Black St. Louis creators are transforming animation with diverse content
When Black Sands Entertainment CEO Manuel Godoy talks about his company's characters, he lights up with excitement. One he created several years ago is Ausar, who has dreams of becoming the next pharaoh of Egypt.
“His personality is very, I would say toxic, he's one of those characters that have a lot of chips on his shoulder,” Godoy said. “It's a very historical story as opposed to a comic book where it's like a whole bunch of villains and tropes.”
Ausar is one of many characters in the comic book series “Black Sands: The Seven Kingdoms.” Since 2016, Godoy and his wife, Geiszel, have been creating comics focused on Black superhero and fantasy stories. They've dreamed of taking their comics and telling the stories through animation, and thanks to Composition Media, an Olivette-based animation studio that opened its doors this year, those dreams are coming true.
St. Louis animators have long made their mark in the entertainment business dating back to the 1980s when World Events Productions introduced Voltron, a giant super robot. Black animators from the region have broken into the industry. Composition is part of a growing animation industry in the St. Louis area, creating content focused on diverse storytelling about and by people of color and LGBTQ creators.
“In a world where every story's been told, you've seen everything, what's another ninja story?” asked Carl Reed, founder and CEO of Composition Media. “You have to tell it from a different perspective.”
The company’s slate of projects includes “Sky and Luna;” an adaptation of the Catapult Feud board game; and “Bad Grandmas,” a Steve Harvey-produced animated comedy about a group of modern grandmas who get in shenanigans akin to “The Golden Girls.”
Reed grew up in St. Louis, and as a boy, grew to love animated features. As an adult, he decided to make a career in the business and in 2006 moved to Los Angeles, where he started working at the animation network Animax and creating animated games. He moved back to St. Louis around 2011 and co-founded the comic book company Lion Forge Comics and Lion Forge Animation in 2019 with David Steward II.
“Seeing firsthand what it is like trying to get content with diverse protagonists and different types of stories and expanding what people think of the mediums, we already saw how difficult it is,” Reed said. “We were like, let's go ahead and David and Goliath this out and try to do something in the comic space.”
The comic book company adapted comics of “Knight Rider,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Care Bears” and “Voltron: Legendary Defender” while also prioritizing series that featured diverse representation before forming its animation studio.
In 2019, Lion Forge helped produce the short film “Hair Love” based on a children’s book by Vashti Harrison and Matthew A. Cherry. It’s about a Black father who learns how to do his daughter’s hair after watching an instructional video filmed by his wife, played by actor and writer Issa Rae.
The film was released in theaters and in 2020 won the Academy Award for best animated short film.
“If you're Black and you saw it, you said, ‘Hey, this looks like us, this feels like us, because we're creating it,’” Steward said. “But also, there were some universal ties and things that I think everyone either felt attached to or learned something.”
The Oscar catapulted Lion Forge into the mainstream, leading the studio to release a follow-up series, “Young Love” on Max in September with Rae reprising her role along with hip-hop artist and actor Kid Cudi. The studio also linked deals with Nickelodeon Animation, Nine PBS, the band The Roots and Disney Junior. Its upcoming fantasy series “Iyanu” is scheduled to be released on Cartoon Network and Max.
While much of the content focuses on people of color, Steward said it’s important Black creators aren’t pigeonholed to only produce content for an African American audience.
“I think having varied voices at the table for any kind of content is helpful, and that's how you're going to get new and different things,” Steward said.
Chris Aaron, a Webster University animation professor, said Lion Forge’s success also shines a spotlight on the creative talent throughout the region, from those who work at game studios to others who worked on independent releases like “Lackadaisy.” The pilot by Tracy Butler has garnered more than 10 million views on Youtube.
“Normally an ecosystem is built with lots of different players, Lion Forge is going to be like one of the big players that can bring a lot of opportunity around,” Aaron said. “But it's really St. Louis' entire creative culture that I feel it's very dynamic.”
Black animators are still underrepresented in the U.S. According to the U.S. census and Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 4% of workers in the industry are Black.
Aaron said studios and independent animators are still trying to figure out how to best monetize their work in a changing media landscape, and while the internet has led to plenty of opportunities, consumption doesn’t always equal financial success.
“Can we get our work out to the masses in a way that we can make it quick enough to meet consumers' demands while still being able to sell it either to a network or to another company, or even through just fans' subscription-type things?” Aaron asked. “Even with a short film, I don’t know if it’s possible.”
But the growth in the region’s animation scene is simultaneously happening as Missouri’s entertainment industry is also seeing a boom. This year, state legislators passed film tax credits to help productions recoup costs and promote more films to be shot in the region.
Reed hopes those credits will fund creative projects across the region, spurring even more voices to create content that’s financially viable while also helping long-ignored people get their start, whether it’s through animation or live action.
“Whether we're the home to diverse content, that'd be great, but I want to be the home to a ton of content,” Reed said. “So bring on the diverse content, bring on the new content, bring on the terrible content, bring on the disposable content.”