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Shawnelle and Shawnee Gibbs have been telling stories together for as long as they can remember. As twin sisters, their connection started in the womb, but what they didn't know is that their childhood passion for making up stories and their ability to understand each other intuitively would lead them into a career.
Shawnelle and Shawnee are the co-founders of Reel Republic, a production company that specializes in, well, everything. They're writers, producers, directors, animators, and artists; they've created web series, short films, comics, and animated shorts, but no matter what hat they're wearing during any particular project, they're committed to telling good stories above all else.
"Part of our mission was to tell stories about young girls of color going on adventures because that's something that we didn't really see growing up," Shawnee explained. "There was everything you could imagine [on TV and in movies], but we were watching sort of as outsiders. What we really wanted to create were magical and adventure-based stories for girls like us."
Stories like The Invention of E.J. Whitaker, a steampunk comic following the adventures of Ada Turner, an inventor's apprentice in the early 20th century who creates a flying machine only to find herself in a world of trouble. It's an idea that has lived in the sisters' heads for years before they finally took the plunge and launched a Kickstarter in February. The response was overwhelmingly positive; E.J. Whitaker garnered the support of more than 400 backers and the twins exceeded their fundraising goal by a whopping $10k, ensuring that the first two issues would have funding.
The success of their Kickstarter is even more proof of how much audiences are hungering for diverse, female protagonists, something that the Gibbs sisters are known for. With series like Fashion Forward, a comic which stars a fashion-loving, time traveling geek heroine, and the pint-sized titular character in the animated short film Sule and The Case of The Tiny Sparks, it's clear that creating strong, diverse, female characters is something they excel at.
"We wanted girls to see themselves in sci-fi stories and see themselves as inventors, as someone who can create a time traveling device like in Fashion Forward, as opposed to some girl who's just being rescued," Shawnee said. "I think it's super empowering for girls to not only be a part of a story using technology that already exists, but [know that] we can create that kind of stuff too."
Being able to put their time and attention into telling good stories is a dream the Gibbs sisters have held for a long time. Both sisters attended film school, and after graduation, they both found themselves teaching media, Shawnelle in the education department of an arts and technology museum and Shawnee in the Oakland Unified School District. Both worked with young people, sharing their knowledge and love of media and animation, but it was by happenstance that their dreams really got a kick start.
While working at the museum, Shawnelle casually mentioned to a coworker her intention to move to L.A. eventually and her off-hand statement must have gotten around, because some time later, a supervisor presented her with an opportunity Shawnelle never expected: someone in another department had just bought a condo in L.A. and was in need of a roommate. Within a few weeks, Shawnelle and Shawnee packed up and headed to L.A. to share one room in a condo with no job prospects and only a month's worth of savings to their names.
It was a leap of faith, one that paid off within the year after another serendipitous series of events landed Shawnee with her first job there. After overhearing that someone was hiring (and making note of their contact info) during a networking event, Shawnee sent in her resume and was soon working in post-production on an MTV show. A few months later Shawnelle landed a job working on one of her favorite shows, Project Runway, and today, the twins have worked as television producers in L.A. for a number of years on shows like Top Chef, The Ultimate Fighter, and The X Factor.
"For young women, especially if you're pursuing any career, never be afraid to speak up," Shawnee said. "Speak to people around you. Let people know what your intentions are and what you wanna do. Shawnelle knew she wanted to go to L.A. but had no plan on how to make that happen, but just speaking out to people and just putting that out there is what led to someone saying, 'Hey, I got a room, come on down.'"
Now, the twins are living their dreams, and are experts at juggling their production day jobs with their independent work.
"The best way to describe it is that I feel like a superhero sometimes," Shawnee explained. "By day, we tell stories for television and then by night and on the weekends, we come home to a completely different world. We go all Clark Kent and start working on our comic and animation projects."
They're hoping that E.J. Whitaker and stories like it can do for others what discovering the works of sci-fi icon Octavia Butler did for them as teenagers: open their eyes to a new world in which women like them can be not only the protagonists, but the creators as well.
"Those dreams we had when we were young women, those stories that we were aching to hear and just needing to see, we're telling those stories not only to young ladies today of all races and identities, but also to those young women that we were, those little girls who wanted to do and be these things," Shawnelle said. "It's our mission to create these great classic stories and amazing adventures for all of us."
Inspired yet? You can keep up with the Gibbs sisters and all of their awesome projects by following them on Twitter (here and here), and for those of us eagerly awaiting the first issue of The Invention of E.J. Whitaker (aka everyone), the series has its own Twitter account, so get to following!
[Photo: Sean Kennedy]