Shofela Coker, director of Disney+’s Kizazi Moto, on using sci-fi elements to tell African stories through animation.

Dennis Da-ala Mirilla
Shofela Coker, Disney+'s Kizazi Moto director on telling African stories with a sci-fi slant through animations

It was easier for Shofela Coker, when compared with his peers growing up in Lagos in the 90s, to decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Design Arts, Illustration/Art History at the Memphis College of Art because he grew up aware of the rudiments of creative expressions. Words like “voice,” “style,” and “aesthetics” were at home on his tongue and in his house.

How it started

In those days, when his brother, Shobo Coker, had just started calling him Shof, (to which he says “There’s only one Fela”) he would watch animations like Thunder Cats and Gatchaman Force and read Franco-Belgian comics; Tintin and Asterix and Obelix.

His parents were academics. His father was a professor of painting at Yaba College of Technology. His mother was the headmistress at Greensprings School Lagos. His brother, Shobo, a writer and frequent collaborator, had also gone to the Memphis College of Art. That background gave him the life he is living as a creator, working with the games studios Sony and Activision, a recent stint at Netflix and being one of the directors on Kizazi Moto, the Disney+ anthology series.

He is the creator of the now famous “Moremi” episode starring Kehinde Bankole.

I sort of feel like storytelling or should I say, storytelling within Africa is changing very rapidly,” he told Technext recently. Moremi imbues sci-fi and magical realism to conjure a reimagined tale of the historical or mythical Yoruba noblewoman who sacrificed herself to save her village.

In Shofela Coker’s retelling, the ancient Yoruba kingdom is less historical and more Afro-futuristic, with bridges and high-tech weaponry.

There are a lot of sci-fi elements in it, but it leans very heavily into spiritualism,” he said of the project.

When he left the Memphis College of Art, he was lucky enough as an immigrant in the late aughts to find a job and upgrade his visa. He worked at RoboModo in Chicago, a subsidiary of the games studio Activision. When Activision cut funding for the project, he was laid off.

Shofela Coker, Disney+'s Kizazi Moto director on telling African stories with a sci-fi slant through animations

Then Shofela Coker moved to Seattle and worked for Sony Online Entertainment. After three months on the job, Sony shuttered the Seattle office. So he moved with the art director to the head office in San Diego, where he worked for years as a character designer.

Shofela Coker’s journey to storytelling

Even though his job working on games like PlanetSide and Everquest paid the bills, a spark was missing. He was craving another life. “I found that working in video games was a good way to make a living, but I was never creatively fulfilled with the material,” he said. “It’s very typical Western tropes in terms of design, and logic, and world lore and that type of thing,” he said of the projects he worked on at the time.

When the filmmaker couple Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp were working on their movie Liyana set in rural Eswatini with Thandie Newton as executive producer, he came on board and worked as the art director.

It was one of his earliest hands-on experiences as a storyteller after art school.

“I’ve always wanted to tell stories through the medium of animation because I believe that animation has a very unique type of abstraction that I’m very drawn to,” Shofela Coker said. “It combines so many elements, you know; music, sound, design and, obviously visuals. It has this beauty of observing and translating motion in an abstract way and capturing the essence of things, that I think touches people in a manner that no other medium, in my opinion, does.”

But now that he’s more a storyteller than an illustrator, has he found it easier, this fulfilling path?

“One of my old professors always told me that painting is hard and, you know, it sounds like such a glib thing to say and sort of tongue in cheek. But I think being able to hone your craft in concert with your voice and doing something with a facility that allows you to say something meaningful, and do it in a compelling way, it’s not easy at all,” he said. “Illustration, painting, drawing, art-making, in general, is difficult.”

He had read of Moremi from a book of Nigerian mythology that his mother kept and was drawn to the character. So when Triggerfish, the animation studio behind Kizazi Moto, asked for a pitch on “hopeful stories about the continent with a sci-fi slant,” an adaptation of her story was what he sent.

Shofela Coker, Disney+'s Kizazi Moto director on telling African stories with a sci-fi slant through animations

Shofela Coker worked with Lucan Studio, a boutique animation studio based out of Cape Town and Yinfaowei Harrison, a Nigerian concept artist and other creatives scattered across the continent to bring Moremi: Episode 3 to life.

Moremi falls into a new-ish canon of African storytelling that is less about retelling stories stolen by the West honestly and with nuance and humanity and more about reclaiming African stories. These new Afrofuturism works heralded by the novelist Nnedi Okorafor seek to challenge the West while also offering numerous possibilities of what it can mean to be African. A kind of spiritual celebration of Africana.

“I’m interested in contributing to that conversation in a meaningful way through the lens of being a Nigerian animator slash director now,” Shofela said.

He is not so sure if this new canon of African storytelling, however, is a trend.

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Magical realism is a format I love, you know. I don’t know if it’s a trend or a movement. But it is something that I’m interested in specifically because I think as a Nigerian that is hoping for something better for my country. They’re amazing things about African culture, and Nigeria in particular, right, that we are talking about in these stories,” he said.

“It’s not that stories are going to fix everything. It’s just that stories give us hopefully a cultural blueprint to strive for.”

Shofela Coker

Shofela Coker recognises how lofty that line of thinking can be, stories giving hope to those that need hope the most. He does it to contribute his perspective to the global conversation about African storytelling.

“For me, when I try and create a story, I like to engage with that kind of thinking because I want to try and contribute to the cultural conversation that I’m having with my peers and the global perspective in general.”

Shofela Coker, Disney+'s Kizazi Moto director on telling African stories with a sci-fi slant through animations

This is barely Shofela Coker’s last breath as a storyteller in this genre. He has, this year, concluded a project with Netflix, and has other stories he is telling with his book New Masters which he writes with his brother Shobo. “I want to work in this field of expression as much as I can,” he said.

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