I’m excited to introduce you to the writer/producer of the up coming animated hip-hop film Central Park Tale, Jacqui Barcos. Jacqui, along with a team of highly respected industry professionals, have put together something truly unique for the world of animation; combining hip-hop, dance, and a compelling story to bring something fresh to the big screen. To really understand what I’m talking about, watch the video below followed by our in depth interview about this amazing project.
Talk a little about your kickstarter campaign and what you have going on.
We’ve put together this animated film and it is kind of cool, because it’s really the first of its kind hip-hop animated feature. Where it’s not just featuring hip-hop music, but the whole storyline takes place in the world of hip-hop in New York. We have the script completed and I’m completely thrilled because we have Daniel Jeannette, the animation director of Happy Feet, who’s actually cast as the director. We also have on board Jamal Sims, the choreographer of all the Step Up movies, so he couldn’t be more perfect for this film. Together, I think they are just going to make brilliant pieces of animation.
The storyline takes place in New York, and actually was based on a rip from the headlines. A few years back when I was living in New York, I noticed that there’s actually a colony of black squirrels that live in a small pocket park in the lower east side of Manhattan. It was recently announced that it was going to get raised, cause MetLife sold it to a wealthy development company. This really resonated throughout the community, because everyone has been complaining that New York is becoming a rich mans paradise and this is a further example; like all the middle class and younger people are getting turned away from Manhattan. Everyone is concerned about what’s going to happen to their families when they raise the entire complex. I’m like, “but wait, what’s going to happen to the black squirrels? I guess they’d migrate north and they’d get to Central Park, but then Central Park is the home turf of the gray squirrels.” Then I thought, “What if it was like West Side Story?” That’s kind of where the idea was born.
Our story is sort of a re-imagining of West Side Story and its set in the backdrop of a squirrels turf battle between gray and black squirrels. The fresh twist is, the voices and the artists. The voice of the characters and the songs are going to be hip-hop artists. I thought of this idea while on a New York subway and it was percolating in my brain for a while. Then I met Rita Cahill, who is very established in the animation community and she introduced me to Daniel. I talked with him about the story and he really responded to it. He has a lot of experience taking live action dance and incorporating it into the animated universe. He was really the perfect person to come on board. Since then, I’ve been collaborating with Daniel and Rita to turn the script into a full-blown animated feature.
How do you use dance in the story? How important is hip-hop to this story?
Dance is completely vital to the story, and in some ways it’s one of the most important components of the story, cause it sort of implores adult themes of conflict. Even though this is one of the oldest stories in the world, it’s still very new in modern days because we’re experiencing this all the time. Basically, what happens when you have two groups from different worlds or different cultures, is they’re suddenly competing over the same resources. Mistrust and fear, fear of other, is often what will breed contempt and hatred. So the competition between these two rival groups is expressed through dance. I can’t think of a better art form then hip-hop, in particularly street battles, to express conflict.
There are so many ways to explore hip-hop. In a way, everybody that dances hip-hop, sort of has their own unique style. Since hip-hop has been around for a long time, I think what drew Jamal and Daniel to this piece is the possibility of having creative challenges. How can you take what already exists and really elevate it, really push the envelope and explore it in ways we’ve never seen before. That can happen not just with the way we perceive the dance through the animated characters, but it’s also thoughts like…what if we bring in other elements? What if the squirrels are also doing these parkour things, or what if they’re doing martial arts? What’s interesting about squirrels and animals is they are one of the most gracious and agile creatures in the world. You see them leaping through trees and scurrying, and it defies gravity what they are able to do. If you were able to take an animal like that in a dancing way, what would that look like? We just think it’s going to be kind of a cool and amazing way to explore new ground; to break new ground that nobody has really done before.
What do you feel the audience will connect most with about this animated film?
A couple things. I think that at the core, and this really speaks to my writing side, as a writer I always feel it’s really important to ground your story in emotional truths. While there’s going to be fun dancing and great visuals, it’s still an emotional story and it’s a love story, a star-crossed love story. I think that ultimately the messages are: we are all more alike then we are different. If we could just see past the color barriers, the cultural barriers, and the socio-economic barriers we could recognize in each other our own humanity. I think that is something that potentially could resonate, cause it’s kind of a message that needs to be founded right now.
I understand you set this up in Paris. Why is it you decided to go there?
We’re actually super excited to send it to Paris! First of all, just in terms of the background; France has a wonderful tradition of animation stemming decades. They really have a cultural appreciation for it, and a lot of talent coming out of Paris. There’s a couple facilities, one in particular called Mikros Image that’s been around for quite some time and they’re highly respected. They have recently moved now to animation and they won an academy award a few years ago for their short film Logorama. They have won tons of awards, and in seeing their list of awards, it is kind of staggering. What’s really amazing is they just won a very coveted franchise, which is called Asterix and Obelix. It’s almost like them landing the equivalent of the Batman Franchise.
Astrix and Obelix is one of the most beloved novels in France, it’s a cultural treasure. For them to be awarded that contract is awesome. So what they are doing now is building a new state of the art animation facility in the heart of Paris, and Astrix and Obelix is going to be their first film. Hopefully, our project will be not too long after that. The other wonderful thing about the guys at Mikros, is that they are always sort of on the cutting edge. Not just visual design, but also content. When they read the script, they immediately fell in love with it. They totally get that we want to make this a little edgy.
In a way our story tackles somewhat complex themes and somewhat adult themes, it’s not just sugar land for five year olds. We strongly feel that animation has grown up enough now to tackle these complex themes that are sometimes dark, but can still be filled with love, hope, and positive messages. If you look to things like Toy Story, or even Ratatouille, which are also in a way very adult, it’s possible to make a film that satisfies both demographics or both audiences, the adult and the children so it’s something for everybody. Because this is an urban film, and because it takes on other things like hip-hop, we felt very-very strongly that we don’t want to gut it, undignify, or sanitize this. We want to keep and preserve the artistic integrity. I strongly feel after talking with several places, Mikros and France is the best place, the best possible home, because they will foster and embrace this sort of artistic integrity.
How can people participate and make this project come to life?
We actually just launched a kickstarter campaign and where we are in the process is: we have the completed script, we have the talent attached, we have the animation studio, and we even have potential distributors that are interested. But in the world of animation, a script is very important as is the talent, but perhaps most important is what it will look like.
With almost any animated film you have to develop a proof, or look of concept, and that’s what you show to distributors and investors…this is what it’s going to look like. We’re at that stage now. What we’re doing is creating a proof of concept and Mikros Image, god bless them, loves this project so much they have agreed to basically underwrite a teaser for us. We use our own sweat equity to create this teaser, which is actually worth a fair amount of money, like hundreds of thousands, so what we need to do right now is cover the outside costs. This would involve hiring and everything, from Jamal and his crew of dancers to production insurance. We want to hire a really high-end proof of concept artist to come up with the characters.
There’s some incidental and some outside costs that we have to cover and that is why we are doing the kickstarter campaign. Hopefully our campaign will get funded. We’re only asking for 40k, and if it does fund then in late September, early October, we run off to Paris and get the teaser done. That will take a few months and then we’re off to getting the feature made. We’ve actually been getting some really interesting press and we’ve been getting a lot of love from the online community, which is really wonderful to see. In particular, there has been a lot of love from the dance community, which is the one community we really want to embrace.
Help make this project come to life by donating to their kickstarter campaign http://kck.st/NX6xEj
You can also listen to the audio version of this interview below.