On Niyi Akinmolayan’s office wall is a painting of men on horses. Swathed in robes and turbans, they look as if they are about to burst from the canvas. If you stare at them long enough you can imagine the noises of hooves on sand and the cries of the men mounting them. The piece is rendered in bright tones of yellow, orange, some blues and reds. Niyi often gets up to look at it during the long narration of his fascinating life story.
It is hard for anyone to tell you about their suicide attempts, homelessness and the loss of a parent in the same tone they use to share the news of their record-breaking opening weekend, or their sophomore debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, but Niyi manages it. His pitch only escalates when he goes into the subject of animation, a passion that has driven most of the major decisions in his life. This passion is what he wants to use to create Nollywood’s visual language.
He stands to face the painting when he says: “Nollywood is yet to develop a visual culture, the way that other film industries have done; for anyone to see a film and say, this is synonymous with a group of filmmakers from that place.”
He gesticulates as he uses sections of the painting to illustrate the comparisons he makes between art and film. He highlights different qualities of the painting to make his references to various art movements and periods.
“We don’t have that in Nigeria yet – the sense of time and identity that has come to characterise various types of cinema and art,” he says, referring to a mastery of visual and tonal language. “Indeed, Nollywood has its quirks, but they qualify less as [a] signature technical style than as evidence of a collective attitude to the craft of filmmaking.”
Niyi loves animation and constantly brings up his favourite Japanese animators, even giving examples for viewing: Spirited Away, The Boy and The Beast, Sword of the Stranger. He is obsessed with the seeming disregard for time in such films, where characters linger within actions and the spaces within dialogue loom larger.
In Nollywood, many of the films tend towards the opposite. Shoestring budgets are a regular feature, technical proficiency is defined by what is passable, not aspirational, and many films do not prioritise good production values. But Nollywood has its charming irregularities, many of which, when handled with greater professionalism and access to funding and distribution, could very well lead to the visual signature that Niyi craves.
The director was only too aware of this during the making of his debut film, the sci-fi action thriller Kajola. The intense anticipation that preceded its release was matched only by the outrage audiences expressed when they finally got to see the film. In a detailed post on his blog, Niyi outlined the frustrations and unanticipated technical challenges that making such a film presented.
I was going to build Anthill even if it killed me
A Behind-the-Scenes Tour
Anthill Studios, the brainchild of Niyi’s money, sweat and desperate dreams, is located in Ajah in Lagos, Nigeria. Like many Lagos offices, the building is nondescript from the outside. Built to be a house, it now serves as the headquarters for all the studio’s projects.
Anthill has a busy roster: The line-up includes animated series and shorts. In 2016 they released a two-minute animated short, The SIM, that went viral for its technical presentation – a quality still rare in many productions in West Africa, beyond music videos.
Watch The SIM:
So far these kinds of endeavours are few and far between (Chief Okoro, The National Cake, et al), for various reasons. In addition to the time-consuming nature of such productions, there is the issue of the money required to make a proper animated film. The popular animated show The Simpsons costs USD500 per second to produce, for example. But Niyi keeps at it. The emotion behind Anthill is a desperate thirst.
“I was going to build Anthill even if it killed me,” he said.
Niyi walks through a large room in the studio, explaining what the animators, sitting in front of their large computer screens, are doing. While Anthill primarily does animation, it also houses sound-mixing and editing setups. At the moment the hit reality show, Husbands of Lagos, is in post-production. Everywhere, huge computers show the various stages of rendering, from illustrations to the first movements, like characters blinking or speaking one word.
Film production, especially post-production, is a slow and painstaking process. The staff often spend days working without leaving the studio. The tedium of the work is evident in everyone’s tired eyes. However, also evident are the smiles on the filmmakers’ faces when they introduce themselves and show off their workstations.
Nigeria is a challenging business environment, even more so for an endeavour like movies. Chief among those challenges is that cinema-going is still a novelty. Here, if people want to see a film, they have to make a production of it, getting dressed, budgeting for snacks and light shopping or other attractions the cinema centre might hold. There are also limited distribution platforms available – not enough business minds are invested in growing the industry.
Compared to other industries, Nollywood’s content just isn’t as available to viewers. If Anthill succeeds and makes its mark as a source of quality, informative and entertaining animated productions, a large audience is waiting to throw its money at his productions.
Misery struck again after Kajola’s disastrous reception and Niyi believed he would never work again. He even attempted suicide.
Niyi Akinmolayan, Then and Now
Like many directors, Niyi’s visions, while multiple, are singular in approach, and he is not afraid to take the time to explain them. Niyi wants his work to get Nigerians talking and thinking.
“Nobody questions anything,” he says. “You need to question things to make things – question, discover, manipulate. It’s how every great civilisation starts.”
In his younger days, this ambition was not as fully formed. Back then he and his friends wanted to make films simply to ‘fuck shit up’. His ambition burned so hot that he quit university one semester before graduating with a degree in Engineering.
“I told myself, you know what, if I finish this school, I’m going to get very lazy. When I hit that inevitable roadblock, or when the pressure mounts or when my girlfriend wants stability, I’d just go and look for a job.”
These days, he also wants to make movies that will be hugely successful. He wants a crowd-pleasing monster hit, but his ambitions are not driven purely, or even mostly, by money.
Niyi Akinmolayan is an unusual figure. He completely lacks the famed ‘director’s ego’. He is quick to emphasise that he is not a star. “Stars are likeable, you see them on the red carpet; everybody loves them.”
Niyi’s humility was earned painfully. In 2013, he lost his mother to cancer. The tragedy reconfigured his beliefs away from what he now views as the blind religious optimism of Nigerian society. He says he wished he had taken her to a place where she could be at peace in her final days. Instead he listened to the advice of others and continued to hope – only to have those hopes dashed. For this reason all his films are populated with strong female characters. Earlier this year, in March, he held an editing masterclass for 30 women.
“My mother hated lazy women, and her legacy filters through a lot of my films,” he said.
Misery struck again after Kajola’s disastrous reception and he believed he would never work again. He even attempted suicide. “I wanted to die, but no car would hit me,” he said.
Despite his disappointment, the industry had taken notice of him. Not too long after the film debuted, he started getting calls from Nollywood veterans like Desmond Elliot. He received proposals to collaborate on projects. Niyi describes this as the time when he really began to understand how the Nigerian film industry worked. He also credits the experience he gained with “instilling a sense of reality”.
His first feature after Kajola was the dance movie Make a Move. After he established Anthill, the studio debuted with the romantic drama Falling, an endeavour that marked the beginning of a fruitful actor/director relationship with one of Nollywood’s fastest-rising talents, Adesua Etomi.
Today, this explosive director is accomplishing his dreams on a checklist of achievements that keeps growing. Anthill is running as well as can be in Nigeria; and The Arbitration, his latest effort, received excellent reviews. It will be screened at cinemas outside Nigeria too. Today, he is a happy husband and father.
On 3 May 2017, Niyi announced via Facebook that the shooting for the sequel to Nollywood’s highest grossing film, The Wedding Party, had begun – with him in the director’s chair. Not bad for a university dropout who once wanted to die.