Reading Africa Week 2022 – Interview with Anthony Silverston

To mark the release of Pearl of the Sea, published by Catalyst Press, Ayo Oyeku talks to one of the authors about how the book came to be; how he manages his multiple roles as a writer, director and producer; and what the future holds for African creatives. If you missed Ayo’s review earlier in the week, you can catch up here.

Ayo Oyeku: How would you like to introduce yourself to a stranger?

Anthony Silverston: I was born in Kalk Bay, in Cape Town – it is a thriving place now, but at the time it was a quiet fishing village without too many children, so I spent a lot of my days reading books or playing in the rock pools, looking for shells and unusual creatures.  I first studied science and actually did my Honours in Marine Biotechnology, but I’d always wanted to do stop-motion animation, and so I slowly worked my way into the industry and now I’m fortunate to be a partner at Triggerfish where I oversee the development of all our original properties.

AO: How did it all begin?

AS: After working in a genetics lab for a year, I was ready to make the switch to animation and tried to get a job at Triggerfish who had been successful with various commercials. But that was in 2003, around the time the bigger opportunities were shifting to CG, so there was no work. I decided to make a short film in order to teach myself the process, and so I worked in restaurants at night and animated in the day. To my surprise, the film ended up getting into a few festivals and gave me the confidence to keep going, so I carried on and made another short the following year, slowly working my way into the industry with a small job or internship here and there, and writing about animation for the local industry as well.

My big break was probably when I won a script-writing competition with Raffaella for my first film, Khumba. It was run by the NFVF (the local SA film funders) and the UK Film Council and it allowed us to learn about writing an animated feature ‘on the job’, plus it showed the team working on Zambezia that I was keen on story, and so I ended up taking more of a role there. I later directed Khumba and I really did feel like I’d achieved what I’d set out to do, but I had also learned so much and wanted to now have more opportunities to apply that knowledge.

AO: Between being a writer, director and producer, which are you most comfortable with?

AS: Haha, do I have to pick one? Switching between roles is something I have had to learn to be comfortable with. I do wear a lot of caps – literally – and although it can get confusing, I think I’ve always been writing with directing in mind, e.g. thinking how will this scene be filmed? Or directing with producing in mind – what’s possible in our budget? If I push for this change here, what will I lose out on further down the line? I try let those considerations be a strength to my process though, rather than an extra tension, because it can become exhausting wearing both caps at once. I have enjoyed each role, although I do find producing more stressful as you are often trying to solve other people’s problems, whereas as a director, you often have people helping to solve your problems even though it’s still all on your shoulders in a different way. I love the craft of writing, especially trying to say the same thing in fewer words – which ties into my edit background too. In more recent years, I’ve also enjoyed working with other directors, helping them to see their vision executed – although I can appreciate how hard it is to get notes, I’ve never really had anyone do that for me and I can now see how much championing the creator’s vision behind the scenes can help.

AO: How did Pearl of the Sea come to be?

AS: How many years do you have..? It did start out first as a film. Raffaella first came up with the idea of a story about a sea monster while I was finishing up on Khumba. I didn’t have headspace or feel ready to direct another film back-to-back, and raising finance for an animated feature is not easy. The story did go a little circular for a while, but when I did engage, I realized I needed to find a personal hook/angle if I was going to direct it. I realized that, because I had been grappling with my own monsters growing up, I had ended up retreating into my shell, while some people around me often lashed out with anger and aggression instead. A lot of people have a huge fear of showing vulnerability, yet it can prevent one from connecting to others if one is not able to. So, that was what the story became about. Unfortunately, when we were ready to pitch the film, we heard about another Sea Beast movie in development at Netflix and decided to use the story as a test case for a graphic novel, which was a route we’d been considering at Triggerfish for a while, starting with Kariba which we had supported through the team’s Kickstarter campaign. The writing process was different, and Willem brought a lot of extra layers to the story through his visual storytelling which was amazing to see. It felt like storyboarding a whole feature film and definitely took longer to execute than we’d expected, but it’s so rewarding to hold a physical copy of something in your hands with rich visuals that are beautiful to flip through, compared to a script which might only be read by the crew.

AO: What research did you do?

AS: We did different research at each iteration of the story, and I’d been gathering information and taking photos over many years on my visits to some of the places we were inspired by like Paternoster and the West Coast Fossil Park, but I actually wish we’d had the resources and time to do more and actually engage with more people from the communities there as a lot of information was from reading up. I had been prepping a lot of visual material for the film version, but the story evolved a lot and, by the time we were in production on the graphic novel, we were quite under the gun. Raffaella had been working on another script about a poacher and coincidently Willem had just read the book on which that was based, so I leaned on them for that element of the story.

AO: If you would liken Pearl to someone you know, who would that be?

AS: I think she’s ended up being a combination of both Raffaella and myself – and a dash of Willem and Jessi who illustrated her too and captured so many wonderful poses and expressions. I primarily really wanted to tell a story about a more quiet, introverted character dealing with her own issues and retreating to herself, but Raffa brought some of that fire and cheek, so I think she came out as a more 3-dimensional character which was great.  

AO: There is a subtle message on environmental sustainability in Pearl of the Sea, would you like to share more on this?

AS: Yes, that was definitely the intention, and I would love to have gone even further with this, although we did not want to be on the nose. I’d almost rather the story inspires people to want to know more and actually go and read up themselves. It’s a complex situation with local communities who have previously been self-sustaining, living off the ocean in a very natural way, but who are now sometimes forced into a life of crime, unable to feed their families because the fishing permits are awarded to larger companies who then trawl the sea indiscriminately. In my earlier time spent studying science, I’d often read up on some of the issues our oceans face and it was pretty scary to find out how delicate the balance is.

AO: Does the artist have a role in the society?

AS: I do think it’s important for stories to help create empathy and a greater curiosity or search for knowledge. For me, I try to tell stories that have been under-represented before in an entertaining way, so that people are swept up on a journey and find themselves caring about someone they might not have normally engaged with at that level. Pearl, for example, is coming to terms with her sexual orientation, but the story isn’t about that – it’s about her discovery of a vulnerable sea monster, so hopefully readers can see that not every child going through a struggle like that needs to let it entirely define them and their whole lives. It is not their only story.

AO: How convenient do you find collaborations?

AS: There’s a time for solo work – to make sure your vision is clear to yourself – but collaboration is essential and I have always loved working with others. Taking a note from Pearl’s own story – when you let others in, the results can be far greater.

AO: Your favourite project at the moment?

AS: I enjoyed working on my own stories for sure, but there are a few projects coming out next year, which I helped to develop and oversee and I cannot wait for people to see them as they are really going to begin to change the face of the African animation industry. The current anthology of short films for Disney+ has been an incredibly challenging, but rewarding experience and I have learned so much working with the creators who all come with such a unique voice of their own.  

AO: Does winning awards influence your art in any way?

AS: It’s not why we set out to do any project, but it is always nice to be recognized by your peers or maybe even better – by the audience who enjoy the work. One of the short films we worked on, Belly Flop, took over 5 years, working with interns who came and went in between our other projects. I really had to push it along without much budget or dedicated crew – so we were just pleased to finally complete it, but then it won an audience prize at the first festival it screened and that was super encouraging. We even thought it might be a fluke, but then it won about 15 more, so we realised it really had connected with its target audience and we were right to always be pushing “story first” – and story comes from character, so that’s where we always go back to when things don’t feel like they’re quite working.

AO: Considering the amount of work you do, how do you protect your health?

AS: I won’t lie, these last two years have been tough with Covid and the anthology of short films taking up more than a full day. I used to run a lot more than I do and I’d like to get back to that, because it’s super important for both mental and emotional well-being, but I always make sure I eat 3 good meals a day (I get hungry and enjoy to cook), and luckily I have a really supportive partner.

AO: What’s the future for Africa?

AS: I keep thinking “next year’s going to be even bigger” and I guess that has happened enough years that it must be true. But in 2023, three of our shows will be released along with Pearl of the Sea, so I’m hoping that just paves the way for even more African creatives. I have met so many more super talented artists, writers, and directors entering the industry in the last few years – it almost feels like a bit of snowball effect – so I think there will be many more stories from Africa, all of which really helps to drive home the narrative that Africa is not a single story.

AO: Something you would tell your younger self?

AS: All the stuff you go through makes you who you are – and that helps you tell the stories you need to tell others, helping them feel a little less alone and more understood.

AO: Thank you for sharing Pearl of the Sea with our world, wishing you many more success in your creative adventures.

Ayo Oyeku is a Fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency. He has authored eight children’s books, and some of his books have won notable awards, including the Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Children’s Literature. He loves reading books to children, meeting writers, and speaking at literary panels. He is the Founder of Eleventh House Publishing.