Life is not all black and white for Khumba, a young zebra born with only half his stripes. When his superstitious herd blame him for the sudden drought affecting the land, Khumba teams up with a sassy wildebeest and a flamboyant ostrich to find the legendary waterhole where the first zebras got their stripes. On his daring quest across the Great Karoo desert, Khumba meets a host of quirky characters and comes face-to-face with a tyrannical leopard in an epic battle to earn his stripes.
“Khumba” is a coming of age story about a young zebra who ventures into the unknown to “earn his stripes”. What initially spoke to you about the idea as a filmmaker?
The film tells the story of a half-striped zebra who has to learn that being different is not a bad thing. There are many themes on which the film touches – all inspired by my own experiences as a child growing up in South Africa, but ultimately it was inspired by a personal journey about learning to be comfortable in my own skin. The idea of a half-striped zebra was inspired by the fascinating story of the Quagga which was discovered to be a sub-species of zebra and could therefore be bred back from extinction. I was fascinated by the definition of this animal and how a name or identity could be defined by skin markings. The zebra became a visual metaphor that could easily speak to broader issues of difference as well as our common humanity.
As Triggerfish‟s second film, what lessons could you build on from Zambezia?
I was mostly involved in “Adventures in Zambezia” during pre-production so going into the production design, storyboarding as well as voice work and edit and I felt like I had a better grasp of what lay ahead. Although we have very different directing styles, I was fortunate in that Wayne Thornley, director of “Zambezia” had cleared the path, so to speak. From a production point of view, all of our systems ran more smoothly which helped us focus more on the actual quality and content of the movie. The whole technical team grew so much over the course of making “Adventures in Zambezia”, so it was really at every level that they could build on what they had learned. The results are visible on screen – from the animation performances to the richly detailed environments.
The film features an eclectic cast of well-known actors. What was it like working with them?
There were about 37 speaking roles, and we wanted South African, American and British voices, so casting was a big process, but Ned Lott our casting director did a great job and pulled it all off very quickly. Often, we unanimously knew who was the top choice right away because each of the characters already had a unique voice on the page. We already had some actors, such as Catherine Tate and Loretta Devine in mind when we were writing the characters and were extremely fortunate to get them for the respective roles of Nora and Mama V, while others such as Joey Richter were great discoveries along the way. Jake T. Austin and Anna Sophia Robb both brought such a wonderful charm and warmth to their characters and they really worked well together as Khumba and Tombi. Locally, South African comedian Rob Van Vuuren did a number of read-throughs and scratch recordings for us, basically playing every role in the whole movie! He informed many of the characters, so it was great when we could then cast him as the Springbok Captain. It was also fantastic to get the extra weight that celebrities brought to certain roles later in the process – I mean Liam Neeson as a malevolent leopard – what more could you ask for?
Every independent film has its own challenges – what were the greatest challenges facing you, as director of “Khumba”?
The initial concept for Khumba was conceived in 2003 so I had a long history with the project. I always believed it was a strong concept, but living up to my own expectations of what the film could be, especially as a first-time director was sometimes difficult. I am however incredibly proud of what we accomplished in such a short space of actual production time. Every project has its own challenges, especially when budgets are tight, but the production definitely went a lot more smoothly than “Zambezia” with less overtime across the board. Making a quest movie in the Karoo required many large sets and designing, filming (and furring) a zebra herd and a hoard of other animals (17 different species!) definitely brought its own challenges too. We hope to continue improving our processes with each movie though and are already looking at starting our storyboarding process much earlier on.
What‟s the funniest moment for you in “Khumba”? How did you come up with the funnies?
I have a few – many of them not so much scripted “funny” moments but rather just a moment where everything comes together – the character design, the voice, the animation and the timing. The dassie scene is one of my favourites where we took a real-life dynamic between two animals in the wild and turned it into a crazy situation with what is essentially a doomsday cult. The humour comes from the characters – my co-writer Raffaella Delle Donne and I often feed ideas off each other getting more ridiculous as they grow. Then, when the storyboarding and animation team get involved, they can just take it to a whole new level.
Can you talk a bit about the music in “Khumba”?
Music and sound play a key part in creating the unique atmosphere of the Karoo. The tactile quality of the Karoo can be conveyed with a soundtrack that really brings out the sounds of the landscape – creaking windmill, the buzz of cicadas. A major theme of Khumba’s story is the importance of difference so I wanted to emphasise the variety within the Karoo using different musical themes and instruments. The various characters Khumba meets on his journey are meant to reflect some of this variety, so it made sense to try and give each character and/or scene a different dominant instrument. The challenge – which our composer Bruce Retief managed to do extremely well – is to tie everything together into a cohesive musical soundtrack. Act 1 is mostly inside the zebra fence so we looked to a more traditional sound – what is recognized internationally as “African”. The Mantis is our link to the KhoiSan – the indigenous peoples of southern Africa – and so his sound is created from vocal “clicks” while Act 2 is mainly outside the zebra enclosure – Khumba’s quest. It has a more local “Karoo” sound and is tied together with the “Ghoema” rhythm. Act 3 is where everything comes together – the zebras join the rest of the Karoo animals in a dramatic (more orchestral) battle against Phango.
What do you hope for audiences to take away from “Khumba”?
The key aim was to create an entertaining animated feature that encourages children to be not just tolerant of, but also celebratory of difference: whether it is in relation to race, religion, culture, class or sexual orientation. I‟d also love for audiences to get glimpse of a uniquely South African aesthetic, the magic and allure of the Great Karoo – a land that captured my own imagination as a child. Oh and of course, I hope they‟ll want to come back for more stories from our host of quirky characters.
Are you currently working on any upcoming projects?
We are exploring a number of options for our next feature including a sequel for Zambezia, but we have also been developing our most ambitious story yet! It features a sea monster… Plus, I do have an idea for a Khumba sequel up my sleeve. There are so many wonderful characters and it would be a pity not to see them again.