Interview by Chris Wheeler
Animation School student Charl van der Merwe was over the moon to learn that his student film, Arid, has been selected into the Graduation Film category for the prestigious Annecy/MIFA International Festival of Animation, to be held in June this year – the first student film from South Africa to receive this accolade. We caught up with Charl about his remarkable achievement, and what lies behind Arid‘s tale of a boy and a mysterious bull who is revealed to represent his father.
Q: Congratulations on getting your short film Arid selected for Annecy! Could you tell us a little about your short and what inspired it?
A: The original story of Arid was inspired by a series of photographs taken by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher of a Sudanese tribe, called the Dinka people. At the beginning of the production we wanted to illustrate the lives and struggles of the Dinka people and the hardships they face, but as the story developed it evolved to a raw and simple story that we have today At one stage our story was focused on the war-torn country of Sudan and specifically on the 10 000 Lost Boys of Sudan and the journey they took to find safe refuge. I guess you can still see some influence of that journey, but as it developed it became the story of a boy and his father.
Q: How did your school prepare you for this challenge and what was the creative collaboration like?
A: Our main project in third year is to create a short film and everything up to that point is just learning the technical skills behind it. Almost all of the projects in first and second year are individual projects, so forming a group in third year was quite a big challenge. You would choose members based on their technical skills and how well you know them. In the beginning we did not know each other very well and we had no idea whether we would work well together or not. But that is all part of the process. Fortunately, I was blessed to be part of a group where everyone was focused on creating one beautiful piece of art. We all understood how important the project is for our futures and we devoted a lot of hours and sleepless nights in order to complete this film. It was a fantastic experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Q: Your film will be competing against fifty-three other student short films from around the world, and it’s the only African film—what do you think made you stand out?
We were quite amazed when we realised that we are the only African student film chosen for Annecy! We always hoped that our film would get good reviews internationally. Throughout the production we would analyse work from around the world and previous work from The Animation School in order to figure out a new, unique, African direction for our art style. We didn’t try and copy some well-known style by a company or artist. Locally people are used to seeing something “African,” but it’s new and exotic overseas. I think that is why it got chosen.
Q: The film plays on the borderlands between dream and reality, this life and the next, as well as on African myths, but at the same time it pivots around a universal relationship and evokes emotions open to all. Could you comment on the film’s central message and why you think it’s important?
A: The film plays on the idea of a child’s imagination and how the child sees the world around him. As children we all look at our parents as our safe refuge and protectors. And to this boy his father is the strong beast that we see in the film.
There is also a lot of mystery in the film that we keep open for interpretation. For example, we never specify why they are on this journey or where exactly they are heading, but it is not necessary for the audience to know this since the main purpose of the film is to tell you about their relationship, and not to tell you where they are going. People have asked us if the hyenas are also people, since the boy saw his dad as a bull. That opens up questions like, who are they and why are they coming for the boy? So what seems to be a simple story of a journey of a boy and a bull can actually be broken down into multiple speculative ideas once you start analysing the story. That is great and we love that about our film.
“The film plays on the idea of a child’s imagination.”
Q: What was the biggest creative challenge you and your team faced and how did you overcome it?
A: We had a couple of challenges throughout the film. We created very high standards for ourselves. But if I had to narrow it down I would say that the story and visual effects were the most challenging. We spent months on our story and the original story wouldn’t even be recognisable now. We kept simplifying it up until a couple of weeks before deadline. At college we also had a lot of advice from internal and external sources that would help us perfect it, including Benito Kok (our lecturer), Nuno Martins (Principal at The Animation School), Anthony Silverston (Director of Khumba) and Alexandre Heboyan (Consultant and director of the French film Mune). Although our story seems relatively simple there is a major twist at the end that needed to communicate clearly to the audience. This was a crucial moment in the film that we spent months getting right. We also faced a lot of technical challenges.
In terms of VFX: Our film has five characters, six environments, fire, fur, cloth effects, dynamic rocks and dust storms. All the visual effects were new to us and we had to figure out how to do this. Ruan Rosslee and Jeremy van Reenen did a great job at getting that right. All the effects are crucial in our story and needed to fit in visually with the rest of the film. Nicholas Danks, Alex Bain and myself also learned that subtle, emotional scenes aren’t always the easiest to animate. Wisaal Abbas and Ruan had to make sure that all our renders were high quality. We spent a lot of time on our renders and fixing small mistakes that we missed during production. There were some stressful times at the end of production, but fortunately we pulled through.
Q: Tell us a little about the film’s production design, what programs you used, and just how long did it take you and your team to make this four-minute piece?
A: We basically spent our entire third year on the film. The story was written in the first term and production went on up until the last day of hand-in in November. We literally worked up until 15 minutes prior to its first public screening at The Animation School! The main program we used was Autodesk Maya. All the 3D environments and characters were built and rendered through Maya. We used Abobe After Effects and Premiere as our editing software. We also had the privilege of working with Arthur Feder and Aret Lambrechts from Stellenbosch University. They were responsible for the music and sound. Arthur composed all the music and Aret created the foley. They did a fantastic job and we are very happy with the outcome.
Q: What part of Arid are you most proud of? Do you have a favourite moment or shot?
A: One of the very first shots that was completely done, with renders and effects, was the opening shot. This shot sets the tone for the rest of the film. We are also really proud of the climax moment. This took a lot of planning and storyboarding to get right and we were scared that it would not make sense to the audience. So it is always a relief to hear when someone understands the twist. It is great to see the reaction of audience members at the climax. I remember sitting at one screening and a guy in the row in front of us had tears in his eyes at the end of the film. It is wonderful to know that we can get a reaction like.
“What seems to be a simple story of a journey of a boy and a bull can be broken down into multiple speculative ideas.”
Q: How would you describe South Africa’s animation industry and do you think it’s a sector worth investing in?
A: It is definitely a sector worth investing in! Animation is something that is internationally accessible and that could easily relate to children and adults in any culture or country. The international success of animation shows the potential the industry has. There is a lot of world-class talent lurking in South Africa and I do believe that the industry is growing here. There are a couple of local companies that are making their mark in the industry and they are producing work that is drawing a lot of attention. As long as artists in South Africa keep creating good quality animation, people will start to realise the potential the country has. That is why competitions like Annecy are so important to us. It is a platform for the world to see work produced in South Africa and local artists should keep striving to enter competitions like it.
Q: What would be your dream job and how do you plan to get there?
A: I think that for any young animator it is a dream to go overseas and work for a feature film at a big company. At the moment I just want to make my mark in the industry and contribute to the growth of it locally.
Q: What are some of the challenges young animators face when entering the industry and how do you think they can be overcome?
A: There are a couple of challenges when entering the industry. The standard of work in the industry is a lot higher than what we were used to in college. You have to hit the ground running or you’ll get behind pretty quickly with your deadlines. I also saw that marketing yourself as a young animator is not always the easiest thing to do. You have to be confident in your abilities and be able to convince people that you are the best person for the job. There is no space to hold back or be shy when entering the industry.
Q: What’s your favourite short film and why?
A: One of my favourite short films at the moment would be the graduation film Myosis, from Gobelins in France. We had the privilege of working with one of the creators of Myosis, Guillaume Dousse, in our third year. He helped us with our art direction and story. It was great to see his process and the creativity behind the film. I think it is a great film artistically. It has everything a short film needs; great story, good art direction and nice compositions. It is just simply beautiful.
Congrats to the ARID team!
To contact Charl, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To keep tabs on the film’s progress, follow The Animation School’s Facebook page.
The film will be available for viewing once its festival run is done!
The Arid team from left to right: Jeremy van Reenen, Ruan Rosslee, Charl van der Merwe, Wisaal Abbas, Alex Bain and Nicholas Danks.