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From revolutionary start-up Nito Inc. to his own Pixel Pirate Studio, Obi Onyejekwe has been working for a little over a decade to build an influential empire where fellow animators can carve out their own paths. Pulling from his experience as a marketing specialist, the artist forged his own lane with Pixel Pirate, which is credited for working with a number of major companies that consumers know and love today such as Oreo, McDonalds, Nickelodeon, and several others.
Pixel Pirate is the animation studio behind music videos such as Murda Beatz’s “Banana Split’’ featuring YNW Melly and Lil Durk, as well as Desiigner’s 2016 visual effort “Zombie Walk,” which has amassed a whopping 12 million YouTube views. Elsewhere, Onyejekwe and his team had the opportunity to work on the hip hop inspired television series “Sugar and Toys.”
REVOLT caught up with the creative to discuss the importance of Black creators telling Black stories, what typically goes into making an animated film, what his company has in the works, and more! Read below.
May you give us a bit of background to yourself and your company Pixel Pirate?
I come from the animation world. Basically, I do advertising and have worked with Nickelodeon, Travel DDB, and I worked at BET, as well. I started Pixel Pirate a little over 10 years ago and we’ve been scaling up since then. I also had a tech start-up which was sold to AOL then started a new software company where we pretty much create tools for animators and video games developers.
You’re amongst very few Black animation studios in Los Angeles. How important was it for Pixel Pirate to make its digital footprint in those spaces?
I think it’s great to see more studios popping up in the industry because for years we were the only one. It’s great to see that there are more opportunities for us to tell our own stories. That’s mostly the main thing that we’ve noticed, but I think we have a long way to go. I’m diving into the business side of things, so that it’s easier to finance our own content because that’s where the challenge is. It’s great that we’re breaking into these spaces, but until you get into the next realm of being able to finance and raise capital, then you’re always a slave to the person dictating the budget.
What are some of the hardships that you faced in the process and how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest challenge or thing I’ve learned over the years is that the last thing you want to do is get into content creation without a business plan. I see it often with people coming up now. They say, “Hey, I want my own studio.” But, what’s the business behind it? If you do it off your passion, then the challenge there is will you succeed? If you just have this great skillset, but don’t know where you want your company to go, then it may not last. Some people don’t realize that they actually just want to be freelancers. A business sounds cool, but you don’t realize that you’re going to need at least 25 executives to get you to the next level.
Can you walk us through the process from conception to realization?
So basically, let’s say it’s an animated show, it starts off with an idea which leads to the script. You definitely want to write the entire script ahead of time, but believe it or not, some people start without the full script done. So once you finish that, you immediately go into the actual voiceover recordings so now you’re hiring the talent, getting it recorded. Afterwards, you move into storyboard, character design, and background design. All those things happen simultaneously, and sometimes you want character design to start first.
A full-on animated show of let’s say 20 episodes that are 30-minutes long, you’re looking at up to a year of production. So, that’s why you just want to get started as quickly as possible. From there, you have what’s called the animatic phase. It’s pretty much animated your storyboard and that’s the last time you want to give your input. During the animation phase, you don’t want to make any changes or it can be incredibly expensive. You have multiple teams working on this of course, doing three to five episodes at a time. Next, you have a compositor that will grab all the character, background, and props then assemble them in one final movie with special effects. Then, there’s the final editing, sound design, and final mix and that pretty much wraps it up.
What do the conversations typically consist of when working on a project such as a music video or commercial?
Overall creative vision. Some clients will come to us with a clear vision of what they want and others are loose. Perfect example, when we worked on Murda Beatz’s “Banana Split” music video, they had no idea of what they wanted. So, I wrote three scripts for the music video and they chose one. I think they had maybe a slight change in it, but overall I created the vision for it.
For shows, we’ll write the script and work with the network or we’ll create something that’s fleshed out, and it’s like take it or leave it. Or networks will come to us with the script fully written, the vision is there, and they just need us to come and animate it.
What makes a great animation? Are they any features that you pay great attention to?
Culture, great communication to culture. It’s not just about being creative, it’s all of that plus the business side. I definitely think we assembled a great team for Knuck Tales, everyone was cool and did amazing work. At the same time, I have to understand everyone’s nature that way when a client says they want to change something, I’m in position to say, “Cool, we’ll have to charge you extra.” What you don’t want to do is have a two front war where you’re saying yes to everything but you’re annoyed. Now your people are getting annoyed and I’ve seen this happen in studios where animators quit in the middle of production because you didn’t say no or charge for a service that takes time. It’s that overall communication and understanding the client side that makes a great animation.
You’ve gotten to work with consumer favorites such as McDonalds and Oreo. What is the difference between working with a major corporation versus a start-up?
Money. The biggest thing is definitely the budget. The bigger corporations typically have a clear cut vision of what they want most of the time. If it’s Oreo or McDonalds, they have 20 executives going over what they want and what the voice of the corporation should be before they even talk to you. When they come to you, you know exactly what you need to do. With start-ups, they’re brand new so they probably never worked with an animation studio. So, you’re pretty much doing a bit more hand-holding and walking them through the process.
Amid the pandemic, do you think that there’s been an increasing or decreasing demand for animators?
There was definitely an increase, the challenge we faced was some of the budgets. I think if it wasn’t an animated series, the money was tight. If you’re a corporation then you’ll likely just put everything on hold. Now, as things get back to normal, I think we’ll see an influx of more animation. One of the biggest things that people don’t realize is that it’s the most lucrative form of content out. If you think about the richest film company, all of their money came from animation.
Understanding how important it is for Black creatives to tell Black stories, what can people do to support the animators in that space?
Definitely supporting the community and I think what also needs to happen, as African Americans, we need to understand finance and money. We all have ideas, it’s who has the capital to execute this vision. That’s where the hang up is for any Black creatives that create content, it’s the business side and finance side. So, I would say more support on domains like Kickstarter, we need to start self-financing our own stories.
We have to also start scaling bigger, start raising capital on our own streaming channel. We have the eyeballs, we give up the capital and resources to other groups. But, now we need to formulate that in our group.
Does Pirate Pixel currently have anything exciting in the pipeline?
Definitely! I can’t share everything right now because we have stuff going into production, but we’re working on an animated talk show that we’re going to be shopping around. It’s going to be a raunchy, adult show. The beauty is that nothing like it exists and if you think about it, nobody is doing a Black Adult Swim type of show set-up. The top-viewed animated adult contact was Black Dynamite and “The Boondocks” so nobody took that and ran with it. So, our mission right now is to scale up business wise and self-finance.
See more of Pixel Pirate’s work here.