Thursday, August 4, 2016

THE FIREBIRD takes wing in the States

Johannesburg-based MAAN Creative worked with stage producer Janni Younge on a theatre piece combining puppetry, dance and animation. After a sold-out Cape Town run at Artscape and the National Arts Festival, the production, commissioned by IMG Artists, is now on a US tour.

Watch a video about the animation of FIREBIRD:

In a burgeoning and competitive local animation landscape, Johannesburg-based studio MAAN Creative are carving out an intriguing niche as animators to the live theatre world.

Headed up by directors Michael Clark and Johan Scheepers, MAAN recently completed work on THE FIREBIRD, a visceral theatre experience combining puppetry, dance, and animation. Commissioned by LA’s IMG Artists, THE FIREBIRD is the brainchild of producer Janni Younge, formerly of the famous Handspring Puppet Company - renowned for their collaborations with artist William Kentridge, as well as their work on the West End blockbuster WAR HORSE.  

Having opened with a brief but highly successful run at Artscape in Cape Town, followed by sold-out performances at this year’s National Arts Festival, THE FIREBIRD has now embarked on its US tour.

The show has attracted shining reviews both locally and abroad: The Philadelphia Inquirer said of the performance at the Mann Centre: “It was a wonderful thing to feel risk in the air once again at the Mann - the essential element of art. And if the production errs, it does so by flirting with over-stimulation.”

Loosely inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s progressive 1910 ballet of the same name, THE FIREBIRD unfolds an abstract narrative drawing on South Africa’s recent history of freedom and conflict, while also evoking a deeper personal conflict between creativity and reason.  Themes of restraint and subjugation warring with freedom and self-expression are conveyed simultaneously by the dancers, the otherworldly animal puppets stalking the stage, and by MAAN’s animation sequences, projected on a huge white egg suspended over the action. The ambitious sensory smorgasbord climaxes with a great dragon looming over the stage, wings outspread, breathing fire. On the US leg of the tour, a live symphony orchestra performs Stravinsky’s score.

“This was a challenging, but very rewarding project which helped us realise we want to make this kind of work a focus for MAAN,” says Michael Clark, who was responsible for creating the over 70 original acrylic artworks that served as key frames for the animation. The sequences were then pieced together in Photoshop, TV Paint and After Effects.

“We enjoyed the artistic sensibility that the brief required of us,” says Clark. “We settled on a very painterly style, with a distinct tactile aesthetic. Rather than aiming for smooth animation, it was most important that our images were evocative and beautiful, and that they lived well with the hand-made aesthetic of the puppets.”

This is MAAN’s second collaboration with Younge, the first being OUROBOROUS, a production she staged as winner of The Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama in 2010.

The combination of animation and theatre is not a new one –  WAR HORSE used this conceit, among others – but Clark would like to see the potential of the medium released in new ways. “I think animation has yet to be fully explored or utilised as a medium on stage. It could add a new dimension to a ballet, a live music show, or a traditional play. It can be used to add information or context that is hard to get across through actors or set design, and because it’s completed beforehand, it provides an anchor point for the other variables of a live show.”

MAAN also does animation and motion graphics for advertising, channel branding, corporate AV’s and music videos. They are currently working on a short film for autism awareness entitled SAM THE HEDGEHOG. To get in touch, visit

Watch a video about the animation of FIREBIRD: