Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Filmmaker's Guide to 2012

2011 has been good for many people in many ways and likewise, bad for many people in many ways. But for the film industry in East Africa, I feel like it has been just another year in the slow trudge towards emancipation.  In Kenya, we’ve had a few amazing films and TV series being produced and released, and the newspapers ran many articles about filmmakers and their projects. But for the most part, we remained unpaid and unappreciated, unwatched and unheard. We met in our conferences and complained about distribution and lack of financing, taxes and lack of support by local TV stations- the same old things, really!
It’s 2012 now, and by the winds of Migingo, we cannot continue this way! Because I care about you all ((HugMoment)), I will share a radical diabolical plan. My only condition for this great gesture of camaraderie ((UhuruInstrumentalMoment)) is that you accept the challenge and walk with me through each step of the way. It will not be easy, but I’m going in. Who’s with me?

The Filmmaker’s Guide to 2012
Step 1-  An education:
Film school is expensive, and almost non-existent in Kenya. We have some good film production programs (I know of good programs at Mohammed Amin Foundation and at Kenta Institute of Mass Communication), but MoForce is too expensive for most of us and well, KIMC is… Yea… I don’t know what KIMC is! As far as I know, filmmakers outside Nairobi are forced to come to the city to get some decent instruction.
If you’re a Kenyan filmmaker, I know you’re most likely of the opinion that film school is for dummies, and that you can make films without having to attend a formal film program. Unschooled Riverwood producers are trampling us schoolies to the underground in terms of sales and market share. 

Mr. Evans Mutua (big-shot Kenyan film guru man) is a lecturer at the USIU Mass Communication program, and he believes in formally educating Kenyan filmmakers. I’m going with him on this, mainly because he’s really cool and made Tough Choices, but also because I see his point. His argument is that film is a craft, and there are parameters within which the production process operates. You can’t just fumble around with it and come up with a world-class production. In order to compete with the global market and to win back an audience of people that have been watching Hollywood films all their lives, we must have the skills to use the medium of film as best possible. Technical aspects like lighting, camera techniques and sound, as well as the creative stages like screenwriting and set design are better learned through instruction from skilled and experienced filmmakers. So go to school and learn all you can. 
If you cannot attend formal film school, I can recommend some programs that are just as good- Maisha Film Lab, One Fine Day and workshops offered by the Kenya Film Commission are top on the list for me, and you can look for other similar opportunities to learn more.
My resolution is to attend all the training programs and workshops that I can. I have attended a few and at each one, I learn something new and I meet new filmmakers. The food is always amazing as well :)
Picture: Joan Kabugu with Bollywood filmmaker Anjum Rajabali at Maisha Screenwriters Lab in Nairobi, 2010

Step 2- Make a film!
I know you have no money, of course I know that! And you have no equipment? Yea, neither do I. But I still say, make a film! It’s the best way to learn and to get more involved with the Kenyan film fraternity- and in 2012 I guarantee you, you can make a cool film on your camera phone (or your friend’s camera phone) and with a few of your friends. Realize that the bulk of achievements that we make as independent filmmakers are realized with the help and support of friends (Also translated as: people that are interested in helping you with production for free). If you have no friends then I’m sorry, you cannot work in the film industry in Kenya. Go become a banker. 

With no budget and limited equipment, your film will most probably turn out whack- but you will walk away with more experience, more connections, and higher ambition to make a better film.
 If you are more experienced and have access to better equipment, understand that the industry is depending on your input in 2012- make an amazing production that Kenyans will appreciate and add to their DVD collections beside The Dark Knight and 300. The key to this, I have come to believe, is story.  Have an amazing story and be loyal to the cultural truths of your target audience.
Picture: Independent filmmakers Denis Kimathi and Muriuki Erick on set (Hunters, the movie)

The more elite members of your audience will care about your production values and undoubtedly compare your camera techniques, sound and lighting to Hollywood productions, but the bulk of Kenyans don’ t really notice all that- they’re here for the story. I’ve heard time and time again that the main problem with Kenyan productions is sound, and I feel like 2012 is the year to fix that. Take care of your sound, whether you’re working no-budget or not, and you’ll have boosted your production value 50% above what you did in 2011 and before. No shady soundtracks either please!

My resolution is to make a short film independently, maintaining the highest possible production values that I can. What’s a filmmaker without a film? Just a maker! And nobody thinks makers are cool.

Step 3- Make like a Somali and pirate!
* Disclaimer: The pirate pun works, no xenophobia- I love waryias!

I asked a question to some filmmaker buddies of mine on Facebook: Filmmakers, should we pirate Kenyan films?
“I spoke to Alex Konstantaros of Jitu Films early last year and he explained to me the idea behind selling films for as low as KSH.30. He said his main aim was to open the Kenyan market- show Kenyans that Kenyan films are actually good and they can watch them and enjoy them same as Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood. When Kenyans get to watch local films that they like, then it compels them to buy more local stuff. Without watching good Kenyan films, most Kenyans assume that local films are horrible and never bother to try them out.

I want to open a market for us in 2012- I want Kenyans to watch local and love it, so that when I put my local film on the shelf, someone will be interested in watching it. Problem is, Kenyan films are really hard to come by. I seek out Kenyan films like crazy, and hadi today I have never watched Malooned, Rugged Priest, Mwigwithania and many many other presumably good Kenyan stuff. Trust me, most of your target audience has NEVER watched a Kenyan film EVER- the rest have, but not a really good one- so what makes you think that when you put out your film they'll be interested?
Let's pirate! I know it's illegal, but I feel like it's necessary. The target audience needs to watch local films so that there can be demand for it, because right now, our market is dead on the floor.

I propose: if you have a local film, Torrent it! YouTube it! File-share it! Burn it! I don't care, just make sure everyone you know watches it- they need to know that we exist!
Filmmakers, WHAT DO YOU THINK? Coz I have Soul Boy, Noose Of Gold, First Grader, What Boys Can Do, Love, Once Upon A Rhyme, Torn, Control- and if anyone wants them, I'm file-sharing! So speak now before I spread this virus- do you agree of disagree?”

Most of them agreed.

Disclaimer: I ain't even trying to go to jail :-P So no snitching! 

There’s The Filmmaker’s Guide to 2012. No more excuses filmmakers; I’m going in- who’s with me?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

To The Bearer of this message, Urgently Deliver it to @sirlotan By 22nd December 2012

@sirlotan, it came to me in a dream, that you are indeed the same man Dr. John Xhuma. I have also learned that you now reside within the Unified Lands, and blend with the people there as a part of your guise. I am aware that the alias @sirlotan is a guise to allow you association with the people of the Unified Lands. For both our sakes, I will maintain this pretence as I travel through the unified Lands; nobody must know that we are natives of the Valley.

I contact you now not as an adversary, but as a friend seeking your help. When you departed from The Valley, you left your apprentice to administer your laboratory research into the Metapsychological Analysis of Parapraxis. However, earlier this year, he went missing and nobody has seen or heard form him since. The scientists that you left working at the laboratory reported nothing missing from the premises aside from your apprentice and his favorite cap. 

It is worrying to note that since his disappearance, several residents of the Valley have reported unique incidences of parapraxis, and we have become aware that the Valley has been infiltrated by an unknown enemy. We have searched for you for many months but as only your apprentice knew of your location, the search has been futile. Until now… Please be warned that though your apprentice is indeed loyal and honorable, after all this time he is sure to have succumbed to coercion from the enemy and your location may be compromised.
The situation in the Valley is growing direr by the day, and as I departed in my quest for you 3 months ago, the state was that of near panic. 

It is imperative that you return to the Valley, and help us fight this unknown enemy. Without you or your apprentice, we lack the intellectual caliber to resist their infiltration. A report has reached me that the seers are wary of the 22nd of December in 2012. I cannot be sure when this letter will reach you, but be aware that even as you read this, we have little time. Please abandon your business in the Unified Lands and return to the Valley before it is too late.

The messenger bearing this letter is the nephew of your trusted apprentice. Please trust him in turn, and he will lead you to me.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Heat-rash, Mavoko ( and) Njeri almost fainting! (Behind the scenes of Blind Sight)

For the past 5 weeks or so, I’ve been on set shooting a film in Athi River. Now, for the benefit of everybody that has never been, I must explain that Athi River is: ‘a town outside Nairobi, Kenya in Eastern Province. It is also known as Mavoko. ( Weather: Hottest! (Recent astronomy reports indicate that the sun resides in the Mavoko skies with her sister and two gentleman friends. They enjoy a good game of ‘burn-this-town’, a competition designed to generate additional solar heat played mainly by elements of the tropical cosmos)

Ian Kithinji wrote an amazing script and chose Athi River as the location. I ended up as the producer of the film. 

Murphy’s Law:
According to Murphy (who is Murphy in the first place?), ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong.’ So we began the shoot with Murphy’s Law in mind, and I even covertly carried an emergency inflatable tent with fire-stones and a microlith so that in case of anything, I could shelter a few chosen crew members and eventually eat them if the rescuers didn't find me in time... Thankfully, Murphy was trampled by our prayers, and nothing very drastic happened.   

(Photograph: Writer/director/DOP Ian Kithinji with Camera Assistant Steve Waguwa)

The team:
In choosing the team that would form the film crew, Ian and I (naturally) looked for people that we know and had worked with before. It was a little challenging, as many of the people I trust in filmmaking were not available or simply could not come to Mavoko, but I finally got an incredible group of people from Daystar, and we all worked hard at the shoot. Casting was a lot easier and Njeri Wagacha did an impressive job as casting director; in my opinion, some of the  best actors in Kenya turned up for auditions and the final cast ensemble was excellent: Emmanuel Mugo, Hana Gitau, Maureen King’ori,  Kibui Kariita, Mandela Mukundi, Joshua Karanja, and the actors from Daystar Theatre Arts (Caleb Chuma, David Kiarie, Michelle Siro, Rodney Mutugi): a biiig tune! They wowed us, and I know they’ll wow you when you watch the film. 

Heat-rash, Mavoko ( and) Njeri almost fainting!
(Photograph: Crew members under the shade of a reflector)
For most of our shoot, the sun and her posse shone down on Mavoko like a cat on fire! Hopefully, the footage doesn’t show the actors becoming progressively darker with each scene, or else we’ll have to add in a scene where everybody in the world is diagnosed with revitiligo (opposite of what MJ had #UncleRucusNoRelation). We got heat-rash and sunburns and lost weight, but often times this is the nature of production. For the most part, thanks to the creatively cool crazy (alliterate) people on set, we had an amazing time shooting and nothing went horribly wrong... Well, we did have this one runner who came on set more than 3 hours late (and) got under everybody’s skin (and) freaked everybody out because he smelled of aqueous methylethanoxidohydrosuplhaclyrous solution.  (and) Njeri almost fainted. Then another time we went for dinner at Mandela’s place (and) got detained by the guards at 11:05pm at the Daystar gate (and) had to write down our names at the guards' post (and) Njeri almost fainted. Another time we waited for an actor X for 1.5 hours on set (and) all the other actors were ready with their make-up done (and) the camera, sound and lighting were all set (and) the actor X says, after 1.5, that he does not feel well enough to come (and) Njeri almost fainted. 
(Photograph: Actor Emmanuel Mugo prepares for a shoot)
(Photograph: Actor Kibui Karita in action as the camera rolls)  

I wish lot of peace, love and blessings za Jah to everybody that put work into this production. Watch out for the film Blind Sight next year (2012), and follow me on Twitter @LoiAwat! 

*Photographs by Leonard Dzoga, Marc Mukunya and Loi Awat

Monday, September 12, 2011

The 3 pillars of the independent Kenyan stop-motion animator/filmmaker/hustler


Stop-motion animation is done by taking still photographs of objects, each photograph representing a frame. The object(s) is/are moved very slightly in each frame and when the frames are put together and played in a sequence, the illusion of movement is created. It is a simple concept, and can be executed easily- but not without a great amount of patience and care for detail. Continuity is key in stop-motion animation, as each frame should match the next in terms of lighting, camera position and the positions of objects (other than the subjects of animation) in the frame. If there is a tree on the set, it should stay in its position in each frame- unless your animation is about a dancing tree.

Stop-motion animation cannot be done without an impressive amount of patience, fortitude, staying-power, endurance, tolerance, persistence and serenity. (I just synonym-searched ‘Patience’ on MS Word)

In my journey with stop-motion animation, I have come to accept that there are three abilities/special gifts that God granted humanity with the independent Kenyan stop-motion animator/filmmaker/hustler in mind.

1.  The ability to make mistakes. Ghastly ones

Mistakes: My first indie movie was done on a Sony camcorder in my university campus. The entire cast and crew was made of 5 people- me and 4 of my friends- none of whom had any particular interest in filmmaking. We shot the film in an off-campus hostel where the electricity was cut off during the day and only connected from 7pm to midnight. We had class during the day and an 11pm curfew at night, so we could only shoot in the evenings once the electricity was connected. With one power-saving light bulb as the only source of light and neighbors that listened to their music loud, we ended up with pale-looking green-colored grainy picture, and ‘Niambie’ by Prof playing louder than the actors’ voices through half the film. That was a ghastly mistake.

Lessons: After making mistakes, we realize that filmmaking is not as easy as they make it seem on Hollywood Highlights and Greatest Directors. The lessons we learn from mistakes are more profound that those we learn in class. After making the pale grainy Niambie film, I started looking for a cheap way to make films of good quality with what I had (no lighting equipment, no sound equipment, no money- nothing), and I stumbled into animation.

2. The aptitude to incessantly ask questions and seek clarification. Incessantly.

Questions: Some people (Tonny) find it irritating when I ask questions over and over and try to find out details that they don’t think are important. Or when I ask the meaning of a Sheng’ word that everyone else in the room is familiar with.  Dumb blonde? Noooo- try independent Kenyan filmmaker/stop-motion animator/filmmaker/hustler!

Lessons: In Kenya, the only good film schools are waaaaaay to expensive for the regular folk like all of us. In many cases, we are forced to teach ourselves about a lot of aspects of filmmaking and animation. Even in Communication/Broadcast courses, the syllabi are not sufficient education for a serious aspiring filmmaker. When I read somewhere about stop-motion animation, I totally assaulted Google and the library (for real, imagine!) and I kept researching until I knew exactly what it is, how it is done, who does it etc.

3. The capacity to borrow and scrounge from… everybody…

Borrowing: Just as I had borrowed a camcorder for my first disastrous short film, I borrowed a camera for stop-motion. I also borrowed thimbles, ink cartridges, key-holders, tube-caps, colored cloths, paper-weights……. A lot of things to create the miniature sets that I use for my stop-motion animation (the dolls are mine though :)

Lesson: Independent filmmaking is characteristically low-busget/no-budget. Without any studio/financier support, a lot of the budget for filmmaking comes from the filmmaker’s pocket. It is strenuous to accommodate everything in the budget without the goodwill of friends and family, so every independent filmmaker knows – you have to borrow. No borrowing, no movies. It’s just the indie way!

 DISCLAIMER: Each filmmaker will require a different set of skills dependent on geographical location, physical aptitude, mental profundity, emotional appeal, creative flexibility and several other 2-word factors. 

Check out a music video that I made- the first music video from East Africa to be done entirely in stop-motion animation! Share the link, and give me feedback :)


        Tuesday, September 6, 2011

        The first music video in East Africa to be done entirely in stop-motion animation!

        Check out a musc video that I made for an amazing song (Link: Rain On My Lips by Pepe Haze & Steph McKee). This is the first music video from East Africa to be done entirely in stop-mo, and I had an amazing time doing it. Watch and share the video, and tell me what you think of it! :)

        Saturday, September 3, 2011

        This week’s post is a little late, but there is good reason for it. You see, I became a zombie.

        A few years ago, the Kenyan music industry was revolutionized by pioneer local artists like Nameless and E-Sir. Urban Kenyan youth finally began to listen to locally made music as much as they did foreign music, and everybody was pleased. Back then, all you needed to make a Kenyan music video was a camera and some friends- maybe a creative director. Very few artists invested ample time and money into their videos, and there wasn’t much cause for it anyway. Mizizi and The Beat played the music videos, and helped to push the Kenyan music industry forward. We loved seeing those videos, and didn’t mind that they were considered inadequate by international standards.

        Today, however, the bar has been raised. It has been raised way up high, and artists need to put more thought, effort and money into their videos to get them played on TV. When I began to work on my first music video, I had no idea that I would eventually turn into a zombie. I learned, however, that this was inevitable after staying up all night last night working on the final touches of the video and trying to incorporate the advice that I got from pre-screenings. I was working for 15 straight hours, and by 7am I felt like a mass of rubbery meat with globs of sponge for eyes (DISCLAIMER: This is a common side effect of working on stop motion videos on a mini laptop 1GB RAM while eating liver and drinking lime juice)

        Nonetheless, it was worth it. After sleepless nights, many prayers and a world of growth, Pepe Haze & Steph McKee finally have a music video for their amazing song, Rain On My Lips- and I hereby claim bragging rights for the first fully puppet-animated stop motion music video in the Kenyan urban music scene! I have well acknowledged that Just A Band stole a bit of my thunder by releasing their amazing animated music videos before mine, but that’s all OK ;) Just A Band came with a 2D animated video (Iwinyo Piny) and a sock-puppet video (Hey!) and an amazing 2D animation of stick-figures (Highway), but I’m coming with a full traditional stop-motion puppet animation piece (Rain On My Lips), and that's a first! (If it's not then someone please tell me which other such music videos exist- so that I can seek out the video producers, zap them with my carbon-destabilizer secret weapon and send them into 2037 where they will spend their days mentoring futuristic afro-techno musicians on the forgotten art of melodic bottle-blowing)

        I get a lot of questions about what exactly stop-motion animation is, so I will publish an account of the production process of the video soon. For now- special thanks to Pepe Haze and Steph McKee for making an amazing song, and for having me make the music video for it. 

        Official release date for the music video is tomorrow, 4th September 2011 (Happy Birthday Pepe!)- it will be on YouTube and Vimeo at midnight tonight, so come through and check out this fully stop-mo local music video! This is the lyrics video; listen to the song as you wait for the official music video...

        Friday, August 26, 2011

        Lessons from India

        A Bollywood screenwriter-director was taking us through a screenwriting program last year. I wrote a lot of notes and still refer to them today just before I begin writing a screenplay, and when I’m stuck on a scene. 

        One evening, we were having tea in Nairobi, and he told us about his country. India is a poor country with a vast population of people that speak different languages- much like Kenya. India also produces sugar. When sugar cane is harvested, it is taken to the factory, where it is taken through a roller mill machine that squeezes the cane juice out. After the first run in the roller mills, the squeezed sugar cane is folded and run through the mill again, to squeeze out any remaining cane juice. After this, the cane is folded again to squeeze out even more juice. Every single drop of cane juice counts in this county- every drop of cane juice contributes to make a kilogram of sugar to be sold. They can not afford to lose out on any drop. The cane is folded and squeezed over and over until there is no cane juice left at all.

        When writing your screenplay, he told us, the first draft is the first run through the roller mills. In the second draft, you should bring more juice out of the story - and in the third, and in the fourth- each draft has to milk the story for all it’s worth, contributing to the overall sweetness of the final draft.

        We had tea and he flew back to India. Now whenever I see sugar, I think of how much consistent effort was put into converting it from the juicy fibrous cane grasses to sweet particulate sugar crystals.

        Tuesday, August 16, 2011

        Don't Dare Pull That Blanket Back Over Your Head

        It’s 0147HRS (That means usiku wa manane, for I have come to know some Kenyans that have completely rejected the 24 hour system), and you are asleep, warm in your blanket. The dogs outside are asleep as well, and the matatus are all parked away for the night, no longer hooting and revving past. And then somewhere in the midst of your dreams, you get an epiphany- that idea- that breakthrough that you have been searching for- yeeeeeees, that’s it! You got it! For three weeks now, you’ve been writing a screenplay, and you have 60 pages- just 30 to go and you’ll have a great feature length screenplay. Every great feature length screenplay needs a great ending- a super ending in fact, and yeeeees, it has finally come!

        You open your eyes and lift the blanket- damn, it’s cold! Who knew the room could be so cold outside your blanket. Well… you can write it down in the morning, this great idea… Brrr *shivers*… In fact… Yea, you’ll write it down in the morning. Mr. Evans Mutua (A VIP in the Kenyan film community, one of the pioneers of Kenyan filmmaking) warned us that the moment you pull the blanket back over your head, it’s over. You have killed the idea and it will never come back to you- not in the morning, not ever! ‘Don’t dare put that blanket back over your head!’ We laughed, but we knew that he meant it. Don’t dare pull that blanket back over your head. 


        Friday, August 12, 2011

        This is me

        When I was 14, I sat in a career talk at my high school, listening to the motivational speaker explain the SMART (acronym) way to choose a career. The speaker told us that our career choices should be guided by our abilities and interests, and this is what led me to shift from ‘I want to be a psychologist’ to ‘I want to be a filmmaker.’ At the time, everybody else was becoming a doctor, lawyer, pilot or engineer- but I have always been different anyways, so I never changed my mind about it. 

        My first screenplay, You, Me & Us I wrote when I was 16, in Pango: during night preps and those form 3 Mathematics and Kiswahili lessons. It is set in Brooklyn, NY (yes, the one in USA) and it is a drama/romance about Leone, an African American basketball enthusiast– and I wrote it before I ever watched Jason’s Lyric or Poetic Justice- I’m just gangsta that way :)
        Coming out of high school, I realized that the most commended film training institutions in Kenya are waaaaay too expensive- and the ones outside Kenya even more so. I was still confident that my awesome screenwriting genius would lead me straight to Hollywood (money, glitters and fabulous dresses, *yay!). I continued writing, and sought partnership with several local production houses that you have never heard of. I emailed and called, and sent treatments and teasers- but I quickly found out that… well… many local production houses are simply unwilling to solicit awesome genius scripts from 18 year old awesome genius screenwriters. After several unreplied emails a friend gave me advice (Kagondu, thanks!)- ‘start small’. She knew I wanted Hollywood (money, glitters and fabulous dresses, *yay!)- I wanted to make it big immediately, and I was relying on my self-taught awesome screenwriting genius to bring it to me. She told me to forget the big leagues and just do what I can. This advice pushed me to make my first independent film, Astray with a total cast and crew of 5 people. (*This film is currently being transported by a Moroccan transporter/hitman to a submarine cave in the Dead Sea, and you will never watch it ever. Ever!) I learnt that even awesome genius screenwriters have a lot to learn, and instead of sending applications to production houses, I spent more time leaning from workshops, being on set, and whatever other screenwriting/filmmaking classes/experience I could get.

        Since then, I’ve worked on different films doing different things- runner, 2nd AD, assistant set designer, light-holder-person, writer, production manager... I am an independent Kenyan filmmaker- O wait- an independent Kenyan hustler. 

        Check out a stop motion animation that I made this year: