John and Charles Agbaje
During a Minnesota childhood on the move, John and Charles Agbaje learned from their parents — an Episcopal priest and a public library employee — to take comfort in reading and storytelling. These days, both brothers are creating animated projects at major storytelling houses. John is senior vice-president of animation at J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot company and Charles, his younger brother, recently left Cartoon Network after nearly five years to become coordinator of original animated films at Netflix.
"We grew up with the Disney renaissance and what we call prestige animation — movies like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid," Charles says via Zoom. "In terms of comedy, shows like Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls were also formative, seminal works. We were heavily influenced by shows such as Batman: The Animated Series and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As we got older, our tastes got more sophisticated as we were exposed to animé and series like Avatar: The Last Airbender."
The brothers point out that growing up as children of Nigerian immigrants had a big impact on their world view and appreciation for stories from different cultures.
"We moved around a lot and were never in one town for very long," John recalls. "We were always the new kids in school. Our mom would tell African folk tales and host student groups after school, and our dad delivered these great sermons in church. Their stories were reassuring to come back to when everything else was shifting around us. Family was very important to us — that was constant in our lives."
John studied economics at Wharton, then earned his MBA at Harvard. Charles studied film at Northwestern and earned a master's at USC in communication management. They formed a company in 2011 called Central City Tower and published their own graphic sci-fi novel, Project O. In 2013, they mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign for their animated project Spider Stories, which won plenty of attention, in large part for its themes of African fantasy and adventure.
After college, John worked in business consulting, so they ended up in grad school at the same time. At that point, he says, "We wanted to figure out the correct path to get into animation. I learned that if you want to pursue creative goals, one way is to be an assistant. Luckily for me, my friend introduced me to Peter Rice [then chairman and CEO at Fox], who was looking for an assistant with a nontraditional background. He was fantastic as a mentor and understood where we were coming from."
John's experience with Rice led him to spend four years at FX, where he worked on various animated projects, including Cake, a well-received, Annie Award–nominated anthology series. This past January, he was tapped to lead Bad Robot's animation division. "When I think about our original goals — which were to raise the bar and feature more sophisticated storytelling — we won the jackpot over and over again," John says. "I get to work with people who agree with that vision and philosophy."
His current projects include a feature adaptation of the Dr. Seuss bestseller Oh, The Places You'll Go! and a half-hour special based on Charlie Mackesy's illustrated bestseller The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. He's also working on the recently announced HBO Max–Cartoon Network series Batman: Caped Crusader.
Charles's career path took a few more twists and turns, starting with the two years he took off after grad school. "I was an Uber driver and had other odd jobs and rolled with the punches in Los Angeles, while pursuing internships that would help me get my foot in the door," he recalls.
In 2016 he landed an assistant job in Cartoon Network's current series department. "I got to be part of every show that was on the network for a good two or three years," he says. "I was very fortunate because my mentor and boss, [vice-president, current animation] Conrad Montgomery, was really good at throwing me into situations that he thought I could handle."
At the network, Charles later oversaw such acclaimed series as Steven Universe, Craig of the Creek, Summer Camp Island and We Bare Bears. "It's been quite an amazing ride to be part of these shows," he says. "We've seen the growth at the company and the change with AT&T and HBO Max on the streaming side. Things have shifted, but the heart remains the same. It's great to be able to champion the creative people who make these shows possible."
Both of the Agbaje brothers are optimistic about how the animation industry is pushing for diversity on and off the screen. "The landscape has certainly improved since we were kids," Charles observes. "Animation has the power to create empathy in many ways. When you see someone who looks like you, and see your culture and identity represented, it can be a very empowering experience.
"But another thing happens when people get exposed to other cultures — they're able to empathize with others and their experiences. It helps bridge gaps between people from different worlds."
John agrees, adding, "There's something elemental about animation, which is a bit more abstract and allows you to empathize with characters a little bit more than live action. It's so important that people in positions of power have empathy for others, and animated shows help build that feeling at an early age."
So, why have they succeeded, and how can others find their own success? They stress the importance of pursuing goals and improving one's craft in this competitive industry.
"No matter where you find yourself, you can always work on yourself," Charles says. "You can always get yourself more ready and prepared and better-versed in whatever you're passionate about. No two people have the same story, so you never know when the right opportunity is going to come your way. But what you can do is make yourself ready for it. This is truly a collaborative industry, and we need all kinds of voices and perspectives."
And for John, "A lot of it is a combination of hard work and communication. You have to do the work and tell people about it consistently. Even in the time I've been at my job, there were projects that we thought were dead, and then they were reinvigorated. It's a testament to the ten-year 'overnight success' stories! So much of the industry is about perception. But if you have a strong point of view and you know what you believe in and maintain that integrity zealously, eventually it will all work out."
So, do the brothers plan to team up again? "If there are ever any opportunities to collaborate as brothers," Charles says, "we'd love to do that!"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021