Creative Lives — Director Kibwe Tavares on his filmmaking journey, from learning on the fly to financing

Posted 16 January 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

Starting out in architecture, Kibwe Tavares was still studying at the Bartlett School when he began making films. His first short, Robots of Brixton, was created as part of his thesis, and put him on the map as a budding director, earning him the Sundance Special Jury Award for Animation in 2012. In the ten years since graduating, he has achieved an incredible amount; his second film, Jonah, attracted support from Film4, and he was recently named as one of Saatchi & Saatchi’s top 20 young directors at their New Directors Showcase, on top of winning a TED fellowship. Based in South London, he set up creative studio and directing collective Factory Fifteen in 2011, alongside co-founders and directors Jonathan Gales and Paul Nicholls. Uniting an extensive skill set, the studio’s output ranges from architectural visualisation to branding and filmmaking for brands like UEFA and Guinness. We met up to talk about the importance of understanding your own motives for each project, and the process of bringing self-initiated shorts to life – from financing and learning on the job, to overseeing a crew of over 100 people.

Kibwe Tavares

Job Title

Director and Co-founder of Factory Fifteen (2011–present)

Based

London

Education

BA Architecture, Leeds Beckett University (2003–2007)
MArch Architecture, Bartlett School of Architecture – UCL (2009–2011)

Website
Social Media

Kibwe Tavares

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
I run an animation studio called Factory Fifteen and also direct films, commercials, some music videos and I’m moving into some live performance and dance stuff as well. 

Factory Fifteen is a directing collective but we also do architectural visualisation and design. With the visualisation work, architecture firms will come to us wanting images or a film to be able to show what a building will look like. That side of the studio’s work is a bit more calm; it will often have tight deadlines, but it is usually more steady, with less people involved. 

What does a typical working day look like?             
I will usually be in the studio or at home – working on writing, reading scripts or making notes. And I’ll usually have around 20 shoot days per year; a film might make three or four years from start finish, but you’ll only be on set for six weeks. Coming into the studio will mean lots of meetings, creating documents or being on the phone. It feels like the kind of job that ebbs and flows; you switch between super-active to being frustrated that things aren’t moving, or that things are moving too fast! With filmmaking, there will also be variation between development stage, pre-production, production and post-production. There’s always a different feel to each part of the cycle.

Does the job allow for a good work-life balance?
I’ve got a terrible work-life balance! I mean it’s not the worst, but the thing about directing is that there are lots of things that go beyond working hours – whether it’s a screening or a show. Even going to the cinema is half work, half fun. It bleeds into everything you do. When you have deadlines it can get quite full-on.

“I’ll usually have around 20 shoot days per year; a film might make three or four years from start finish, but you’ll only be on set for six weeks.”

Robot and Scarecrow, directed by Kibwe, 2017

Kibwe on the set of Robot and Scarecrow with actor Jack O'Connell

How does your work usually come about?
It happens in a bunch of different ways, I’m quite self-generative so I might write the idea for something and work on it from scratch. However, it’s usually harder to get that stuff off the ground, as you often need to convince someone to pay for it. 

At other times a company will come to me, and in that case I’ll have to pitch to try and win the job. For me it’s just important to maintain a constant cycle of creating your own stuff, to drive what you’re doing.

I often feel like if I do too much stuff for hire, I’m neglecting the stuff that needs my attention. But when I’m doing all my own stuff I’ll be like, ‘How am I going to pay the rent?’ It’s a balance that happens in many different careers, but even more so in the creative industries. 

“When I’m doing all my own stuff I’ll be like, ‘How am I going to pay the rent?’ It’s a balance that happens in many different careers, but even more so in the creative industries.”

For self-initiated work, I’d start by getting an idea together, drawing up a document of what I’m trying to do, then approach different producers I work with. Or I’d go straight to a financier to see if they’re interested in developing it. They would then look at your previous stuff and review the idea – whether it suits what they’re trying to do and who’s involved – then hopefully you’d get money to make it happen.

The making of Robot and Scarecrow

The making of Robot and Scarecrow

The making of Robot and Scarecrow

The making of Robot and Scarecrow

The making of Robot and Scarecrow

How collaborative is your role? 
It’s very collaborative. As a director, I think you need to know a bit about all the elements of filmmaking – sound design, acting, production – but then someone better than you is going to do the actual work. It’s about giving enough space and guidance to get the best out of people, and steering the project. It’s important to make sure your vision is clear in your own head beforehand, so that you can articulate it to other people. 

To make a film as a director, you’ll have a producer, who is above you in some ways – where you are responsible for the creative, they are in charge of making sure it gets done. Then in terms of finance, above that you have the investors, then the executive producers – who all decide whether a film happens or not. 

In terms of my team, for my last short I had about 150 people working on it. You’ll have your HODs (heads of department), the cinematographer (DOP), editor, screenwriter, a VFX supervisor and an animation team. Then you have casting, production designer, sound designer and sound editor, composer – and each of them has their own team, for example the camera team the cinematographer might have a first camera assistant, a focus puller, a loader (who changes the batteries and cards).

Then for a commercial it’s a completely different set-up; there will be countless people on set, many of whom you might not know who they are!

UEFA #weplaystrong, directed by Kibwe, 2017

UEFA #weplaystrong, directed by Kibwe, 2017

UEFA #weplaystrong, directed by Kibwe, 2017

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable bit for me is the process – and within that there are two stages I really enjoy. One is at the start, when you’re writing and not thinking about anything stressful like how much it’ll cost! Then the second is the early stage of shooting, when the thing you wrote (which seemed random at the time) is coming to life, people are running around to get it done, and you’re like ‘This is crazy!’.

The least enjoyable, is when I’m looking to make something new, and I have a massive reading list. I’m a visual person and sometimes find it hard to enjoy reading when I’m forcing myself.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I had two projects come out on the same day last year, which is unusual for me, as I usually do about one a years. 

I shot a commercial for UEFA which was a lot of fun. We filmed in three countries promoting girls’ football. Then my film Robot and Scarecrow, which I’ve been working on for almost three years. It was really nerve-racking cos you’ve worked really hard on it, so if people don’t like it you take it personally.

What skills are essential to your job?
Working out how to communicate in your own way and in a way that’s right for the situation – both listening and articulating yourself. It’s also about trying to understand what you want from the situation as a director. Once something has started, it can easily get pulled in different directions if you’re not in control. You need to try to recognise what drew you to the project, and what you can afford to compromise on, because you will have to compromise along the way.

“You need to try to recognise what you can afford to compromise on, because you will have to compromise along the way.”

The making of Kibwe’s work for UEFA

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up? 
I always liked the idea of becoming an expert in something for a few years, and then doing something else. I assumed everyone got bored, and I always had loads of different hobbies. From a young age I really liked animation and drawing, but I didn’t think they were jobs. Then I got into architecture, and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t as passionate about the work.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role? 
It’s been useful in that I’ve been able to manage massive projects without too much previous experience. For example, the first film I made was Jonah with Film4, which had over 100 people working on it. It’s the same as projects I was working on in architecture, where you have to coordinate various teams.

When I was studying, I realised I wanted to be an animator and work at a big post house. As I was finishing college, I had a film in a few festivals, including Sundance, where it won a prize too. But it took me about a year to say I was a filmmaker, because I didn’t know any other filmmakers, and it felt pretentious. Now I feel confident calling myself a director, but I still don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time. If you’re super-comfortable it means you’re just stuck where you are.

“It took me about a year to say I was a filmmaker, because I didn’t know any other filmmakers, and it felt pretentious.”

Kibwe’s spot for Guinness Africa, 2016

Kibwe’s spot for Guinness Africa, 2016

Kibwe’s spot for Guinness Africa, 2016

Kibwe’s spot for Guinness Africa, 2016

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
I got a lot of support from Film4 at the start, in particular from Eva Yates and Tessa Ross there, and my agents who act like managers in the UK.

I was commissioned to make a film by Film4 after graduating, and that gave me focus for about a year and a half. I was just learning on the fly – it was quite an experience! Now I’m trying to make another jump, to working in feature films, which is much the same, but just with more people.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
I thought being a director was being on set with a big coat, shouting at people from your chair. And it is a bit like that, but there can be a lot of frustration in trying to get stuff going. You also get to travel a lot and meet loads of people who are experts – for example, for the last film we had this dude on set who just specialises in breeding crows and making them do stuff for film!

Jonah, Kibwe’s second short film, backed by Film4, 2011

Jonah, Kibwe’s second short film, backed by Film4, 2011

Jonah, Kibwe’s second short film, backed by Film4, 2011

Jonah, Kibwe’s second short film, backed by Film4, 2011

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
My main focus will be the longer-form, narrative stuff. With a short you can hustle to get it done quicker, but with a feature you need the time. You need more systems – from getting it funded to selling it to cinemas or online – as so much money will have been spent on it. It’s a product and you’re telling a story at the same time.

Could you do this job forever?
I’m not sure. It’s a very emotional job, and there are lots of arguments, so you need a lot of energy for it. It changes as you get older and more competent, and you might start to feel like you’ve said the things you need to say.

“Share your work with people; hiding it away can be quite isolating.”

Robots of Brixton, Kibwe’s first short which won a Sundance Special Jury Award for Animation in 2012

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Try and focus on the ideas, and don’t think that anything is going to be perfect; gauge your expectations on it and make it about the work. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I making this?’ – it could be for technical reasons, a story you want to tell, something you can have fun with, but just understand why.

I would also recommend sending your films out to competitions and festivals. I like the idea of putting shorts out online, which is how I started. Share your work with people; hiding it away can be quite isolating. If you’ve been working on something for like five years, then show it to someone and they don’t like it, you might break down about it. Share it and alleviate that pressure.

It’s a hard thing to get used to, as you feel so exposed. But you should feel proud. I think even the most secure and accomplished directors still have that. It’s just about making stuff, and trying to do the best you can. 

Posted 16 January 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Animation, Film
Mentions: Factory Fifteen, Kibwe Tavares, UEFA, Guinness
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