Black History Month celebrates the resilience, innovation, and diversity of the Black community. This year, Ubisoft’s employee resource group (ERG) for the community decided to focus on authentic representations of Black characters and their stories.
To kick off the month, we’re giving the floor to Jonathan Fado, a concept artist for Rainbow Six Siege at the Montreal studio, to share his journey, his approach to authenticity, and his vision for the future.
A calling traced in the sand
Jonathan’s infatuation with illustration began at a very young age. “In the Congo where I was born,” he begins, “my big sister would gather us round and draw in the sand with a twig as she told us stories.” Such moments sparked Jonathan’s love of drawing as a way of telling stories.
When he came to Canada at the age of ten, he was big into comic books. “Before I’d even read them, I’d draw a new cover.” Then his creative journey took off; in high school, he began creating his own characters and stories. An art teacher saw his talent and interest, and talked to him about possible careers.
When I learned that I could design characters for video games,” he says, “I knew I wanted to be a concept artist. From that moment on, it was all I wanted to do. It was my plan A, B, C, D … all the way to Z.”
He entered the world of video games as a tester and was sent by his company to Ubisoft to work on Rainbow Six Siege. “I got to know several artists here, and they taught me a lot,” he recalls. Following their advice, he put together his portfolio and was hired by Ubisoft.
Jonathan advises aspiring artists who wish to enter the video game industry to master the basics, practice diligently, and create a portfolio that reflects their unique personality. “A company is going to hire you for who you are,” he says. “Have fun when you make things, because that passion will show in your work.” Then, he suggests not to limit yourself, but “to be humble enough to enter the industry in whichever way you can. Afterwards, it becomes easier to navigate.”
An exciting work environment
Once he was in the industry, Jonathan always felt welcome. “I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of people and experience all kinds of projects at Ubisoft. My colour was never part of the conversation, which I really appreciate because there’s more to me than that when people talk about me.”
He adds that his team has a huge impact on his work. “I love coming to work and seeing people I can joke around with and who are willing to share what they know,” he says. “That’s why I’m in the video game industry, and why I tell everyone I don’t work anymore. I have fun every day.”
Jonathan has already been with Ubisoft for three years and feels that this is just the beginning.
The way I look at it is that I’m going to be a student for most of my life. When you reach the top, everything gets boring, so I want to keep pushing the envelope.”
Culture, not colour
When it comes to creating authentic characters, Jonathan says he’s “never really thought about colour, because it doesn’t tell you much about the character.”
Using the example of a Black American person, Jonathan says: “My references won’t be the same as theirs, and it’s the same with my struggles, my history, my culture. Even in the capital of the Congo, Kinshasa, there are several tribes who look alike physically, but are different culturally. So to represent a character, you really have to focus on their culture.”
Marvel’s Blade is the perfect example of this. “Blade transgresses the narrative of skin colour; he could be anyone and it would still work. The story is about a vampire who is immune to sunlight, not about a Black vampire. But what’s cool about Blade is that, because he’s Black, certain cultural things jump out at you and make you recognize where he’s from. I like that balance of representation and universality that makes it so that anyone can relate to it.”
To achieve this level of authenticity in his own work, Jonathan notes that a lot of research is key. As an example, he talked about his illustration of Amanirenas, the queen of the Kingdom of Kush in southern Egypt two thousand years ago.
For his illustration, he researched not only the queen herself, but also the history of her kingdom, the values of her society, the types of buildings her people lived in, what they ate and how they dressed. “For Amanirenas, I bought a book that was just about Kushite jewelry,” he recalls. “The way I depicted her clothing came more from my research than from choices of colours and shapes.”
A broader horizon
His interest in research stems in part from his passion for history.
I’ve always wanted to know what the world looked like before we were born, and for most of my life, that world has always been European. At some point, I thought, I should give this to the next generation, but for Africans.”
He points out that Black History Month often focuses on American history. “That history represents just a tiny part of what the history of the Black community is,” he notes. “Our story goes back a long way.”
Jonathan would like to expand the conversation to include all Black communities. For him, that means “pushing the narrative toward Africa and asking questions about their kingdoms, their architecture, the way they dressed.”
He urges allies to cultivate curiosity, ask questions, collaborate with Black artists and continue the conversation beyond the month and throughout the year.
He is currently researching more about African history and hopes one day to put on exhibitions about African people and places, similar to the exhibitions of classical painters.
My job at Ubisoft allows me to take my knowledge to the next level so that the artistic process will be as fluid and fun as possible when it’ll be time to execute.”
His passion for sharing these African stories is a lifelong quest. “I do it for me, I do it for my son and I do it for the next generation.”
Black History Month
Ubisoft is organizing several initiatives across Canada for the Black community with the help of its employee resource groups (ERGs). Next week, Gayle McFarlane, casting specialist at Ubisoft Toronto, will share her unique career journey and what goes into ensuring diverse and authentic representation in games at Ubisoft.
In the meantime, you can check out Jonathan’s other work.