Budget Will Never Keep Me From Expressing Myself” – Stanlee Ohikhuare, The ‘Conscience’ Film-maker and Surreal Artist

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Stanlee Ohikhuare runs Mighty Jot Studios, which he established in 2005.  The multi-talented artist – visual artist, photographer, award-winning cinematographer and film director – discusses his career, during which he has shot Kpians – The Feast of Souls, Oblivious, Sting, Horn-free Day, Verdict, Tunnel, Common Man, Stupid Movie and the award-winning documentary, Deadwood.  He also talks about Nollywood and his place in it.    

1. Could you tell us about your education: the primary, secondary and tertiary institutions attended plus qualifications obtained at the tertiary level (undergraduate and/or post-graduate)?


I attended St. Cecelia’s Home Nursery School, Ikoyi – Lagos; Hope Primary School, Ikoyi – Lagos; Command Children’s School, Enugu, and Union Secondary School, Enugu.


My tertiary education started at Yaba College of Technology Lagos; where I obtained a National Diploma in General Arts.  Then, I proceeded to the University of Benin (UNIBEN) where I continued studying Fine Arts; specializing in Painting and earning for myself a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts (BA Hons.)

2. You are multi-talented: painter, photographer and film-maker.  For how long were you a full-time painter before delving into Photography and then film-making?  Do you still find time to paint and how much time do you currently dedicate to Photography?

3. Why, when and how did you embrace film-making?


When I graduated from the University of Benin, all I wanted to do was paint – but I had to re-assess my priorities and tell myself the truth about my career path as a painter.

As an artist, my personal style was and still remains surrealism – a style that has not yet gained much popularity with Nigerians and also one that I could not rely on as a full-time artist for monetary gains and sustenance as a fresh graduate.

So, I took a decision to learn Computer Graphics and other contemporary media for artistic expression that were fast-becoming viable and competitive; including Motion Graphics and 3D Animation.  So, effectively I will say I only painted full-time for about a year after graduation.  Then, I taught myself Graphic Design, Motion Graphics and, eventually, 2D and 3D Animation.

About five years after my graduation, I started developing interest in Core Film-making after dabbling into a project that was rather too ambitious at that time – a feature length 3D Animated Movie titled Lifespan.

With my animation skills, I was already directing 3D characters and bringing them to life, but I had little understanding of the principles and hands-on practice of Cinematography.

I knew I wanted to tell stories with great Cinematography. I also identified Photography as the closest thing to Cinematography that I could immerse myself in; armed with just my zeal and any cheap camera I could lay my hands on.

So for another two years, I trained myself in the art of Photography – choosing Wedding Photography as my training module in my quest to understand Cinematography for future application in the process of Film-making.

Someone once told me that “being a great photographer would make any serious-minded person approximately eighty-five percent prepared for core Cinematography” and I heeded his advice.

Eventually, when I was certain about my skill-set, I shot my first feature Film as a shooting director (behind the camera) and I have not changed my Film-making style ever since.

So far, Kpians – The Feast of Souls is my most tedious production. It involved over three months of pre-production and planning, ample time for script analysis and critique, evaluating of processes and very detailed preparation for every scene. I mean, we were suspending people, hanging people upside down, slashing bodies, slamming actors against anything possible and doing very dangerous things that were eventually dubbed “Not Dangerous” simply because we had tested, tried and carefully prepared for every shot; of course armed with essential research and documentation.

Tunnel was almost the same thing. On the set of Tunnel, there was this well articulated shot where we simulated an accident and every outcome; including the magnitude of impact, denting and real life considerations; was carefully researched to avoid casualties.

We actually smashed three cars and had a trailer sweep all three off the road in the concluding shot. The rendition was neo-realistic and as one would expect, that meant a lot of blood, gore and destruction.

Common Man was also demanding. I had to simulate a fire outbreak that took the lives of a newly wedded couple and at some very crucial point, getting the right location for principal photography was proving difficult; so I had to set one of my studios on fire (controlled, of course) and achieved the shot.

Every movie has its own challenges – even the simplest plot could become extremely complex, depending on the perspective from which the physical depiction of the screenplay is deployed.

Many of my movies have been written by me; but not all. However, if it’s a horror flick or a movie with insane situations deeply rooted in surrealism, then I’ll rather write it myself.


4. What are your thoughts on the dearth of documentaries in Nigeria?  Are you planning to produce other documentaries, following the award of Best Documentary to Deadwood at the 2014 AMVCA?


Yes, I shoot a lot of movies, which I call conscience films. They are usually intricately balanced between the documentary genre and the regular feature or short film classification. Deadwood was shot in the same style.

One thing that will always be present in all my documentaries is filmic re-enactments to stir, actualize and establish my preconceived end in the consciousness of the viewer; the same reason why each of them is well researched and depicted in the most objective manner possible.

I am an emotionally-driven film-maker and it shows in my style of directing. I will completely explore the most thought-provoking and unforgettable situations-cum-scenarios in the most vivid and realistic manner possible – even if it means depicting things that most people can’t bear to see.


5. How do you raise funds for your films and what is the highest amount of money you have expended on a film?  Did you recoup your money (that is if the movie has been distributed)?  Why is Sting yet to be released more than 2 years after it was shot?

So far, I have funded all of my signature projects myself. I will always choose to do so as opposed to involving financiers, who will seek to enforce their subjective cravings on the film’s final appeal; thus drowning the very essence of the movie. Though not every investor or financier will seek this, I know for a fact that at least six out of every ten will.

I don’t think I could deal with accepting anything less than my original vision and level of expressiveness as far as shooting any movie that typifies my distinct style and personal vision is concerned. That’s just the way an artist is wired!

Whenever it gets too tough, I simply involve my family – my sisters and brothers. We sign contracts, agreements and a generic MoU, which stipulates their Returns on Investment (RoI) and when they are getting paid.

Though it’s family, we still keep it quite professional, so we don’t abuse the process and render the practice impractical for subsequent movies.

For feature films, budget averages between six and twelve million naira – excluding my own fees for the various aspects of Production I multi-task on, just in a bid to cut down on expenses. I always say that “Budget will never keep me from expressing myself”.

Film-making, for me, is an outlet for pouring out creative thoughts and surreal imaginations that could literally suffocate the bearer if left unexpressed. Money has never been my driving force. If I considered financial gain as a determining factor for my Film-making, then I would probably have shot less than half of the movies I have shot. But the biggest setback would have been the fact that I may have ended up as a film-maker without a distinct style.

Up until when I shot my latest Movie, Stupid Movie, which was carefully planned and executed towards grossing heavily at the box office, every other movie I have shot as a film-maker was done from the standpoint of a Creative Artist, seeking solace and fulfillment in his Art.

I shot Kpians – The Feast of Souls in 2013, finished post-production in 2014 and I am not releasing it until October, 2015 (Halloween Night). Oblivious was shot in 2013, but was only made publicly available in March, 2015. Sting, starring Kiki Omeili and Oyekunle Oluwaremi, has only been screened twice; during the maiden edition of my Shorts’ Night and at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival.

You could say that I have taken ample time to develop my art, define my style and identify my preference in genre and, now, I am going ahead to perfect the business aspect of Film-making; which highlights the necessity of making money from these movies to provide a financial backdrop for the production of more films and sustenance of the business.

Like one of my lecturers back in school would say, “You go from the known to the unknown”.


6. Your film, Verdict, is the La Vena Johnson story just like Deadwood is about the plight of pensioners.  How much of an activist are you?  Do you support or work with specific advocacy groups?

I believe Film-making is not just for entertainment, but it offers an appealing medium for passing across diverse messages; especially those ones which people are often too shy, timid or careful to address.

And yes – there is an activist in me. That part of me has always been there right from the outset. It surfaced a bit in my school days and has continued to pop up every now and then in whatever endeavour I undertake.

There are so many wrongs in the society that need to be addressed and so many notions that require correction. I believe film-makers can possess a strong influence, much more than even politicians and clergymen if they decide to use their practice to address issues in a way that is carefully researched and presented objectively; devoid of the guise of political correctness.

I have a special flair for such films, which I refer to a Conscience films. In fact, I am more inclined towards shooting Conscience films than films that are made simply for entertainment. I guess that’s where the humanitarian and the artist in me find confluence.

I am first an artist and an artist is a person full of “Soul, Passion and Emotion”.

Sequel to Verdict in July, 2014, I have been actively involved with groups and organizations, championing the quest to find justice for the slain soldier – whose unfortunate story is highlighted in the movie.

I believe my purpose and life mission is gradually being unearthed in a very dramatic manner, which to my understanding is foremost – divine!


7. You do not seem to be interested in TV Series, why?


TV series require a lot of funding to be able to shoot a pilot and then the complete number of episodes for a season or more. If the right funding is made available, then I will shoot TV Series.

I have shot three episodes of my AMVCA-nominated series, Kpians Premonition, hoping to use it as a bait to attract funding, especially due to the commendable production value, but guess what: I am still waiting for that funding.


8. We are sure we have mentioned the high points of your career, what are the low points (if any)?


The lowest point in my career has to be between 2005 and 2010 when I was actively working on my animated movie. I tried getting sponsorship, but got none. I tried doing it on my own, but eventually put the project in the cooler for a season due to the high recurrent expenditure on the project. Power requirements alone were draining my accounts. I remained optimistic all those years and trained a couple of young lads to equip them in readiness for collaboration on the project. Soon, the young lads learnt a few things about animation and just zapped! Then, I was back to square one – all alone.


9. You once said that you will be shooting a feature film with the cast of Horn-free Day.  Will it be a feature film version of Horn-free Day or an entirely new film with the cast of Horn-free Day?


Yes, I have already shot the movie. It is called Stupid Movie, starring the cast of Horn-free Day and more.  It is a feature film; but an original – not a longer version of Horn-free-Day. That’s one movie everyone should look forward to! It’s totally sick!


10. You also said that you will like to dedicate two whole years to produce animation.  Have you taken any concrete steps to realize that?

Yes, I have. But I might not continue with my last animated project, Lifespan.

I am more experienced now in the entertainment business and I have developed new animated stories that will be more commercially viable and internationally relevant. I have three more movies to shoot in 2015 and right after those; I will start work full-time on an animated feature. I have also met a couple of folks who understand animation well enough to be part of a production team for such an endeavour and I am very excited about that.


11. What are your thoughts on Nollywood; in terms of the industry’s achievements and the challenges it faces?

Personally, I believe Nollywood does not lack skill or any human capacity whatsoever. The industry needs to pervade the globe and stamp our movies everywhere. It is an uphill task quite alright, but it is achievable.

I guess the industry will need to look into the underdeveloped marketing and distribution chains and make decisive changes for this to happen.

Box-office gross earnings are based on numbers and popularity. But the films have to be seen everywhere for them to have a global appeal; not just in Nigeria and a few other African nations.


12. Which older film-makers (local and foreign) do you admire and why?

I admire Quentin Tarantino because when I look at his movies, I feel like I am experiencing my own creation. I guess we must be like-minded. I also admire Teco Benson for the impact he has made in the Nigerian movie scene as a director. He is one of the few Nigerian film-makers who have endured from the previous era even until this present era because he has a unique personal style. He also has good countenance, is warm and hospitable.


13. What do you hope to achieve in the distant future, say 10 years from now?

In ten years, I shall have become an Industry pacesetter – not just in Nigeria, but internationally. I believe strongly that I will have a lasting influence, which will stem from one of my conscience films, maybe my very next!


14. What do you have to say to struggling film-makers out there, especially the young ones, who are trying to break into Nollywood?

Young film-makers should strive to develop their style and not get tangled in the web of instant gratification. To everything, there is a time and a season for every purpose under the heavens!

They should seek influence over affluence in the foundation stages of their careers, so they can sit back and enjoy the affluence that their influence will usher in as their careers as film-makers blossom.


15. Are there any other experiences or insights you will like to share with us?


Stupid Movie will eventually become my Yearly Cinema Movie. After the release of Stupid Movie 1, there will be a sequel every subsequent year!


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Amarachukwu Iwuala

Amarachukwu Iwuala

A writer ... in pursuit of excellence

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