Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant

When Kobe Bryant died last month at the premature age of 41, the animation world was stunned, and many paid emotional tribute to someone who had only recently joined their industry.

The former basketball star had made his name as a filmmaker with the Oscar-winning Dear Basketball (2017, image at top), an animated short about his career as an athlete which he wrote, produced, and starred in. We knew that he was developing more animation projects through his production company, Granity Studios, at the time of his death. But it turns out that his ambitions stretched further: Bryant was planning to launch an animation studio of his own, no less.

The revelation comes from Bruce Smith, a veteran animator who co-directed Hair Love, the winner of this year’s Oscar for best animated short. Speaking to critic Korey Coleman (himself a former animator), Smith recalls a dinner he had “about a month ago” with Bryant and Sergio Pablos, another prominent animator (and director of the recent feature Klaus).

According to Smith, Bryant was soliciting him and Pablos for help with the project, and they had already begun to look for artists. As he tells Coleman:

Kobe was heavily invested at the time in starting an animation studio. For the past six months or so, Kobe and I had been in deep talks about making that happen… Kobe was beginning his second act, and animation was going to play a huge part in that… He fashioned himself in thinking like a Walt Disney… He had this book series that he created… The best way to describe it is Harry Potter meets tennis, almost. It was an amazing concept… He had that podcast called The Punies, for kids, that he wanted to make into an animated series.

Smith goes on to pay his own tribute to Bryant: “You listen to Kobe, he’s completely engaged, and you jump in, and it’s Kobe, man. I grew up in L.A., and he’s my dude.” Asked by Coleman whether this project could continue in spite of his friend’s death, he answers, “It’s way too early to think about stuff like that.”

Although he was popular in the industry, Bryant was also a figure of controversy. A rape allegation made against him in 2003 continued to tarnish his career. After he was nominated for an Oscar, a petition demanding the Academy rescind his nomination gained over 17,000 signatures. His invitation to serve on the jury of the 2018 Animation Is Film festival was revoked after another petition was launched and he was denied an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, a privilege that is customarily offered after winning an Oscar.

Smith, a prominent character animator, has had a long career at Walt Disney Animation Studios. His credits include supervising animator on Tarzan and The Princess and the Frog. He’s also the creator of the popular series The Proud Family (2001–05), which is being rebooted.

Coleman started out as an animator — he worked on Space Jam (1996) — before becoming a critic. He’s the owner and creator of Double Toasted, an entertainment news and criticism website (which published the interview with Smith).