In this month’s creator profile we sat down with Colwyn Thomas, a director at Durban-based production company Scholars & Gentlemen. Colwyn has won two commercial productions through Filmer, and we thought it high time that we caught up with the artist / journalist / director to learn more about his career and creative process.
What’s your origin story?
I started out as an illustrator, journalist, and fine artist. Then I started making a documentary about the leopard skin trade. It took 7 years to produce, off and on, and over that period I became more and more enamoured with film as a medium. It also offered financial opportunities that the others didn’t.
Tell us about the work you are currently doing?
I’m doing quite a bit of commercial work right now, balanced out by some really exciting long format sports documentary content.
What are the traits that got you to where you are now?
Firstly, I came up in Durban, so I couldn’t specialise in one aspect of film. I had to do everything on productions, and that includes wardrobe and catering. Doing everything gives you a strong foundation and helps you with the complex mechanism of bigger productions. I recommend experimenting.
Secondly, I believe that my background in fine art and illustration gives me a pretty reliable eye for good and bad shots.
Lastly, we have a strong belief in being brutally honest with ourselves.We take the quality of our work very personally. The other day I told my DOP, Devin Carter, that a shot ‘wasn’t his best work’. He was devastated.
What kind of work do you love to do?
I try to leave some space in my treatments to discover moments of surprise and magic. I’ll give you an example.
I was directing an ad for the Springboks for the awesome production house T+W, in which Siya Kolisi is on a call with his son. We were going to green screen the phone and do it all in post and while we were setting up Siya started asking us to hurry up. It turned out he had his son on the line and the poor kid needed to get to school.
We jumped into action and Siya just started singing the anthem with his son spontaneously. We got it in one frenetic, unplanned take and the result is so much stronger for being real. In that instance, Siya was the one who brought the magic, but we try to find space for it in every project. Which isn’t an easy sell to a client. They don’t tend to buy terms like “We’ll catch something on the day” or “We’ll let the actor play with it a bit”.
But the payoff is huge. We’ve all seen so much reality TV, so much social media of real people being real that something fake jumps out at us. If you go off script a bit, you might capture something genuine, and that’s what connects with people.
How do you think the South African film industry can improve?
Speaking just to production itself, I think that SA filmmakers are excellent on a technical level. Equipment, lighting, post, etc. But writing and story structure are not something we’ve mastered yet, overall. For me, a cardinal sin of film is to feel confused, and I sometimes feel confused when I watch local creative work. There are rules to storytelling, and it’s important to learn them before you break them.
What drew you to start pitching and working with Filmer?
We’re a bit averse to pitching against the big fish in the South African pond where I feel like a large part of it is based on previous working relationships. We’ve relied on non-traditional channels. Working directly with clients, and working with platforms like Filmer. Filmer democratises access to projects and it’s not about who you know. It’s more meritocratic. You can get your foot in the door based on the strength of your ideas and treatment.
What advice would you give to young aspiring filmmakers?
Learn as many different aspects of the industry as you can. Get to know the ecosystem. Blend ambition and boldness with humility and kindness. You have to back yourself and your ideas, but you have to be nice about it. In the creative industry, the gold we mine is ideas. Respect ideas, and respect the ideas of others.
Lastly, I would advise aspiring filmmakers to find a passion project. It could be a music video, a long format doccie, Instagram haikus, whatever. Make something for the sheer love of it. And then go and pitch treatments on platforms like Filmer. There’s no barrier to giving it a shot.
To view Colwyn’s fine body of work go to: www.scholarsandgentlemen.co.za/