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Work / Animation

An animated story of survival during apartheid in South Africa

Tessa Chong and Lee Arkapaw have animated a story of survival during apartheid in South Africa, as told by pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim. The short has been created for NPR’s Jazz Night in America and sees Tessa and Lee animate Abdullah’s captivating narration by visualising the historical context and characters within the story.

Abdullah shares his wisdom on the art of improvisation and tells the tale of when his ability to think quickly saved his life one Christmas Day when a couple of police officers confronted him. “Because it was all about jazz, and the music was so important to the narrative, we decided to take cues from classic jazz album covers and graphic design of the 50s and 60s,” explains Tessa of the animation’s aesthetic. “There’s also a bit of Saul Bass influence in there too. We love how old jazz album covers really evoked the energy of the music through geometry and colour.”

The drive for Tessa and Lee was to convey Abdullah’s world as lived during apartheid, so the pair were careful to balance the playfulness and humour that comes through in his narration, with the seriousness of the events he describes. “He has a great voice and great way of describing things, you just want to hear more from him,” says Tessa. “Ultimately the story is life affirming and uplifting, so we wanted to leave viewers feeling that way.”

Working together, Tessa and Lee both came up with ideas for the storyboard. “I focused on setting the style and illustrating key themes, while Lee animated and filled in some of the gaps, such as figuring out transitions,” explains Tessa. “We kept the process quite fluid, and there was a bit of back and forth on some scenes. We would re-work some of the ideas together, or one of us might have a vague idea and the other would turn into something better!”

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Tessa Chong and Lee Arkapaw: How Improvisation Saved My Life (still)

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Tessa Chong and Lee Arkapaw: How Improvisation Saved My Life (still)

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Tessa Chong and Lee Arkapaw: How Improvisation Saved My Life (still)

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Tessa Chong and Lee Arkapaw: How Improvisation Saved My Life (still)