In 1958, Esquire published “A Great Day in Harlem,” a photo taken by Art Kane of 57 jazz musicians ranging from Thelonious Monk to Coleman Hawkins gathered on a New York stoop. In tribute to this historic image, on June 5, 2022, Nickelodeon Animation and Paramount Pictures hosted “A Great Day in Animation”, which features 54 black professionals working in animation today. Taken by Randy Shropshire with Jeff Vespa as production manager and obtained exclusively by Varietythe photo is above.
Although Nickelodeon and Paramount organized the event and hosted it on Paramount’s backlot, “A Great Day in Animation” includes artists from across the industry. The idea for the pic came from Marlon West, a visual effects supervisor for Disney whose credits include “The Lion King,” “Encanto,” and upcoming Disney+ series “Iwájú.” For decades, West has been moved by “A Great Day in Harlem,” as well as Jean Bach’s Oscar-nominated film of the same name, which documents the photo’s origin.
“I had a framed copy of this photo in my office or somewhere for 30 years,” West said. Variety. “And I thought it would be cool to do the same with black animators.”
Aided by friends and colleagues Bruce Smith, Peter Ramsey and Everett Downing Jr., West began compiling a list of animation professionals to include, targeting legends like Floyd Norman, whose work on “Sleeping Beauty from 1959 made him the very first Disney. Black animator, and his close collaborator Leo D. Sullivan.
“In the original photo, Coleman Hawkins is standing front and center. He was one of the eldest of those people,” West explains. “I just imagined Floyd Norman standing in place of Coleman Hawkins, and all of us beaming of him, and Leo Sullivan and other great masters who upped the game.”
It was also important for West to invite up-and-coming artists such as Latoya Raveneau, who recently directed “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” and Chrystin Garland, background painter and designer on series like “Solar Opposites.” .
“If people look at this picture in 10 or 20 years, [I hope] they’re like, ‘There’s so-and-so when they were just getting started!” West says.
After criss-crossing Los Angeles looking for different locations to take the shot, West was drawn to the New York-style buildings of the Paramount lot. (“And on a personal level, I was sleeping on the floors of my friends’ apartments five blocks from Paramount when I first moved to Los Angeles,” he adds.) He then contacted the studio’s head of animation, Ramsey Naito, who sought the help of Camille Eden, vice president of recruiting, talent development and outreach at Nickelodeon.
Eden was a long time fan of “A Great Day in Harlem”. “It’s been long enough that I can admit it, but when the documentary came out in the picture, I actually skipped work to watch it in the theater,” she said. Variety by email. “When Ramsey Naito called me to tell me about the project, I didn’t have to think twice. I immediately called my event manager, Robbie Siron, and told him about the project. Robbie was on board, and we went. From the time Ramsey called, it took about five weeks to set everything up.
The day of the picture was emotional for many. For two and a half hours, 54 black animation professionals (and a director’s child) met for the first time, had a long-awaited reunion, and shared their stories.
“The first person to show up was Leo Sullivan. He came with his family. He’s such a legend, so seeing him come in was huge,” Eden recalled. “Little by little, more people showed up, and I remember thinking, ‘This is really happening. I wish I could put into words what it feels like to see all this incredible gathering of black talent. Many had not seen each other for years. Many met their idols and heroes in person for the first time.
“Carole Holliday was there, and for a very long time she was the only black woman I know doing animation. I wanted to introduce her to some of these young sisters, and it was wonderful to be able to do that,” says West: “Seeing her surrounded by people who knew her, or maybe didn’t even know they were standing on her shoulders. I was struggling with my knocking knees, my voice cracking and my eyes bulging.”
Like “A Great Day in Harlem,” “A Great Day in Animation” will remind the industry that there is a great wealth of black performers excelling in their craft.
“I think people are going to look at this picture of 60 black people and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was that much’ — and that’s a fraction of us,” West says. “Most of my career I’m either the only brother in the room or one of the few, and that was everyone’s experience that day. So I think people are going to be surprised. She was almost [enough artists to staff] a studio standing there.
“I hope people interested in animation will see this photo and see several generations of people like them succeed and lead the way in animation,” Eden adds. “I hope studios and executives see this photo and think of all the movies and projects that each person in the photo has been in and realize the impact and reach of black talent in our industry.”
And for those photographed, West hopes “A Great Day in Animation” will be a worthy commemoration of a once-in-a-lifetime moment and the special nature of what they do.
“Our job is to create things out of nothing,” he says. “What we do does not exist [in advance]. We draw it. We build it. We sculpt it. We paint it.
(Above photo: Aaron Spurgeon, Abelle Hayford, Ayo Davis, Breana Williams, Brie E Henderson, Bruce W. Smith, Camille Eden, Carole Holliday, Chris Copeland, Chrystin Garland, Constance Allen, Deborah Anderson, Devin Crane, Eric, Ramsey, Everett Downing Jr., Floyd Norman, Frank Abney, Jay Francis, Justin Copeland, Kaela Lash, Kai Akira, Karen Toliver, Kelley Gardner, Kemp Powers, Kenny Thompkins, Kwesi Davis, Latoya Raveneau, Layron DeJarnette, Lennie Graves, Lenord Robinson, Leo D. Sullivan, Leo Sullivan Jr., Lyndon Barrois Jr., Lynne Southerland, Maimuna Venzant, Marcella Brown, Marlon West, Marshall Toomey, Morenike Dosu, Peter Ramsey, Pixote Hunt, Ralph Farquhar, Reginald Hudlin, Robert Tyler, Ron Husband, Ron Myrick, Shabrayia Cleaver, Shari B. Ellis, Shavonne Cherry, Shay Stone, Sidney Clifton, Swinton Scott, Tara Nicole Whitaker, Tyree Dillihay, Umaimah Damakka)