Black History in the Making: OYA Scale Up Immersive Takes Flight

Posted: Feb 17, 2022

Each February, the CFC is proud to celebrate Black History Month with special programming, and by highlighting the contributions of Black Canadians to our shared cultural heritage. Last year, we focused on some of the incredible achievements of Black women entrepreneurs and founders from the 18th century to the present; this year, we’re shining a light on the immersive media pioneers whose current work represents Black history in the making.

Fifth Wave Initiative alumni Alison Duke and Ngardy Conteh George are the co-founders of OYA Media Group and its sister not-for-profit arm, OYA Black Arts Coalition (OBAC). Following the Canadian government’s announcement of the Black Entrepreneurship Fund in 2020, Nataly De Monte, Director of CFC Media Lab and Managing Director of the Fifth Wave Initiative, immediately sensed an opportunity for these cohort one graduates. As De Monte recalls,

“I went to Ngardy and Alison and asked, ‘Hey, are you thinking of applying for this fund for Black Entrepreneurship? Because we can partner with you, and here’s what we can do. And here’s why I think this program is needed.’”

Together with the CFC Media Lab and supporting partner Dark Slope, OBAC launched its Scale Up Immersive lab on February 2, 2022. Their goal: to diversify the talent pool and build capacity in the immersive media industry, in order for Black voices, perspectives and lived experiences to be represented and included in Canadian digital content innovation.

“I was lucky to be introduced to Adrian Rashad Driscoll who became very interested in this initiative and has since been an integral part of the team as Program Design Co-Lead and Lead Facilitator.” adds De Monte, “Adrian not only lends his expertise in all things immersive, but has also become a ‘super connector’ expanding the reach of this program and its participants to south of the border.”

Funded by the Government of Canada through the Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP) Ecosystem Fund delivered by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, Scale Up Immersive will work to support at least ten Black-owned content creation companies per year, for three years, for a total of 30 founders. We recently spoke with Alison and Ngardy about the path from solo entrepreneurship to collaboration to the creation of their own Scale Up program, and the opportunities they hope to offer those who follow in their footsteps.

How did a pair of Black women filmmakers end up creating a business accelerator for immersive media companies?

Alison Duke: Ngardy and I met through creativity, actually. She was working on her first film, a feature documentary called The Flying Stars, which is a great film about amputee soccer players in Sierra Leone. She had reached out to me about going through her film as she was going through her rough cuts and fine cuts and picture lock. We had several conversations about her film, and I just felt so honoured to be asked, because I really love talking about film, and structure, and how stories get shaped, especially in post [production].

Then I was asked to be involved in The Akua Benjamin Legacy project, which was a film project honouring Akua Benjamin, who is the person that came up with the term Anti-Black Racism. It was a series of films on Black activists in Toronto who are no longer here: people like Dudley Laws, Charles Roach, Gwen and Lenny Johnson, Rosie Douglas, and Marlene Green, all [of whom had] really rich lives.

I thought I couldn’t possibly make five films by myself with the deadline that they had, and Ava DuVernay was asking Black women to helm projects – why didn’t I just look around and see which Black women in Toronto wanted to be a part of this project? I immediately thought of Ngardy because we had such a great rapport on that first project, and she knocked it out of the park when she made the film Dudley Speaks for Me. I admired her work ethic, her understanding of story, and her tenacity – working to the end just to get it right. That’s who you want to work with. She came back a few years later to work on the Mr. Jane and Finch episode for CBC Docs POV. She was the director, I came on as Producer and Co-Writer with her, and that was the start of OYA Media Group.

Ngardy Conteh George: It was organic, it was a natural progression; it was just what made sense. When Mr. Jane and Finch came out and won two Canadian Screen Awards, we each had a bunch of projects already in development that came to OYA Media Group. So growth was happening at a rapid pace. Then in early 2020, I saw the advertisement for the Fifth Wave program, probably on one of the final days [applications were] due. I said, “Check this out! It looks like a great opportunity – CFC, we’re a female-led business…”.

It was kind of perfect positioning for us, because it seemed like a great opportunity to tackle some of the growth problems OYA was experiencing, and do some things to improve our company. Because both of us [prior to forming OYA] were solo entrepreneurs; we didn’t have a big staff or a big office – all of those things. So with all of that happening [in 2020], we realized that this accelerator might be a great opportunity to put our business in check.

Alison Duke: At first I didn’t want to do it, because we were doing a lot. I didn’t know if we had the time. But then we sat down and looked at all the criteria, and all the positive things that could possibly come out of it, all the learnings, and we decided we were going to apply. And it was a process. We got through the first stage, and then we had to have a Zoom interview…

Ngardy Conteh George: Yeah, do you remember we were supposed to have the interview in person? But this was as the world was getting ready to shut down. We were practicing our presentation in the office, and we were going to go to the interview location in person, when we got the email saying it was going to be virtual, on Zoom. And then a few days later, the world shut down.

Alison Duke: We really needed to be in an accelerator program [at that time], because what do you do as a new business? We were about a year old or so – and there’s this thing called COVID. Things are shutting down, and we have several projects in development with various broadcasters, or have received funding for [projects] – how do you move? How do you pivot? Fifth Wave really helped us navigate that.

Ngardy Conteh George: We had employees at that time. We had staff. And at the same time we were rebranding, contemplating whether to change our logo, our name. We were working with a company, a great consultancy called Bespoke Cultural Collective, who were taking us through a whole rebranding, strategic planning exercise. So it was such great timing to also be participating in Fifth Wave during that time.

Two years on, you’re now in the position to share what you’ve learned – and a lot more – with this slate of 10 new companies who are participating in the first Scale Up Immersive cohort. What’s in store for these founders?

Ngardy Conteh George: One of the goals of the lab is to help participants meet a lot of people who work in this industry: the movers and the shakers, the ones that are creating great work. Our first week speaker is Alton Glass, sometimes nicknamed the Black godfather of VR because he’s one of the early adopters of VR from the Black community in the U.S. He did an amazing piece called The March, which recreates the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where you walk next to Dr. King. It’s incredible. [Later on] we have Tamara Shogaolu, another amazing creator who splits her time between the U.S. and the Netherlands, who just won Best Digital Project at IDFA. We have Young Guru, who’s a prolific hip hop engineer who works in spatial audio and does music events in what we’re calling the metaverse. Lisa Jackson is going to come and talk about the amazing project she did with the NFB.

We have all the funders coming to talk about “where’s the money at?” A great immersive strategist, Amanda Shelby, is coming to talk about different financial structures, outside of government funding. We have Laura Mingail, Orla Garriques, Magalie Boutin, and Sean Ramsay – who created one of the first 360° cameras – as mentors, and are confirming others as well. It’s a very well-rounded group of people, trying to create a 360 view – no pun intended – of how the industry works.

Alison Duke: They’re [the participants] also going to be doing a rapid prototyping lab, so that they will have a working product that they can leave with and use in their portfolios. When they want to pitch subsequent projects in the future, they can say, “Look, I’ve actually completed something before.” The founders will be divided into groups of three, and they’ll be working with Dark Slope. They have a virtual studio and a motion capture studio, and all kinds of crazy tech toys for participants to play and explore with as they create their prototypes.

The first ten companies and founders – Exocentric Studios, TRAD, Debbie Deer Productions, BP Media, Upright Media Republic, Fugitive Work, Diva Girl Productions, Reason with Logik, Roya DelSol, Yvano Antonio, and Zach Jama – have been hand-picked by a jury of industry professionals to participate in the 2022 cohort. How wide a range of experience with AR/VR/XR do these founders bring with them, prior to joining Scale Up Immersive?

Ngardy Conteh George: It’s a big range. So we’re going from someone in the group that’s a 3D Animator who has worked with the biggest software companies in video game and [film] production, to someone who’s maybe put on a [VR] headset once – she comes from marketing and has done a lot of content creation and branding. Some have done some 360 or VR work; one person comes from the theatre, and has made her first VR production. So we have a cluster with little to no experience, a cluster who’ve dibbled and dabbled, and then we have a cluster who’ve done a few projects or more. So it’s a great range, and we curated it that way so that the ones with more experience can also be partnered with the ones with very little, and they can help to build each other up.

I think one of the reasons I’m really excited about this is that I’ve been dabbling in the immersive space myself. I’ve been working on a 360 VR project for the past three years, a documentary. And there’s just been a lack of community. I really can’t turn to other Black [immersive] content creators in Canada; I don’t know where to find them. It’s been really difficult to find out who they are. So one of the goals of the program is to create that community. I’m part of a fellowship right now at MIT, through Black Public Media, and my mentor was asking,

“So when does the meet-up happen for Black immersive content creators in Toronto?” And we don’t have those numbers. We just don’t have that kind of engagement here in Canada, for Black creators. So we’re hoping to fill that void, and create that space.

Read the announcement about the inaugural Scale Up Immersive participants here.

Share this post: