‘Substance’: Black animator Jamaal Bradley speaks

by The Minister of Information JR

Jamaal Bradley, the senior animator for Valve software, was one of the industry giants in attendance who participated in a Q&A at this year’s San Francisco Black Film Festival. Bradley is the former supervising animator at Dreamworks and has worked at various studios, including Walt Disney Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Electronic Arts. He has been a senior animator on Oscar-nominated films such as “Penguins of Madagascar,” “Puss in Boots,” “The Croods,” “The Croods 2,” “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Boss Baby” and more.

He has also contributed to games such as “Left for Dead 1 & 2,” “Medal of Honor: Breakthrough” and “Team Fortress 2,” to name a few. This interview is for the people who did not attend Jamaal Bradley’s panel.

The goal is to recognize one of the greats among us, as well as know his name so that we could begin to check in on Jamaal Bradley online periodically to be able to stay abreast of his pioneering journey being a Black animator in Hollywood as well as to learn from his vast knowledge of the industries of gaming, animation, cinema and more. Here, we are talking about his five-minute short film, “Substance,” which was selected to screen at the SF Black Film Fest.

M.O.I. JR: What inspired the creation of “Substance”? Why was that story the story that needed to be told?

Jamaal Bradley: There were two driving forces that led me to make this film. One was self-expression as an artist. Having your own ideas and being able to produce them is very tough in animation, but it was a goal that I wanted to achieve. I developed many original story ideas over the years, but drawing on a theme that was close to home was a bit therapeutic.

The second was being able to create something animated with characters that look like me. As a Black animator, there is a very slim chance that you will get to animate a character of color. I know we hear people outside of the industry wanting the large studios to represent our culture, but I don’t believe it’s something they should or need to do. It’s up to Black creators to build the world we want to see.

M.O.I. JR: Who is your targeted audience with this film? Why are they the target?

Jamaal Bradley: Of course I want people who love animation and storytelling to enjoy the film. I could have created this in live action, but my passion is animation. When I think of a specific audience, my hope would be that young aspiring Black artists or any minority who questioned having a career, or were just curious about the profession of animation, they can see someone who looks like them represented on the screen and be inspired.

We hear people outside of the industry wanting the large studios to represent our culture, but I don’t believe it’s something they should or need to do. It’s up to Black creators to build the world we want to see.

M.O.I. JR: Who have you shown “Substance” to so far? What was their response like?

Jamaal Bradley: We have shown the film at a few festivals including the Beverly Hills Film Festival, the Langston Hughes Film Festival, the British Animation Film Festival, The Harlem International Film Festival, as well as private screenings at Disney Animation, Dreamworks Animation and Netflix.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive thus far. Our message resonates with so many people and that feels like a major achievement since it can be a sensitive topic for some families. We have a few more festivals that have accepted the film and we cannot wait to continue to share what we have done.

M.O.I. JR: How long did the creative process take from conception to post production? Please explain.

Jamaal Bradley: It took us around six years to finish the film once we really got started. Since most of the team only worked in their spare time, we worked slowly but diligently.

I worked on several films during the entire time of production for the short, so that shows just how minimal the hours were we dedicated to the project. This wasn’t out of not caring, but a matter of making sure I could sustain myself and my family during the creation.

The story idea began around 2008, if I remember correctly. I was going through a few things and I just started writing like crazy. After dissecting what was coming out on paper, I began to look more closely at what was going on around me. I was reading collected works by James Baldwin at the time, and I was inspired by the connection that his work was making with the real-life events surrounding him.

The first story pass of “Substance” was still based on truth and reality, but I took a lot of animation liberties. Funny motion, exaggerated expressions and special effects created using 2D animation were all on the table. I paid for tests to be done by professional 2D FX artists, seasoned lighters and a few other people, but once I started to calculate the scope of things and the real-world financials, it started to look out of reach.

Another thing that made me reevaluate how to tell the story was people saying they could help, but in reality, it was a lot of talking without any productive action. So this led to a big simplification pass. This is when I decided to shoot it like a live-action film, and use animation principles to enhance it.

The lead story artist, Michael Yates, always said it had a stage play feel, which works for the story and the message we are sending. The really huge part of the evolution came from knowing our limitations, working within them, and from using them to our advantage.

M.O.I. JR: How did you create such emotion in a five-minute silent piece played over music?

Jamaal Bradley: The major thing for me was to make Black characters look and feel unique but authentic. There are many ranges you can hit because our culture is so diverse, but for the story I’m telling it had to feel authentic.

We’ve received a lot of praise so far for the look, and this has made us very happy. When people pointed out the “walk” in the teaser, it was a huge, humbling rush. The affirmation that we captured a feeling that no one has approached in animation meant a lot. It was great to see “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” break some ground in this area. As far as “Substance” goes, we’re telling a story that is real so the visuals had to support it.

At first, I was going for a very stylized, painterly look that probably would have looked very cool – but, again, looking at the financials I ultimately made the decision to “let CG be CG.” This was my way of saying we were going to use the tools present in the software to give us what we needed. So our lead modeler, Mridul Sen, and our surfacing lead, Nikie Monteleone, really captured what we needed to make the impact necessary.

M.O.I. JR: Did you have the music written specifically for “Substance”? If not how did you get the music and scenes to match emotionally?

Jamaal Bradley: Oh yes! Having specific crafted music was the only way to help drive our story. At first we were using some heavy handed dialogue to carry many of the scenes, but the lead story artist and I decided that having just music play over the moments would really force the audience to watch our characters and be a part of every scene.

Our composer, Stephen “Bud’da” Anderson, was essential to this process. I basically told him about where the story came from and the emotions I was feeling during the real events. We spoke for a few days about everything and then we brought on Adolphus “Scottie” Scott III, the lead vocalist, who’s accompanied by Avery Sunshine to give them a real deep dive into all the beats we needed to hit.

The song goes to the core thoughts of the brothers. “Scottie” bounces between both characters to deliver each of their mental states. Having this kind of vocalization creates another bit of glue as the story progresses.

Avery comes in at the right time to be the voice of the little girl trapped in the middle of the events. I was so excited to hear both of these beautiful voices help breathe life into the short. It was humbling to work with all of them.

M.O.I. JR: What is the ultimate plan for “Substance”? What platforms do you plan to use to make sure people see this film?

Jamaal Bradley: We are going to continue to hit the festivals and private screenings. At some point later in the year we will have it posted on the web for a limited time.

M.O.I. JR: How has your life been as a career animator? Is this a feasible job for Black youth?

Jamaal Bradley: I have been a professional animator close to 20 years now, which sounds insane, but it has been a great journey. During that time, I have had the chance to work with some of my idols and amazing artists who boggle the mind with what comes out of their heads and hands.

Every job has ups and downs, but I have never regretted taking this career path. Not many people get to say when they go to work that it doesn’t feel like work at all.

To your question about is this a feasible job for Black youth, yes it is. The advice I give is being diligent and making sacrifices to make it happen. It does sound cliché, but it’s the truth.

You will have to dig deep and find your personal route to become a creative professional. Make sure that you are not afraid to take chances because many opportunities will come up that you may want to second guess. Sometimes throwing caution to the wind may lead to something better than you could have ever imagined.

M.O.I. JR: Are you currently working on anything new?

Jamaal Bradley: Yes, I am, but I can’t speak on it at the moment.

M.O.I. JR: How could people stay in touch with your work?

Jamaal Bradley: People can get in touch with me through my website: www.jamaalbradley.com.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.