VSAFF committee member Geraldine Eliot chats with Khumba director Anthony Silverston. Khumba will be the first-ever animated feature screened at VSAFF. It shows Sunday, April 12, 11:30 a.m. at SFU Woodward’s. Buy tickets here.

Khumba is a fun story with whacky characters, but it also has a serious message about tolerance and acceptance at its core. Did you draw from your own experiences when telling the story?

Totally. Khumba was always a very personal story for me. Besides growing up in a country where intolerance was basically inescapable, there was a lot about myself that I didn’t accept – inside and out – and writing the story was a way to try and come to terms with that. Like the character of Khumba, it helped me to realise that the things I didn’t like about myself were exactly the things that made me who I was – and that led to me tell this story and make this film! Although the journey is still on-going, I hope that Khumba’s story can provide one more affirming message for all those kids out there who feel uncomfortable in their own skin like I did.

The Khumba voice cast is full of famous international and local South African stars, too. Was this intentional to create appeal for both local and international audiences? Is there anyone you wished you could have had work on the movie?

Yes, we were very fortunate to attach the great cast that we did. I was also very glad to be able to work with many of the people that I had in mind while writing the parts! Catherine Tate for example was my ideal Nora and Loretta Devine was always Mama V in our minds.  If I could ever do a sequel to Khumba, I do have the perfect part for Russel Brand as Bradley’s nemesis 😉

In terms of local actors, I would love to have had even more, but the film is dubbed into foreign languages in most of the countries where it screens, and in the English-speaking markets the international star-power definitely helps get people into the cinema. And ultimately, that’s really what it’s about – reaching more people with our stories.

Along with being a director, you were also a writer for Khumba and you wrote the screeenplay for the highly popular Zambezia. How did you find the difference between the writing process and the directing process? 

It’s a good question.  I have definitely had to switch hats a lot over the last few years. I would say that both processes have their pros and cons. On Zambezia it was hard to let go as a writer, because I was still involved in other roles during the production and we were actually rewriting right into the pre-production of Khumba!

Although it was the most full on, I’d say the directing of Khumba was probably the least stressful, because I’d lived in that world and with those characters for so long that it was a real pleasure to see them realized.  I was also very fortunate to have Raffaella Delle Donne as my co-writer since I could leave her to re-write a scene and trust her completely to understand what I was intending. There was a lot riding on both films, but felt very supported by my whole team – we are extremely lucky to have such talented artists at Triggerfish.

There are some inevitable comparisons between Khumba and other animated movies like The Lion King and Zambezia. Is this a good or a bad thing?

Yes, comparisons are hard to escape, but I always saw Khumba as a Lion King for the 21st Century, so I don’t mind when people recognize it for that.  I hope that they take a note from Khumba’s journey though and look beyond the surface, for example seeing our homage to pride rock with Khumba’s anticlimactic birth happening below it, instead of on top. It only gets frustrating when people look superficially, for example saying that Khumba is the same as Marty from Madagascar. To me they are such different characters, the fact that they are both zebras is like saying two different actors are the same because they are human.

VSAFF fans might not know but you spent a year in Vancouver – what was your favourite part of the city and how do you find it compares to your home town of Cape Town?

Yes, before I got into animation, I studied Microbiology and I ended up working at a genetics lab there for a year. I had a really great time there, staying in a digs in Kerrisdale and cycling into work everyday – through the falling leaves in Autumn and the cherry blossoms in Spring. We don’t really have such clear-cut seasons in Cape Town, and I loved seeing how the city changed. There are a lot of similarities to Cape Town and even in the surrounding areas. I‘d say nothing comes close to our beaches, but the chance to go snowboarding after work was definitely a great perk! I can also still remember the taste of the best Pho I’ve ever had.

And finally, if you were in the cast of Khumba, what kind of animal would you be?

Haha! I think there’s a little bit of me in the whole cast of Khumba. I’d have to say “zebra” though or actually “Quagga” – the half-striped zebra, because that’s what really started me on this whole story in the first place.

You can follow Anthony Silverston on Twitter @antimator