Making the make-believe happen

According to the six degrees of separation theory, everyone knows someone famous. Well, after my interview with Anthony Silverton, I now only have one degree of separation from actor Liam Neeson. But, that is not the story that needs to be told. The real story is how Mr. Silverton went from being a man of science, to a man of make-believe.

That aforementioned theory helped me to secure an interview with Head of Development at Triggerfish Animation Studios, Anthony Silverton, through a friend of a friend. Having cleared space in his extremely busy schedule to help out this struggling student, Silverton greeted me with an exemplary salt-and-pepper beard and that quiet confidence one finds in romantic poets. On the second floor of the converted Cape Dutch barn that houses the studio, we huddled in our winter coats in the large boardroom, the sweet smell of thatch lacing the crisp Cape winter air. Sensing my nervousness, Silverton soon put my nerves to rest, with a soft voice and easy smile, as he shared with me his journey from working in the sciences, to achieving his dream of working in the animation business.

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“Me in my Berlin coat” : Anthony Silverston, as photographed by Michaela Davey

 And I thought, if I was going to be poor, I might as well be a poor artist rather than a poor scientist.

Anthony Silverton’s childhood was set in the picturesque area of Kalk Bay, with all the imaginative stimulation a child could wish for in attending a Waldorf school, and having a mother who worked with ceramics. It was with her that he first began to sculpt with clay, and with his father (who was studying film in Germany) to first bring clay to life with short stop-frame animations (aka stop-motion). Inspired by films such as The Nightmare before Christmas and Wallace and Gromit, Silverton comments that he has always loved the aesthetic of stop-frame animation. However, the young Silverton was also interested in the sciences, and said that at the time to pick a career path, “It just made more sense to do science,” because there wasn’t much of an animation industry in South Africa.

But it wasn’t too long before Silverton, working in a genetics lab, decided that the job wasn’t fulfilling enough: “Animation was always my passion and I wanted to pursue it full-time.” So, he made the switch…out with chromosomes and in with claymation. On hearing this, I remarked how brave he was to switch to a career in the arts, but, shaking his head and chuckling a bit he explained: “I kind of didn’t see it like that, because it was just, well, I wanted to do it. If I’m not doing it then I’m going to be miserable, so it just felt like the necessary thing in a way. And then as soon as I did it, I felt like I was doing the right thing.”

Like a good little media student, I had done a little digging on writer-director Silverton beforehand and bringing up the subject of his first short film The Slipper Cycle made Silverton duck his head in modesty. His first reaction was to clarify that: “It’s online for everyone to see, because I also feel that people are too precious about showing stuff that’s finished only, you know, perfect. I’m proud of what I accomplished even though it looks kind of rough.”  With a shy fluttering of hands, he explained that, working as a waiter to support himself, he had given himself the project in order to learn the process of animation. After three months molding the set and characters, Silverton had a small clay world hidden underneath his bed that took another nine months to animate. The energy and time spent on this sweet little animation payed off, when it got into a few film festivals and enabled him to get part-time work at Triggerfish on Sesame Street. His slipper in the door, Anthony went on to become a writer, director, and partner at Triggerfish, Cape Town’s leading animation studio.

When I asked whether he had encountered any obstacles since embarking on his career, Silverton leaned forward to earnestly declare, “Everyday!” Working in the animation field, he explains, is not like working in a bubble or a vacuum. Remember those group projects in high school, where everyone always had an opinion? It’s sort of like that, with a group of people constantly collaborating and making changes right up to the very end of the production. After explaining the difficulty of getting in to a small industry, and the day to day challenges of producing a feature film, Silverton shifted gears and started talking about the anxiety and self-doubt that had initially accompanied his career transformation.

Although he never regretted the decision to switch from genetics to animation, like all artists, Silverton struggled with the feeling of being out of his depth. He confessed that for a long time he didn’t know if how he was writing and animating was the ‘right’ way, because he was doing it all on his own. But, that didn’t stop a determined Silverton. He sought out the knowledge of writing through script-writing books, and was guided and inspired by his mentors at Triggerfish to the point were he can now prevent those self doubts from interfering with his creative process.

So, it’s constant learning. It doesn’t make it any easier, I think that’s what I’ve realised, that was the biggest sort of lesson I’ve learnt I guess, is that the process of development is just difficult.

While co-writing Adventures in Zambezia (2012), Silverton was working on a story which had been in his head for years. Initially imagined only as a short film, Khumba, the half-striped zebra, came to life a year later as Triggerfish’s subsequent feature. Through the highly successful film Khumba (2013), starring the voice talents of Steve Buscemi, Loretta Devine, and  Liam Neeson (nudge, nudge), Silverton’s dream came to fruition. Taking five years to make, Khumba marked both a jump-start in South African animation and in Silverton’s career. A large leap forward from the clay slippers under his bed, Silverton now works to develop new stories for local and global audiences, working alongside experts from Triggerfish and overseas companies like Walt Disney Animation Studios. All the while learning, all the while hungry for more. It was clear to me throughout the interview that Mr. Silverton loves what he does, it was there in his eyes. And his story is perhaps not the grandest of sagas, but an important one no less. Transitioning to a career in animation with nothing but a four year genetics degree and two talking slippers, Anthony Silverton’s journey proves that, as with animation, anything is possible if you believe in it.

Now I’m not animating, I’m managing and I’m giving notes on things. But it’s still the industry and the area is what I enjoy more. Anyway, I think when I was going into animation I realised, what interested me was the stories, so that’s what I’m involved with now. It’s kind of gone on a journey I guess.

Featured picture taken from the trailer for Khumba.

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