The Scarcity of Black Animated Films & Characters…

Africans and Caribbeans across the world have a rich history and legacy of myths, legends, and folklore.

From Brer Rabbit to Anansi the Spider, these creative and culturally specific tales are certainly rich enough in content to create a plethora of fantasy films, adventure stories, and animated features. Yet on western shores, content makers (black or otherwise) year-after-year, categorically neglect the popularity and potential of this genre of entertainment production. Why? Why is the black character driven animation film so invisible?

‘Wallace and Gromit’, is arguably the UK’s most loved and one of the most globally decorated and highest-grossing clay-mation series of all-time. Quite simply, it is the quintessential Englishness of these eccentric characters and their mishaps that has resonated so deeply with its legions of fans. Wallace and Gromit are throwbacks to a bygone age in England. The ‘one man and his dog‘ notion which appeals typically to the consciousness of white film lovers across the globe. The UK today is a myriad of races, cultures, and creeds, therefore, the opportunity for UK animators to invest in fresh storytelling has never been greater. The opportunity to create new characters which resonate with all types of people is surely the way forward?

The animated film genre as a whole characterises a unique billion dollar industry. It is also reported that annually, 75 percent of live action feature films include some type of digital animation. Recent decades have shown digital technologies to be even more fully integrated into the production of not only live-action features, but wholly animated features, television series’, and other concepts. Computer-generated 3D animation features have largely taken place in the United States. To this end, the two studios that have dominated this genre of filmmaking are Pixar working in conjunction with Disney, and DreamWorks Animation.

Visual effects created for live-action rely on 3D software. For 3D animations, objects (models) are built on the computer monitor (modeled) and 3D figures are rigged with a virtual skeleton. For 2D figure animations, separate objects (illustrations) and separate transparent layers are used, with or without a ‘virtual skeleton’. Then the limbs, eyes, mouth, clothes, etc. of the figure are moved by the animator on ‘keyframes’. The differences in appearance between keyframes are automatically calculated by the computer in a process known as ‘tweening’ or ‘morphing’. Finally, the animation is rendered.

For 3D animations, all frames must be rendered after modeling is complete. For 2D vector animations, the rendering process is the key frame illustration process, while tweened frames are rendered as needed. For pre-recorded presentations, the rendered frames are transferred to a different format or medium such as film or digital video. The frames may also be rendered in real time as they are presented to the end-user audience. Low bandwidth animations transmitted via the internet (e.g. 2D Flash, X3D) often use software on the end-users’ computer to render in real time as an alternative to ‘streaming’ or pre-loaded high bandwidth animations.

It can take anywhere from three to seven years-plus to complete a 3D animated feature; this time frame basically includes everything from the conception of the idea to the end of production. After an idea is approved, a script is written, which can have many rewrites. After that, pre-production is started. This includes storyboarding, concept art, and production design to name a few. It could take a few months to a year to record all the dialogue for the film; which the animation is usually based off. There are the early stages of modelling and rendering. Pixar has gone on record that the bulk of their production takes place during animating and lighting – a period of 6 to 8 months! Thus the majority of the work is most likely spent in story development and preproduction; which is just as important (if not more) than the process of animating the film. Another important aspect is rendering time which is incredibly difficult to estimate.

For ‘Toy Story 3′ (2010) some single frames are said to have taken over 39 hours to render. If we consider that an average film lasts 90 minutes, that’s more than 129,600 frames being rendered. Whilst clearly not all of this is done independently, you get a sense of the scale and the level of commitment required for producing just one of these films. Moreover, animation studios like DreamWorks will normally be committed to two productions at the same time. Based on such vital nuances, it quickly begins to appear that animation studies in this country and abroad are emphatically dismissing the production value/profitability of the black character-driven animated film.

More specifically, the ‘risk vs. reward’ scale seems to be heavily tilted toward risk in the imaginations of the movie benefactors and executive producers. I emphasise black character driven because the film industry has avoided anything animated dealing with Africa or black civilisation unless animals are used with black actors’ voices. We’ve seen this  in animated blockbusters ‘The Lion King’ (1994), one of the highest grossing animated films of all time. The lifetime theatre gross of this movie currently ranks at number two with a staggering $422, 783, 777. ‘Shark Tale (2004) and the much loved ‘Madagascar series (2005-14) are other prominent examples of the major studios adopting Africa as a canvas whilst simultaneously rendering its characters as animated people redundant and invisible.

It is rare for the black movie-going public to experience outstanding/well drawn black animated characters. Perhaps the most notable to date is “Frozone” from ‘The Incredibles’ (2004) (Samuel L Jackson). ‘The Princess and the Frog sparked a timely debate in 2009 when Princess Tiana emerged as the first ever black Disney Princess – yet even then her Prince was not black. Disney’s decision to ‘go black’ was a watershed moment in regards to the sheer creative and financial clout of the organisation. Conversely, there is something that still irks of tokenism about Princess Tiana and most black moviegoers are still to be fully convinced of Disney’s commitment toward more inclusive children’s storytelling.

The larger studios and makers of children’s television programmes seem to imagine black content as a ‘novelty’ – an exception and certainly not the rule. This is an implicitly patronising if not racist way of approaching the creation of fictional/children’s fantasy content. Black parents have been starved of uplifting stories and inspirational fictional characters to teach and stimulate the imaginations of their children. In the US, ‘Little Bill (Nov 28, 1999 – Feb 6, 2004) was a hit children’s programme from Bill Cosby. Lotta Zehybe is another popular character in the BBC animated series ‘Charlie and Lola’.

More recently in the US, ‘Doc McStuffins‘ has emerged as a refreshing black children’s TV package. Doc McStuffins is an animated pre-school children’s television series produced by Brown Bag Films. Created and executive produced by Humanitas Prize and Emmy Award-winner Chris Nee and premiered on March 23, 2012, on Disney Channel and Disney Junior, the series chronicles six-year-old African-American girl Dottie McStuffins who, one day, wants to become a doctor like her mother. She “pretends” to be a doctor by fixing up toys and dolls (because of this, everyone calls her ‘Doc’). When she puts on her stethoscope, toys, dolls, and stuffed animals magically come to life and she can communicate with them. With a little help from her stuffed animal friends, Doc helps toys “feel better” by giving them check-ups. During ending credits, Doc gives advice to viewers about staying healthy. The series has (somewhat predictably) received positive reviews due to the show’s concept and the main character. In light of the above, (ratings driven) television bosses appear to be more committed to images black children can relate to.

Indeed the major question hereafter is; will we see a shift from the current lack of vision and commitment to the production of black animated characters in feature-length films as well as black ensemble animation films? As the saying goes, it all “starts in the mind” and until animation chiefs redress the balance or talented black animators take up the challenge of independent production, it is unlikely that corporate America/Eurocentric screenwriters and production studios will consider black animated stories as anything more than a casual experiment every 5 to 10 years.

The list of animated features submitted to the 2014 Oscars best animation feature category emphasise the vacuum. From ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2′ and ‘Despicable Me 2′ to ‘Epic’, ‘Monsters University’ and ‘The Croods’; the evidence stares us in the face. Live action black centred films such as ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘The Best Man Holiday’ are some of the latest to inspire, inform and entertain audiences from all walks of life. It’s about time the black animated feature had the opportunity to do the same.


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