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From Comic-Con to Oscar-winning "Hair Love" - A Leadership Talk with Carl Reed

Back in 2019, a little movie called “Hair Love” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and shattered glass ceilings in the process. It follows the story of a little Black girl and her father as they attempt to style her hair for a special occasion.

The Kickstarter to fund the film raised over $300,000—the goal was $75,000—and “Hair Love” quickly became a sensation.

Last month, FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO, Peggy Kim, sat down with Carl Reed, one of the producers of “Hair Love” and Co-Founder of Lion Forge Animation.

“I never thought that something we care so much about would resonate with other people,” Reed admitted about the film, calling the short’s Oscar win “amazing,” “crazy,” and “surreal.”

Reed’s road to the Oscars started as a comic artist at age 15, when he hitched a ride with his brother out to San Diego Comic-Con on a whim, hoping to get some work.

“I took the circuitous route,” he explained, starting as a comic book illustrator. Growing up as a big comic fan, Reed “didn’t realize [that] everyone didn’t just like comics or animation or things of that nature… I just assumed everyone did, because it’s pretty cool, how can you not like it?”

Reed is completely self-taught. He didn't go to art school or take any art classes, but he did devour books on drawing and watched old VHS tapes from the library to sharpen his skills.

He got jobs making art for commercials and eventually moved out to Los Angeles to do broadcast animation. He even started a marketing agency in addition to his comics work, where his team did everything from toy design to web design. “We did what we had to do to keep our office lights on.”

“It’s a much better world [today],” Reed said. “I can’t imagine a better time to get started. There are no barriers to entry…. You can share your work instantly, and if someone likes it, you can have potentially millions and millions of people following your work and be generating revenue without the studio system [and] without taking the traditional route.”

Reed shared some of the lessons he's learned throughout his career, especially the importance of community and feedback. “People have a really deep connection to things that they helped from the beginning.” He advised listeners to “build your own tribe” to give feedback and support.

Reed also emphasized the imperative of getting things done. “Create content fast,” he said, explaining that improvement comes from feedback, and feedback only comes if you have delivered something. Many artists are plagued by crippling perfectionism, but “to pay bills… you have to get stuff out, and it won’t be perfect, but that’s the only way to grow.”

Reed further commented that there is a time and place for passion projects, but they “will never, never be perfect. It won’t even be what you want—you’ll look at it and you’ll cringe,” even if no one else will. “You’re your own worst critic,” he said.

The success of “Hair Love” has given Reed and Lion Forge a calling card with more open doors and people willing to take meetings, but he was quick to say that he and his partners still have to “prove ourselves every time,” and pitches remain nerve-wracking.

“You have a very short time to basically infect the buyer or partner or whoever you’re pitching to with the love you have for the project,” and sometimes you have to boil a pitch down to the bare essentials.

Reed seems to have found a good balance, especially considering that Lion Forge’s next big project, the television show “Iyanu: Child of Wonder,” has been picked up by HBO Max.

On the topic of leadership, Reed admitted that he’s “still learning.” But, he believes that it is “crucial” to be “super upfront and super transparent and [to] have a lot of accountability…. Otherwise, you will never see your gaps and see where you can grow, and you won’t have the trust of your partners, employees, et cetera.”

Reed has come a long way since he hopped in his brother’s van to go to Comic-Con. “I was the only Black person in the room,” Reed recalled of his earlier years. “There were these old-school philosophies about content [and] if it didn’t check these boxes, there was this perception that it wouldn’t work.”

However, with hits such as “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and, yes, “Hair Love,” that mindset is shifting, slowly but surely.

Reed values authenticity in his work: “I have a mission and a goal behind the type of content that I want to create,” he explained. “That content typically will be new and different… and will also represent diverse audiences and new voices and new perspectives.”

“These old ways of doing things that are based on a lot of bias aren’t relevant,” Reed said. “You can’t quickly turn around a huge ship,” he acknowledged, but “you don’t necessarily have to ask for permission… The world is wide, wide open.”

Three weeks after the Leadership Talk, Reed announced a new venture, Composition Media, an animation studio with an innovative approach to making animated film and TV content for a global audience, with much of the content highlighting minority and underrepresented communities.

Reed continues on his road less traveled, paving a way for others, and he's not asking for permission.



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