

Why did she do it? "I did it because the idea was great and I wanted a bit of an adventure and a challenge. I wanted entertaining content, not NGO-funded content.”