Weta Digital’s R. Christopher White on Black History: Making Our Place

I’ve always been fascinated with the history of spaces, knowing there are stories encapsulated in a place. How one can enter a room and receive cues to all that has happened there. As I reflect on Black History Month, I think of the pioneering work of those that came before and the movement of history and culture through these spaces.

My father programmed computers by day, a woodworker in the evening. It isn’t by accident that my chosen profession is visual effects, a mixture of computer science and art. He would wake the kids up early on Saturday mornings. Early enough for morning cartoons, but not so late that Soul Train was coming on. He’d sit at the end of my bed to showing me the newest piece of wood he found. “This is dogwood. It will be perfect for Ebenezer.” At that time, he was designing and building podiums and railings for the new Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. He’d hold the piece, repeatedly flip it over and over, tracing the grain’s route, examining the knots, deducing its history.

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Places hold history in the smallest of details.

Growing up, we were fascinated with films and television which transported us to different worlds. These could be fantasy worlds, alternative realities, or worlds of the future. Yet these worlds never felt to be our own. Black characters were few and far between, relegated to sidekicks and rarely seen in mass. Their spaces were rarely reflecting their culture. They were visitors at best. Our young minds could only deduce was that we didn’t make it as a people to these future worlds.

We didn’t make it, because we didn’t make it.

The strength of a creative team lies in its ability to formulate options. A diverse group brings with it the varied cultural and historical backgrounds of its members. Each artist brings their unique vision to the work. In turn, those contributions, no matter how small, will resonate with diverse audiences. When a person sees themselves reflected in future or fantasy space, those worlds become possible. Anything becomes possible.

Fascinated with the idea that one could create worlds on the computer, our father brought us to programming classes at the local college where he taught. We’d sit in the back, our feet barely touching the floor, taking it all in. I imagine he saw an opportunity for us to follow our passion and perhaps become the people that helped create the places we loved. Throughout my education, I would find more opportunities like these, extracurricular programs that allow young minds to reach ahead to things they didn’t know possible—these are the programs we need to encourage.

As mentors once opened educational doors for me, I feel responsible as a senior artist to give back to the next generation. Through programs with Inclusion FX and Weta Digital, I can offer guidance through mentorship. The visual effects and animation industry needs greater representation, and I’ve seen first-hand how exposure and encouragement have a real impact. We need many voices, talents, history, and perspectives to create the worlds of film and television, representing us all.

I feel optimistic about the future. I am encouraged by the work of Ryan Coogler and Hannah Beachler, to name a few. Jordan Peele takes us to alternate realities and continues to defy expectations. The creative resurgence of Afrofuturism is thrilling. I look forward to the stories to come and the new worlds they take place, confident my son will see himself there.

R. Christopher White is an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-nominated Visual Effects Supervisor and VFX artist. He focuses on student outreach as an active member of InclusionFX, a platform designed to support and amplify underrepresented voices features, television and games.

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