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Black History Month: Matthew A. Cherry, Peter Ramsey and the Craft of African American Animators

Back in 2016, Matthew A. Cherry put out a call on Twitter looking for 3D artists to help with a project. On Sunday, Cherry was standing on the stage of the Dolby Theatre celebrating his Oscar win for best animated short for “Hair Love.”

His triumph comes as Variety continues to celebrate African-American artisans who work behind the scenes and continue to make an impact.

Hair Love” was executive  produced by Frank Abney and Peter Ramsey. The latter has been drawing since the age of 3. Ramsey, whose credits as an illustrator include “Godzilla,” “Independence Day” and “Batman Forever,” was a self-taught storyboard artist who dreamed as a young kid in Crenshaw of becoming a director.

Ramsey went on to work at DreamWorks and directed “Rise of the Guardians,” making history as the first African-American to helm an animated film with a $145 million budget. He notched another benchmark in 2019 as the first African American to win an animated feature Academy Award for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation

Another African American artist inspiring change is Floyd Norman, the first African-American animator at Disney who contributed to “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Jungle Book” and “Mulan.” At Pixar, he worked on “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters Inc.”

Supervising animator and director Jamaal Bradley has been making gains as well since moving from New Jersey to chase his dream of being an artist. Bradley has worked across the spectrum of games, commercials, animated shorts and animated features, namely “Tangled” and “Puss in Boots.” Last year, Bradley directed the animated short “Substance” and is currently working as a supervising animator on “The Croods 2.”

For Pixar’s upcoming “Soul,” Frank Abney served as animator while Michael Yates was the storyboard artist. The movie is set in the world of jazz music and features the voices of Phylicia Rashad and Daveed Diggs.

When it comes to women in animation, the field is still working to achieve parity and hopes to achieve 50-50 representation by 2025. Female directors are still a rarity according to last year’s Inclusion in Animation Study. Behind the scenes, women of color in lead animator roles at 13%, while lead characters designers stand at 7% and lead storyboard artists at 3%.

Sonya Carey has defied statistics and worked on “The Princess and the Frog” as head of ink and paint/composite. Carey’s talents extend to visual effects and contributed to “Saw: The Final Chapter.”

Black Women Animate, founded by Taylor Shaw, was set up for African American women to strengthen, spotlight and change the world of animation. Once a year, Black Women Animate holds a boot camp for women to refine their craft, to learn more about the art of animating and achieve visibility in the typically male-centric world of animation.

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