AV Club: Exploring the increasingly colourful brilliance of Nigerian Animation

A side of Nollywood that is undoubtedly on the rise

Imagination matters. It does so even more for TV, a format that has stayed with us for long and continues to attract the creativity of visually-influenced persons. Recent times have spawned the streaming era, resulting in a capitalist smash-and-grab for the most unique and intriguing stories all over the world. In Nigeria, it’s taken a while but the whirlwind of a global fanbase is here, and along with it the entry of streaming platforms looking to tap the best of creative talent the industry has to offer. 

Even as these developments abound, the world of animation operates in a much-broader sense. Over the past half-decade, it has consistently worked its way into the nucleus of pop culture, and is now primed to reap the dividends. Perhaps the biggest indication of that was Netflix’s acquisition of the first Nigerian animation feature in 2021. The announcement of ‘Lady Buckit & The Motley Mopsters’ was attended with a flurry of reactions, and upon release it was met with mixed reactions, but there were stellar positives to take from it: primarily among those is the accurately vivid portrayal of Oloibiri, the oil-rich town in Bayelsa State where the story is set. The colours of local Nigerian lingua also offered rich presence to the characters, a stellar representation voiced by Nollywood veterans such as Patrick Doyle and Bimbo Akintola.

However brilliant the production was, getting funding was paramount to that. In a feature on Quartz Africa, the animation’s producer Blessing Amidu revealed how she’d spent almost $40,000 developing the idea with a Nollywood filmmaker. At that, she saw that the quality was nowhere near what she had in mind, and decided to set up a production team headed by Chris Ihediro, the veteran filmmaker who has served as producer, writer and director for several popular Nigerian TV series like MTV’s Shuga and Fuji House of Commotion. After the final work was done, it was reported that the budget had cost a little under half a billion naira, which tells us one thing: creating animation movies is no lesser indulgence. 

The potentials for animation are so vast, and its impact on our formative years so profound, that its recent blossoming comes as no surprise. By the mid 2000s, TVs were very much a commonality in Nigerian homes. Nollywood films—mostly village epics and love sagas—served the majority of the viewing audience, but for younger millennials and people who identify as Gen-Z today, cartoons and animations were the stuff. Cartoons like ‘Tom & Jerry’ and ‘Pinky & The Brain’ were widely watched, but as we grew older the whimsical jokes and larger-than-life personas didn’t do justice to our imaginations. 

The American cartoon ‘Ben 10’ (which is actually animated) was perhaps the most immersive of its kind for a swathe of Nigerian kids. Its protagonist and Uncle Ben shared a male-centric relationship that is a favoured set-up among filmmakers, while the villains were usually visceral, brought to life by great powers of evil which must be defeated. Ben 10 was the subject of mild protest from Nigerian mothers who opposed its picture and themes, their resolve hinged on the ‘revelation’ of a woman who had apparently visited hell and learnt that such TV shows were designations leading kids to violence and questionable activity. 

For us, the viewers, there was no such scepticism. The show packaged an American swagger and quest for adventure, resulting in a character whose views, even when ‘bad’, weren’t quite consequential. It was all an act. Admittedly a number of boys made wristwatches with paper, inking their special powers on its screen. Perhaps a few more wrote the name ‘Ben 10’ on the back of their shirts, but it was fun. Thinking of it now, the more entertainment takes on the responsibility of passing a message, the more pallid it could become. 

Around the same time ‘Ben 10’ was defining the tastes of Nigerian animation lovers, the Japanese-styled ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ was pushing the frontiers of our imagination. The series is an unarguable classic, a necessary masterclass in characterisation and worldbuilding. I recently saw the series again and its embodiment of lore and philosophy was even better understood, which is indicative of the writing’s richness. Along with the ubiquitous ‘Supa Strikas’ comic books and cartoon series, these are the bedrock of popular animation in Nigeria, the creations which helped in making serious art understood to its granular detail. 

Nigeria shares a robust relationship with global pop culture. It’s a facet that goes into the engrossing qualities of the art being created here, and animations are an extension of that relationship. After the ‘Ben 10’ and ‘Avatar’ craze of the 2000s, ‘Supa Strikas’ was greatly acclaimed later that decade. Following the “greatest team in the world,” the characters were African but as the series progressed, the story was taken into global hotspots of the footballing world. 

It is these qualities our animation writers pull from. Japanese Anime shows like ‘Naruto’ and its spin-off ‘Boruto’, ‘Attack On Titans’, and ‘One Piece’ are favoured by young adults, spurring a huge community in Nigeria. The Comic Con has been hosted annually since 2012, while a pitching competition was organised in 2017 by the Annecy Festival in partnership with African Animation Network. Obviously there’s a global connection, but that’s only in terms of technique and socialisation. In regards to storylines, we’ve been doing our thing for a while now. 

A number of animated comedies were popping up in the early 2010s, sharing their videos on popular blogs and social media. The skit titled ‘Aboki’ was very popular among the bunch, elevating its creator and main voice Emeka Erem among the inventive comedians of the day. He’d later start the House of Ajebo, a one-stop for rib-cracking skits of the ilk. As you perhaps know, YouTube is the primary host platform of the comics, and continues to be so elsewhere. In the past, getting due dividends was hard because of the Nigeria’s internet problems. But right now, even the most accomplished filmmakers share their animated movies on the platform, a potent test-tube for what really works and deserves to be pushed in more traditional ways. 

Last year, The NATIVE reported on the great year Nigerian animation was having. Among the notable creations highlighted was Obi Arisukwu’s ‘OBI’ whose development by HBO Max was just announced, ‘The Satchel’ by multidisciplinary creative Nissi Ogulu, and a ten-book deal between Dark Horse and Roy Okupe’s YouNeek Studios, which is one of the bright lights of Nigerian animation

Founded by revered filmmaker Niyi Akinmolayan in 2008, the Anthill Studios is another remarkable team bringing the vision of Nigerian animation to life. They were responsible for promoting Okupe’s seminal ‘Malika’ and recently premiered ‘League of Orishas’. From watching the first episode, the A-level productional quality is quite obvious. Like the many movies discussed in this piece, it is a stirring depiction of traditional Nigerian mythology and folklore, bringing the likes of Sango, Amadioha and Ogun to the screen. Behind these names and the several others in their thousands, is a rich history of our social reality over the centuries. 

It is quite telling how the awareness around our own stories has been heightened. As the old cedes the way for the new, so do the superstitions and condemnation of our gods as irrational and powerless beings. Asides animation, a number of creatives, from the visual artist Anthony Azekwoh to writer Lesley Nneka Arimah have used speculative elements greatly in their work. The speculation genre as a part of Literature has strong alliances with the common person, and has been used to evoke and criticise unfair governments and capitalist-driven phenomena like crime and pollution. Nigeria surely has a bevy of those to highlight, and what better medium than animation? 

2022 didn’t get off to the flying start of its predecessor but things have been shaping up. With the entry of Showmax and Amazon Prime into the Nigerian market, there’s now solid competition for Netflix and more importantly, the potential for more varied productions to be commissioned. Just some days ago, Disney shared a first-look of the much-touted ‘Iwaju’, a Lagos-based sci-fi series which had been announced in 2020. Some commenters criticised the telling of a Nigerian story when Disney isn’t available in Nigeria; others had technical interests: would the accents actually be Nigerian, and not full of foreign-dented speech? 

In the year’s last quarter, there is surely a lot to be hopeful about. If anything, Nigerian filmmakers are diversifying their approach to cinema and with these global names knocking, what’s left is retaining the essence. Our storytelling is quite revered around the world, and with the necessary collaboration, it shouldn’t be long before a series like ‘Avatar’ is created by a Nigerian. What is obvious right now, though, is that Nigerian animation is on the rise.