TOLULOPE AJAYI: CAPTURING ETHEREAL VISUALS UNDERWATER
Tolulope Ajayi the Chief Operating Officer at Lucid Audio Visuals, a media production company of SO&U, studied English Language with minors in Linguistics and Performing Arts-music, dance and theatre at the University of Ilorin. He is a TV producer and filmmaker who has over the past decade, led production of world-class creative and strategic television, radio and advertising campaigns for multi-nationals and top flight companies, garnering industry accolades for his creative executions with high production values.
Ajayi directed Tinsel Season 2 for 10 months and created, produced and directed A New You, a one-hour TV film for EL Drama on Ebony Life TV. His other directorial work includes The Encounter; a short film based on true events about the rarely told story of Ifeajuna, Ojukwu’s accomplice in the Biafran war, which won the Special Jury Recognition for Short Film at the African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in 2015. Using compelling imagery, some of his works highlight topical issues like Special Day, a Children’s Day short film, which focuses on child abuse and neglect, and Thirst centered on inaccessible clean water for the masses which he filmed under water. Tolulope Ajayi belongs to the ‘elite’ group of creatives in Nigeria practicing underwater videography and photography who despite a tight schedule, finds time to mentor and train the younger generation.
From the world diphthongs, syntax and philological connections to that of clapper boards, lenses and camera angles. How did your journey across worlds start?
It’s been a fortuitous one but everything sort of led to another in an unplanned fashion. At the University of Ilorin, I studied English as major and minored in Linguistics, Performing Arts and German. This was not my first choice as I wanted to read the more serious sounding Political Science programme, but it has paid off immensely in my current field of endeavour. I learned a great deal about contemporary African Literature in English class as well as grammar. What I discovered about grammar and its structure led me to what is known as the Speech Act theory—that is very useful in construction of advertising and sometimes propaganda. Simply put, it’s how we can use words to do or get other people to do things. My final year project was a study of the Speech Act Theory in relation to Advertising.
You are presently the Chief Operating Officer at Lucid AV, SO&U’s media production company. How did you get this job?
My leanings in life have always been to art and I gravitated towards Literature and Drawing. When I was 16, I got an opportunity to intern at Vanguard Newspapers as a junior cartoonist. I then hung around the department and got to see my teenage Nigerian comic hero Bayo Odulana of the Emulewu the Taxi Driver during which I was learning about drawing and concepts within a frame. I had another opportunity to intern at an advertising agency when I was at the university and it began my journey into the world of commercial/marketing art forms in advertising. When I started in advertising, I was a copywriter by a dint of good fortune, I was then transferred to the Radio and TV production unit, which is how I became an agency producer for radio and TV commercials. Lucid AV the company I run now, is the natural evolution of the production model with a view to marketing/content production. I am normally dissatisfied with the status quo so I always drive myself to learn more. This made me attend a production programme at the BBC.
You are known for directing short films like Thirst and Special Day, while highlighting topical issues. Why do you make such films?
This is simply because related projects are a strong part of my portfolio. I have been involved in many projects that draw attention to societal challenges and find that art should to an extent, present to us realities that demand our attention and action. Film as a medium is an emotional one and it can be used to create empathy for action not just entertainment. I have also done short films for Freedom Foundation and InterSwitch—Switch A Future in 2010. This series was the brain child of Uyi Omokaro and we created scenarios where popular celebrities exchanged their lives and lifestyle with that of the destitute. Joke Silva, Stella Damasus, Basketmouth, Zizi Cardow and CEO of Interswitch Mitchell Elegbe all feature in it. To raise awareness for flood victims in northern Nigeria in 2012, we created a short film Flood with Love, of drowning celebrities experiencing the same hardship flood victims would face with Tuface, Tiwa Savage, Rita Dominic, Eku Edewor, Osas Ajibade and Deyemi Okanlawon starring in it. Thirst and Special Day are the new additions. Thirst was a finalist in the third edition of the global competition We Art Water Film Festival 2016 while Special Day recently won the platinum award at the Summit International Awards. I am just glad to be able to make the audience sit up and look at the issues and ultimately act on them.
Several audiences have short term memory spans and may only enjoy the artistic side of your work. How do you intend to move people to effect changes in the society after viewing your films?
The newest short film I directed Silence which is written by Bose Oshin is also issues-based and I think it had strong reactions at the screening during the Real Time Film Festival last month. An audience member walked out and others challenged me during the Q&A. I was intrigued as to why their expectations of that character’s portrayal did not lead them to the conclusion. I hope a lot of people get to see Silence at the African International Film Festival AFRIFF this month. Our role as artists is to get people to pause in between putting popcorn in their mouths and watching the screen to reflect on the situation they see in a way that they can not immediately discard. It then forms an opinion in their consciousness so they carry it about till they can act on it. Our role is also to get people to look at situations differently like how Steven Spielberg changed going to beach forever with JAWS. Stop, look and listen…
Your short film The Encounter about Ifeajuna, Ojukwu and Biafra got a lot of accolades at Nigerian and international film festivals. It is also a history class. What inspired it and how did you get the directorial gig?
The Encounter was produced by TRINO studios who I have a working relationship with. I had the option of 3 scripts and when I first read The Encounter, I did not want to do it because of the political implications
Despite your busy schedule you find time to mentor and give sessions on your different fields of work to younger people. How do you think this will play out eventually?
Well, I volunteer at Street Project RAW to educate and inspire young people to follow their passions and develop themselves creatively. The Street Project Foundation gives me feedback on success stories so I get the feeling that something right is being done. The best we can do is contribute and hope our words or presence bring some relevance into another person’s life so I will just keep showing up. Maybe I might have a Creative Arts Foundation in the future.
You are one of the few Nigerian creatives who photograph and shoot films underwater. How did you start this special art and what is required?
I am in love with underwater imagery. I find it ethereal and graceful. There is a beauty revealed in the low gravity of the underwater scenario. I swim frequently and started Scuba classes 5 years ago so I have always wanted to integrate that passion in my art. The first time I shot an underwater scene was for Blink. It was a learning process for myself and Adeyemi Okanlawon. A few months before I started shooting, I attended the British Video Expo London where 4 underwater cameramen were giving a talk on their diverse processes. I listened, learned and practised. The cost of buying suitable cases for DSLR cameras are quite high at $4,000 but it is higher for larger cameras. I guess its best to just adapt what one has for the shoot. I have gathered a kit now but I always remind myself that the focus shouldn’t be the gear but the results.
What kind of equipment do you work with for this type of jobs and how long does it take to film underwater?
The photographer or videographer needs to have solid airtight underwater cases for any camera system intended for use. Once one is bought for that camera system, you are stuck with it if there’s an upgrade. So choose wisely. I have NIMAR cases for my Canon DSLRs and Fantasea cases for my smaller cameras.
The adage for underwater filming is that everything is 10 times harder to do under water. This can be negated by choosing simple options and preparing better. Choosing a pool over a lake or an ocean is a no-brainer, as well as ensuring safety first. But it takes more time to get things done. Blink’s underwater scene was shot over 2 days. Thirst was achieved in a shorter time of 12 hours.
Preparing to shoot underwater
How do you get your subjects composed and camera ready since they are not on ‘terra firma’?
It is essential that the subjects are comfortable in the water and know what they are to do before they get in. One should always practice the pose on land before immersion. There is also the complexity of buoyancy (unintentional floating) that has to be worked out beforehand.
What has been your most memorable project/short film till date?
Perhaps the most memorable project has been the one I didn’t shoot but only participated in as an on-screen talent in a more or less transitory way. I had the chance to fly to Burkina Faso in 2008 to work with friends of mine Howard and Jon Ford—really talented brothers on a zombie movie titled The Dead.
Howard wrote a role for me to be a soldier in the film. It had a spoken role that I did not get to do but some segments of my part made it on-screen in small clip. The part came with weapons training and action scenes. I had a great time and as always a great learning experience.
Do you also do skydiving like your scuba diving as seen in some of your photographs? Are you planning to direct films from hundreds of thousands of feet above sea level?
(Laughs!) No not at all! I really don’t ‘do’ skydiving. It was just an experience to test the frontiers of fear. I had a great time doing it but have no plans for a career in “gambling with gravity!”(Laughs!)
What’s the next project you are working on?
I am presently on the directing team of Gidi Up. I am also reading and developing a few feature scripts and one short. 2017 will be busy.
Any advice for young and older creative people out there?
Dream, Live and Create—Be conscious of your purpose as a artist and live it!
Tolulope Ajayi Image credit: Yetunde Babaeko.
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