In April 2019, American entertainment service, Netflix, announced its first original animated series from Africa; Mama K’s Team 4.
The action-comedy show, which is about four African teen superheroes, was created by Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema and produced by Cape Town-based Triggerfish Animation Studios and London-based CAKE.
In collaboration with these studios, Netflix embarked on a continent-wide search for talented female writers across Africa.
“They ended up selecting eight people and I am happy to be one of them,” Omotunde Akiode said proudly during a recent chat with Techpoint.
Omotunde is a Nigerian scriptwriter with over ten years of experience in writing on popular Nigerian/African TV shows including Tinsel, Dear Mother, Spider, Ajoche and MTV Shuga Naija, and Lasgidi Cops — where she was the head writer — among others.
Being selected to work on a Netflix animation show was a dream come true for her. One that was inspired many years ago by popular television shows of the time.
Growing up on Sesame Street
Omotunde credits her love for all things animation to the early years of her life when she was glued to the TV watching popular shows like Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and other children’s shows that aired at the time.
They made such a huge impression on her that she began drawing her own cartoons for fun. This passion stayed with her as she grew but she didn’t know what degree to pursue in order to start a career in animation.
“I didn’t know there was a career in filmmaking here in Nigeria at the time, Nollywood was just taking off. So the only option then was to do a professional course, I liked technical drawing so I went with architecture.”
With this in mind, Akiode enrolled at the Rivers State University in 1995 and afterwards got her masters degree in the same course from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
While in school, she explored her creative side by being involved in various drama clubs, working behind the scenes on numerous stage plays, shows, and choreographies.
After graduating, she began working at an architectural firm but didn’t get any fulfilment from the job. She thought about changing her career path to film making.
“I started out with writing since it was something I had always done. I began talking to a few writers I know who encouraged me and gave me books on scriptwriting. And so I began writing and the more I wrote, the better I got at it.”
Omotunde Akiode got her first scriptwriting gig in 2008. The job was to write a music video concept and script for a song her music producer friend worked on.
“It never got to the point of making the video but he was the first person to encourage me. He even bought me my first Final Draft software.”
Another person who encouraged her to write more in those days was Anthony Kehinde Joseph, a prominent Nollywood screenwriter.
“We attend the same church and I have known him since 2008. He’s probably the closest thing to a mentor I’ve ever had. He also referred me for my first official gig on a TV show.”
In 2010, Akiode officially began her career as a scriptwriter on a show called Footprint. Afterwards, she moved on to write on more popular shows like Dear Mother and Spider.
“The way writing for TV shows works is that before we go into the episodes, we usually have workshops that run from one to two weeks. There, writers meet with the head writer of the show, and sometimes the producers, and they all map out an entire season of the show; from the storyline, outline and then to the episodes. Then episodes are assigned to each writer to be managed by the head writer.”
With the experience she gained from writing on these shows, Akiode was accepted as one of the writers on Tinsel, a popular Nigerian soap opera that has been airing since 2008.
Akiode says her favourite part of being a scriptwriter is seeing the result of her work on a TV screen.
“I always marvel at that because as a writer, you’re so busy writing so you don’t get to go on set often. Sometimes the script comes out different from what you envisioned but it’s always interesting to see.”
After five years of honing her skills, and with several popular shows and stage plays under her belt, Akiode was ready to take on more challenges.
Writing for children
While working on Tinsel, a former colleague got in touch with Akiode in 2015 saying she was starting a new company that would focus on animation for children.
“She said she was looking to train writers to learn how to write for children animation. I was excited about it because as you already know, I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and it is what I had always wanted to do.”
She enrolled in an online animation writing class organised by South Africa-based Storyteller Pod — a concept development hub and writing talent incubator.
“The class was in real-time and it was very hands-on. First, we picked a TV show that was airing and watched as many of its episodes as we could. And then we pitched new episodes like we would if the network executives of the shows were there. Our teacher, Natasje van Niekerk, would then pick the best episodes and instruct us to develop them further.”
According to Akiode, aside from learning how to write scripts, the class came with the opportunity to get absorbed into the company’s team of writers. By the end of the course, Akiode says she had completed a world-class script.
She admits that writing for animation, especially for children isn’t as easy as writing for adult shows. However, the transition from live-action to animation came easy to her.
“Writing for animation feels like home, I feel like I can finally unleash the crazy part of me that would be tagged too unrealistic for the shows and soap operas I have written for.”
“If you can write for animation, you can write for live-action but it is more challenging. When you write for children, it has to be engaging. The goal is to write a spare episode for say a Disney cartoon that can pass for one of their episodes. So it has to be perfect.”
Her passion paid off. After she finished her course, she got absorbed into the Storyteller Pod as a member of the writing team and an instructor for the online class.
In 2017, Akiode got her first job as an animation writer alongside her Storyteller Pod team for a show called Princess Sissi which would later be translated into Italian.
“I also wrote on Bino and Fino, an animation series about two Nigerian siblings who go on exciting adventures across different parts of the country and learn new things. I was very excited about watching one of the episodes I wrote on YouTube”
Challenges as an animation writer in Nigeria
One of the many challenges that face the animation industry in Nigeria is the small size of the animation workforce. Even smaller is the number of people behind the stories.
Suggested Read: What’s up with the Animation Industry in Nigeria?
Even worse is the fact that many Nigerian animators and animation producers do not see the need to hire scriptwriters for their movies and shows. As a result, the few people with animation writing skills like Akiode have to look outside the country to get animation writing gigs. But it’s not even that simple.
“It’s not easy getting that Netflix kind of gig. We don’t even know when the next one will come because Netflix came to Africa to look for writers. Trying to push yourself internationally is not easy to do from Nigeria. I’ve seen so many opportunities, especially in the US but they are usually for citizens and residents.”
In the meantime, Akiode says she has to stick with writing for live-action shows and even if she gets hired to write for local animation shows, she’d have to make do with getting paid as she would on a regular show, even though it should be more.
According to Akiode, this is because not only do Nigerian animators not see the need to hire a scriptwriter, many of them that are aware of the need cannot afford to hire one.
“I think the biggest challenge with the industry is funding because animation is expensive. Good quality animation shows cost tens of thousands of dollars and animators in Nigeria do not have the resources. And truth be told, they don’t have the skills either. Many of them are good at what they do but they still have a long way to go.”
Another problem she pointed out is that local animators focus too much on graphics and drawings and neglect the story.
“It’s the same thing that happens in Nollywood where movie producers do not value the script. They spend lots of money on cameras and actors and offer writers peanuts. That’s why we have many Nollywood movies with great pictures and acting but very terrible storylines.”
“Animation shows do well because of their stories, not the animation. The characters might be as simple as stick figures but if the story is good, you’ll get hooked. This is something Nigerian animators need to learn.”
Aside from the lack of good quality animation shows, Akiode says there is also a dearth of local live-action children’s shows that promote morals and nurture children’s minds in their formative years.
“What I would really love to see is more people recognising the need for children’s content. It doesn’t have to be pure animation, it could be puppet shows or something like Barney and Friends, but Nigerian. Shows that are designed to shape the minds of children the right way.”
Speaking of the future, Omotunde Akiode said her biggest career goal is to expand her network internationally.
“If I’m able to write for big studios abroad, I can bring that knowledge back to Nigeria and establish a network or database of writers that do things the right way.”
Until then, she just wants to keep entertaining Nigerians with great and impactful stories.
I’m always open to new experiences.