Who is Nick Wambugu and what’s his story?
Nick Wambugu is a director, drone cinematographer and producer. I was born and raised in Nairobi. Studied Computer Science for my Undergrad and worked as a programmer for an insurance company right after graduating. In 2015, I went to Italy to study directing and cinematography. When I came back to Kenya, I decided to do film full time. I founded a film production company, Folklore Films, together with my friend, Maurice Mbui. I’ve been working in the film industry since then.
Tell us more about Folklore Film Company
Folklore films is a film company run by Maurice Mbui and I. Maurice is a Director of Photography and a drone cinematographer too. We are filmmakers trying to tell unique stories, in unique ways. Our main goal being to tell our own (African) stories. As the name suggests, we are all about telling legendary stories that are meaningful. We collaborate with other filmmakers from time to time based on different projects. We have worked on several projects like tourism documentaries on Marsabit, Turkana, Kilifi County and Lukenya among others, ‘Who Knows’, ‘Journey on The Pedals’ and a Juja City Mall TVC among others. (You can see more of the company’s work here – Folklore Films)
Your short film, ‘Who Knows’, about the Street Dance Family recently premiered in Nairobi. How did you come across the Street Dance Family and what inspired you to tell their story?
This was a passion project. I used to see the Street Dance Family every time I walked at night in town and wanted to know the story behind what they do. The story of their lives. When the ‘Mobile Phone’ competition by KFCB came up, I felt this was the right time and opportunity to tell their story. I had several stories that I could have told, but theirs felt like the right one to tell.
How did you approach them and explain to them what you wanted to do?
I approached them in town one day, asked for the group leader, sat down with him for about 30 minutes and explained my goal and vision for the project. He was like,’ just do it’. Agreeing to have their story told was one thing, opening up was another thing. I was worried they wouldn’t, but they were all very open to the whole idea.
What was your experience directing them, bearing in mind they are not actors?
It was very easy because for them, this was not acting. This is their real life. It’s what they do on a daily basis and so it was more of going about their business as opposed to acting. Unlike with professional actors, I had to work with their time, which was a bit challenging because only one of them has a phone. To get them all together, I had to get to him first so that he could look for the others. Communication was a challenge. There was this time when we scheduled a shoot and informed them about it. We went to their homes only to find out that they had gone for a performance, which they had been invited to like an hour before we arrived. They didn’t see the need to inform us. At first I didn’t understand them, but eventually I did. For them, it’s more about survival than anything else. Nothing can come between them and an opportunity to make money. Not even a shoot.
How long did it take you to shoot the documentary?
It took us 4 days/nights. But, of course, there was the pre-production and post-production phase.
What did you want to achieve with this documentary and how has the response been so far?
This story is very relevant and deep. As a director, I wanted and still want anyone who watches this film to become emotionally attached to the story and the dancers. So far this has been the response. Most people have seen the group dancing outside Tribecca (a club in Nairobi town). But not everyone pays attention to them or really knows their story. I wanted people to notice them and pay attention. I can say I have achieved this, based on the response I have received from those who have watched the documentary so far. My main goal was to tell the story. I have no control over how people respond. If they get someone/people to help them, of course that will be a great thing and my prayer is they do.
You collaborated with Mufasa, one of the best spoken word artists here in Kenya. Tell us about this collaboration and what it was like working with him
I knew I wanted to take a narration approach for this documentary. A poetic kind of narration and the person who immediately came to mind was Mufasa. I reached out to him and he was happy to come on board. We sent him the rough cut, to help him work on the narrative, only two days to the competition deadline, which was initially on 30th December. I wasn’t sure if he was going to deliver on time since it was on very short notice. But knowing what a great spoken word artist he is, I believed in him. We went to the studio on the night of 29th December. He was supposed to travel but postponed so that he could record the narrative on time. I listened to the narrative for the first time in the studio as he recorded. After 3 takes, we were good to go. The piece was great, I mean, Mufasa is a very talented person and he delivered.
Which phone do you use to film ‘Who Knows’ and why?
I used an iPhone 7. One, because iPhones have good video cameras and two because they can do slow-motion and this is something I wanted to achieve with this film. With an iPhone you can do 20fps at 1080. The storage is also great. And the most obvious reason being that I had an iPhone 7.
You studied Computer Science for your undergrad, how did you end up a filmmaker?
Back in 2012 while still in campus, I used to host a daily comedy show on K24 called ‘Raia’ with Rafika and Rapcha. So basically I was still somewhere in the industry although I was doing this as a hobby. After campus, I joined an insurance company as a programmer but I wasn’t enjoying my job. After 3 months I quit. Programming was not working for me. I decided to pursue filmmaking since it was something I enjoyed and loved doing. It worked out and, here I am.
Have you ever regretted this decision?
Never. Hardships have been there especially when I was starting out in the film industry, but I’d rather encounter hardships doing something I love than work in an IT company.
As a director, how do you prepare for projects?
For most projects, I have worked as the producer and director. So, I find myself combining the directing and producing aspects. For any project, however, preproduction is key for me. For documentaries, I lock the story completely then choose my crew. I give myself a couple of days or weeks brainstorming with them so that we can explore all possible ideas before shooting begins. For narratives, I choose actors who I know will pull off the characters well. I like sending a script to actors, way before shooting commences and also use this time to go through the story with them. I also spend time with my crew to make sure they understand the story as well. Choosing the right characters and crew is very important. They make the filming process easier.
Let’s talk about drones. Why a drone cinematographer?
I always wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid. After my undergrad in 2015, I enrolled in a South African flying school and got accepted. I was to report later that year, which I never did because the opportunity to join film school came in first. I became a drone pilot instead. Around that time there weren’t so many drone pilots here in Kenya and I just saw the need for drone cinematography. When I came back after film school, the first thing I did was buy a drone. Drone cinematography is exciting and enjoyable. There is something about aerial shots that very fascinating.
Is there a difference between drone cinematography and ‘normal’ cinematography?
The only difference is one guy is using a drone and the other a ground camera. The other thing maybe is that apart from learning cinematography, you have to learn how to fly a drone and how to film using a drone. Otherwise the basics of cinematography are still the same.
What type of equipment do you have; drones and cameras, and why those?
For drones, I have 2; a Phantom 4 Pro and an Inspire 2. Why? Because they are the best. The Phantom 4 Pro is the best drone in the Phantom series while the Inspire 2 is the newest and the best in the inspire series. They are also suitable for my projects and I’m very comfortable using them. For cameras, I use different ones depending on the project. I’ve used Sony and Red before. But currently we own Canon C300 Mark II and C100 Mark II. Canon is a very good camera for documentaries and these are the type of projects we mostly work on. The buttons are quick to maneuver, especially the Canon C100 Mark II. It’s also very handy and has long battery life. Basically, it’s a good camera for run and gun situations.
Have you ever crashed a drone?
Yes. The first time was when Aloe Blacc was in Kenya. We were filming his music video for the song ‘Live my life’. I tried flying the drone but for some reason it wouldn’t go up. Its propellers were still moving and they hit my wrist when I tried to hold it. It toppled but didn’t crash. The other instance was during the ‘Ni Yetu’ walk, which was organized by Boniface Mwangi in 2016. I was flying the drone ahead of me when I noticed that the battery was at 10 percent. By then the drone was about 200m away and 30m up. I had no option but to safe crash it. No damage was caused though.
What has been your most challenging project so far?
This has to be while directing ‘life on the pedals’, another passion documentary on a group of Kenyan cyclists. This group is more known outside Kenya than they are here in Kenya. The biggest challenge was funding. We shot it Kenya and Rwanda and I had to use all my money to fund it. Another challenge, was ensuring that we captured every moment. The cyclists were moving at a speed of over 90km/hour. If you missed a moment, that’s it. There’s no room for another take. This is the biggest challenge with documentaries.
What’s your proudest or memorable moment as a filmmaker?
I am proud of all the work I’ve done but I can single out two moments. The first one has to be in 2015 when a film I did back in Italy ‘Code of Silence’, won a Kalasha award in the category of Best Diaspora Production. The other moment is when the short film, for which I was the drone cinematographer, won a Student Academy Award last year, and earlier this year nominated for an Oscar Award.
Which stories are you interested in telling?
I’m interested in stories that affect humanity. Stories that revolve around people and witness on a daily basis. Basically real stories as opposed to fiction.
What’s your advice to anyone who wants to become a drone cinematographer?
Research and practice. Watch related films and practice every chance you get. Don’t wait until you are on set to operate the drone. Your skills will help you stand out from other drone cinematographers. You can only acquire these skills by practicing. Always remember, it’s not just about flying the drone. It’s about filming using the drone.
NOTE: Nicholas Wambugu together with his work partner, Maurice Mbui, are planning to do a feature film on ‘The Street Dance Family’ later this year. If you would like to get involved in any way (in terms of collaboration or funding), you can reach them using the following ways;