Described by the filmmakers as, “A love letter to Lagos and Nigeria,” Iwájú is set 100 years in the future but grounded in modern day Lagos. Kugali is an African owned and operated storytelling collective who are passionate about creating content which respects and embraces the present and imagines the future of Africa.

In order to achieve authenticity, every gesture, word and item needed to be faithfully considered. It was essential to Kugali’s founders – Ziki, Hamid and Tolu – that Iwájú was created not just for global audiences, but for Africans, who should find the series familiar and true to their own experiences.

Kugali’s Toluwalakin “Tolu” Olowofoyeko served as the series’ principle cultural consultant, providing personal insights and advice every step of the way.  Having lived in Lagos for many years, he was able to advise on every aspect, including the differences between the island and mainland. Under his influence, Cinesite was able to add the kind of touchstones and nuances that people familiar with Nigerian customs might recognise. Many of the team creating Iwájú were accustomed to seeing Africa filtered through a westernised lens; the training and research process helped to change this.

Research was conducted at every level to ensure authenticity. In collaboration with Kugali, Cinesite arranged for a series of professors, speakers and advisors to teach the team about Nigeria’s cultures. It is a country with more than 300 spoken languages or dialects and cultural differences between regions of the country. Classes explored its history, customs, politics, family and societal structure, as well as the impact of colonialism.  This helped inform the choices every character in the series makes, from movement to spoken word, as well as environmental design choices.

Look development was led by the production designer, Hamid Ibrahim, with the Kugali and Disney Animation teams. Nigerian clothing is characterised by bright, patterned fabrics and the traditional flowing agbada robes favoured by the Yoruba people across West Africa. A range of reference fabrics was supplied to Cinesite along with photographs, colours and fabric ideas. The assets team created a range of traditional-looking patterns and designs which could be mixed and matched to create a vibrant patchwork of colour.  Once the styles had been approved, they were passed to the CFX technical team, to run simulations exploring how the fabric folds might move. Although it was important for the fabric to be realistic, its movement also needed to be adjustable to ensure it was not distracting, especially when characters are close to the camera.

The “Hi” or “Hello” of western greetings is replaced by “har fa,” i.e. “How far?”, the Nigerian equivalent of “How are you?” The physicality of greetings is also culturally very specific. When Kole, a menial worker, greets his boss, he gives the kind of salute appropriate to their age and class difference. This extends at one point to Kole reaching down and touching the ground before Tunde to show his respect. The actor playing the role recorded himself performing this as a reference for the animators.  In other instances, director Ziki Adeola would watch the team acting out shots and instruct them how to alter their performances to be more culturally correct in gesture and behaviour.  All of the character models, their bodies and faces, needed to be rigged to allow for the audible and physical expressions faithful to the accent and region.

One example of the difference between western and African gesticulation was explained to the team for a sequence where Tola has been kidnapped and Kole is relaying the terrible news to God’s Power (Tunde’s chauffeur). Where animators’ instincts might be for God’s Power to raise his hands to cover his mouth in horror, a more authentic African response would be for him to place his hands on top of his head. This physical response is also seen when Kole is alarmed by a shark tank in Bode’s apartment.

There is a rich culture of music, dance and food in Nigeria. In one charming sequence Tolu and Kole perform a traditional dance together, which was carefully choreographed by the production. It is a wonderful moment which establishes the bond and friendship between the children.

Elsewhere in the series, food is another important representation of Nigerian culture. Director Ziki Adeola accompanied some of the team to a Nigerian restaurant, where a delicious meal was eaten. At one point in the series, Kole is eating beans in a tomato sauce. Animators paid close attention to how he should use his agege bread like a spoon to scoop the beans up and suck them into his mouth. In another scene, Kole is drinking the Nigerian Zobo drink, which is made from dried Hibiscus petals and a mix of spices.

In one moving sequence, a disheartened Kole, who has been told off by his boss and is slowly making his way home in the rain, steps onto a bus before realising that he does not have enough money, then slowly and sadly steps back down. Advisor Tolu Olowofoyeko saw this and immediately advised, “In Nigeria, that would never happen.” He explained how frantic bus travel is, especially in Lagos, where buses often don’t stop even at bus stops, driving with doors open and leaving passengers little time to get on or off! This advice led to some subtle scene adjustments, including making the bus more crowded and the experience more stressful for Kole. There were opportunities at every stage of production to make changes, however subtle, to ensure that sequences were as  believable as possible.

Iwájú is, first and foremost, a series inspired by the spirit of Lagos and the beautiful Nigerian people. The teams from Cinesite, Kugali and Disney worked tirelessly together in a collaboration not just of companies, but cultures.  Cinesite is incredibly privileged and proud to have been entrusted with the confidence of both Disney and Kugali to create Iwájú.

All images and clips from Iwájú © Disney.