/ 15 January 2023

What is pulling the plug on digital arts in South Africa?

Spien Poster
Drawing our stories: Animation series Spien, by Gladwin Stellenberg

‘There is a lack of specialised skills and animators. This is forcing studios to outsource outside the African continent’

It was easy to believe amid the Covid-19 pandemic that artists would be better off learning how to code. Almost every art form was being marketed and consumed online, from fairs to theatrical performances. Even those events seemingly impervious to change — such as the National Arts Festival — took place online. 

The rise in value of NFTs and the media hype and curiosity surrounding them further instilled the idea that culture and artmaking were headed for a fully digitised future.

However, last year saw major shifts in the tech sphere that suggest a turnabout. Tech shares have dropped in value, major tech companies (in the US) are shedding jobs and crypto currencies have almost halved in value, directly affecting the value of NFTs, and online streaming companies which experienced a boom during the pandemic, such as Netflix, have seen a radical drop in subscribers. 

These events do need to be considered, bearing in mind that Netflix has greater competition and, largely, the NFT and digital art market remains very active, and new developments in AI technology are thought to be nullifying jobs and making it easier to make digital art. 

Have the digital arts flourished in South Africa? It appears the local animation industry hasn’t been able to exploit the boom. Gaming insiders say their industry has stagnated, though those who have established themselves are doing so on a global level. AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) could also be at a standstill, given the technology is not locally accessible. 

Compared to other African countries, South Africa is in a strong position. A study of our creative economy undertaken by the South African Cultural Observatory found the audio-visual and interactive media industries added R48.4 billion to the country’s GDP in 2020. This would include film and television, so this income was not solely generated by rising digital art forms. 

Yet there are barriers to further growth and racial and gender transformation of our digital arts landscape has hardly progressed. Where to from here? Conversations at the 2022 editions of the Cape Town International Animation FestivalFak’ugesi Digital African Innovation Festival, the Durban FilmMart and Africa Games Week shed light on future direction and the factors restraining the growth of the various digital arts sectors. 

What is digital art and what do we mean by this term, when most artists in any field now employ tech in one way or another? Think of the sculptors using 3D printing to generate work. There appears to be a clear distinction between digital art — that is art made using digital tools — and those art forms that are purely digital end products. 

The Faku’gesi, which takes place in Joburg annually, lists fields including digital music, digital art, immersive media (AR, VR and interconnected reality), gaming, animation and the more ambiguous field dubbed “maker culture” — from robotics to the internet of things. 

Studies published by the South African Cultural Observatory last year established that there are 60 animation studios and 49 gaming ones in the country. 

This sounds substantial and it is given that these industries are both young — the former has been growing since the late 1990s and the latter the mid 2010s. 

However, only a handful of these companies are generating their own intellectual property — original content — while the majority are servicing local and international companies or (in the case of animation) the advertising industry. 

There is little local investment in either of these digital arts sectors — they have flourished due to 

co-production deals, commissions and publishers in the United States and Europe. 

In the animation sector, this has made it difficult for companies to compete at an international level as many of their competitors are benefiting from state subsidies. 

Triggerfish, one of SA’s biggest and most successful animation companies driving its own intellectual property, has established an office in Ireland to benefit from public funding assistance that allows them to remain competitive. 

Instead of relying on government grants, attracting local investment should be a priority, observed Nick Wilson, founder of The Great Big African Animation Pitch, at a discussion on funding held at the Durban FilmMart. 

Isabelle Rorke, deputy chair of industry body Animation SA, pointed out that unless animation films are shown to be a good investment, and can generate jobs, local investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. 

However, as SABC and private broadcasters have not been commissioning animation products for some time now, they are being made for international audiences. 

“There are not enough cinemas or local distributors to ensure access to audiences,” says Wilson. 

The gaming industry is also producing games for audiences outside South Africa, as they are focused on mostly PC games for a niche indie gaming audience who exist in small numbers in South Africa. 

Certainly, if you take a look at the dominant audiences for PC games on Steam, a global platform offering gamers a broad smorgasbord of games, the majority are in the US, Asia and Europe. 

The African continent is a desert, where audiences for indie PC games are concerned. African audiences have a preference for mobile games, which are too difficult and risky for local gaming companies to be able to generate an income — the business model is “free to play” and developers have to create games that extract cash from players at opportune moments. 

“If you want to do a mobile game, it seems you have to go the microtransaction route. My personal perception is that you have to compromise a lot creatively for that type of game,” says Ruan Rothman, senior development manager at Free Lives, one of the most successful gaming companies in South Africa. 

Not child’s play: Augmented reality and virtual reality technology is not accessible in South Africa, and games are time consuming and expensive to make, requiring large teams of specialists, which puts the brakes on the local industries. Photo: Dave Woollacott

The immersive media sector is in a more precarious position than the other digital arts sectors. According to Ingrid Kopp, co-founder of Electric South, a Cape Town-based non-profit dedicated to assisting Africans in producing these kinds of products, mostly films and virtual experiences.  

“Digital ecosystems are shaky; funding is difficult. We need a rich portfolio of funders,” she remarked at Fak’ugesi. 

“Some small organisations are holding the whole value chain,” observed Tegan Bristow, co-founder of the annual digital event and a lecturer at the Digital Arts Department at Wits University. 

As digital products are time-consuming to make — games can take up to three years to produce and require teams of 25 or more while animation products can take even longer and also require large teams of specialists — they are invariably expensive to produce and rely on specialised skills. 

One of the dominant constraining factors for both of these digital industries is a shortage of mid-career specialists.

“There is a lack of specialised skills and animators. This is forcing studios to outsource outside the African continent,” observed Rorke.

The gaming industry’s growth is also restrained due to a lack of mid-career developers, who are finding their way into the banking and online gambling industries where they can demand higher salaries. A “creative brain drain” was a phrase bandied about at all of these digital arts festivals. 

There are other problems taking place at a grassroots level.

“There is a need for township dwellers to gain access to technology and connect to the digital world,” commented Xolile Vundla, head of gaming at Animation SA

Young people and their parents are unaware of professions in the digital arts, either at school level or when they are deciding on career choices, was a recurring comment at the festivals.

“People are scared of digital spheres, VR in particular,” said Natalie Paneng, a digital artist. 

There is a perception that digital arts companies are predominately white-owned, although thorough workforce surveys haven’t been done in these fields. 

However, if you look at the profiles of the owners of the “big seven” gaming companies in South Africa they are all owned by white men. 

“The gaming industry is very exclusionary due to the production of games being an expensive and high-risk investment,” noted Rex Bowden, co-founder of the Africa Games Week, during a panel discussion at Durban FilmMart.

Despite these realities, these industries experienced growth during the Covid-19 pandemic. The art forms that naturally experienced a boom during the pandemic were those that were fully digital. 

While live-action films had come to an abrupt halt, due to limits on numbers of people gathering and lockdowns, the demand for animation soared. African content is said to be in high demand.

“There is an influx of stakeholders coming to Africa looking for content,” commented Dorothy Ghettuba, director, Africa original series at Netflix, at Cape Town International Animation Festival. 

This sentiment was echoed at the Durban FilmMart where a Netflix mixer event was one of the most well-attended.  

“There is increased interest in African-created games from international publishers, who are running workshops on the continent to identify new games and talented creators,” said Bowden.

The demand for African content is naturally coming from beyond Africa’s borders, given that local platforms are not investing in, commissioning or selling local content. 

Nyamakop, a relatively young gaming company in Joburg, has landed a contract for a game that is Afrocentric in its content, according to Ben Myres, a co-founder. The name of the US publisher and the nature of the game are not known, due to strict non-disclosure agreements. 

However, it is widely known to be targeted at African-American audiences. Studies have shown this population group has adopted gaming in high numbers and this means producers are looking for diverse content that relates to the black experience or is African. 

Pitching sessions at Cape Town International Animation Festival,  Durban FilmMart and Fak’ugesi, which entailed creators presenting their ideas for products, revealed there is a drive to create African content rooted in local contexts. 

Spien, the brainchild of Gladwin Stellenberg, for example, is a proposed animation series that centres on a group of young people from Eldorado Park in Soweto who speak in the local patois and are typical characters from that suburb.

This community has not been the subject of an animation story before. Yet, in the absence of local commissioning, it will no doubt have to be adapted to appeal to an international audience. 

The drive to tell local stories that haven’t been told should align with the demand black audiences have to see themselves in the content they consume. “We want to entertain our children or teach them about themselves. We hardly get content with black subjects and some of those products that feature them are also misrepresenting who we are as people,” commented Francis Brown, of AnimaxFYB Studios in Ghana.