Director Kibwe Tavares shares with Film4.com the development process of getting his Film4-backed short Jonah from initial idea, through to concept art and finally shoot.

I think I must have been lucky, or my timing was spot on, or I just said the right combination of words in exactly the right order. Normally, suggesting you want to make movie about the world’s biggest fish in a town near the Somali border would get you laughed out the room but instead I got a “that sounds extraordinary” and “this is something we would definitely love to be involved in”.

I’ve been collaborating with Film4 for around eighteen months, which was when I met with Senior Development editor Eva Yates and Senior Commissioner Katherine Butler, just a few weeks after completing my Masters in architecture. I was still buzzing off the number of hits I was getting for my last film Robots of Brixton. This is when I pitched the idea for Jonah.

Baby Mohammed looked after me in Lamu, and was the inspiration for Mbwana, the lead role in Jonah.

Baby Mohammed looked after me in Lamu, and was the inspiration for Mbwana, the lead role in Jonah.

Inspiration came from a good friend telling me to read Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. I thought the story was genius, simple and engaging. The problem was, I had no connection with Cuba (where The Old Man And The Sea is set) and I also wanted to tell a new story, so I drew upon my own experiences and travels. I had recently been on a three month trip around Eastern Africa and spent time on the coast in small fishing villages, in Lamu, Pate Island and Zanzibar. These places all seemed on the cusp of changing from the traditional industry of fishing to tourism. In Lamu, we were looked after by a group of ‘beach boys’ who operated as informal tour guides taking us on trips, dhow boat racing, donkey races, fishing, drinking… these guys were who I eventually based my main characters on.

So I had my setting, then I began to work with screenwriter Jack Thorne and producer Ivana MacKinnon on the story. We made reference to a whole load of other big fish stories: Moby Dick, Jonah and the whale (hence the name), Sharky and George and more, in the hope of creating a new contemporary tale. Jonah is a live action/animation mash-up, almost like a collage. In house at Factory Fifteen, we visually developed the look and feel of the animation in the film alongside the script, so that what were planning to do in the VFX wasn’t gratuitous, but all story-led and story driven.

Concept art of Zanzibar in the future - Factory Fifteen

Concept art of Zanzibar in the future – Factory Fifteen

This was my first time officially directing a movie and, anxious about how I was going get all the shots I needed, I used the animation skills I had developed for Robots Of Brixton to create a very crude animated storyboard of the film. This allowed me to pick camera views, work out a rough edit and pace and work out how I would shoot the dialogue. It was essentially a base to the film, so when I had difficulty explaining what I wanted to crew or actors I could physically show them. It acted as a very powerful tool to show financiers and allow them to get inside my head.

Pre visualisation

Pre visualisation

We had a nine day shoot in Zanzibar in June, which was insane. Five days on land, the other four on or under the water. There was an amazing spirit and there was that genuine ‘up and coming’ feeling within the crew; people were extremely passionate and really believed in what we were trying to create. Post-shoot we had a very intense four month animation period. We split the animation between my company Factory Fifteen, focusing on the development of the town, and Jellyfish Pictures, who focused on the fish and underwater world, again with both teams showing amazing commitment.

Factory Fifteen added statues, billboards and reinterpreted the architecture of Zanzibar.

Factory Fifteen added statues, billboards and reinterpreted the architecture of Zanzibar.

Jellyfish Pictures modeled and animated the fish based upon an original design by Warren Holder

Jellyfish Pictures modeled and animated the fish based upon an original design by Warren Holder

Jonah was based on an idea, not a fully developed script, as I had no formal film education. The steps taken were ambitious, naïve and challenging but eventually completely worthwhile and fulfilling. I don’t know if anyone quite knew how it would turn out, but it exceeded what I expected to do in that first meeting. It’s amazing that this project got made, and hopefully everyone’s hard work and dedication will make the film stand out. I thoroughly respect Film4 for ‘taking a punt’ on a bit of a wild card, and am looking forward to working together on future projects.

Jonah premiered at Sundance 2013 and receives its UK premiere today

Original concept art for the fish by illustrator Warren Holder

Original concept art for the fish by illustrator Warren Holder