KC Obiajulu has always been a hustler.
Before stepping behind the camera to create visuals for songs like Essence by Wizkid and Tems, Monsters You Made by Burna Boy, Ocean by Asa, Black is King by Beyoncé, Ozumba Mbadiwe by Reekado Banks, Pour Me Water by Kizz Daniel and Away by Ayra Starr, the acclaimed cinematographer had another version of global domination in his mind.
“I was selling clothes in university and my dream was to be a full-blown Igbo man with boutiques all over the world,” KC says.
A chance encounter with a film set during his IT changed the trajectory of his life. He suddenly wanted to bring people’s imaginations and ideas to life. Now, over a decade since his first paid gig, KC breaks down his creative process for Zikoko, letting us into the mind of one of the most hardworking cinematograhers in the Nigerian film industry.
If I asked you to explain your job to a four year-old, what would you tell them?
I’ll tell them what I told my five year-old son when he asked what I did for a living: I bring dreams and pictures to life. That’s what I told him. I’m the guy directors and clients come to with their ideas and I find a way to translate all of that into visuals. I manipulate cameras to create the look and feel of a film.
If a world doesn’t exist, I have to create that world and make peple believe that it does.
So do you actually hold the camera or do you just show someone what to do?
Ideally, a cinematographer is not supposed to hold the camera. We have camera operators for that. But in Nigeria, there’s a problem of trust, so you find us most times operating the camera just so no one messes up our shots.
Interesting. So how do you choose your projects?
My approach has changed over the years. When I was younger, it was all about the money for me. That used to be my first question, “How much is it?” Thankfully, I’ve outgrown that. These days, I make sure I ask what the project is about. I have to be interested in the project being discussed.
I haven’t done music videos in a while because I got bored with them and the money wasn’t enough reason to continue. Just a while ago, I got an offer to shoot a music video for a popular American artist, but I said no. I wasn’t connecting to the project and, worse, they were acting like they were doing me a favour because I’m Nigerian. I like people that work as collaborators, not dictators. If I’m working on a project, I’d like to be able to share how I feel and not just be told what to do. Filmmaking is collaborative and if I don’t get that sense from the start, I’m saying no.
You’ve mentioned that music videos got boring for you. So does that mean film is what you enjoy making?
Not films abeg; films are is too intensive. Documentaries are what I’m currently in love with. They feel more organic and there’s no acting involved. I like that I just get to film it as I’m going and if I miss something, there’s no way for me to recreate it. The emotions are real and beautiful. I do a lot of documentaries now.
I’m curious about how you approach your projects. What’s the step-by-step process?
The first thing I do is read and understand the script. Then I take out time to talk to the director because it’s important that I understand his vision and how best to bring it to fruition. Then I explain my ideas and we see if it aligns or how we can align our individual translations of the script.
Nex, I ask about the budget and plans for the film. I wouldn’t want to spend time working on a project that just sits on someone’s hard drive. If the budget and plan works for me, I’ll move on to the hiring process because I must work with people I can connect with creatively.
When the director shares a treatment — a document describing what he wants the project to look like and references, I study them. Sometimes, I stick with what I’m given, and other times, I talk to them about exploring more. I also take out time to watch similar projects to open my mind. All of this requires time and no matter how good a project is, if I don’t feel like there’s enough time for me to prepare, I’ll walk away.
You’ve worked on both big features and short films as well. Which would you say is the most challenging and why?
Feature films torment you for a very long time because I have to deal with more people and work far longer hours. They also drain me financially, psychologically and physically.
Ouch. So what’s the craziest experience you’ve had on a set?
I’ve had an assistant director yell at me on a set before. Omo, I was confused, but I let it slide. Later, during filming, he started yelling at me and other crew members again. I called my team back and told the director we wouldn’t work on the project again unless he handled his assistant. He talked to the guy, but I don’t think he took me seriously because he kept laughing. I was very uncomfortable.
We managed to finish that project, but I’ve been avoiding that director ever since.
Wild. But having worked on Nigerian as well as international projects, what do you think our industry needs to improve?
We need to deal with incompetence across different levels. Most people don’t take their jobs seriously. We also have poor hands when it comes to technical skills and planning..
Speaking of planning, what’s the plan for 2022?
I’m finally working on some personal projects of my own — short films and documentaries. This is my twelfth year in the business and until now, I hadn’t made any projects of my own, so I’m super excited. Hopefully, when people see my vision, they can get a glimpse into what goes on in my mind.