How 'Hair Love' Studio Lion Forge Is Proving Diversity in Animation Isn't Just a 'Flash in the Pan'
TheWrap 2hrs ago
Lion Forge Animation Hair Love © TheWrap Lion Forge Animation Hair Love

When Lion Forge Animation's debut film "Hair Love" from director Matthew Cherry won the Oscar for Best Animated Short last year, it marked a watershed moment for the studio and for racially diverse representation in the animation industry.

Founders Carl Reed and David Steward II of Lion Forge, one of the only Black-owned animation studio in the U.S., immediately wanted to seize on the moment and prove that diverse stories aren't just a "fad" or "fly-by-nights," figuring out ways they could use animation to challenge expectations of diversity, perspective and genre.

Within weeks, though, the pandemic hit, and Lion Forge was back to square one.

"We're a young company, and we win the Academy Award, and then the world kinda starts falling apart around us," Reed told TheWrap. "It takes time to build partners, and we haven't been able to get as much of that. But we can't wait for the time to get back in front of folks and show them what we have to offer but give them a sense of the true Lion Forge experience."

Carl Reed (left) and David Steward II (Photo: Lion Forge)

Even with animation production able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Reed says things have not exactly been "business as usual" for Lion Forge, which launched in 2019. The company has not been able to have the same in-person contacts and conversations about diversity that would be necessary for its growth. And while the Black Lives Matter protests thrust diversity back into the conversation, they can't use COVID as an excuse to let the urgency and momentum toward progress fade, said Reed, Lion Forge's president.

"We look for content that challenges expectations and reflects the diversity of our audience," Reed said of the company's guiding mission. "While everyone is very interested and sees the need for it right now, the way that they approach it is what is going to make it maintain five, 10 years from now and not make it seem like a flash in the pan, and people will have the excuse, 'Well we tried, but it didn't work.'"

Steward said streamers and studios are leaning on animation more heavily than before the pandemic. The variety of options means there's more avenues to tell diverse stories.

"'Hair Love' is just the start for us. It's a short-form piece but it demonstrates how we think about content in the areas of representation and authenticity," Steward said. "The SVODs are one of the big players in trying to target various micro-demographics across the country, which allows for a greater range in the diversity in the content that's put out there."

Lion Forge in June formed a partnership with Imagine Kids+Family and is in development with them on "Chippy Hood," a preschool series made along with a South Korean studio, and an anthology series called "Puerto Rico Strong" about the devastation after Hurricane Maria.

In addition to several other projects based on some of the company's comic books and anime brands, the studio is also now planning what its next project will be with Cherry, the "Hair Love" director whose star has never been brighter after his Oscar win.

"Hair Love" (Sony Pictures Animation)

The studio also wants to go beyond shows for kids, Reed said, and branch out into other long-form content and adult storytelling through animation that isn't limited to fantasy or anime.

"They always say every story has been told. We think the perspective that the story comes from is really what our focus is on," Reed said. "What does an animated 'Insecure' look like, right? These are the projects that would be a Lion Forge project and that we're currently trying to spin up."

One of those series is "Heiress," a series with a strong, Black female lead for which the studio made a point to find Black women directors and creators in a traditionally white and male field.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found in a 2019 survey that women as producers of animation far surpassed women working in live-action, working on 37% of the top animated films compared to 15% for live-action. But women of color represented only 5% of producers in animation, and only 1 animated film and 3 women in TV were women of color directors.

"We were scouring the Earth for Black female directors, and we finally found one, not only one that is a unicorn, but also believes in the same level of quality and story integrity that we do," Reed said. "So, it's huge for us to make sure that every project that we do is representative of not just our team makeup; we will augment our team to fit the project."

The lack of diversity behind the scenes and at the executive level has over time contributed to harmful and outdated tropes, including one in which Black characters tend to be morphed into animals or are pushed into the background, with criticisms being lobbed at films like "The Princess and the Frog," "Spies in Disguise" and most recently Pixar's "Soul." It's a topic of conversation Reed and Steward said they've been discussing for years. Lion Forge hopes that getting the right people involved will not only address racial tropes in animation but prove that there's a real demand for authentic storytelling.

"More and more people look at it, now not only the fact that you have to transform a character because you don't believe people want to see Black people for a whole film, there's a ton of other tropes that will start to come out at you," Reed said. "We're trying to tell all kinds of stories, but we think the animation medium has unique properties to it that make it compelling to tell these stories. We just have to convince everyone else that the audience will respond to it."

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