In a small, muggy room inside a whitewashed house in Dakar, the capital of the West African country of Senegal, eight artists hunch over their drawing boards, sketching scenes for a new animated television series. The Invincible Lions of Africa revolves around soccer-playing animals who teach moral lessons while "projecting positives about football and about Africa," says the cartoon's creator, Pierre Sauvalie. "Africa needs to show its stories and one of the best ways is through cartoons. Their appeal is universal."
When you think about the $75 billion global animation industry, what comes to mind is the stunning computer-graphic magic of Pixar or the irony-laced wit of The Simpsons, not an obscure little outfit in sub-Saharan Africa. But Pictoon a cartoon company formed in 1998 by Sauvalie, a French-Cameroonian graduate of the renowned Les Gobelins animation school in Paris, and Senegalese businesswoman Aida Ndiaye, once the local agent for Xerox office machinery wants to make Africa a cartoon hub for the world.
Pictoon aims to win work from Europe and the U.S. that is traditionally farmed out to animation studios in Asia, as well as create characters and films of its own. "People in Europe and America think that if it comes from Africa it must be bad or naive," Sauvalie says. "But our quality is international."
That quality is on display in Kabongo, Pictoon's first major series, which was co-produced with French television company Canal France International and aired on CFI's satellite service last December. The
13-part series follows an African storyteller who wanders around the world from the icy North Pole to tropical jungles with his singing pet monkey, Golo. On one level, Kabongo is a parable about an African immigrant who must adapt to the outside world, says Sauvalie; on another level, it's just a rollicking adventure show.
It certainly clicked in France. "It's a magnificent series, very ambitious, and very African," says Pierre Block de Friberg, CFI's programming director. After its initial airing, CFI released the show to television stations across French-speaking Africa; Pictoon now plans to make an English-
language version, which it hopes to sell in other markets around the world.
Sauvalie, whose thick dreadlocks brush his back as he darts from table to table overseeing new work, runs a two-year drawing and computer
animation training course for every employee at Pictoon; qualified cartoonists, in turn, teach new arrivals how to draw. Increasingly these days the global animation business is being outsourced. Much of
The Simpsons is physically drawn in South Korea, while Disney is planning to send some of its work to India, the next great animation hub. So why not Africa?
Pictoon employs up to 120 people, depending on the workload, and believes the combination of cheap labor (apprentices are paid $1 a day and Pictoon can produce a
2-D cartoon for about $2,500 a minute, slightly cheaper than in Asia) and proximity to
Europe should be attractive to European television networks. "The things we're doing in Asia, we can do here," says cartoonist Will Manebard, who met Sauvalie while studying and splits his time between Asia, Europe and Senegal. "The big problem is money and supplies. We need trust to grow but to get the trust we have to be bigger. It's difficult."
While Pictoon continues to churn out local television commercials to pay the bills it has produced animated ads for everything from washing powder to horse racing its owners prefer working on their own characters and stories, especially if they have a connection to Africa. Last year, the company animated a music video set in an African ghetto in France for French rap star Pit Baccardi. Then there's the English-language version of Kabongo, and The Invincible Lions. "The art industry is really important to Africa because it creates an image of us," says co-owner Ndiaye. "People say, 'Where was this made? In Senegal? It's not possible.' And we can say, 'Yes, it's real.'"