Ebele Okoye: “At the age of seven, I had a vision of making images move without knowing that this was called Animation.”
The myriad of challenges associated with animation in Africa has not hindered a few personalities from etching their names permanently on the concrete walls of its short history. Among them, German-based Nigerian animator, Ebele Okoye stands out like a gleaming diamond.
As the founder of Nigeria’s first-ever animation course, Shrinkfish media lab (smedLAB), and “Motion to the Sound”, a skills-building initiative for freelance animators, Okoye’s career as an animator is beyond outstanding. Her contribution to pioneering different aspects of animation in Nigeria has earned her the unofficial title of “The Mother of African Animation.”
In an interview with TNR, Okoye takes us through her illustrious career path, exploring what it takes to be an animator and the African problem.
TNR: As the first female animator in Africa, how do you feel about breaking barriers and paving the way for other women in the industry?
Okoye: Firstly, my aim from day one, when I finished my animation studies, was to contribute towards building an animation industry in Africa in any way I can. Africa has a culture rich in stories that we can share with the rest of the world through animation. It makes me happy to see that in the last few years, we are moving fast in that direction.
Being a woman in any male-dominated profession is tough. Getting on an equal level with them is even tougher, partly because of life’s realities and the duties that fall on the laps of women. When you have responsibilities that you cannot ignore, you must work hard to be present all the time. Meeting these responsibilities are the things that define the professional aspect.
Nonetheless, such responsibility is a great asset that is not used to its full capacity. It is a known fact that the female approach nurtures visions, ideas, and actions. This is because women are wired differently from men. Remember the many sayings about a home without a woman being like a ship without a captain? Reference this, saying to creative environments, and you will notice richer and more powerful results.
Thus, in combining the above factors, it is inherent that I, (as Africa’s first female animator), continue to work to inspire, people in the industry. Other women have come up in the industry and taken even more leveraged positions. We all, as a collective need to use our vantage position as women to pave the way, break barriers and create awareness about how precious that worth is.
What prompted you to hop into the world of animation and pursue a career in it?
Many factors prompted my pursuit of animation as a career. Most influential was my sense of imagination and inquisitiveness beyond the norm that obtained in my environment.
At the age of seven, I had a vision of “making images” move without knowing that this was called animation.
I was born during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war which lasted from 1967 to 1972. I am the youngest of seven children. After the war, my father and siblings returned to the city, but my mother and I stayed back in our hometown “Igbo Ukwu.” Growing up in this place, folk and fairy tales were part of my life. We would gather around a bonfire on moonlit nights and adults would tell us (children) stories.
The stories and the ambiance always got me dreaming. I fantasized about a world where all the characters in these stories talk and act like humans, like in the stories. My brothers also sent me “Asterix,” “Charlie Brown,” “Denis the Menace” and “Drum”, a photo comic from South Africa. At about the age of 10, I saw “Tom and Jerry” and that sealed it for me.
Furthermore, on Sundays, the Jehovah’s Witnesses would visit and share their pamphlets. I loved Awake because of the rich illustrations, interesting articles, and scientific stories. When I was about 13, one of such articles was about how (traditional hand-drawn) animation is made. From that moment on, there would be no stopping me.
But there were no schools in Nigeria then, where one can study animation. So, I studied Fine Arts, majoring in Design and Illustration, but I was not satisfied. So, I kept looking for ways to leave Nigeria to pursue my animation dream.
How was your journey at the beginning? Any challenges? How did you overcome them?
Oh, the journey was not easy at all. I did not go to Germany with an Animation Studies Visa. There were plenty of detours. Knowing quite early that to accomplish my dreams, I would need to leave Nigeria, I started teaching myself European languages at age 14. By the time I was 21, I could speak some French and average German.
Later, I took more lessons at the Goethe Institut and, in 1997, I sat for the test of German as a foreign language. Passing the test coincided with a phenomenally successful exhibition. So, with the money I earned, I went to Europe.
Unfortunately, I could not apply for studies with a tourist visa. So, I returned to Nigeria and started applying to universities and polytechnics. After many applications, I got an admission to the University of Cologne for a PG in African Studies. Now here comes the hard part. The German Embassy refused me a Student visa for three years. But with the help of friends, I was writing letters of appeal to the embassy.
After three years of appealing, they granted me a Visa on 27 April 2000, by 4 pm. (My studies would have expired on the 28th by 12.30 pm). So, I had four hours to leave Nigeria. That was how I left with nothing because there was no time to pack.
I arrived in Germany on the morning of the 28 April and was able to carry out my registration by 12:25 pm. Parallel to my nine-month PG, I registered at the University of Applied Arts to start a fresh study in design because my HND from Nigeria was not recognized. This was a tactic to extend my time to find animation schools.
In 2003, I finally got admission into the International Film School Cologne. It was a seven-days-a-week intensive course that cost 3,000 Euros a year. I had only a work permit that allowed me to do a menial job for 90 days a year. Through a combination of washing plates, working as a cleaner/housekeeper, and donations from friends, I was able to get by.
All these challenges contribute to my gratitude for still being here today.
Could you talk about any of the projects that you’re particularly proud of and the creative process behind them?
It is difficult to be selective about my projects because each one of them is unique in its signature and process. But I’d like to mention two poignant ones. Top on the list is my first animation after the Animation school: “The Lunatic.” Not because it is ground-breaking work, but because it embodies my fight for survival and my resilience to get to where I wanted to be. It was also the first animation ever to enter the Africa Movie Academy Awards. It was my first attempt at digital animation.
I had seen a clip online and part of the credits said, “Made with Mirage.” So, I researched the software and downloaded a 21-day trial version. When I finished “The Lunatic,” I sent it to the makers of the software. Two months later, to my utmost surprise, I received a package in the post. It was the full software with the dongle and all. Today, “Mirage” is “TV Paint Animation.”
Another work I hold very dear to my heart is “Marcas de Amor” (Love Marks) from 2017. As someone passionate about creating work that impacts social change, I love “Marcas de Amor” because of the message it carries. I made it to trigger a different mentality in Women who are facing domestic violence. The story is about a battered woman who tells her daughter that her husband beats her up because he loves her. Thus, the little girl already plans how she would beat up her husband when she marries, to express her love for him. So, we see here that the woman is also an aggressor because her lies are creating a “monster” in her child.
Another production I am proud of and must mention is “Anna Blume,” an adaptation of the poem of the same title written by the German Dada artist and architect Kurt Schwitters in 1919. I produced and animated it, winning the Robert Bosch promotional prize for animation. To have a Black female Nigerian, freshly graduated from an Animation school, lead a German-Bulgarian co-production is (in this context) a great achievement. I am proud of the work I put in there and the numerous awards that it won.
Your work “The Legacy of Rubies” won the 2015 Africa Movie Academy Award. Could you share any other memorable experiences or achievements from your career that have had a significant impact on you personally or professionally?
Earlier, I mentioned my aim to contribute to building an animation industry on the continent. Now, I could talk about my awards and all the honors I have received but I ‘d rather talk about my INVESTMENTS. The best investment one can make is an “investment in people,” right? So, in 2013, I gave Nigeria’s first-ever animation course, the Shrinkfish media lab (smedLAB). Today, all seven alumni are doing well in their areas based on the training and coaching they received. That, for me, is an achievement.
Also in 2021, I started an online program for African animators called “Motion to the Sound”. It also has an equity-drive all-female sub-group called “AniJolly Girls”. The main goal of the program is to push animators to hone their craft and develop a sense of cooperation while gaining visibility. We give them animation challenges and at the end of the period, a jury selects a winner. There are cash prizes as well as paid internships.
Some of them are now with my studios Jolly Squid and Spunky Toonz, and it is beautiful to see them grow. Seeing and hearing their testimonials is a joy that I cannot measure. Their animations and testimonials are all on our YouTube Channel.
I have other achievements in animation but sincerely, none of them can surpass the joy of seeing the results of contributing to encouraging others in the field of animation both in Africa and intercontinentally.
Animation has proven to be a powerful tool in cultural representation. Do you think the depiction of African culture and tales in animation is different from other kinds of media?
Generally, the depiction of any topic through animation differs from the depiction of the same through any other media. There are no parallels. This difference extends to the depiction of African culture as well.
Animation provides limitless possibilities for imagination and creativity. We see this in many productions of the past few years from different African countries. The latest and more popular example is “Kizazi Moto” which was recently released on Disney+. Inspired by African mythology, each is a fusion of African culture and philosophy with sci-fi and fantasy elements. This kind of freedom is more easily achievable in animation than in live-action.
What are some of the challenges you think that animators in Nigeria and Africa are facing especially compared to the rest of the world?
The biggest challenge that animators in Nigeria, as well as in most parts of Africa are facing is infrastructural instability. Then there is a lack of investment and production funding.
Also, there is the lack of professional training facilities. Except for North and South Africa, the rest (East, West, and Central Africa) are mostly self-taught. This brings with it other challenges that stand in the way of quality full-scale productions.
The last aspect I would like to mention is something I am known for talking about and that is the lack of cooperation. On the surface, there are collectives of animation studios, giving the impression of cooperation. But one can observe a lot of unhealthy competition and antagonism within. There are instances of people complaining that they are not being “carried along” yet reject requests for cooperation.
In my opinion, this poses an even bigger danger to industry than infrastructural problems.
There have been cases where creators have had to compromise their artistic vision for the sake of funding. How do you balance your artistic vision with the commercial demands of the animation industry?
In the business of animation, there are always compromises to make. Streaming platforms are currently giving a lot of attention to animation. African animation is also on a rapid rise in global recognition.
The idea of having a fully funded “no financial worries” production is enticing to anyone who has bills to pay. Then there is the “prestige” attached to having one’s content on these platforms. All these come with their pros and cons. Therefore, it is important to identify one’s goals and how important focusing on them is for one’s conscience and needs.
Europe has a bigger culture of independent (indie) productions than any part of the world. Such productions make it easier to balance one’s artistic vision with the commercial demands of the industry.
The Nigerian and Global animation industry is male-dominated. Do you see this changing, and what advice do you have for young women in Africa who aspire to pursue a career in animation?
Yes! I see the male dominance of the industry changing. Reflecting on a few years ago, before the pandemic, I see how much things have changed. Yet, there is still a huge dropout of women who learn animation but do not really enter the industry.
So, my advice here goes to established industry colleagues, especially females. We must – even in our own little spaces – create incentives that will encourage more young women to pursue animation.
When we started “Motion to the Sound”, amongst the 78 animators that joined, there was only one woman. So, I asked myself, “Why”? “How can I change that”? “Is there anything I can do to encourage them”? So, I started the “AniJolly Girls program as a special sub-section of “Motion to the Sound” (MTTS). Even though it is under the MTTS program, we give the female participants special mentoring. Currently, the girls are making a short film from a poem, written equally by a young female Nigerian poet.
I want to encourage young African women who aspire to pursue a career in animation to be more daring. As David Saah (Ghana), a winner and beneficiary of the MTTS challenge, put it “You have no idea what 30 seconds of Animation can do for you. It can open doors for you….” Put yourself out there. Get out of your comfort zone. Seek and join such programs that can help you to grow and learn within a serious productive environment as well as prepare you for the industry.
What are your aspirations and goals as an animator moving forward?
I still have many stories to tell. In 2015, shortly after the release of “The Legacy of Rubies”, I wrote my first feature “Azora and the 7th Niso”. It is a fantasy superhero story inspired by the former practice of killing twins in Nigeria. But due to some health challenges, I had to put it away for some time. In late 2022, I revisited the story, and it is currently in the soft development/Proof of concept stage.
Also, we’re developing the Spunky Toonz IPs, alongside one feature and an adult fantasy polit-comedy series.
So, my biggest aspiration is not necessarily as an “animator” but as Jolly Squid. We aspire to have some solid productions (of our own and third-party IPs) in the next couple of years.
What is the future of the Nigerian animation industry? Do you think it can morph into something bigger and what are the steps it can take to stay relevant in an ever-expanding industry?
The Nigerian animation industry is already morphing into something gigantic. We have all seen big releases in the past few days and have heard of more coming. “Moremi”, one of the stories in the Disney+ production “Kizazi Moto – Generation Fire” was directed by a Nigerian and, I must say, from a professional angle, “Moremi” is the most rounded story of the 10 pieces.
Then there is “Garbage Boy and Thrash Can” the first African Superhero series created by the young Nigerian animator Ridwan Moshood for Cartoon Network. There are a few other productions by Nigerians at home and in the diaspora which will be premiering soon.
I will also not fail to mention the many non-commercial niche IPs that have seen huge success on YouTube, with “Omo Berry” at the top of the list.
Additionally, through the dedication and passion of Christophe Pecot, the Audiovisual Attaché at the French Embassy in Nigeria, many Nigerian animators resident in the country have been assimilated into programs that leverage their visibility globally.
One such is the opportunity to pitch their projects to investors and buyers at Festival International du Film d’animation d’Annecy (MIFA). This is a chance that was non-existent in the early days of animation in Nigeria, even up to five years ago.
Things are changing fast. The doors to the world have been opened to our industry. I personally am excited and looking forward to the productions that will come out of these pitches.
So, in conclusion, I’d say, “The future of the Nigerian industry is so bright we would all be needing thick goggles soon.” (A lame joke for a wrap)