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South African animation directors up for iEmmy; win NHK Japan Prize

The South African team behind multi-award-winning children’s film The Smeds and the Smoos is counting down to the International Emmy Awards ceremony in New York City next Monday, 20 November 2023. Produced by Magic Light Pictures, The Smeds and the Smoos is nominated for Best Kids’ Animation, up against the likes of Moominvalley

An unprecedented four other local projects are also in the running at the iEmmys: Best Sports Documentary nominee Two Sides (now on Showmax), the SuperSport series that explored the British Lions and Springbok rugby tour, which saved SA Rugby from financial ruin during the 2021 COVID pandemic lockdown; Best Short-Form Series nominee The Mandela Project; Best Kids Factual nominee Takalani Sesame; and The Dreamer – Becoming Karen Blixen, which is up for Best Actress for Connie Nielsen and is produced by Zentropa in collaboration with Belga and South Africa’s Stage 5 Films (Boetie Boer). 

Currently streaming on Showmax, The Smeds and the Smoos is co-directed by South Africans Daniel Snaddon and Samantha Cutler, who worked together on the BAFTA-winning The Snail and the Whale. South African Julia Smuts Louw, who co-wrote Aau’s Song for Star Wars: Visions Volume II, adapts from writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler’s bestselling children’s book of the same name. Earlier this year, Donaldson became the most borrowed author in UK libraries, while her classic, The Gruffalo, was voted “most likely to be the first book read by a child” in the UK. 

Narrated by Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), The Smeds and the Smoos tells the story of two warring families whose children, Bill and Janet, fall in love and run away together. Hotly pursued by their grandparents, Grandfather Smed (comedian Bill Bailey) and Grandmother Smoo (Adjoa Andoh from Bridgerton), the two young aliens (Ashna Rabheru from Sex Education and Daniel Ezra from All American) lead their families on a chase across space, giving them the opportunity to find out they have more in common than they think. 

Dedicated to all the children of Europe, the book was partly inspired by Brexit. 

Co-director Daniel Snaddon and writer Julia Smuts Louw are married, so the lines between work and home life became rather blurred during the project. “We have a five-year-old (Frank) and a three-year-old (Sonya) so they’re right in the drop zone for the books,” says Dan. “Over the years we’ve picked up some of the plush toys and merch, which Sam helped design, so we’re inundated a little bit… These sorts of films tend to be more than a nine to five; they kind of end up being like a third child constantly demanding attention.”

Frank was about four years old during filming, making him a perfect test subject for early storyboards. “Just to see if he could follow and where his attention was wandering,” says Dan. “He got to see a couple of builds of the film and one of the animatics went down well, because he asked to see it again.” 

From reading the book to Frank, Dan and Julia knew what to highlight on screen for kids, too. “We knew we had to make the reveal of the rocket quite a thing,” says Dan. “So you don’t see the rocket until you do. We don’t have it parked in the background.” 

“We were reading the book to them often,” says Julia. “We’ve got these copies of Julia Donaldson’s books that are quite special because of the movies that Dan has worked on, like Stick Man, Zog and The Snail and The Whale. They’re marked up with production notes, so they’re like artefacts from the films as opposed to just being kids’ books. I love these production volumes that are so intertwined with the process that lasts for a year of our lives.”

With The Smeds and the Smoos in production in 2021 during lockdown, Dan, Sam and the animation team collaborated daily via Zoom between South Africa, where they were leading the project, and the UK, where the majority of the crew were based at Blue Zoo – a switch up from the days on earlier adaptations like The Highway Rat, when Dan, Sam and the team at Triggerfish were the crew in South Africa and the project leads were UK-based for Magic Light Pictures.  

“With the pandemic, a lot of South African artists have had the opportunity to work for overseas studios for the first time because people can work remotely,” says Dan. “So a couple of our old comrades from Triggerfish made the move over to the UK for this project and other projects. Annike Pienaar was our animation supervisor, James Mann was our shot supervisor, Tamara Polonyfi was our head of surfacing, and Shannan Taylor came on as our art director at the end. It was so comforting to have these long relationships that we could trust.”

Dan and co-director Samantha Cutler won’t be in New York on the 20th for the iEmmys. Instead they’ll be in Japan, accepting the NHK Japan Prize for Best Preschool Media. So far this year The Smeds and the Smoos has already won the Audience Award at the New York International Children’s Film Festival and the Rockie for Children’s Animation at BANFF, and been nominated for Best Storytelling (Writing) at the Shanghai International TV Festival. At the Rose d’Or Awards in London on 27 November 2023, The Smeds and the Smoos is also up for the Children and Youth Prize – competing against the pan-African anthology Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire. 

Whatever the outcome at the Emmys, they’re thrilled to have been nominated. “I was so excited, I was jumping around my flat!” says Sam, laughing. “It makes me overjoyed that all the beautiful hard work is being recognised. I hope that through an award like this, we can reach an even wider audience and bring them something heartwarming.”

“Many of the team at Blue Zoo who worked on the film were quite young, and I hope that a win at the Emmys would be a wind in their sails and their careers (and for the studio of course)!”, says Dan, who was also a director on Zog, which won the International Emmy in 2020. 

“It’s been incredible just to be part of this rising wave of animation in South Africa,” says Julia. “These opportunities really didn’t even exist a decade ago. I certainly never dreamed that something I worked on might be up for an International Emmy.”

Watch The Smeds and the Smoos trailer: 

Watch all 10 of Magic Light Pictures’ Donaldson-Scheffler adaptations on Showmax: 

The Gruffalo

The Gruffalo’s Child

Room on the Broom

Stick Man

The Highway Rat

Zog

The Snail and the Whale

Zog and the Flying Doctors

Superworm

The Smeds and the Smoos

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