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Q&A: ROBOT's Liam Johnson on shooting in Africa
So it's summer, and the brief the label just emailed over is simple: go off and shoot a sunny, summery music video. By next week. And you're in the UK, and, of course, it's miserable and raining...
Well, Liam Johnson may have the solution for you. Liam is the MD of Robot Films, a production company in South Africa that has serviced-produced numerous UK music videos over the past few years - not only in South Africa, but all over the African continent - for the likes of Tom Odell, Sigala, Shy FX and Tiggs Da Author.
We talked to Liam, on the phone from the Robot office in Cape Town. We asked him about his career to date - and the attractions of coming to Africa off-season (our summer is his winter in South Africa, of course). Apparently in the off-season it's still a fantastic place to shoot. And it's not raining...
On set: Liam Johnson (in blue T-shirt) while shooting Tiggs Da Author Run in South Africa, 2018 (pic: Nils Botha)
I was living in London but I had to come home. It was a blessing in disguise. Africa is a wild untamed land bursting with unbridled creativity.
Promonews: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into working in film production - and music videos in particular?
Liam Johnson: I started studying law but university wasn't my thing. I wanted to travel, tell stories and make music. Unfortunately I lack rhythm so it was a better bet to focus on the film making.
I spent three years in London working at Rogue, as a runner then production coordinator. London was such an amazing experience, but due to some unforseen circumstances I had to come home. It was a blessing in disguise though - Africa is in my blood. A wild untamed land bursting with unbridled creativity.
What have you been working on so far in 2019 - the most interesting and exciting work, and also the most challenging work?
This last year we have worked on some amazing projects - Sigala, Shy FX, and an epic video for a French hiphop crew. That was probably the most challenging, shooting five days in Cape Town and Namibia. Literally moving mountains to build sets in sand dunes, everything shot in camera with hyena and vultures, camped out in the Namibian wild with a host of dangerous wild animals.
We didn't sleep. Some of us bled. But it was an incredibly bonding experience with some awesome local and international talent.
In the wild: Liam Johnson (left) with Movi op Myron Mance and Phantasm line producer Alexia Levy
A lot of top artists in the UK have African roots, in Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere. Has that impacted upon music video production in Africa? Any good examples?
Yeah I am really excited about the recognition artists with African roots are getting overseas - not just with their expat communities but having a real impact on the industry as a whole. Look at guys like Tinie Tempah, Tiggs da Author and Fuse ODG with massive international following. Dave is just blowing up and he got back to his roots and did a direct comparison between life in London and Africa for his smash hit Black.
Then artists like Major Lazor who keep returning to Southern and Western Africa for fresh collaborations. Its looks like the international community is really interested in the African aesthetic and all its mystery. We even finally have our own Marvel Heroes.
We're super quiet in the winter months. It means everyone is more negotiable and keen to work on creative projects. Our winter = UK summer.
We’re now moving into the off-season in Africa. What are the benefits of shooting at this time of year in Africa, and South Africa in particular?
Because our industry is so seasonal we're super quiet in the winter months. It means everyone is more negotiable and keen to work on creative projects not just fill their coffers. The secret though is that South Africa probably has a lot more landscape variety to offer over the winter months - from snow covered peaks to tropical beaches and crisp barren deserts. Our winter = UK summer...
What do you think are the most interesting locations at this time of year - urban and country, for African flavour or for sheer beauty?
I feel a general trend is for more urban type locations - they're more relatable for most audiences. Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Accra offer incredible urban spaces that can be high end or post apocalyptic without having to dress or rely on post production.
Favourite jobs have to be Tom Odell's Magnetized, Tiggs da Author featuring Lady Leshur's Run (above) and Shy FX's We Just Don't Care.
What’s the favourite job you've worked on in the past couple of years? And what's your favourite ever video shot in Africa in the past few years?
Favourite jobs have to be Tom Odell's Magnetized, Tiggs da Author featuring Lady Leshur's Run, and Shy FX's We Just Don't Care.
Without trying to sound cheesy I could list all the music videos I have worked on as favourite jobs. I love music videos for their uninhibited creativity including low budget problem-solving. I find it such a great collaborative process with director, producer and artist, massive dreams with limited budget and still make it so dope.
Right now I really love Simon Schmitt's Love Supreme Lonely Feelings film that recently came out. It was actually shot in Johannesburg and Eastern Europe, but I love how they have gone with this weird sci-fi asthetic, using an extremely iconic JHB building and contemporary cast.
• For more information about shooting in Africa contact Liam at ROBOT
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