Creative Lives — Director Akinola Davies: “People don’t tell you it’s going to take a while – you won’t be great to begin with”

Posted 11 July 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

Showing people your work when you’re starting out can be an intimidating prospect, but for Akinola Davies, it was the difference between diving head-first into his career or continuing to assist others. After saving up while working as a content manager for Daily Motion, he took the plunge as a director two years ago, and has already created video pieces for the likes of The Guardian, Kenzo and NTS. As a self-professed people person, Akinola has built a valuable network that crosses film, fashion and music, having assisted directors such as Tim and Barry and Rollo Jackson, on top of DJing and producing initiatives like Tim and Barry’s Just Jam project. We met up to talk taking your time, drawing inspiration from boredom and assembling a crew that feels like family.

Akinola Davies (Crack Stevens)

Job Title

Director

Based

London

Clients
Previous Employment

(Early work included work for call centres, retail and a production company internship) 

Assistant to directors Tim and Barry, including producing their initiative Just Jam (2010–2016)
Content Manager, Daily Motion (2014–2015) 
Assistant to Georgia Hudson, Simon Owens, Rollo Jackson

Education

English Language and Media Studies BA, Brighton University (2004–2007) Filmmaking Course at New York Film Academy (2009–2010)

Social Media
Website

Akinola; photography by Laura McCluskey

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m a director. I guess an analogy I would use to describe what I do is that I feel like a conductor of an orchestra, and I get to pick the instruments and who plays them. It’s my job to then explain to clients what the composition will be like and how it suits the narrative of what they want to do.

What does a typical working day look like?
I work from home, which serves as my studio. I spend the majority of my day emailing and making a lot of calls to my producer, then I try to break it up with meetings. I work from the moment I get up until the moment I go to sleep. I try to fit everything around work, taking some breaks within that, but I can easily be sat doing treatment without a break for five hours. 

A typical day doesn’t really apply when I’m on a job – that process will start with a treatment, which I submit to a client. Then if it’s agreed, I plan it out with my producer, put a crew together, shoot and edit it, do the grading and then it’ll go back to the client. Because I’m independent rather than represented, by default I have to be responsible for all of that work and whoever does it. And in terms of my crew, often at least 50% will be the same people each time.

How do your projects usually come about?
My friends or crew recommend me for a lot of stuff, then I’d say about 20% of jobs come through people finding my website, and maybe 40% is from me pursuing things. I’m quite active on social media, but I’ve only just got used to the idea of using it to promote work, and not just post personal stuff. Recently I’ve been contacted through Instagram too. I guess people also hear about me through checking credits, or seeing interviews or talks.

“I really liked working in environments that left space to daydream, I think it’s where a lot of my ideas come from – taking the boring aspects of an environment and making it look like fantasy.”

A still from the video for Klein’s ‘Marks Of Worship’

A still from the video for Klein’s ‘Marks Of Worship’

Akinola‘s video for Klein’s ‘Marks Of Worship’, 2016

How collaborative is your work?
It’s 100% collaborative. I work with up to 20 people on any given job, from a producer, stylist, hair and makeup people, wardrobe to an editor, colour grader, colour grader producer and assistants. I work closest with my producer, Julie Vergez, then after that I work most closely with my colourist, Jason Wallis. I enjoy working with anyone who has a strong voice and is very unapologetic about that.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I like the social side of the work more than anything, so being on set is my favourite time. Then in order of what I like, I’d say writing a treatment comes next, colour grading, then editing. I just stopped doing my own editing as I realised I was taking too long, and this frees me up to make more treatments and direct more. I think the least enjoyable thing is waiting around for feedback from clients. I like to stick to a plan, so it can be a bit tough to keep a whole crew waiting, when you’ve budgeted for people.

What’s been the most exciting project of the last 12 months?
Probably the project I worked on for Kenzo. It was quite a big step, even if I didn't realise that at the time. Usually when I pitch directly to companies, the ideas can be a bit too left field, but with these guys they just got it. The collaboration had come about through a combination of things; I was in LA last year to edit some self-funded videos and some friends introduced me to the image directors at Kenzo, who had seen my work and were really sweet and complimentary about it. They asked if I might be interested in doing some work for them and I said yes, but didn’t get their email addresses. Then two weeks later I bumped into them at a cinema by chance and got their details, so it went from there!

“Usually when I pitch directly to companies, the ideas can be a bit too left field, but with [Kenzo] they just got it.”

An image from Akinola’s work for Kenzo, created in collaboration with artist Ruth Ossai

An image from Akinola’s work for Kenzo, created in collaboration with artist Ruth Ossai

Akinola’s work for Kenzo, entiiled ‘Gidi gidi bụ ugwu eze’ (Unity is strength), 2017. The video was shot in the midst of various celebrations within the Igbo communities of Nigeria, and was made in collaboration with artist Ruth Ossai.

What skills are essential to your job?
I’d say diplomacy, patience and humility. Sometimes you can make the mistake of thinking that if you’re paying people you can boss them around, but I don't think there are any benefits to that. It’s the smallest things that determine everyone’s spirit on set.  

In terms of technical skills, I feel like anyone can learn anything in time, but I think you absorb that information better once you know what you want to do. When I was assisting, I got to work as a DOP, do the sound, production and work with directors, so it means I have a bit of knowledge about what everyone else does and that’s quite important as a director.

What tools do you use most for your work?
My phone, my laptop and a large monitor.

Are you currently working on any side projects?
I’m always working on self-initiated stuff, it’s just a matter of finding time. The film I edited in LA will be out before the end of the year; I also had this idea of making a bunch of zines, as I take a lot of photographs (I just counted 26 rolls of film that I need to develop!) Aside from that, I’ve written a couple films which I’m trying to get made.

“I grew up in Nigeria until I was about 11 and we only had kids’ TV from 4 to 6pm...I think maybe 40% of my youth was spent just observing and imagining stuff happening.”

A still for Akinola’s music video for Larry B

A still for Akinola’s music video for Larry B

A still for Akinola’s music video for Larry B

Akinola’s music video for Larry B’s ‘Hit It Right’

How I Got Here

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an architect because I liked the scale models. I also had pipe dreams of playing football, then I wanted to be involved in music, and from my late teens I wanted to be involved in film in some capacity. When I was 16 or 17, I used to spend a lot of time at my friend’s house whose dad was an editor, his mum was an artist, and I remember thinking how much I wanted to have that lifestyle and family unit. I thought, “Whatever his dad does, that’s what I want.”

What effect do you think your upbringing or your background up until now has had on your choice of career?
Probably quite a lot. I grew up in Nigeria until I was about 11, so we’d only have TV from between 4pm to midnight and then kids’ hour would be from like 4pm to 6pm, so you’d have an hour of waiting around till TV started. I think maybe 40% of my youth was spent looking out this massive window in the living room, just observing and imagining stuff happening. I also used to watch a lot of fantasy and I think that really lent itself to being a creative and dreaming stuff up.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Brighton was quite a big part of my life. I’d gone to school in Nigeria, which is a very close community, then I went to school in an English village in the countryside, which is a tiny community. So I went from having no independence to full independence. It wasn’t massively diverse, but it’s a pretty liberal place and there’s loads of graffiti, different sexual orientations, a beach, loads of music and artists all there. It was just a really good place to be nurtured. There were a lot of interesting people that I would have never probably met of my own accord, especially all the kids in art school. I was always a people person, but I think it showed how much empathy I could have for others. It made me a lot more open minded, and towards the end, it definitely made me think I should get involved in film.

“I think everyone should assist, because you really get to see the real day in, day out stuff; it’s good to be prepared for those things.”

Between 2010 and 2016 Akinola assisted directors Tim and Barry, also producing their Just Jam – a live music event streamed online

What were your first jobs?
After uni I worked for a charity where you stop people to sign stuff (and quit after two days), I worked in a call centre, in retail, in clubs, pubs, as a waiter in silver service. All those jobs were extremely boring and quite laborious but I really liked those environments because they left space to daydream, and in some ways, I think it’s where a lot of my ideas come from – taking the boring aspects of an environment and making it look like fantasy.

When I started assisting, I learned a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have thought necessary to directing – like how to produce, speak to people, how to talk to clients, how not to talk to clients, how to treat a team, encourage people, prep and edit, export sound and sync video. I think everyone should assist, in any vocation, because you really get to see the real day in, day out stuff – when it’s not busy, what office politics are like. It’s good to be prepared for those things.

I’m someone that learns much better on the job. I think if you’re doing it by yourself, you don’t really value how important the details are until you’re on a high-value job and you realise how many things are at stake. 

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
I guess delegating and getting the right crew in. The more people you take on, the more people you’re responsible for. I’m quite maternal and I really like to take care of my crew, have barbecues with them, travel and have holidays together.

“You're not going be great to begin with, but don’t be hard on yourself. Ask questions, share your work with other people.”

I thought being consistently creative would be really difficult, but I haven’t really found that. For some jobs, I’ve literally just pitched the first thing that came to my mind, even though I thought it might sound really stupid, but every time I’ve done that I got the job. Sometimes I get less positive responses when I’ve tried to develop a concept and make it more dynamic or interesting. So I think the challenge is trying to go for that first impulse and somehow keep an idea pure.

Is your job what you thought you would be?
The biggest misconception was how long things take and that you make a lot of money. You just don’t. Maybe in time I will! The other thing is recognising how confident you think you are, versus when you’re on a job and you have to stand by an idea. It’s a real battle of attrition. When you’re trying to convince other people, even if you are confident, sometimes you lose your footing. But nothing is as alien as I thought it would be.

With every project I do, I always ask myself if it’s part of my style. It’s not always 10 out of 10, but I’m glad, because you learn the most when you get a four or a two out of ten. But I’ll always stand by any piece of work.

Could you do this job forever?
100%.

A still from ‘Permission’ for fashion designer Bianca Saunders

Akinola’s film ‘Permission’ for fashion designer Bianca Saunders, 2017

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give someone wanting to become a filmmaker?
Just make stuff, assist and show things to people. Assisting helps you build a network and confidence. Trying things on your own helps you see how committed you actually are. I bought a camera and started taking it out, not really knowing what I wanted to do with it (or that I wanted to be a director). Just the fact that I was making stuff – even though it was probably quite crap – meant that people started to ask me to shoot things for them. It helped me see that I wanted to do it professionally, so I did stuff for no pay or next to no money. I wouldn’t evangelise not getting paid, but I think if you’re a fan of someone then it’s worth doing something for them for free – if you’re not, then I would really weigh it up.

I guess the rest is just down to managing expectations – people don’t tell you it’s going to take a while. You’re not going be great to begin with, but don’t be hard on yourself. Ask questions, share your work with other people. If you’re a writer or a filmmaker, you can have ideas in mind, but once you start showing people and getting feedback, then it actually exists – otherwise no one knows it’s there.

The best advice and encouragement I ever got was when I showed Tim and Barry a video I did. Tim’s response was priceless and very validating. He’s not usually very complimentary, but he told me he cried when he watched a video I showed him! I thought he would have suggestions or criticism, but he said, “You don’t need to assist us anymore. You’re good.” Hearing that was pretty scary, but I was thought, “Okay, cool. I guess I’m on my own now.” Asking people’s advice and opinions can be the difference between knowing what stage you’re at.

Posted 11 July 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Fashion, Film, Music
Mentions: Akinola Davies (Crack Stevens), Kenzo, Tim and Barry, Rollo Jackson, NTS
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