Medical Intervention, Animation & Storytelling: Interview with Animator Kabelo Maaka

Medical Intervention, Animation & Storytelling: Interview with Animator Kabelo Maaka

Kabelo “Cabblow” Maaka is an award-winning animator and illustrator. She founded her own company, Cabblow Studios, alongside her mother, a medical doctor. Cabblow is passionate about using her animation as a tool to educate and illuminate contemporary life in South Africa. Cabblow illuminates her process, journey to becoming an animator, and some of her biggest mistakes undertaking a career in animation.

Let us begin by getting to know you Cabblow, can you please tell us more about yourself, where are you from and how did you begin your journey into art.

I think I’ll start with my name. My name is Kabelo Maaka. On the internet I go by “Cabblow” and my animation students call me “Miss K”. I work as the Creative Director of my company Cabblow Studios. It’s a Johannesburg-based studio that creates medical animation, short films, series and illustration. I am from Johannesburg, South Africa. I grew up in a fairly quiet suburb as an only child with just my mom and I went to St Mary’s school, Waverley an all-girls private school from grade 1 till grade 12. The name “Cabblow” is a play on my name Kabelo. It was a nickname I had in high school. I have an Honours degree in Animation and Screenwriting and I also had the wonderful opportunity to attend the International Summer School of Character Animation at Gobelins L’Ecole de L’Image .

Like most kids I loved animation growing up, but unlike most kids I never outgrew animation. The more I watched it the more I loved it. I have also been drawing my whole life. When my mother was a younger medical doctor most weekends were spent making sure she had an opportunity to rest from long hospital calls, but that was ok for me because I would keep myself entertained by drawing. One thing we used to do a lot was rent DVDs over the weekend. And to be honest, I preferred watching DVDs over going to the cinema because of the “bonus features” section on most animation DVDs. I loved seeing “making of” interviews, deleted scenes (that were in storyboard form) and the “how to draw [insert Disney character here]” segments. We used to rent DVDs all the time, before the rental stores died down. It was through those DVD bonus features that I learned that Animation was created by actual people (not magic) and it was something that I wanted to do. 

Fast-forward to 2020 and we are now in our third year running an animation business with my mother – Dr Tshepo P. Maaka. She is my business partner and a medical doctor of 26 years. She heads up Business Development at Cabblow Studios getting new clients for us and giving our medical content actual clinical authenticity. 

Give us a behind the scene look into a favorite or typical project you are working on, what drives your art? why do you make this type of art? why are you drawn to this particular subject?

There are usually two things that are happening simultaneously in my working life – one would be a client project and the other would an in-house or personal project. 

Client projects are pretty straight forward: meet the client, get the brief, go back forth with feedback, execute and collect payment. It starts with a conversation with the client who is usually from the medical industry so they don’t always have storytelling language when describing what they want, but really that’s my job to figure that out. My favourite part about that process is taking their clinical information and giving it character and story. To me characters are everything and maybe it’s because people are so peculiar and interesting to watch. 

The other side of the spectrum is in-house or personal projects. There’s a bit more freedom here. One of our in-house projects is called “Dr T’s Nuggets” – it’s a public health education initiative, which we post every week or so. Dr T is a character based off of my mother. Right now she’s sharing some useful tips for coping with the COVID-19 pandemic over at the @cabblowstudios Instagram page. 

On the personal side – one of my favourite things to do is create Instagram art where I share thoughts about animation or mini comics about my life or mishaps about power outages in South Africa. My favourite time on Instagram is Inktober. I’ve made it a tradition to create daily slice of life comics during that time and people seem to enjoy them as well. I also create wallpapers where I share lessons that I’m learning as a budding animation entrepreneur (I’m also an Animation Lecturer, so I really enjoy teaching animation as well). I recently started a podcast called “The Business of Animation” – which updates every “whenever I have time for it” – so I love sharing whatever it is that I’m learning about animation. Sharing stories about my life and about the experience of running a studio helps me reflect and probably goes back to the days when watching bonus features was my favourite thing to do. 

 Does your art represent something about you, does it represent a message about the world, does it focus on history or look to the future?

I think my art represents this present moment in time in my life and possibly it represents a different reality about being a black person and being a black artist – we exist, we aren’t always burdened by our race and we actually do have joy. 

Presently, I want to use animation to educate – so I create medical animation. I want to say that’s it’s not just for kids and it’s a real and profitable career – so I share how I live as an Animation professional with my students and online and I market my projects to older audiences. Another thought would be that I want to reflect the people that I never saw in cartoons growing up, so I create black animated characters. Give me a few more years in this industry (and in life in general) and I think I’ll have a better answer. 

Cabblow, what inspires you? what connection do you have to your art? what do you want your audience to feel?

There’s something romantic about seeing a “regular” person reflected in art. When I show you my regular life reflected in art I’m saying day-to-day life is worth sharing and learning from – stories are not just reserved for the extraordinary. My favourite thing is seeing regular people and things in extraordinary circumstances (I should make a story about that). When I share daily comics or thoughts I want to be understood and I want to share my excitement over some epiphany I’ve just had. And I guess I want my audience to feel the same. 

 We want to know a little about the significance and scope of your work, Can you please share more about your process? How do you make your work? Are there particular tools/materials/software/technology that you use? Is there a connection between your process and your artwork’s message?

Listen, my process is make-shift and to be honest I’m proud of that! I’m all about using what you have to make what you want to make. Software is just another paint brush. 

When you’ve had to teach yourself how to create something your process will not be the same as others and there is beauty and freedom in not being confined to the notion that things are “supposed” to be done in a certain way. I went to film school, but my classmates and I still had to teach ourselves many things about animation. 

I’ll take our short film “3 Teaspoons of Sugar” as the example. When we pitched the project to get financing Dr T did the medical and market research and I only I had a rough idea for the story and 4 pieces of concept art and that was it. Once we got the financing. We didn’t end up doing anymore concept art or visual development from there. We went straight into production without items like character turn-arounds and without a concept “bible”. When I finally pinned down the story idea I realize that it didn’t follow a conventional story arch because it was a documentary. Throughout the whole process I learnt that if you get caught up in trying to match another artits’s process you might never start or finish. I did a video for TVPaint – our software sponsor about our process.

The scope of my work right now is much more than I anticipated when I was dreaming about being an Animator. I run a business, which means wearing many hats. I go from Creative Director to Project Manager, art director, graphic designer, social media manager, storyboard artist, tech support, video editor etc… I have my work as an Animator and I also have my work as a team leader guiding my interns who work with me. It can feel quite overwhelming at times, but it’s teaching me just how capable I am. It’s also teaching me to trust in someone higher than myself for strength (and by that I mean God, the overwhelm is real – my favourite prayer is simply “Lord Help”). I also recognize that (to a certain extent) I am setting an example for my students. That is what makes this all significant. 

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made? What have you learned from it?

Overbooking myself and not creating enough margin for unexpected setbacks and taking time to rest. These are probably my biggest mistakes and I’m still learning to overcome them. To be honest I think it’s more like lots of little mistakes that lead to “big mistakes”. For example – thinking you have more time, when maybe you don’t or doubting your abilities or saying “yes” to questionable projects when you actually want to say “no”. It’s difficult to navigate this because when you’re young (at least for me) you are trying to establish yourself and gain experience so that you can add credibility to your name, but you’re also trying to shape your life to be whatever it is you hope for or dream for. The lesson I’m learning is that “life is just a series of doing things for the first time” I’m learning as I go and I’m making the best decision with the current information and experience that I have available. I’ll make better decisions as I continue to live life. 

What does African art mean to you? Do you think African art is important? Do you think that Africa is reflected in your work? If/so how? why not?

African art to me means expressing different sides of the African experience. It is important for African voices to feel comfortable to create art because our work helps people feel seen, understood and creates a sense of belonging. That’s my beautiful polished answer. 

This might sound strange, but I’ve only really starting owning the identity of being an African Artist in the last few years. Before, I was just a person who loved to draw. Growing up I didn’t always feel black enough and by extension African enough to own that identity. It might be because I don’t subscribe to some of the typical ideas of African art e.g. incorporating traditional textiles into my work or showing black people in their cultural attire or sharing the vibrant experiences of 

Township life. My childhood was a hybrid of African culture – specifically Sepedi culture & traditions, western and international food, suburban living and Christian beliefs. So that’s an African identity that I am still exploring and perhaps that does come through in my work subconsciously. 

Where do you find inspiration? Can you share some of your favourite artists and why they have had a meaningful impact in your work? 

To be honest inspiration comes from anywhere. It could be something charming and innocent that my baby cousin says in passing or it could be a heavy week of work on a client project, but overall I draw inspiration from personal experiences and from listening to and observing people. Some of my favourite artists are Pascal Campion, Caleb Thomas (CT Chrysler online), Fran Meneses (Frannerd online) and YouTube channels like Evelyn From The Internets and The Fung Bros. They are all very different and create different kinds of work, but they each find a way to tell unique stories that are deeply personal to them or that reflect and celebrate their inner or outer world. 

Lastly, Where is your favorite place to work?  

I love this question. My favorite place to work is my little makeshift desk in my room. I turned my bookshelf into a desk so that I could have a little nook to sit and work in. These days, I don’t use it so much because we turned out home garage into an office for Cabblow Studios, but it’s still my favorite place. 

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