I met Eric Elder, the producer of the animated series ‘Changa and the Jade Obelisk,’ at a Seed&Spark workshop hosted by the African Artists’ Association. He was the only one among the attendees with first hand experience of the crowdfunding platform and shared a testimonial about working with the team at Seed&Spark. I found it interesting that a 20 year veteran in the business with solid credits like ‘King of the Hill,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ and ‘Beavis and Butthead’ would opt for this approach to raising funds, but as he explains in the following interview, the chances of getting financed by a studio are just as slim as winning the lottery.
There’s been a surge of interest in superheroes from Africa, and with the exception of the studio driven ‘Black Panther,’ Hollywood is largely uninterested. But it is refreshing to see independent filmmakers rising to the occasion and attempting to fill the void. Nigeria’s Wale Williams, South Africa’s Jongo and others are generating interest. If people of African origin want to see the hero archetype reflected in themselves, an archetype which exists universally and is deeply embedded in human consciousness, it behooves us to tell those stories ourselves.
That’s why it’s thrilling to see writers like Milton Davis, the creator of ‘The Changa Chronicles,’ reimagine the superhero from an African perspective, and producers like Eric Elder bring them to life on screen. I reached out to Eric to have a dialogue about his work and what his team hopes to accomplish with ‘Changa.’
Tell us a little bit about Changa. Who is this man and what makes him tick?
Changa is an exiled prince, who became a slave gladiator, and then a merchant trader and adventurer. He is very different from your typical hero. The theme of ‘Changa’ for me is, facing your fear. Changa wants to return home and free his kingdom but something is stopping him. I think the main thread that runs through the first season is confronting that ‘thing’ and dealing with it.
Why focus on medieval Africa?
For me as Producer/Director of the animation and eventually the live action adaption, I’m very excited by the opportunity to tell a story in the setting of medieval Africa. I’m a fairly big fantasy fan, mostly of ‘Game of Thrones,’ which is kind of where this journey began for me. I love ‘Game Of Thrones’ so much but really want to see a version with characters that look like me. Then I realized we’ve never see it and probably would not see it any time soon unless I do something about it.
So I started making a list of everything I thought made GoT dope. One of the things I saw was that even though it’s set in a fantasy world, it is based on extensive research of medieval European history. So I figured if I wanted to do an African version I would need to do extensive research on medieval Africa. Then I realized how much work this would be, and not work that I’m good at or would enjoy doing. Then I saw Milton had already done the research and had come up with great characters and story that he wanted to see in animation and film.
Then I realized something else. I assert that when most Americans think of medieval times in fiction or historically, we typically think of what was going on in Europe. We automatically think of European castles, knights, armor and dragons, King Arthur and Tolkien. When we think of Africa in history we go from Egyptian times and then jump right to slavery. It’s like the brain washing really did work. It’s like the hundreds of years between the fall of the Egyptian dynasties and slavery never happened in the collective consciousness. It only takes a little research to begin to see there is a literally a very rich history of medieval Africa. We had our own kings, queens, armies and knights and very powerful, wealthy empires. Africa is where all the gold came from. It’s amazing.
Given that it’s a period of African history that’s rarely examined in the mainstream, is historical accuracy at all a concern?
I would say ‘rarely’ is an understatement and never in a fantasy context and absolutely not in animation. This question of accuracy has just come up recently and my answer is “no”, I’m not concerned. It seems like some other folks might be but not me.
How will that be addressed on the show?
I don’t know if I can tell how it’s going to be addressed exactly but I can tell you how I intend to deal with it. ‘The Changa Chronicles’ is not historical fiction, it is fantasy based on and in the setting of Medieval Africa. We are going to see magic, mythical creatures and even the Orisha. So no one should mistake this for historical content. We are going to use this though as an opportunity to uncover at least some of what has been covered up not just for us but for the world.
There are more and more animated stories springing up about mythical heroes of African descent. Why do you think this is becoming a trend?
I think its several factors. For one, I think Blacks in the US and Africa are gaining more access to digital tools to produce content and online distribution models to get the content out. So we still have quite a long way to go and technology is giving us quite a lift in telling our stories.
Another major factor is that entertainment markets are changing. The myth that an all-black show can’t compete in the mainstream is getting shattered by breakthrough successes like ‘Empire’ on FOX and Disney/Marvel producing the ‘Black Panther.’
You recently had a successful crowdfunding campaign on Seed & Spark. Was it always your intention to produce this project independently or did you initially pursue a more “conventional” route by approaching one of the studios?
I had actually been wanting to crowd fund a project for some time. We never considered pitching ‘Changa’ to the studios, especially at the stage we are at. I never like to say never because anything is possible and I have been in Hollywood long enough to know, even if we were able to get meetings to pitch ‘Changa’ as an animated feature or series to ANY major studio, we would have a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than being financed.
What’s next for the project?
We are now moving into the pre-production by visually developing the characters and then the storyboards. We can’t wait to show the world what we are creating!!
– Constance Ejuma