Netflix Teases ‘Tentpole’ African Feature at Global Outreach Panel

Speaking at a Netflix recruitment panel at the Annecy Animation Festival on Wednesday, filmmaker Michael Francis Williams (“David Makes Man”) dropped new details about the upcoming “tentpole” animated feature he is co-directing for the global streamer.

“It’s the first movie of this size set in Africa, and that’s what brought me to the project,” said Williams, who will share directing duties with Frank E. Abney III (director of the acclaimed short “Canvas,” pictured above). “It’s a tentpole movie, a big swing for Netflix, and a real statement.”

“We’re very intentionally trying to expand what’s happening behind the camera as well in front,” Williams continued. “The film is set in Africa, full of Africans, and the industry is obviously not. So we’ve been doing quite a lot of work trying to foster relationships with folks on the continent.”

Williams, who directed the pilot to the Peabody winning series “David Makes Man,” will make his animation debut with the upcoming, as-of-yet untitled, film, and he explained that the prospect of introducing new voices into the animation ecosystem drew him to the project.

“We want to do something that hopefully shifts the needle a bit on the culture of animation, giving folks who don’t get access to what can be [a difficult industry to break into],” he said. “We’ll be setting up workshops and writers’ camps to find talent from the [still unannounced] country and filter them into the production.”

Spanning five countries and two continents, the global voices panel featured a diverse cross-section of storyboard artists, 3D modelers, and background specialists who opened a window into work-life at the streamer. Other panelists included animation recruiter Camille Leganza and artists Izzy Burton, Wei Li, Angela Smaldone and Gustavo Cosío.

Once the panelists introduced themselves and described their paths into the industry, the subject of remote work took the forefront. For over an hour the panelists described — with surprising candor — the agonies and ecstasies of working for an international studio from the comfort of home.

Both the England-based Izzy Burton and the Mexico-based Gustavo Cosío agreed that remote work allowed them to access and integrate into the global animation – to work in Hollywood, in other words — without having to relocate to Los Angeles. “If it wasn’t this way, I’m not sure I would have been able to work for a U.S. animation studio,” said Cosío.

At the same time, the panels didn’t hide the new challenges remote work entails. “There are a lot of elements of creative storytelling that can be very spontaneous in a studio,” the Vancouver-based Wei Li. “You go for a lunch and a spark hits, you start acting the scene out. Here, that spontaneity is missing.”

The industry pros came at the subject from a number of angles, discussing how working remotely with colleagues on the other side of the globe affected their schedules and workflows, and enumerated the various strategies they’d devised to better foster human connection and shared trust with collaborators they only saw on the other side of a screen.

Fostering questions from panel viewers about possible employment opportunities, Netflix recruiter Camille Leganza cautioned interested parties against cold pitches, explaining that the company preferred to screen through existing channels like talent agencies. She also reiterated that the new way was here to stay. “After COVID-19 is done, whenever that is,” Leganza said, “We’re still going to be working like this. It’s exciting, and I do think there will be a lot of innovation.”

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