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Meet The Nigerian Illustrator Behind Acclaimed Animation-Documentary Hybrid, ‘Liyana’

A little over a week ago, the trailer for Liyana – a heartwarming animation and documentary hybridbuilt around the imagination of five young orphans in Swaziland – was released, and we were immediately awestruck.

Executive produced by British-Zimbabwean actress, Thandie Newton (Half of a Yellow SunWestworld), Liyana is an unorthodox film that goes back and forth between the lives of these five children and the powerful fairytale they’ve crafted.

Their story – which was brought to life through vibrant animation work by Nigerian illustrator, Shofela Coker – follows the titular heroine, Liyana as she embarks on a dangerous quest to rescue her young twin brothers.

Completely blown away by the entire idea, we at Konbini decided to catch up with Coker, and learn more about the illustrator who is such a vital part of the film critics are hailing as “brilliant”, “pure magic” and “one of the best documentaries of the past year”.

 Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as an illustrator?

Shofela Coker: I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the U.S. to study at the Memphis College of Art in 2005. After graduating with a BFA in Illustration, I’ve since worked in video games as a character designer for Sony, Activision; and in film as the art director on the documentary-animation, Liyana.

I currently work as an art lead at the mobile game studio, Jam City in San Diego. At heart, I’m an illustrator, but my love for animation always drives me to cinematic storytelling, especially in new media. Whenever I have free time, I’m often found tinkering in my sketchbooks, trying to develop them into finished works, whether that’s comics or animation.

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How did you discover your passion for animation?

In primary school, I scrawled on a career card that I wanted to become an “animist” when I grew up. Luckily, I learned to spell properly, and along the way, I also developed a passion for building things and thought I might be an architect. With my brother, I married those two loves of creating worlds — fostering a passion for comics, animation, and video games.

We’d copy art from comics and our favorite shows like Voltron and Knights of the Magical Light, and create our own designs for games and grand adventure stories based on Yoruba mythology. My parents are both artists so they were quite supportive and encouraged me to do whatever I loved as long as I put effort into it.

The Nigerian Illustrator Behind Acclaimed Animation-Documentary 'Liyana'

What typically inspires your work?

My influences within the art world range from illustrators and painters such as Mike Mignola, Juanjo Guarnido, Andrew Hem, Joao Ruas, and Miyazaki. I love the impressionists and a few of the Art Nouveau artists from the turn of the 20th century. Designs and sculptures from the Benin empire have always inspired me, too.

I’ve been watching a lot of Yasujiro Ozu films lately. I frequently read architecture, and science journals and blogs. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to travel, and I value and draw a lot of inspiration from personal studies of cultures and people around the world.

How did you get involved with the project, Liyana?

Liyana had already been in development for a few years and the directors, Aaron and Amanda Kopp were searching for a production studio to develop the animated sections of the film. Amanda found my work online and read a few interviews I had done that lead her to believe our creative principles and aesthetic sensibilities were aligned.

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They reached out, flew over to San Diego where I lived, and spent the weekend discussing the project, and showed me a rough cut of the film. I was so excited that I created a rough sculpt of Liyana before they flew back to Denver. A few months later I quit my job at Sony and the rest is history.

What was the experience like?

Liyana is a unique project that fit my sensibilities so perfectly. It was a project with a grand responsibility and a lot of creative freedom. I consider it the best piece of art I’ve worked on to date, and the process was a truly refining fire.

Any interesting upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?

I’m developing an older short comic of mine into a full graphic novel. ‘Outcasts of Jupiter’ was initially a Kickstarter project in 2014 and this new book will be the follow-up.

You can check out more of his work on his Instagram.

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