by Herman Manson (@marklives) Luma Creative Studios was launched in 2001 as a character animation agency just following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, after which Paul Meyer, Jason Cullen and Jacques Venter had all been retrenched. “We were artists who learned how to do business,” says Meyer of the experience.

Today, Luma Creative Studios is wholly owned and managed by Meyer and Gerhard Painter, who joined Luma about a year after its launch. Following a boom and a bust, the business is once again stable and its management team are dreaming bigger than ever.

Their journey has taken them and the agency through various partnerships and different business units, from commercials to gaming, and now finally back to a consolidated business, partners bought out and some units spun off or integrated into the main business.

bunandbuneeCompany grew quickly

At first the company grew quickly — Meyer says it doubled in size every year for the first five years of its existence. It launched a gaming division in 2006 (more on that later) and invested in creating its own animated series Bun&Bunee (a series of one-minute 3D animated shorts featuring bunny brothers Bun and Bunee), a project that plays an important role in the future plans of Luma.

At its peak, the commercials business employed close to 40 people before it had a close encounter with bust in 2010, following the onset of the global financial crisis. It retrenched 14 people at the time.

The gaming division Luma Arcade, launched in 2006, recently closed down its South African business because it was unprofitable, says Meyer, and Luma Creative Studio no longer holds a stake in the business (Meyer and Painter still have a 50% share in the US entity), which maintains a dev team in Johannesburg but is now managed from the US. It had initially sold a stake in the Arcade business to US partners in 2010.

An expensive exercise

Building a games developer business in South Africa was an expensive exercise, admits Meyer, who adds that he and Painter has always preferred to learn by experimenting on their own steam, making mistakes and owning it either way.

But back to the current business, which is well-positioned in the commercials market, says Painter, pointing to recent projects done for, among others, Ford, DStv, Yogi Sip, Simba, Mini, Cremora and a host of other well-known brands. It is increasingly attracting international work as the Rand continues its decline and it can prove value to global brands.

“We are not as cheap as India or China,” says Painter, “but the quality of the work we produce in South Africa is on par with international standards.” Using local animation agencies can cut as much as 30% of international productions budgets.

lumaUnder pressure

Locally, animation budgets — especially in the commercials space — have been under pressure as agencies and clients are less keen to invest in really high-value production. This means some 60% its revenue is now coming from international clients, says Meyer. That said, the agency doesn’t want to lose its relevance to the local market.

The company is also investing in its own product IP and content. It will be refocusing the Bun&Bunee property into a character fashion brand (think Hello Kitty) and is already working on a multilevel merchandising programme (including greeting cards, stationery and clothing) to achieve this.

Meyer explains it well: “We distinguish between the series and the brand/property. We specifically are separating the two. Retailers were getting stuck on the idea that the merchandising should be tied in somehow to the series. That meant that if the series was not showing in their territory or was in-between screening cycles, retailers would reject the brand in favor of a top-five brand.

“Perennial character fashion brand”

“By positioning Bun&Bunee as a perennial character fashion brand to the retailers, they ‘get it’. They can easily identify it as a brand ‘like’ Hello Kitty, which relies on its own intrinsic visual appeal and not merely on a co-promotional tie-in to a tv series or film. That way, retailers and consumers buy the merchandise due to its outright cool factor and not because its currently trending.”

Also heightening the profile of the agency is the work it did on the documentary 2 Wings Many Prayers, made by Lloyd Ross, that tells the story of two men who designed and built a single engine, two-seater aeroplane and flew it around the world in 40 days. The film recently won the Best Adventure and Best African Production awards at this year’s Wild Talk Africa Film Festival.

Luma created a sequence of visual effects shots of the aeroplane flying through a storm (see video below). The project was done for passion and the technical challenges it posed, rather than money, says Meyer.

Impressive feat

Showing just how impressive a feat it is that the studio accomplished, at a recent showing in the States, one audience member asked the director how they shot the scenes of the plane flying through the storm.  Ross, taking a linear route, commented that it was shot in a dark warehouse with a hose (for the rain) and an ark welder to produce the thunderstorm.

Of course, that skipped the real answer, which involved an animation team in a studio in South Africa. Meyer, picturing the face of the audience member on hearing the original answer, just keeps laughing.


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