Natasje van Niekerk on Writing for Young Hearts and Minds

Natasje van Niekerk is an award-winning writer and the managing director of The Storyteller Pod, an incubator designed to train aspiring kids’ animation screenwriters. Natasje has been crafting scripts for over a decade and has been involved in a number of television dramas, radio soaps, children’s edutainment, public service announcements as well as corporate projects. […]

Natasje van Niekerk is an award-winning writer and the managing director of The Storyteller Pod, an incubator designed to train aspiring kids’ animation screenwriters. Natasje has been crafting scripts for over a decade and has been involved in a number of television dramas, radio soaps, children’s edutainment, public service announcements as well as corporate projects. The Storyteller Pod is currently running classes online and in person. We caught up with Natasje to learn more about why writing for kids’ animation is a challenge in this country, and why she’s taken it on.

Q: Why do you think there is a shortage of scriptwriters for kids’ animated series in South Africa and how has The Storyteller Pod worked to change that?

We have an abundance of very talented storytellers in schools and national bodies like NFVF have been training screenwriters for film, but training for TV shows has been neglected. But in TV you get lots of in-house training, which helps. Firstly, there’s a persistent myth that writing for animation is the same as writing for live action (story is story, but format differs). Secondly, there is a perception—locally and internationally—that the kids’ writers are the writers who didn’t or can’t make it elsewhere, so we’re not necessarily attracting the best available talent. And finally, there is no budget in local shows, so we are not making enough local content and the pay is bad.

It’s not film writing, it’s not adult writing, it’s not novel writing—people don’t know the genre and the medium. It’s much like playing darts in the dark. And you’re not even in the room with the board.

Q: What makes The Storyteller Pod different from other writing classes?

We’re creating a writing industry; we’re training and fostering writers so they can gain experience. And the skills programmes and learnerships offered address transformation and help bring more black talent into the industry.

The Storyteller Pod trains and then employs, so there is somewhere writers can go after their training.

Q: How many kids’ series animation writers are there in South Africa and what can aspiring writers and creators expect from the industry in terms of pay, lifestyle and work culture?

Not enough. There aren’t enough long-form series running at the moment, but there will be soon.

The writer’s life is everything Hemingway said it would be. It’s hard and it’s fun and if you love what you do, you can’t NOT write. Pay, about R7,500~R9,500 for an 11-minute piece. Lifestyle and culture is somewhere between a Coen brothers’ movie and 30Rock, literally. It differs from project to project and company to company. I try and keep my chickies socializing and build some team spirit because I’ve worked with many teams that are so disconnected that you forget you are working on that show, so it’s harder for the muses to show up.

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Natasje was the executive story editor for Brave Creative Media’s “The Fledglings” and “Luminati”.

Q: What is it about animation that lends itself to communicating to children?

Children don’t see the world as adults do. Thank God I’m not an adult because they do see the world in a very boring way. Animation stretches to beyond what is real. It makes fantasy real, and for children fantasy is real. The world in your imagination is real. Which is also why I like animation. And children, like grown ups, respond well when you speak to them in a language they understand. Animation speaks “imagination”.

Q: What advice can you offer towards ‘knowing your audience’?

Watch children. Watch the shows that are doing well. Understand the market. And then follow your gut. Sometimes there is no correlation between what children ostensibly like, what their parents and the networks think they should watch and what ends up doing well. Yes, tick the boxes… and then hope for the best.

But if you write from an authentic place, and you listen to your heart and the muses, most often you’ll hit the mark.
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“Magic Cellar” was the first long-form 3D animated series based on African culture.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions writers bring with them to your courses, why do you think that is, and how do you dispel them?

Film is not TV, so having an understanding of the age group, the medium, and the story structure is so, so important. Every time someone says to me: “I am an experienced writer” All I hear is, “I have some terrible writing habits, that I will be very unwilling to change because I’ve done it this way for so long and everyone loved it.”

I’m very lucky because the people who are willing to take a course are usually quite humble and take the mind-shift on board. You can really see the difference in the quality of writing.

Q: What trends are we currently seeing in kids’ animated series?

Strong female characters and a diverse cast.

Q: What part of your journey are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the work I did on Buzz and Bite, an anti-malaria campaign. It was my first real solo endeavour (without my mentor holding my hand) on an international co-production (Canada-Netherlands with me writing in Africa) and we won three awards. One was specifically for the writing.

Q: What were some of your favourite shows growing up?

Brandy and Mister Whiskers, Gummy Bears, HeidiPokkel die Eekhoring (and if it was animated, Friday the 13th)—I’ve always LOVED animation.

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Natasje lives in Jo’burg with many fur-children. You can learn more about The Storyteller Pod here and here, and if you want to keep up with Natasje online you can follow her adventures on Twitter.