African folktales and the challenges of comics, animation production

Fidelis Duker

Unlike Nigerian and indeed African writers, who have mastered the art of rendering the continent’s folktales in books, as necessary translators of an oral heritage into modern print medium, the same cannot be said of the continent’s visual narrators in the filmic medium. And so while African children are fed on an overdose of Mickey Mouse and the rest from the animation forge of Disneyland, Nollywood and other African film industries are yet to come to terms on how to translate the continent’s vast folk narrative archive into popular media.

NTA’s heroic attempt to put on air Tales by Moon Light has since become a joke. What is on offer is show of creative laziness, as the show lacks the kind of intense suspense and flair that should arrest children and adult imagination. In the absence of the now outdated Tales by Moon Light sessions that many Nigerian adults enjoyed while growing up, putting comics and animations of animal characters on TV and films would have fulfilled a vital cultural education class children these days are not privileged to attend as their fathers/mothers and grandfathers/grandmothers did back in the days. Sadly, this sound education class is now lost due to modernization.

But as always, it has become a matter of priorities. As advanced as America is today, its folk narratives have become popular staple for Hollywood and Disneyland, with animal tales being told in animation, serving both cultural and economic ends. Marvels Comics’, Black Panthers, a science fiction recently made into proper film, based on a futuristic African country, is the cinema rave of the moment that could be pointer to where African filmmakers could direct their creative energy.

The Guardian spoke with a number of Nollywwod directors and producers on what the future holds for animation and comics and how they could tap into this genre of film. This is particularly so for its cultural value for the country’s children who are currently being weaned on foreign animations and cartoons when there is abundance of folk narratives with enough animal characters back home to inform, entertain and educate children who are being alienated farther and farther away from their own culture in their own land.

First to speak was Mr. Fidelis Duker, film producer and director, who also own a radio station, Fad FM.
According to him, “Comics and African folktales as animated films are an expensive terrain to venture into as a filmmaker because it costs so much and the amount of time involved is mindboggling to conclude an animated feature. Also of impediment to the genre is the issue of training and manpower in that sector. To produce such animated feature, we do not have enough well-trained filmmakers and sincerely it is a specialised genre of film.

John Njamah

“As I mentioned earlier, budgetary constraints also affect the production, as the budget is also high due to the amount of time needed to complete a feature. The final issue is that of acceptability by market forces because when you make the animated feature, it is not only for kids but adults, too. So, there is the need to get the market forces to accept the film. This last fear is what has also prevented many investors from investing in this genre of Film.

“The challenges have been mentioned above as funding, duration of production time and distribution challenges where the market forces haven’t been tested. However, I see the industry considering that genre of filmmaking, especially with the recent successes recorded with a film like Black Panther, which was adapted from a comic book. I am aware of one cartoon movie that was produced by a Nigerian producer, which starred the voices of some popular Nollywood actors. Definitely, there are plans to make such films.”

Playwright, film producer and screenwriter, Mr. Jude Idada, blames “paucity of a market for children-focused entertainment vis-à-vis theatrically, DVD or VOD. Since this market has not been proven, there is the belief that whatever is invested in it will be lost. Also, there is a disinterest in African folklore by African’s themselves. They will mostly call it ‘local’ or ‘evil.’ These are the same people who will embrace foreign animated movies for their children.

“Since the underlying issues of inferiority and colonial mentality still plague us, it is a Herculean task to convince the people to accept Nigerian animated children entertainment in the same way they accept the foreign-made ones.

“The challenge in cinematic market for children entertainment is the financing. Investors are not interested in funding films for unproven markets. Secondly, is the expense of making animation. It is very expensive and manpower intensive. The time to make these animated films is exhaustive and thus discouraging for the turnaround of investment. The skill set to make these movies is also very hard to come by. There are very few people who are being trained to enter that field and because of that, the chances of making a full animated film that is technically at par with other movies of the kind from the advanced world is very slim.

“There are a lot of Info Tech hubs springing up in various cities. And one of the interests of these young tech heads is animation. Hence there is a slow movement towards populating that niche. We see foreign-based Nigerian animators coming home to facilitate workshops. Also the Chinese animation companies have recently come to Abuja to look for local animators in order to go into partnerships.

This shows that a change is coming slowly, but yet to build up to a tipping point. And with the interest in Nigerian music there is a belief that sooner rather than later, this interest will bleed into other areas of entertainment. Therefore, the future is bright for Nigerian animated children’s entertainment, which is based on African folklore.”

For Ehizojie Ojesebholo, “There isn’t a clear understanding of what entertainment for kids entails. Majority of the producers assume that children’s shows must always carry some sort of moral message, and should be animated (a cartoon), but this is not so. Now, we already know the vast challenges that exist in making cartoons – the time, money, and talent required to do it is not readily available; not in this economy anyway.

“As for the moral angle, sadly, anytime moral lesson media content is pitched, the sponsors immediately turn it down – “we don’t want to be seen as being preachy!” Personally, I love telling stories that have African folktales in them, even if we have to sneak them in by way of proverbs and parables in our movies.

Emem Isong-Misodi

“I can say for a fact that there are several independent studios, working quietly, slowly, but surely, to put out children’s content. I predict that within the next couple of months, Nigerian audiences will get to enjoy lots of rich and entertaining African folktales and animal characters on their timelines and TV screens – we are talking about cartoons, quiz shows, puppet shows, etc. These are all presently in the works.”

“I think the question should be, ‘why doesn’t Nollywood do comics at all?’ before we streamline it to African folktale and animal characters,” is the submission of Actor and film producer, John Njamah. “We need to understand that nearly 90 per cent of the industry is primarily made up of independent filmmakers, producers and directors that operate with little or no backing from the government. We have not gone past producing regular programmes for television before we can totally add comics to our trade. There are a few private companies that have delved into animation but the cost of producing animated programmes is very high.

“I was at the last African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) and was impressed with the entries on animation. So basically with time and investment opportunities towards this direction, we will begin to tell stories from the perspective of African folktale and animated characters. It’s very expensive and takes a lot time to produce.

“Yes, there are plans. Because of the expensive nature of production a few animation houses have been producing very short episodes apparently to test the water. My colleague, Niyi Akinmolayan, and his team at Anthil Productions have been teasing us with a few animations that will hit the screens soon. If we can get grants to produce animations with pedagogical values for the kids, it will be a welcome development.”

But Queen Blessing Ebigieson is not sure as to why such movies are not done here for now. She said,’ “I have never done comics, as a producer nor an actor. I can’t say what exactly but I am sure the challenges would be same as it is in making movies like finance, cost of production, marketing and timing. I believe a lot of attention has not been paid to that area. For one to be able to go towards that direction (animation), you must understand the market. I may go into that in future with good finance but for now I’m focused on making my movies. I think it’s a great idea. I believe it will be good for producers to look that way, especially for the sake of our kids.”

Film director and cinematographer, Oluyinka Davids simply argues, “I honestly don’t think we are ready for this, not in terms of expertise but in terms of acceptance and resources. I think the main challenge is finance; this is still a very huge factor in our industry. So, I’m thinking if we still have financial problems with our usual real character movies, how are we going to cope with animal characters, which obviously cost more to produce?

“Yes… I surely would go towards it if there were proper finance support in place. Moreover, I honestly think we have to start thinking in this direction so we can have control over what our kids watch. Our cultures are gradually fizzling out because we still depend on the westerners to entertain them for us. Our kids need to start seeing the value in our cultures.”

“I think the question should be ‘how many comics are based on African folktales and animal characters for kids?” says leading female film producer and director, Emem Isong, noting, “I believe they are very few of them and Nollywood quite frankly is still growing in terms of technical expertise to delve too much into animated films. There are a few production houses dabbling into this and I believe in the near future, we shall see more of this. As a producer, I have always tilted towards the romantic comedy films genre but occasionally I make films with African cultural themes. Yes… there are plans by some producers to go in that direction.”

Film director, Biodun Stephen, also corroborates the position of her colleagues, when she says, “I would not say that they do not do animation, but I think few people are experimenting with that genre. It is a rather difficult and expensive genre. You are also aware that it is not Nollywood where people claim that we make so much money. A lot of people are not well paid and certain financial values are not put on the right people particularly, people behind the scenes. So, in a case where animation is involved, it’s beyond just the writer or the director. You have animators and graphic artists and this kind of content takes months to produce. I can tell you that Rock Studio has ventured into something like this since 2012 or 2013 and they have finally been able to produce about 10 to 12 episodes of cartoon or animation that talks about the African folktale. There are other people trying to do animation like Niyi Akinmolayan, Commotion Studio and so on. It is a very expensive venture and we are still struggling.

“That genre itself with science fiction and futuristic movies are pretty much in their infancy. If you go and watch a 90-minute cartoon, when you look at the credit role you will see lots of people involved in the piece of work. Until you get the right kind of funding, a lot of people wouldn’t (venture into it). We need an army of animators and graphic artists to pull this together.”

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