In his first collaboration with Arnon Manor on the animated short Cops and Robbers, actor Timothy Ware-Hill adapted a spoken word poem he’d written into a stunning eight-minute piece, meditating on rampant displays of police violence within the United States, and the systemic racism behind them.
After publishing his poem on social media platforms and seeing it go viral, Ware-Hill brought it new life in February of last year, following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed, 25-year-old Black man, who was shot by a white resident of his Georgia neighborhood while jogging. Releasing a first-person video, in which he recited his poem while jogging, Ware-Hill then caught the attention of Manor—an entertainment veteran with a background in visual effects, for both live-action and animated films—who expressed interest in adapting the video into the short that is now in the Oscars conversation.
Made in concert with a diverse assortment of artists from around the world—including high school and university students—the film is an eye-catching quilt that encompasses an equally broad range of styles. Making the short not for money, but rather, for a cause that could not be more important, directors Manor and Ware-Hill hoped to keep the conversation around America’s racial divides flowing, in the hope that one day soon, we’ll see change.
Below, they discuss the process of wrangling a global team of animators, in bringing their Netflix pic to life, the challenge of completing it during the Covid-19 pandemic, without ever meeting each other in person, and what they hope viewers will take away from it.
DEADLINE: Timothy, tell us more about Cops and Robbers‘ path from poem to animated short. Was there a specific event that led you to make your spoken-word video?
TIMOTHY WARE-HILL: The specific inciting incident was the video release of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, which shook me to my core, in one respect, but was so familiar, in another. Cops and Robbers, the poem, existed prior to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. I had written that a few years back, and the sad part is that it was still relevant. And in that moment, after I saw the tape, I said, “I’m so infuriated, so frustrated, so angry, and I’ve got to do something.” So, I grabbed my iPhone and a gimbal, jogged in my neighborhood and recited the poem. It was as simple as that, just me needing to express myself.
I released the original poem on Facebook and Instagram. Arnon [and I] had never met, but he reached out to me on Instagram and said, “Hey, I have this idea. I would love to take your poem and do an animated version of it by gathering artists, animators, VFX people from all over the world.” From Vancouver to Toronto, from LA to New York, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Uruguay, Germany, London and France, it almost circled the entire globe.
So, he said, “Let’s gather these artists, divvy up the poem, have them interpret the poem, through their animation styles and how they see the world, and the issue that we’re dealing with, and then stitch it back together.” And what you have is this animated quilt that we still call Cops and Robbers, but it’s elevated in such a beautiful way. So, thank goodness for Arnon’s vision, and for him actually reaching out to me and pressing play.
ARNON MANOR: And I always say, “Thank you, Timothy, for responding,” because we all get crazy DMs these days. For me, that video [of Arbery’s killing] also shook me very strongly. You know, I’m not originally from this country. Having not grown up in the extreme racism that exists in this country, and having been here for many years now, I’m always shocked at how I’ve seen things percolate, and especially [in recent times].
When I saw this video of Timothy, it really moved me. I remember watching it time and time again, and I immediately saw this vision of, “We can take this further. As an ally to the cause, what can I do to help?” What I know how to do is to make stuff, and I have a lot of contacts, so I reached out to people, and then reached out to Timothy. Thankfully, he said yes, and that’s the start of the process. But the idea was to elevate it—to say, “The original video stands already by itself. But what can we do to make it another visual medium to spread the words, to make it more accessible to other people?”
DEADLINE: What informed the decision to involve a global community of artists in the project?
MANOR: Part of it was to say, “How can we do a global message?” and part of it was practical. You know, there was no money involved in making this. Everybody donated their time, [and] it was going out to people that I know, companies and individuals to say, “Hey, can you animate five to 10 seconds?” Of course, I knew that as soon as I sent them the video, they were going to respond to it because it was so strong, in the context of the time.
WARE-HILL: Even in that practicality, what’s brilliant about it is that it creates an allyship. It brings people of many backgrounds, many experiences to focus on this singular issue, and maybe dig in and learn, in a way that they might not have before. The beautiful thing about the collaboration with all of these amazing artists is that through this art, they are helping to push the story forward, to keep the ball in the air. Because what happens when people become exhausted from marching, and then all of a sudden the issue is pushed to the background, while people of color are still having to deal with it, day to day? By creating this short, these artists helped keep the ball in the air, to keep people talking about it. It keeps pushing us forward to a place where hopefully, this won’t be an issue. We won’t have another hashtag of a Black man, woman, child being killed, in the hands of police officers.
DEADLINE: Where did you find the artists that you brought onto the project? And how did you manage to bring the animation they created, in a diversity of styles, into one cohesive piece?
WARE-HILL: Arnon wrangled a lot of people that he had already known in the industry, that he had great relationships with, which is a testament to who he is, that they were like, “Oh sure, I’ll do it for free.” Because that’s the beautiful part about this: There has been no money exchanged. Even the money from Netflix, we’re donating all of the proceeds to a Black charitable organization.
Then, a lot of the artists—specifically, a lot of the Black artists—we found on Instagram. Over 50% of our artists and post team are Black, because we wanted to make sure that the story is being told from a place of experience, as well as observation. The observation part from our allies is important, but the experience helps ground it in authenticity.
So, Arnon connected with Spin VFX, which became our hub to bring all of the artwork together.
MANOR: That’s a company out of Toronto.
WARE-HILL: Yeah. They’re gods, because there was a lot of stuff coming in at one time from all the different animators, and they helped us to corral everything. And with the vision of Arnon and myself, we started to shape the film, making sure that transitions worked, and that the juxtaposed animation styles flowed freely and made sense.
MANOR: The intent was to have a quilt—multiple companies and artists in different styles, different looks, combining together—so a lot of our work was driving and directing them on the themes, and making sure that the interconnecting pieces worked.
The process was interesting because it was all done during Covid, and we always joke that Timothy and I have never even met. We worked on it for six months, but we’ve never met in person. The whole process was done remotely, via Zoom and a lot of internet interactions, and it was very tough also because it was different time zones. Timothy’s on the East Coast, I’m on the West Coast. [We had artists in] Toronto, Uruguay, England, Germany, so just corralling the time zones was interesting. But I think it made it even more interactive, funnily enough. Even though we didn’t meet personally, we had a lot of personalized connection through video conferencing—more than normal.
WARE-HILL: Yeah. That is the interesting part. When we wrapped production, I felt withdrawals because it felt like, I’m used to seeing these people every day. They’ve become a part of my life, my family, in this weird, artistic way. For me personally, it’s created an entire community, so it’s pretty damn amazing.
DEADLINE: Timothy, were there any visual interpretations of your work that surprised you or particularly resonated with you?
WARE-HILL: One of the moments was from [Winnipeg’s] Sisler High School, from the students. There’s a line that says, “Even when Black is in the light, people still don’t see s—t,” and you see this Black woman standing still, and a white woman who walks through her, as if she’s not even there. You know, I gave a lot of history, and a lot of personal experience and perspective, in all of our chats to our artists—whenever we discussed a line, what it means—and with that line, I said that Black women are the most invisible beings on this planet, the most forgotten, the most disrespected. And yet they are the backbone. As we just were reminded of during this [presidential] election, they are the backbone of this nation, yet they remain invisible, even in the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s gotten better now. We talk about women and Black trans women more, but a lot of times, they’re forgotten. They’re not mentioned as often, when it comes to police violence that Black women experience, as well. So, we’ve got to bring visibility to the fact that there are Black women and Black trans women who experience the same atrocities.
So, the way that Sisler High interpreted that line was so moving and so powerful to me. That’s one of many, but that’s the one I wanted to highlight, as far as a moment that really stuck out to me.
DEADLINE: What do you hope people will take away or think about, after seeing your film?
WARE-HILL: I end the film with a question because that’s what we have to continue to do, is ask questions and seek the answers. The last line is, “Do you think cops remember being kids, when we used to just play together?” At one point, all of us were children. We weren’t all of the bulls—t that we eventually are forced to eat. [Laughs] As children, we just were. There is no issue of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, economic status. None of that stuff matters as a child, and at what point does it begin to matter? At what point do we absorb things from our parents, from our guardians, from our environment, from our community that all of a sudden pulls us apart?
If these people who have taken an oath to protect and serve take on that true status of being a hero and not an overseer—not a guard, but a protector, a servant—and go back to that moment where they were just kids, where we just got along…Some people confuse my poem and say, “Well, you know, when you were a kid, there were still bad things going on.” Yes, of course. There were always bad things going on; there will always be bad things going on. But there were moments where we were removed from those things, and we just existed. How do we get to that point? As my brother, who’s now an officer, my sister, who’s now an officer, my Black brother, my white brother, my white sister, how do you remember [so that you can] get back to that humanity, to that moment when we just got along together? That childlike pureness is still somewhere within us, and if somehow we can all tap into that, maybe we can find our way back to each other. So, maybe that’s the hope that I’m hoping people get from this, and it’s that hope that gives me the energy and the strength to move forward, even in moments where I’m just like, “F—k it all.”
There are moments where I’m like, “This nation, though my people have built it, was never made for us.” And why are we still fighting the same battles that my parents fought, that my grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors fought? Why do we keep fighting? Because we have to. The hope [is that] that each step we take will make it better for the next little Black boy, the next LGBTQ child. Whatever marginalized group you fall into, maybe every step we take as artists, when we tell these stories, will make it a little better, because every step forward is worth it. Even if it’s a tiny step, it’s worth it to get us to that goal of having a more unified and hopeful world.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you both? Have you discussed reteaming in the future?
WARE-HILL: We always hope there’s something that Arnon and I will collaborate on in the future. Right now, we’re focused on some of our individual projects. I’m working on a feature that I’ve written, trying to get it in the right hands. It’s live-action; it’s called Tyrone and the Looking Glass. A lot of things that I write take place in my own state; I’m originally from Alabama. So, Tyrone and the Looking Glass takes place in 1963, following a young Black boy who has to find certain treasures to defeat a fire-breathing dragon that he believes is out to destroy him and his loved ones. I have written an animated feature on the side, as well, and Arnon and I both hope [to reteam].
MANOR: I think the collaboration was strong enough, and I think the interesting thing was that like any good team, you bring different things to the table. In the same way, I have a bunch of projects that I’ve been working on for many years, and some of the scripts are now getting some traction, which is very cool. But I do think it’d be a shame not to continue the collaboration because it was so fruitful. Certainly, the ambition is to continue that, and continue on strong messages, as well. I think both of us are driven not by gratuitous material, but certainly material that has an impact, whether it’s civil rights-related or just humanity.
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