Sam the Hedgehog, shedding light on Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Sonic the Hedgehog is a fictional character that needs no introduction. Powered by incredible speed, Sonic dedicates himself to saving the world from Dr Robotnik. However, what many do not know, South Africa is getting a heroic hedgehog of its own.

Sam the Hedgehog is a unique little hedgehog, in that he is coming to create awareness and break the stigma around autism.

Sam The Hedgehog is a locally created film about a unique little hedgehog raised among sheep, who appears to be the odd one out in his family. As a metaphor, Sam is representative of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The film, conceived by Johannesburg-based animation studio MAAN Creative and writer Julia Smuts Louw, seeks to shed light on the experience of autistic children and their caregivers. It also aims to bridge the divide between the autistic community and the so-called ‘normal’ rest of us.

Directed by MAAN Creative founders, Michael Clark and Johan Scheepers, the 11-minute short film (which is currently a work in progress) will feature 2D tradigital characters composited into exquisite hand-crafted miniature sets.

“To date, Sam The Hedgehog has garnered a wonderful response from the autism community and beyond, for which we are immensely grateful. However, such a production is indeed a costly one, despite it being a short film. We are therefore embarking on a fund-raising campaign to help raise enough money to move into the next phase of production,” says Michael.

The MAAN Creative team have been working closely with Bellavista School and experts at other autism-related bodies to hone an accurate depiction for Sam The Hedgehog.

Sam the Hedhog

“Getting the message right is something we take very seriously,” says Michael.

Writer, Julia Smuts Louw adds, “Throughout our research, the one message that emerged among autistic adults, looking back on their childhood, was that they wished people hadn’t tried to ‘make them normal’. “From this insight, the idea emerged of a hedgehog raised in a world of sheep.”

The script, developed with the help of a National Film and Video Foundation grant, was nominated for a WGSA Muse Award in 2016.

Sam, the main character, is a little prickly, but other than that, his sheep mother, Mrs Mouton, is convinced that he’s a perfectly ‘normal’ lamb – and is continually trying to make him be something he is not.

“Their journey as a family leads them to the realisation that there’s more than one type of person in the world. Sam is a hedgehog, and the world has a place for him, prickles and all,” Michael explains.

While the film is short, Sam the Hedgehog is a big investment.

“The cost of producing quality animation is much higher than most people realise. An international animation production such as the renowned US series, Family Guy, incurred a cost of roughly   R1 200 000 per minute, to produce. However, for Sam The Hedgehog, we managed to curb the overall production costs to around R1,35 million (R120 000 per minute) while still being able to produce a world-class finished product. With the aid of a prior crowdfunding campaign, and a generous grant from the National Film and Video Foundation, we’ve managed to raise around R 725 000 thus far, meaning we have the task of raising an additional R 625 000 to complete the film. We are therefore appealing to South Africans to kindly open their hearts and make a donation to this worthy awareness cause,” says MAAN Creative art director, Johan Scheepers.

As the team behind the scenes works on the film, what is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Sandy Klopper, National Director at Autism South Africa explains that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition. This means people who are on the autism spectrum will think, behave, play, socialise and experience the world – particularly with their senses – differently to their neurotypical peers.

“In South Africa, accurate figures are hard to obtain to determine how many people may be on the spectrum. However, we can estimate that it’s about 1-2% of the population. This is an estimate based on global statistics as well as the statistic that 1 in 59 are autistic,” says Klopper.

Where does the inspiration for Same the Hedgehog come from?

Sam The Hedgehog has been inspired by many autistic individuals. Among whom are Michael Clark’s nephew Johnny, an eight-year-old with an amazing drawing talent. As well as Rita du Plessis, an animator with Asperger’s Syndrome (a variant of Autism Spectrum Disorder) who is employed at MAAN Creative.

“Our hope is to make a film that will be meaningful to the autistic community, but that will also find resonance outside that community, dispelling the many stigmas and misconceptions about ASD,” says Michael.

In fact, the very creation of the film stems from an idea which was originally sparked by a conversation with Johannesburg-based radio presenter, David O’Sullivan, whose son is autistic.

Michael and Johan had just started their fledgeling animation studio, MAAN, and were looking for stories to tell.

They pitched the idea of an autistic hedgehog character to a group of friends and it just grew from there. Along the way, Michael’s nephew was diagnosed with ASD and this brought the subject matter very close to home and gave extra impetus to and understanding of the project.

Once Sam The Hedgehog is complete and available to the world, free of charge, Michael says it is their hope that the film inspires a change in mindset, enabling the public to ultimately embrace and accept people who are different. Particularly people who think, behave and experience the world differently to the way so-called ‘normal’ people do.

How can people assist in the film’s production and release?

  • People can share the project on social media and with their friends (all links on samthehedgehog.com).
  • Donations can be made to the project on its donation page. If you happen to be a 2D animator, you can donate some time to helping do some 2D animation.
  • People can also contribute by purchasing merchandise on Sam the Hedgehog’s online store. All the proceeds from merch sales on the store go directly to making the short film. While the animation is expensive to produce, the creators want to make a high-quality film that will do the message justice

To donate online to the making of Sam The Hedgehog, please visit www.samthehedgehog.com/donate/, or for more information, please contact hello@samthehedgehog.com.

The teaser trailer gives audiences a visual taste of the film:

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