Kibwe Tavares: Modern Fairytale Maker
We follow the south London director from his amateur animator days to his current role as a CGI-savvy storyteller.
Factory Fifteen founding partner Kibwe Tavares’ journey to becoming an award-winning young director of emotionally intelligent, effects-enhanced shorts and original, energy-driven spots has been an unusual one. David Knight follows the south London lad from his amateur animator grammar schoolboy days, to his current destination as a CGI-savvy storyteller with a distinctive vision, via a quick diversion to architecture school
Elephant & Castle doesn’t look much like a hub of digital creativity. But in this traffic-choked quarter of south London, near the giant double roundabout that funnels traffic in and out of the West End and the City, sits The Factory – a studio, gallery and home to Factory Fifteen, a unique directing collective built on cutting-edge tech.
Much of Factory Fifteen’s work is in the field of architectural visualisations: creating digitally-generated impressions of future buildings and architectural design projects. They’ve recently visualised Madison Square Garden’s new VR venture and created CGI football stadia for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. But a new star is rising above the company’s pristinely beautiful digital cityscapes, coming from Factory Fifteen’s commercial and short film side. Kibwe Tavares – one of the creative partnership’s founders, alongside Jonathan Gales and Paul Nicholls – often takes the lead in the company’s film projects and the results have marked him out as an exciting new directing talent.
In 2013, the release of Tavares’ short film Jonah – a fantasy-fable about a young man in Zanzibar whose dreams come true, at a price – announced him as a storyteller with a highly distinctive, VFX-fuelled vision. Previously, his graduation film, Robots of Brixton, about a dystopian future version of the London neighbourhood, which blended CGI robots with stock footage, won the director a Sundance award and helped put Factory Fifteen in business.
Fearing the funding shortfall and doing it anyway
Since Jonah, Tavares’ vibrant Guinness ad, Alive Inside, has been his most notable work. But shots’ visit to The Factory is well-timed, as it coincides with the release of not one but two new Tavares films. First there is short Robot & Scarecrow [below] starring Jack O’Connell and Holliday Grainger, a sweet love story about two remarkable misfits – a chirpy scarecrow and a malfunctioning robot dancer, who enjoy an unlikely and poignant romantic encounter at a British music festival. O’Connell and Grainger are transformed into their characters by some stunning VFX work, in a film that has taken three long years to complete.
The other film is Tavares’ new commercial for UEFA’s pan-European campaign Together #WePlayStrong, aimed at inspiring teenage girls to take up playing soccer. Focussing on participation and its benefits, the spot is a fast-moving expression of empowerment, with a very different blend of live- action and animation. The ad is set to premiere the day after our meeting – the same day as Robot & Scarecrow – before being screened during the women’s and men’s UEFA Champions League finals.
“Projects usually go on for a long time, so two things coming out on the same day is not a regular occurrence,” says Tavares, remarking on the coincidence with considerable understatement.
It’s clearly a very satisfying moment for the softly-spoken director. And, in the case of Robot & Scarecrow, it’s also something of a vindication. When it was shot in 2014, at the Secret Garden Party music festival, the project was only partly funded and it took a considerable amount of time to raise the money to finally complete the film.
“The Space [the digital arts body that commissioned the film] gave us the option of shooting at a festival and finding match-funding afterwards, and we took that,” Tavares explains. “Fortune favours the brave. If we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have had years of pain working out how we were going to finish it. But I don’t think it would exist now.”
“I still get sucked up in the second part of the film, however many times I see it. At that point they are not Jack and Holly to me, they are the Scarecrow and the Robot. That transformation has really happened.”
Ultimately, social media platform Vero stepped in to provide the necessary funds to complete the character design and the huge VFX challenge: Factory Fifteen designed the scarecrow, Nexus (where Tavares and Factory Fifteen are represented for commercials) created the robot, while South African post company Chocolate Tribe completed the bulk of the VFX.
Tavares is justifiably proud of the end result and its emotional pull. “I still get sucked up in the second part of the film, however many times I see it,” he says. “At that point they are not Jack and Holly to me, they are the Scarecrow and the Robot. That transformation has really happened.”
From animator to architect and back again
London-born Tavares’ parents both came to the UK capital from the Caribbean as children. He’s a south London boy, having grown up in and around Streatham, Stockwell and Brixton. In his early teens the director was given a copy of 3D Studio Max by his father, to encourage his burgeoning interest in computer animation. He started making simple animations, often working with illustrations by his cousin Warren Holder, who is now a respected character designer working in features and who created the character designs for Robot & Scarecrow.
Tavares says he never regarded his teenage creative endeavours as a career option at the time, probably due to the core values of his school, the strongly academic grammar, Wilson’s School, near Croydon. He says the mindset at Wilson’s was “aspirational rather than creative”, possibly due to the large number of children of working-class parents – of all ethnicities – who attended the school.
After school, Tavares went to Leeds University to study structural engineering. The course included an architecture module, which increasingly became his focus, until he decided to transfer to study architecture full time. Following two years in architectural practice – mostly in Cardiff working on the new building for the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama – Tavares took his masters degree at the Bartlett School of Architecture, part of University College London (UCL).
“When I got to UCL, I saw people working with 3D Studio Max – the same thing I’d been doing between the ages of 13 and 16,” he says. “It triggered something that I’d probably wanted to do from the start.”
Students at Bartlett were encouraged to take a highly conceptual approach, expressing their architectural ideas in one specific medium. This led Tavares to Bartlett’s film department, where he met his future partners Gales and Nicholls.
“It was a weird film school, basically,” he says. “We were allowed a lot of experimentation. So we were making these animations, and also filming and adding animation on top, or animating and then adding footage into it. This started to define our style. The plan going in was to become architects. The plan coming out was to keep making these films. We just didn’t know where they sat.” Thus Factory Fifteen was born.
Thanks to support from Tavares’ old architecture boss, Robin Partington, the collective secured their first paid job. Then they organised a screening of Robots of Brixton and other graduate films in Brixton Village. The stir this created led Film4 to get in touch with Tavares and offer support for his next short film – including providing a writer and producer.
Fantastic fables and modern day parables
What started as an idea to make an animated version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, set in Cuba, turned into the live-action-with-CGI Jonah, shot in East Africa. It was an incredible challenge for Tavares, who had no real experience shooting live-action or working with actors. To make matters worse, he lost his preferred location in Kenya, and had to shoot in Zanzibar, a country he’d never visited before. But despite all the setbacks he never wavered from his determination to make his short more than just a taster for a future feature.
“I may have been naïve, but I thought a lot of shorts I watched didn’t feel complete to me – like chunks of other films. And I wanted to tell a full story.” What he ended up with was a 20-minute film with about a hundred effects shots that took a year to complete. Jonah is a parable about the destructive impact of tourism, showing an idyllic place exploited and ultimately ruined after the eponymous hero, played by Daniel Kaluuya (latterly star of the acclaimed horror movie Get Out), gets photobombed by a mysterious, fantastical gigantic fish.
The fish may have brought ruin to Jonah’s town but it brought acclaim and accolades to the film’s director. The short was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury prize and won both the Short Film Europe prize and the Special Jury Award at the CFP-E/shots Young Director Awards in 2014. Despite all the gongs, Tavares’ progress post–Jonah has hardly been straightforward.
“You need a paying job, but if you have the paying job, how do you continue with your directing? It’s a balancing act.”
After signing to Nexus in 2013, he directed The Seed and the Moon, a fully animated modern day parable for Umpqua Bank, showing a brave little shoot growing against the odds into a mighty tree through a fume-choked city. It was an experience he describes as “good on some levels and tricky on some levels”. But, he explains, a lack of experience meant it proved difficult to win high-end VFX-heavy commercials, even when his pitch was preferred. “You’re up against directors with D&AD Pencils and Arrows and Lions, and you’ve only done a cool short film.”
Still, there are Factory Fifteen’s architectural projects and other work led by his partners, which Tavares has also been continually involved with. But this means juggling the lucrative with the more creative and personal work. “You need a paying job, but if you have the paying job, how do you continue with your directing? It’s a balancing act.”
A much-needed breakthrough came in the form of Guinness Alive Inside for AMV BBDO. Moving away from The Seed and the Moon’s all-VFX style, this spot put a much greater emphasis on live action, with animation and graphics enhancing the performances of a cast of fast-moving dancers.
“I felt I had to go for it, embrace it, and actually let go of some of the other stuff,” Tavares says. “Getting the best out of different people and personalities are things you don’t know about until you’re directing on set – and then I found I enjoy that as well.”
The Guinness ad led directly to Tavares booking his new UEFA film. “The creative team [at FCB Inferno] had seen [Alive Inside], and they liked the energy,” he says. With a relatively quick three month turnaround, the production involved Tavares shooting in Portugal, Poland and England, while the design and animated aspects – including an element of augmented reality, with the main character growing ever-larger digital wings – were completed at Factory Fifteen.
“The loose story is a shy girl going to join this team, and gaining in confidence,” he explains. “At first she’s rubbish at football, and then she gets a bit better – there’s animation to help show that.” But the ad is also about the collective, for a campaign that seeks to make football the number one girls’ sport. “It’s not super-slickly done, but the idea is the girls in different locations link together to score a goal.”
Telling London stories from a unique point of view
Tavares’ career is also taking wing. He has several projects on the go, including a small slate of features, with FilmFour. One of the projects is a heist movie set in near-future London, once again featuring Jonah star Daniel Kaluuya. Another is a story about the first generation of Caribbean immigrants coming to London, which chimes with his own parents’ experience. As one of the few black directors working in British commercial filmmaking, does he feel a responsibility to tell these stories?
“My story is quite mixed – I’m black British, went to grammar school, a couple of universities,” he reflects. “I want to tell London stories – that’s important to me. I feel free in that I can tell it from my perspective.”