Photos by Paul Colletti
“Diverse stories are global.”
David Steward II and Carl Reed are the co-founders of Lion Forge Animation, an Academy Award-winning animation studio based in St. Louis, Missouri. It is one of the only black-owned animation studios in the Nation. After winning an Academy Award for the short film Hair Love, a story about a black father styling his daughter’s hair for the first time, it was off to the races for the extremely talented David and Carl.
The son of a successful and pioneering entrepreneur, David Steward II saw first-hand the trials and tribulations of stepping out on your own and being one of the first to do something, but he also saw the success of what happens when you don’t give up. In 2011, David partnered with Carl to launch Lion Forge Comics with the intention to push diversity in the comic book industry. Towards the end of the decade, David wanted to expand. In 2018, he created the holding company Polarity to house his many creative endeavors and ambitions. The next year, Lion Forge Animation was established.
Lion Forge Animation most recently inked a deal with Starlight Media (known for financing Crazy Rich Asians and its director-focused business model) to bring animated shorts and feature films to international audiences. The two studios are collaborating on an adaptation of the Chinese folktale Journey to the West. Diversity isn’t just a measure of good faith but is ingrained in Lion Forge’s business model. In our interview with the two creatives, we discuss the trials of entrepreneurship, what makes Lion Forge unique in the animation industry, and what it means to be a black creative today.
Where are you all from and what was it like growing up there?
David Steward II – I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and that is where we currently are now. I was born and raised here then spent a little bit of time in the Washington, D.C., area attending American University. I lived there for a couple of years and moved to LA for a short stint and then moved back here to St. Louis. It is one of those places that keeps drawing you back.
Carl Reed – I am also St. Louis raised, and I think there are not many places like St. Louis. I think we have, like everywhere, our scars. I lived right on those scars before they started healing up. Even in those places, there is a sense of community and a sense of being a part of something meaningful.
What was the most important lesson you learned in the early phases of your careers?
CR – One thing that I learned very early on, which I think helped me focus and continue to move quickly, is that we have a lot of control over the trajectory of our lives. You need to be single-mindedly focused on your goal. If you put in extra work, you are going to be on top from a position of skill. When Dave and I first met, we both had these agencies and merged them into a bigger agency. When you are creating a new business, you have to work in every role and learn how everything works. You have to dive in and learn from the pain points early so that you can experience the pleasure later.
DSII – Carl said it right when he said that it is important to become a jack of all trades and doing everything and understanding all aspects of a business. It is not just about doing what is fun. Before we became this creative agency, I took up photography. I had to do so much more than get behind the camera and take pictures. I had to do the sales, the marketing, the accounting and the business planning. Winning requires all these things that go around it. You start a business and it sounds all glamorous but, you know, 80 percent of what you are doing is business and 20 percent is working on the product or service that you are delivering. Because the business side makes it successful and puts you in the position to be able to do the work.
At what point did you begin to feel you all had made it?
DSII – I don’t think we’ve made it. I am definitely not in that mindset. We are always hungry for more. We are always hungry for more success to grow bigger and better. Winning the Oscar was great for us, but it was really just the start. We see ourselves being the size of Dreamworks and beyond. We see ourselves being able to change the landscape of what the animation industry looks like in terms of diversity and black participation in particular. Diverse voices and portrayals on-screen happen because of the work. There is a lot of work that needs to be done and every success is a stepping stone to get to the next level.
CR – I think we would start to feel like we’ve made it when we are able to be a source that people can go to for authentic content and we are able to immediately say you know what, the world needs to see this and we have the ability to make it happen. That is what we are trying to do and what we are working towards.
CR – That Academy Award win and the ability to be able to get on that national stage was huge. But from a greatest achievement standpoint, there was a time, I can’t recall the name, when we published a children’s book. We brought the book to my kid’s kindergarten class to read. It was like this is what we are doing it for. It was not only a great achievement to experience but a great way to set the tone for what we wanted to do going forward.
DSII – Building on what Carl said, our greatest achievement so far is having a recognized presence in both the comics industry as well as the animation industry. And for those industries, that is something significant for a studio in the Midwest. These are hard industries to get into. It is hard to get people to work with you and return your phone calls. There is something to be said about breaking in and being able to make a phone call and people know who you are and what you stand for. We have the opportunity to really talk about doing meaningful business.
What characteristics do you all look for in projects that end up getting the green-light?
CR – We have a pretty strong and focused mission. We create content that challenges expectations and reflects the diversity of our audience. Those are our core two tenants. On one side: we challenge expectations. This means that there are no new stories. What are the unique perspectives that come out of this story? What is exciting about this?
On the other side: The diversity of our audience is directly correlated to our work because it defines what our characters look like, what the creative team looks like. How is it different in the market? Diversity directly affects those expectations because sometimes you have a different viewpoint. You are from a different community or culture which will often challenge mainstream expectations and bring something new to the genre or the story.
Lion Forge Animation recently teamed up with Starlight Media for a joint picture partnership. You all are currently working on “Journey to the West,” which will highlight a Chinese folktale. Why was this partnership so important?
DSII – For us, it is really an extension of the work we started as a comic book company. Our company and all of the companies under our umbrella stand for diversity in all senses of the word. It is especially relevant when it comes to us being African American and how we know what it feels like to be overlooked and minimized in media representation. And so not only do we want to tell authentic African American stories, we also want to provide opportunities and be able to help aid and produce stories from other cultures that have been overlooked.
CR – And we couldn’t have found a better partner than Starlight. They helped bring Crazy Rich Asians to the forefront. Who would have thought that a film with an entirely Asian cast would do so well in a traditional mainstream sense? Traditional Hollywood too often relegates productions with a majority-minority cast as not a mainstream thing. What they miss is how good these stories can be. So building upon that, I don’t think we could have found a better partner to create something that focuses on Chinese folklore and we are looking forward to adding our perspective to something so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture.
DSII – In addition to Crazy Rich Asians, Starlight also funded Marshall, a story about Thurgood Marshall. They also have been cross-cultural in their support of movies. They are a true partner with us in authentic storytelling.
We hear a lot about the promise to be more diverse and more inclusive in the entertainment industry. As black creators/executives, what specific changes do you want the industry to make?
DSII – I think they have just taken the first steps. In this last year, we have seen a proliferation of black executives that have gotten into influential positions in various companies. There is one thing to get the position and the title but what is going to be truly meaningful is if that person has the power within those companies to be able to really affect change, to be able to green-light projects, to affect who gets opportunities with and within these companies.
How those projects are received is vital as well. In the past, you had a lot of situations where diverse content would get greenlit but as that content is moving through the studio system you had non-diverse executives looking at the content and changing it based on what they thought that culture was. These executives were not relying on an authentic voice in these portrayals.
Based on stereotypes.
Right. Remember the movie Hollywood Shuffle? There is a scene where Robert Townsend has to play a gangster and they say he has to be “blacker” and he’s just like what?
It was a joke but that really happens. Hopefully, they embrace these executives and really embrace what they bring to the table and not only create opportunities but also help to make sure that content and voices are coming through in a real meaningful way.
What advice do you all have for young people who would like to get into production and animation?
CR – We live in a completely different time and it is crazy that even one generation ago our grandparents had to deal with media that consistently diminished who they/we are. Now we are in an even more unprecedented time where we can directly create something and put it out there immediately in our true voice. We don’t have to get beat up or stumble as much as we used to, so I would encourage people, particularly the young, to create now. Fight for what you believe in. As you grow and your skills improve and your audience grows, you can then talk to people in positions of power with a level of confidence that evens the playing field a bit.
DSII – The best thing you can do, especially for breaking into this industry, is to invest in yourself. Investing in your own personal education, knowledge, and ability to do things. The more you can do and the more you can do on your own, the less you have to rely on other people to get it done. So if you have a vision that you want to put out, you can achieve that on your own.
You are also not limited by what might go wrong in the process as well. There are times where you might be collaborating and something gets halted and stalled. You have the ability to jump in and fix it if you have the skillset.
The ability to teach others is also important. One thing that we have been able to do effectively is to build teams. We are able to teach those teams how to engage on the different aspects of production and come up with ways to do it more effectively and efficiently. I cannot underscore enough the importance of internal knowledge when coming into this industry.
To learn more about Lion Forge Animation, you can visit their website.