When Tamara Shogaolu (pictured) was studying animation and film production at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts eight years ago, a writing professor of color told her that no studio would ever greenlight a film about a little Black girl.
At the time, Shogaolu was working on a script about a young girl who survives genocide in Latin America. According to Shogaolu, the male teacher said she would fail the class unless she changed the role to accommodate an actor like Zoe Saldana (Avatar), and added a white lead to guide and save the character.
Things ultimately turned around for the aspiring Black and Latina writer, director and new media artist, who would go on to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree. “The irony is that once I could write what I wanted, I became an Academy Nicholls Fellowship semi-finalist with the script in 2014 through the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences,” says Shogaolu.
After USC, Shogaolu made it her mission to share stories of marginalized people and communities around the world through immersive media and animation, and to champion representation behind the camera as founder and creative director of LA- and Amsterdam-based studio Ado Ato Pictures.
Launched in 2014, the company’s original animated and live-action shorts and interactive experiences have been featured in film festivals, galleries and museums worldwide. Among its animated projects, documentary short and VR game Another Dream was a Tribeca Film Festival selection in 2019 and earned a Best XR for Change nomination at the 2019 Games for Change Awards. Half a Life, meanwhile, has racked up accolades including an Annecy selection in 2017 and a Golden Gateway Award the same year at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Ado Ato’s latest project is Anouschka—a mixed-reality animated film created and directed by Shogaolu about a Black teenage girl from Amsterdam (pictured below) who embarks on a magical journey of self-discovery through space and time. Along the way, she discovers her family’s magical powers and must connect with generations of women to save her grandmother and twin brother from a multi-generational family curse.
Using Ado Ato’s proprietary technology platform, the film can be experienced in a variety of indoor physical spaces and uses four-wall projections, motion sensors and voice recognition to let audiences interact with the animated environment and characters.
Shogaolu chose mixed reality to give audiences the same kind of magical interactions the film’s protagonist experiences. The film is expected to be finished by July 2021 for potential museum and festival partnerships.
Anouschka is currently in production on the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it has received additional funding from LA-based Resonate Entertainment (Upside-Down Magic), government body Dutch Creative Industries and the Dutch Literature Foundation.
The film marks the first time Shogaolu has written for a younger kids and family audience and says her eight-year-old niece was a big inspiration for the project. “I wanted to make something my niece could see herself in,” she says. The story, according to Shogaolu, aims to boost visibility and representation of Dutch women of color, and women of color in general. It’s also inspired by the “Black Girl Magic” movement, which was created by early childcare development expert, writer and influencer CaShawn Thompson in 2013 to uplift and praise the accomplishments, beauty and qualities of Black women.
In another first, Shogaolu is working with a team of all Black female writers, including Nigerian-American writer, performer and voice artist Elinor Vanderburg and Ghanaian-Dutch spoken word artist Sandy Bosmans. “It’s one of the most fun writing experiences I’ve had,” she says. “There have been so many times in my life when I have been the first Black or Latina to do the work, and I am tired of this. I don’t want to be a unicorn.”
Though she’s hopeful the animation, film and tech industries will become more inclusive with more support for Black stories and talent, Shogaolu isn’t seeing that level of accountability in Hollywood yet. “Animation is very white male-dominated,” she says. “The fact that there still hasn’t been a major studio animated feature film written and directed by a Black woman is insane to me.”
Shogaolu is encouraged, though, by the fact that she was recently hired to write an animated feature film for Sony Pictures. Details about the project can’t be revealed, but Shogaolu says the move by Sony is a positive one. “It’s a step in the right direction,” she says.
As for Ado Ato’s hiring practices, Shogaolu says her teams come together organically based on the needs of the work, and she never seeks people to fill in a box. “I still struggle to understand how big studios have such a hard time hiring people of color and making teams that are intersectional across the board when we, as a small studio, can do it, and work with extremely hardworking and talented people.”