Using Animation and Mixed Reality to Challenge Stereotypes

Tamara Shogaolu is changing how we see.

Tamara Shogaolu, the Amsterdam/LA-based director, filmmaker, and creative brains behind XR (Mixed Reality) and animation studio Ado Ato Pictures has spent the past decade telling stories that challenge cultural stereotypes. Her innovative style of storytelling led Vogue and The Guardian to recognize her as a leader in immersive media. Her films have been widely screened at venues including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

Shogaolu’s upcoming animated film Anoushka focuses on the spirit of Black Girl Magic through the eyes of Amara, a Black teenager from Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer (Bijlmer) neighborhood. The semi-autobiographical film follows Amara as she embarks on a magical journey of self-discovery through time and space.

Eagerly anticipating the film’s release (which you can help bring to life HERE), we speak with Shogaolu to learn more about the film, her career, and her creative path.

The Luupe in conversation with Tamara Shogaolu

Meet Tamara Shogaolu

The Luupe: How did you first get into film and Virtual/Mixed/Extended Reality as your medium?

Tamara Shogaolu: When I was in film school, at USC, I had the opportunity to take a lot of great courses. I was in the production program but took an interactive design course out curiosity and it changed my trajectory. I learned a lot there — basic coding, experimenting with location-based interactive experiences, this was before VR headsets were a thing so everything was very experimental in nature. But I could sense that these technologies could offer storytellers like myself new opportunities. Ever since, I continue to explore the world of immersive storytelling.

The Luupe: What was your first big “break” or entrance into the industry? What keeps you going?

Shogaolu: I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for over ten years now in that time I’ve worked with major studios in the studio system and have also led my own successful independent productions. I’m grateful to have been able to showcase my work on television, at top museums like the MoMA in New York and film festivals like the Tribeca Film Festival and to have been a fellow at the Sundance Institute, to have been on the Academy Nicholl’s shortlist, to have worked with major film studios and for many other experiences that have shaped me and open a door to other opportunities, but it is hard to pinpoint one particular event as a “break.” I am driven by my passion for storytelling and the steps I follow are taken with that end in mind, my goal to make and tell powerful stories.

As a Black Latinx female filmmaker, I sometimes do wonder if this concept of a “big break” is even real, I find that my successes are often questioned or gaslighted as flukes. Today, there are still no Black female filmmakers who have directed a major studio animated feature film. Today, Black female filmmakers still don’t have the same opportunities.

As you know, ANOUSCHKA is a response to all of this. It’s an XR film that is about a magical Black teenage girl, written by Black women, and directed by a Black Latinx female filmmaker.

The Kickstarter campaign is a way to level the playing field — to go beyond the gatekeepers trying to keep us out.

A still from Tamara Shogaolu’s upcoming film Anouschka

The Luupe: Have you worked with any mentors along the way to help navigate or break down the obstacles of the gatekeepers?

Shogaolu: I’ve had the pleasure to meet so many mentors throughout my filmmaking experience. I was mentored closely by an award-winning producer who taught me a lot about animation and is quite possibly one of the most genuine people in Hollywood I’ve met, he’s taught me so much about crafting stories beyond film school, and probably one of the main reasons I haven’t completely given up on Hollywood, lol.

I’ve also had so many women mentors successful producers in their own right, who I call my “Godmothers”, they have taught me how to protect myself legally, avoid myself from being exploited for my ideas, and how to successfully navigate such a changing industry.

And most importantly, I’ve actually been fortunate to meet many brilliant Black and Brown women working in immersive tech. These women have taught me about how endless the possibilities are for us, that we will break those barriers, and it’s such a beautiful thing to see and be part of.

 

The Luupe: What inspired you to found Ado Ato pictures?

Shogaolu: There is a deep gap in the market to tell elevated stories of marginalized folks.

When I finished film school, I had a job offer to stay in LA and work at a film production company. I realized, very soon, that as a Black Latinx female filmmaker in Hollywood the chances of someone coming to me out of the blue and producing my stories would be slim. So I decided to venture on my own journey to create stories and make these projects happen on my own. I’ve been doing that for 7 years now.

I left LA and took an opportunity to work as a development executive in Indonesia, then left this job and lived in an artist village in Java where I lived off my savings, focused on shaping my voice as an artist and eventually started Ado Ato Pictures.

A still from Tamara Shogaolu’s upcoming film Anouschka

The Luupe: The parallels you create between the meaning of Ado Ato – “to create spells” and your mission as a studio are fascinating.

Shogaolo: I read a lot of folktales and fairytales. I was reading an ancient Yoruba (present-day Nigeria) fairytale. The term “Ado Ato” means “container of magical spells.” As someone who is half Nigerian, I was mesmerized by it because it embodies everything about me as a filmmaker — I wanted to create magic and contain the magic of storytelling through powerful stories.

The Luupe: How do you distinguish between your work for Ado Ato and your other film and directorial work?

Shogaolu: I think over the years, my passion for storytelling has expanded in so many ways but at the end of the day, I spend a lot of time crafting the stories that are impactful and socially relevant. Everything in my work from my film work to my interactive installation work is driven my story and the power of story in shaping our world.

A still from Tamara Shogaolu’s award-winning film Another Dream, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival

The Luupe: What draws you to work in the virtual space?

Shogaolu: In particular, with ANOUSCHKA, the writing process has been extremely different. The story is cinematic, interactive, within a physical space, and has a spoken word element to it. These are all characteristics of film, theater, and poetry so I brought together a team of writers from those different areas to come together and craft a new narrative approach to telling a story for this medium we have developed.

I think because this is a new medium, I see this platform being more intersectional with regards to opening up more spaces to tell these stories and for Black folks, women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, indigenous communities, and many marginalized voices to enter the space and create.

My previous project, ANOTHER DREAM, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival was an example of telling the story of two Queer women, who were refugees, fleeing their home country for liberation.

The Luupe: Why are film and VR the ideal media for your activism?

Shogaolu: Film and media shape the way that most us perceive and see the world, it is an incredibly powerful medium. I think all filmmakers should recognize this power and impact and know that it can be used to maintain the status quo and continue the marginalization of most folks on our planet or it can break and challenge these ideas and tropes. In that way, I think filmmaking can be considered activism — if done, in good faith, and in good measure, in its own ways.

Oftentimes, people think socially-impactful storytelling is boring. But it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. I’m passionate about telling stories. I’m passionate about telling stories that start conversations — and hopefully, they make some form of change in the world around us.

I don’t know if I’m an activist but I can only hope that being a filmmaker, with a platform to tell stories of marginalized voices, helps me connect with people to bring about change. And if I can achieve that then great, that makes me strive to be a better storyteller every day.

A still from Tamara Shogaolu’s upcoming film Anouschka

The Luupe: Aside from your technical process, do you think about your directorial and storytelling process differently when working in VR vs other media?

Shogaolu: Yes, the directorial and storytelling process is so unique for all forms of media. Everything is tailored to the way the audience experiences the content.

When I work within a live-action film, there’s always that relationship with the cinematographer or director of photography in crafting the visual experience and visual communication of the entire piece.

But with VR, I’m designing a story for a 360-degree space. As a result, the storyboarding experience is different because everything moves around you and can happen at the same time.

For web-based experiences, where I need to immerse the viewer through the computer, the storytelling process is extremely different because I have to design and create a universe where the audience can enter and explore.

Now, with ANOUSCHKA, we are using a new story room platform, called Bemmbe, where I have to direct a story within a room where the room literally becomes the world of the story.

 

 

The Luupe: What excites you most about media right now? Where are you looking for inspiration and who’s inspiring you?

Shogaolu: Throughout this entire global pandemic, I’ve discovered that immersive technology has pushed people to find ways to work with the limitations of COVID-19. In particular, I’ve felt empowered and creative throughout this entire period.

The Luupe: Tell us a bit more about your latest film – ANOUSCHKA- what messages do you hope it will transmit?

Shogaolu: As I grew professionally and expanded into working with new and immersive technology like virtual reality and augmented reality, I saw many of these same tropes being used to shape the new medium. Until today, there has been no major studio animated feature film directed by a Black woman and there continues to be a glass ceiling and barriers to entry for Black women in tech, among many other fields. As a Black and Latinx woman working at the intersection of film, animation, and technology, I want to believe that I can contribute to shattering those ceilings by allowing Black girls like me to see themselves and their magic come to life while re-imagining how technology can help us tell stories.

A still from Tamara Shogaolu’s upcoming film Anouschka

The Luupe: What else do you hope to ultimately accomplish with this project? 

Shogaolu: Since I was a child I have been yearning and dreaming to see and create a story like ANOUSCHKA, a story about a smart young Black girl raised in a world of magical Black women like those in my world. I am even more thrilled that I get the opportunity to make a story that is written by talented Black women, produced by Black women and directed by a Black woman. I hope that you will join us in bringing ANOUSCHKA to life so that there is a place for stories like ours.

We hope to inspire and empower other Black girls in the world to follow their dreams. Ultimately, we hope that ANOUSCHKA can help build a stronger sense of community both within Amsterdam and around the world.

The Luupe: Is there an autobiographical element to ANOUSCHKA? 

Shogaolu: My grandmother passed away during the pandemic. As a result of COVID-19, my entire family wasn’t able to travel to Panama, where she lived, during this time for her funeral. I had such a close relationship with my grandmother. I get a lot of storytelling through her. In ANOUSCHKA, Amara’s relationship with her grandmother was inspired by my closeness with my grandmother.