Nexus director Kibwe Tavares on animated architecture, shooting in South Africa and Ghana and finding his own ‘esque’
Guinness, Ireland’s most famous export, is associated as often with Africa (Nigeria is the brand’s biggest market) as it is with the Emerald Isle. It’s a relationship that’s seeping into the brand’s advertising – just think Sapeurs or Made of Black. No surprise, then, that the latest drink in the Guinness line is ‘The Africa Special’, a beer that blends African-grown ginger and spices to tempt the tastebuds.
Alive Inside, the new spot from AMV BBDO is all about the fizz and energy of young Africa. Design, fashion, dance, DJs, and BMXers cut together at a driving speed – it’s a poppy, playful ad that packs a punch.
Nexus director, Kibwe Tavares, was brought on board to helm a campaign that blends live action with animation and travels from South Africa to Ghana to capture the next generation of African creativity. We caught up with Kibwe, a trained architect and founding member of the Factory Fifteen studio, to find out more.
LBB> What was it about the brief that appealed to you?
KT> When you get briefs in, some people are really specific about what they want and others prefer collaboration. With some briefs, everything’s all boarded out and all the details are planned and it’s quite hard to jump into it, whereas with this one they were open to ideas, which is cool.
They had some strong visual references and the idea of ‘young Africa’ as well as patterns spreading around people in this environment. I thought it was really cool. Originally it was all set in one location and I came back to them and said, “You’ve got all these people doing all these amazing things, like dancing, design, fashion, BMX. I thought it would be cool to go outside and move it a bit away from the Sam Brown ‘Made of Black’ spot.” I thought we could do it as a cross section through all these places in Africa, which they liked. The idea is about showing another side of Africa that you don’t see that much of.
LBB> Guinness's relationship with Africa, particularly Nigeria is a fascinating one. I believe more Guinness is sold in Nigeria than any other country, including Ireland, and in recent years the brand has been really embracing this in its advertising etc. What was it like delving into this side of the brand?
KT> They’ve got a reputation for doing amazing ads, but it was often something like there’s a group of men who do something really hard and they go to the pub and they’re congratulated by having a Guinness at the end of it.
For this drink, they wanted to aim it at a bigger mix of people… younger people, more girls. So they’re being flexible and want to change, but they’re still aiming for the same quality of films that they’ve always had – that was exciting. They’re good to work with, they really trust directors and creatives.
LBB> You trained as an architect and I've noticed that the buildings and environment are particularly dynamic in a lot of your work. How do you think your architecture training has influenced your approach to filmmaking?
KT> I guess there are different strands to it. I trained as an architect so a lot of my films are environment-based. I guess that’s also the reason why I took the film outside, instead of it being placeless. I wanted it to be very specific because I think that story is attached to somewhere specific. Certain things happen in certain regions because of the place around it.
It definitely influences how I shoot but I don’t know any other way, really. There’s a lot of factors that are inherent in how you choose things, how you define things, but it’s not something that I know in a different light. It’s built into how I make things.
LBB> Looking back at your previous films, Jonah is quite dreamlike and Robots of Brixton is pretty grim and grimey – this feels like the poppiest thing that you’ve done. There are some shots that feel like fashion editorial, almost, and there’s a real brightness and energy. What was it like exploring this side of filmmaking?
KT> It was fine, because you do a lot of prep and you know what you’re aiming for. There were a lot of different things that I hadn’t done before, like working with models, doing more highly stylised things rather than action that’s supposed to feel natural. You just have to know what you want and do it.
There was some amazing casting and the crew was brilliant, as were our production designers. There was one shot of a girl sitting on a throne, and the whole dress is made of cable ties. Richard, who was our costume designer, gave me a whole bunch of references and came up with making the dress from recycled materials. It was in the film for maybe one second, but the images are cool. I could really lean on the team, building up to the day.
LBB> The spot blends street action and club scenes with more stylised fashion-y shots, and weaves this intricate animation into the live action. Why was it important to include such strikingly different visual styles? And how did you ensure a consistency throughout?
KT> You can give it a consistency or you can make sure it’s punctuated. What I thought is that you can use the movement of the different shots, and then there’ll be a full stop, which will be someone standing really still. It’s kind of calculated, you have to think about the flow of it and use that to engage people to move them forward.
We did a lot of mood edits, sometimes there was too much and we had to strip it back or sometimes there were too many portraits and we weren’t feeling the energy. There’s one guy who pops up more than most, so you have one main character and you have to set out his thread and layer it up and strip it back. The editor was Adam Marshall at the Whitehouse.
LBB> Where did you shoot and for how long? How did you cast the ad?
KT> We shot in South Africa for three and a half days and we shot in Ghana for two days, but we flew the cast in from all over Africa. There were people from Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, we had lots of South Africans in the cast.
In South Africa we had quite a big crew, in Ghana it was a much more reduced crew and that’s where we shot the BMX stuff. There were a lot of people we wanted to shoot in Ghana and it made sense to go to the artists; that’s something I would have liked to do more of, but because it’s an alcohol advert there are a lot of restrictions and you can’t feature people under the age of 25. You can’t just take a camera and shoot things.
We did a lot of different things – like with the DJ parties we set up, we’d go to the artists and work with them to figure out an event. Rather than say ‘you’re going to do exactly this’, they set up almost a party. Or the BMX-ers set up a BMX event and we covered it, to try and make it feel real. We wanted to see things that they would normally do and work around it.
LBB> Having a few days in each country must have been pretty full on, given the diversity of shots and content you had to cover!
KT> We had to figure out the logistics of going from place to place and finding locations that would make one place look like four different places. The jigsaw puzzle of setting it up was complicated but when we got there, because the dancers were so good and we were working with them to do their thing, you could sometimes get the shot in one or two takes.
LBB> Was the music chosen before you headed out so they knew what they were dancing to, or did that come together in the edit?
KT> People were dancing to different music and we edited to the track. There are a lot of very specific dance styles in there, like Kuduro from Angola, and we didn’t want to make them do their dance style to a completely different style of music. We wanted to keep it authentic, so they brought their music. In one scene we had an Angolan Kuduro choreographer and he came with three or four dancers and we did street casting in Mozambique and Portuguese areas to get more dancers.
LBB> In terms of the post and animation, what was that like? Did you have a lot of the designs mapped out ahead of the shoot, or was it more a case of see what you get during the shoot and figure it out back home?
KT> Because of time pressures, we had to pre-shoot some of the animation plates, aside from the beginning and the end. We knew at the start we wanted him to punch the ground to set the pattern in motion.
It was a combination of The Mill and my studio Factory Fifteen. The Mill did the opening and end shots and my studio did the travelling shots in the middle. I worked very closely with the guy who did that, we knew the camera would be travelling from here to here and we would come up with lots of different ways that the pattern could unfold. Could it roll down like wallpaper? Is it on shutters? So we worked that out quite early on, and we did a lot of mood edits before we did the main edit so that we could test things out. That was nearly half done by the time we got back from the shoot.
LBB> As well as working as a solo director, you're also part of Factory Fifteen (also repped by Nexus). How did the three of you come to meet and start working together?
KT> There are three of us who set the studio up and we’ve got 12 staff at the moment. The three of us are all directors, so we do projects together like music videos and idents for D&AD. But we also do things separately – it’s mainly for my film career because you direct under your own name. Depending on the type of project and availability, it might just be one of us directing or it might be all three.
LBB> It must be nice, creatively, to have that flexibility of being able to go off and do your own thing but also having a group of people to bounce ideas off?
KT> It depends, there might be a project that one of the other guys are directing on and I’ll help with a bit of design and animation. It allows you to have a different sort of output to the things you have on your own reel, because it’s under a broader banner. Because it’s a collective it allows you greater diversity.
LBB> How would you characterise your work? Some of your films have an almost sci-fi feel to them, but I’ve read interviews in the past where you’ve said you don’t really think of them as sci-fi…
KT> I like augmenting and changing footage, adding things and taking things away, but it’s not sci-fi because sci-fi needs proper rules, whether they’re realistic or not. I don’t think I’ve got that rigour. But I don’t think it’s magical realism either… I was reading an interview with Danny Boyle and he said, “you have to find your own ‘esque’”.
I guess the way I construct my films comes from the nature of things I’ve been interested in – I studied architecture, have been into animation since I was really young, I’ve been travelling a lot and doing a lot of travel photography. It informs how I approach things. I end up often adding elements and then that builds its own thing, and there’s also a sense of location. I don’t know what it is, I haven’t got a name for it yet!
LBB> The past few years have been quite a journey for you, from winning the Sundance jury prize in 2011 to being featured in Saatchi's New Directors’ Showcase and now you've got this massive Guinness ad under your belt – how do you think you've grown as a director in that time? And what sort of projects are you keen to work on next?
KT> I’ve got another film that I’m working on with Nexus; we shot it at the end of last year and hopefully we’ll be able to finish it by the end of this year. It’s a short film about a robot and a scarecrow that fall in love at a music festival. It’s a case of balancing between really cool commercials and long form. Hopefully my first feature film is going to go next year with Film 4; I’ve got a couple of projects in development with them and I don’t know which one we’re going to do first. I’ve been working with different writers on different projects but… films are slow! But it looks like one of them is going to go fairly soon.
LBB> I guess that’s the thing with commercials – people complain about the shrinking timescales but atleast…
KT> … they start and they finish!
Hopefully I’ll do another cool commercial too this year if one comes up, but you never know!
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