Cricket-themed animated series pitched at global event to rave reviews
Trinbago-based animator René Holder, co-founder of animation studio Farr Creative, made his way to Lille, France last month to attend Cartoon 360, an event that assembles pioneers and industry leaders in animation to brainstorm ideas, share expertise, develop products and pitch new work for funding and production.
The sole participant from Trinidad and Tobago, Holder made quite an impression with the company’s cricket-themed series, Howzzat, to an audience of potential collaborators at the major animation event last month.
The 35-year-old creative shared with Loop his experiences at the event and discussed what Caribbean creatives can offer to the global entertainment industry.
Holder, along with his business partner Lyndon Joseph, enrolled in UTT’s animation diploma in 2008, as part of its first cohort. Although the two opted not to graduate, the pair had amassed enough knowledge and skill to launch their own company, Lab206 Studios two years later. The team got to work, finding success with a series of advertisements and music videos, most notably Destra Garcia’s 2015 hit, “Lucy”.
Changing perspectives and a marked lack of local funding opportunities to fuel the development of the industry left Holder somewhat burned out, causing him to put his animation work on hold in 2017 for the next three years. “I took a break...to figure out how to make animation work in the Caribbean,” he said. By then, the artist had developed quite the network and transitioned into creative direction, not too far enough from the action but just distant enough to gain some much-needed perspective. He oversaw creative work for projects across the Caribbean before returning to his initial passion.
Holder was able to circumvent many of the access-related limitations of running a Trinbago-based animation studio by establishing the company in Estonia. A member of the European Union, the Northern European nation approves electronic residency for qualified individuals; such a move gave Holder greater access to the EU market, facilitated further networking efforts and allowed Holder to make contact with many of the companies whose representatives he was able to meet in person at Cartoon 360.
Though Covid is still raging, with France currently experiencing its fifth wave, Holder was undeterred, choosing to lean into the positive and to take advantage of the possibilities that would come out of face-to-face networking. “Business is a people game,” he said, adding that all of his earlier communication with overseas animation experts was “constricted to a screen.” Holder acknowledged that although the virtual environment did, in fact, help to foster some of the rapports made, “Virtual [communication] can only do so much; you can’t disregard in-person networking.”
One such group was Irish company Daily Madness Productions, a women-led animation studio whose work has been featured on the BBC, with additional material in development for other major networks.
Finally able to rub shoulders with the best of his animation colleagues, Holder got to work pitching Howzzat, pleasantly surprised with how the unique idea was received. He said that despite the lack of funding that may appear to stunt growth in some of our creative fields, through ingenuity and sheer grit, Caribbean creatives are certainly able to stand alongside their international peers.
“We take ourselves for granted [because of] where we come from,” Holder said. “We overprepare thinking that we’re disadvantaged. You always feel like you have to do extra...because [your colleagues] are existing within a system that supports [their craft].”
As it turned out, many of the participants were quite impressed by Holder’s presentation. “Most of the judges said that we had one of the best pitches there,” he said.
Holder said that showing up at the event as a Trinbagonian with a European-based company made him feel “a bit of imposter syndrome” before realising that positioning yourself where you need to be to get the best access to opportunities for your work to thrive in the animation community was more common than he thought. “There was a guy from Italy who set up [his company] in France because there are a lot of opportunities [there],” he recalled.
He spoke of crossing paths with other animators of Caribbean heritage, including St Lucian Wesley Louis of London-based studio The Line and Supercell’s Kim Ettinoff, who is of Martiniquan descent.
With “diversity” a huge buzzword in entertainment these days, a number of prominent production companies in North America and Europe appear to be making a greater effort to tell the stories of non-European people and cultures. Earlier this year, Disney Animation announced a “first-of-its-kind” partnership with Nigerian-Ugandan production company Kugali Media to adapt the comic book-based seriesIwájú, set to premiere on Disney+ next year.
While it can be argued that this wave of ethnic and cultural variety in storytelling is long overdue and that efforts for inclusion are very much a business move, what remains important is that the narratives crafted are authentic and respectful of those they’re meant to represent.
Holder explained that the American perspective of diversity usually implies disadvantages, the struggle of trying to be heard in a space where you’re considered an outsider. But, he asserted, what is considered the “other” in these societies is our everyday reality in our multicultural, multiethnic nation.
“We’re surrounded by Black and Brown excellence,” he said. “We have a Black female president and [we’ve had a] Brown female prime minister; we’ve grown up around these things.”
Holder had no issue in conveying the colours and nuances of this so-called diversity in all its authenticity. He said that although this was praised at the event, it simply felt natural to him. “It’s not something I need to pretend or figure out; this is just my norm.”
At events such as Cartoon 360, creatives are competing on a level playing field, regardless of their background. “A lot of the time, broadcasters are coming for the next great thing [and] it comes down to what you bring to the table and what you can produce,” Holder said. He mentioned Lion Forge Animation, the production company behind the Oscar-winning short, Hair Love, directed by Matthew A. Cherry. “We’re in competition with them,” he said.
He urged Caribbean creatives to acknowledge the value of their contribution to global creative industries. “We need to actually see ourselves as global players as opposed to disadvantaged.”
The animator spoke of the importance of taking the time to find the sweet spot between the unique, marketable qualities of our culture and satisfying global audiences through cross-cutting, universal themes that make both plot and characters relatable.
“There’s a very fine line between creating something local for local [consumption] and creating something local that has a wider appeal,” Holder explained. “Finding that space [is what] makes a Squid Game become a Squid Game–it’s very Korean [but] plays to a wider audience.” He and his team have worked to achieve this balance in conceptualising Howzzat as a “character-focused” story “within a bigger, complex world that just happens [to play out] on a cricket pitch.”
With production set to begin within a year’s time, Holder continues to pursue collaboration to develop the project into a full-length season, representing the country and the region in the global animation industry.
“As long as we’re true to who we are and…to the stories we want to tell,” Holder said, “there’s a space for us.”