Nora Awolowo, the gifted filmmaker and photographer, is super busy (a dream position for any creative to be in). But she recently found time to speak to us about her journey from undergraduate photographer to respected filmmaker, and how she was able to land a major documentary contract from FIFA.
When did you take your first steps into filmmaking?
I started off as a photographer, but I didn’t think that medium was doing justice to the stories I wanted to tell. I had friends that were already in Nollywood — some of them were script supervisors, assistant directors, editors.
So I thought that I could become a cinematographer, after all, it was the same broad field with photography. I was still in school at the time.
What did you study?
Interesting. So, what was your first video project?
It was a food show. I was following Lota Chukwu.
The actress. How did you meet her?
I met her online. We just started talking. It was random, but we became close. I just really liked her. Then I came to Lagos and she asked if I wanted to join the show because I was carrying a camera. I said yes.
The cinematographer on the show came in from the UK. I was shadowing him, but he eventually returned to the UK. For the second season, they got someone who was not available all the time, so when they wanted to shoot a one-minute special segment, they asked me to do it. And that was it.
Yeah. I had access to their camera. Somehow, the previous cinematographer had left it, maybe because it was in the contract. It was a Lumix. I did the lighting myself and used one old Windows software to do the editing. They released it sha.
Then I went back to school and someone on Twitter asked me to work behind the scenes on a project, recording video and taking photos. I got a backup person and we went to work. It was for 10 days. I tried experimenting with editing it myself, but I eventually had someone else do it, and it turned out good.
From there, I started getting jobs from an agency that had a number of clients.
That’s a superb trajectory. How did the company find you?
They didn’t really. The producer for Lota’s show was the owner of the company.
You were right there with them.
What was the first major film project?
I think I have done a few short films. But there is one I don’t make reference to…
Hahaha. Why? It’s not very good?
[Laughs] Let’s just say that I have moved past that.
So anything that has gotten to the cinemas?
There is one coming out soon. It was directed by Dr SID.
You are the DOP for that, right? How did you get that gig?
I had done documentaries and the unit photography for a few films, including Netflix original, A Naija Christmas. But I still didn’t feel like I was part of Nollywood. Then a friend sent me a link. Someone was asking for a female cinematographer to come onboard a project. This was a person I was following, so I reached out. I sent a showreel and the next day I got a call. The director liked my work.
You are the chosen one!
When you first started, how much were you earning?
I was working as a mobile phone photographer and was on a salary of ₦50,000. Then I got my first camera, a Canon DSLR, and then I got to work at a burial. I got ₦25,000. But that was for a few hours.
What did you use the money for?
I paid my tithe. I bought stuff for filming and heavy duty batteries.
Sounds like the money would have finished…
I think I only had ₦2k after. [Laughs]
You were in school at this time–but were you in school?
[Laughs] I was barely in school by final year. When I came out with 2.1, my parents were shocked.
There were periods when I was in Lagos and my parents didn’t know I was in Lagos. Imagine that now that we have this insecurity situation. I would take a night bus to Lagos from Ado Ekiti.
I applaud your hustle!
What was the gig you did that made you feel like you had started to make it?
I think I did a gig that paid me ₦120k. Omo! I told myself that if I can be at this stage and get paid an accountant’s salary, then if I do more and get better, then I can get more.
Stray bullet for accountants!
[Laughs] But that was what I told myself. I was not interested in accounting anymore. My mind had left it, even though I grew up wanting to be a banker. I loved seeing bankers going to work wearing suit [draws out the word] and shiny black shoes.
It helped that I was also good at mathematics and my maths teacher was my best friend.
Since that initial ₦120k, what project has paid the highest?
The FIFA project.
Ha, yes. Of course!
I think it’s a big deal.
It is the biggest deal. How did it happen?
It’s a long, convoluted story.
There was a time Platoon was coming to Nigeria and they were doing a campaign for a big artist. The person in charge wanted to work with a female photographer that is also a cinematographer. I think that’s the edge I have.
Somebody recommended me for that project. They reached out to me just as the lockdown was easing out, but then the agency that was working on the project left the campaign. That was how that one died. And we had already talked about money.
It’s one of those things. Then, the person I was talking to in the UK, I think, said if anything else comes up, he would reach out. He then recommended me to a Kenyan company involved in video production. They sent me an email saying they were to do something for WHO or BBC.
Then, that one didn’t materialise either.
But it turned out that the person I was speaking to at the Kenyan company recommended me for the FIFA campaign.
Omo! Crazy stuff!
Weird, I know.
FIFA is fancy. So, how much?
How much what?
You know what I’m asking, Nora.
LOL. So, they will bill me, abi?
Hahaha. Be nice. How about a range?
Between ₦5,000,000 and ₦25,000,000.
That is such an evil range!
[Laughs] But it’s a range sha.
Na wa. So, what’s a good month like?
That would be a month that I don’t have too many projects, but the little we have pays very well.
A bad month?
One project for around ₦500k.
What’s next for Nora?
I have to figure out where exactly I stand. I currently do documentaries, Nollywood films, adverts and so on. I need to work out what I am. Beyond that, I want to work on very interesting projects. Personal or otherwise.
So what would you advise newcomers coming on the scene both in terms of increasing earning ability and attracting something on the level of the FIFA gig consciously?
Consistency: I think it is important to be consistent. I was always investing any money I made into buying equipment, learning new stuff and working.
Take a break: It is also necessary to take a break because there is a thin line between hard work and suffer-head.
Good company: Surround yourself with good and ambitious people.
Last question: After the FIFA gig, your rates have gone up, right?
LOL. Yes, hopefully. But the video only just came out weeks ago! For now, though, I want to work on a commercial with a ₦50m to ₦100m budget.