A Slow and Steady Climb for Nigeria’s Animated Film Industry

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By Kay Ugwuede

In a sense, making an animated film is godlike. An artist sketches a character, every possible movement they can make, the environments they inhabit, the people they coexist with, and then, an animator bestows life to that universe. It is painstaking work that requires thousands of hours and drawings, backbreaking concentration, hawkeyed precision, and an obsession for finer details. Chekwube Okonkwo, Co-founder/Art Director at Magic Carpet Studio possesses the kind of quiet persona required to do this laborious task. 

Since 2018, Okonkwo has creatively led a team of about 30 animators working on a much-anticipated project; an animated adaptation of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam IliaAlthough it launched to model production houses like Disney, Magic Carpet Studio started out as an advertising agency while it trained and put its staff of digital artists to work creating animated shorts. The idea for a feature-length animated film came as the team deliberated on how to step up their animation projects. They had made Ego Oyibo, a comedy about exorbitant bride prices common in eastern Nigeria, and The Boost, a series that featured the stories of prominent inspirational Africans. 

“We started [by] looking at the African Writers Series: Drummer Boy, Sugar Girl, Chike, and the River, Without the Silver Spoon,” Okonkwo tells me at the studio’s one-story office space about five minutes away from the famous Nike Art Gallery. 

“To attract the Nigerian audience, you have to come from a very familiar angle. For me, it wasn’t the Passport of Mallam Ilia. I was gunning for Sugar Girl,”  Okonkwo says. Sugar Girl is Kola Onadipe’s 1964 fantasy novel which Okonkwo says he chose for its simplicity and possession of elements that could easily be expanded upon to make for a great cinematic experience that relied heavily on nostalgia. His team was, however, in favor of Ekwensi’s 1960 novel. 

The Many Phases of An Animated Feature Film Project

After acquiring rights to Passport of Mallam Ilia from its Nigerian publisher, HEBN Publishers Inc., the team set to writing and developing a script. Part of the process included a two-week trip to Kano where the book was set. There, they met with then Emir, Sanusi Lamido, and immersed themselves into specifics of Northern culture at the Bayero University library. “We went to the railway station just to get a feel of what it must have been like, took a lot of reference footage and pictures for the animation proper,” Okonkwo says.

“The world of Kano and Northern culture started [really] opening up and becoming richer to me.”

Seven drafts later incorporating information from the trip, the team began working on the film. First artists developed the world of Ilia, sketching the environments he lived in or traveled through, from railway stations and interiors to houses and footpaths drawing references from their research. Next, every character in Ilia’s life was sketched from every possible angle at their various ages, each final version being decided upon after a series of reviews.

There were also studio recordings. A director on BBC’s Story Story, Adeniran Makinde, was brought into head that aspect of the film. Having made an open audition call, they sifted through over 2,000 audio submissions for voice actors in addition to a few others whom they had handpicked for certain roles: late award-winning veteran actor Sadiq Daba as older Ilia, artiste Di’Ja as Zara, and a number of others. 

“We’ve been in the animation stage since 2019,” he says. 

Nigeria’s first feature-length animated film took just as long to make. Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters (LBMM) is an 80-minute 3D-animated film set in Oloibiri in the oil-rich Niger-Delta region. It is a coming-of-age story that follows the protagonist, Bukky, on a learning adventure back to 1950s Oloibiri. 

After a false start in 2017 that gulped $40,000, Executive Producer and Producer, Blessing Amidu was ready to take the production outside the country to get the quality she desired. “The animation was going to be sourced in India before I actually came on board,” Adebisi Adebayo,  Director and Lead Animator, tells Culture Custodian. 

This was in 2019. Amidu had founded her own animation studio, Hot Ticket Productions, and enlisted seasoned Nollywood producer Chris Ihidero as a consultant. “We were asked to do a proof of concept to prove that it could be done in Nigeria and was going to be of the desired quality,” says Adebayo. 

Although still considered nascent, there is a significant amount of activity going on in Nigeria’s animation industry from the growing number of production studios to training academies, associations, and industry events. Since it launched in 2012, the Lagos Comic Convention has become the biggest of such events in the continent and brings together creators and enthusiasts in the comics and animation space annually to showcase their projects, connect and collaborate. Associations like Animation Nigeria, since its launch in 2017, continue to bring together the clusters of actors and activities in the industry and serves as a valuable resource tool for practitioners as well as new entrants into the space. Content-wise, animation now features in a lot of entertainment material from music videos to advertising material, educational content and of course short films catering to both young and older audiences.

Until LBMM, a feature-length animated film had been out of reach in the country amidst all these pockets of activity. Asides Magic Carpet Studio’s Passport of Mallam Ilia, another full-length animated film that was set to come out of the country is jazz artist Miller Luwoye’s Sade, a 3D adventure musical about a talking dog set in Lagos. It was slated to be released in 2018, and while it is unclear if the film made it into the cinemas, its IMDb page says it was released in the UK (and Nigeria) in 2019. 

More Animators, Shorter Production Times, More Animated Films

Feature-length animated films are behemoth projects that are doubly daunting when funds and technical know-how are hard to come by.More animators mean shorter production times. On both productions, having lean teams often split between the film projects and other creative endeavors that pay the bills means that it takes much longer to finish a film project.

“We have 36 animators including concept artists, coloring, 3D artists,” says Okonkwo, “We also have freelancers who work per project.”

“It’s tough keeping animators because something like this is not something we are used to. People get burnt out. People are here up until night, sometimes sleeping in the office. It’s tough. Some people like to do the uncomplicated stuff.”

Since 2014, Adebayo has run an animation training and production agency, Third Academy of Art & Design (32ad), and the team that eventually worked on LBMM comprised 24 animators who trained with the agency and stayed on as in-house artists/animators. So far, about 36 animators have come through his doors and some have gone on to work at other corporations or started animation outfits of their own. 

Okonkwo says the same pattern is obtainable at Magic Carpet Studio. Digital artists from the University of Lagos or the Yaba College of Technology are sought after during their Industrial Training periods and taught to animate then absorbed into ongoing projects. But training an animator is also time-consuming and capital intensive. A full-fledged animator can take as long as two years to emerge and the cost of training can run into $13,000 (₦6 Million) per animator. There are also not a lot of, if any, academic programs in Nigerian universities that focus on animation. 

Chidinma Kalu-Anya, a Lagos-based digital artist who originally wanted to pursue a degree in animation says since obtaining a degree in the arts, she has been learning through YouTube, picking up knowledge from work experiences and friends including the creators of Garbage Boy and Trash Cans which won the Cartoon Network Africa’s Creative Lab Competition in 2018.

Staggering Animated Film Budgets

For production companies like Disney and its subsidiary, Pixar, not only are hundreds of quality animators working on film projects hence cutting their shipping times, their large war chests are able to take care of other aspects of production from casting the best voice actors to widely distributing the finished projects.  

Oghenero Afiara, Producer, LBMM, cites the film costing $1million to make, all of it from the pocket of the film’s executive producer. “Unfortunately, we were attempting to source funding from brands at a time when COVID was ravaging corporate budgets,” Afiara says.

“It was quite the nightmare.”

Seeking investments locally is challenging particularly because the larger film industry, Nollywood, operates on a fraction of the cost and time required to make an animated film. “We are talking about massive software licensing, human resource capacity has to be at its very peak, you need power to run for two years continuously, everything has to be at its peak for a very long period of time,” says Adebayo. 

The risk is enormous and there has been little track record for investors to trust that they will recoup their investments let alone deliver a profit. Since its release in the cinemas in December, Afiara says LBMM is not quite there in making back its budget but the filmmakers are already looking to other distribution outlets, local and international, to further spread the work and increase its earning potential.

For Passport of Mallam Ilia, Okonkwo says the project has gulped about $4million and the studio is still seeking funds, not just to complete the project, but for a bouquet of others they intend to make including a biopic of legendary Nigerian footballer, Kanu Nwankwo, Doshima, a series around climate change and making its most recent release, Super Dad, into a series. Distribution-wise, Passport of Mallam Ilia’s well-done trailer is already attracting attention globally and Okonkwo says their eyes are set more on a global release that could extend as far as Asia. “We don’t have enough cinemas in the country to pay us back for the budget if we do a Nigerian release. We will be shooting ourselves in the leg,” Okonkwo says. 

Global interest in the Nigerian animated film industry has been growing. The most recent significant event in this direction was last year’s announcement by Disney about its collaboration with Kugali Media, a creative animation and VR studio launched by Ziki Nelson, Hamid Ibrahim and Toluwalakin Olowofoyeku. The announcement which was made in December will see Kugali partner with Disney to create an animated series adaptation of its comic book Iwájú, a futuristic story set in Lagos, Nigeria. 

Both Adebayo and Okonkwo agree that this move will impact the scale of animated film productions in Nigeria and open up the industry to more well-funded projects that stand the test of time and can compete with timeless films from the Disneys of the industry. 

“Animation lives forever, it has no shelf life and with time, [and] with more international presence and partnerships, there’ll be more faith in the industry,” Adebayo says. 

Kay Ugwuede’s writing has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, The Smart Set, Eater, Sahelien.com and Ventures Africa. She tweets @kayugwuede.


Photo Credit: Taken from animated adaptation of the Passport of Mallam Ilia

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