The surrealist shorts of Bartlett alumni, Factory Fifteen project future cities which capture the essence of another world. Since 2011 the collective’s directors, Jonathan Gales, Paul Nicholls and Kibwe Tavares, have acted as a creative unit with combined specialisms in multiple fields, forwarding their ethos of “a design-led approach to film making/ a narrative-led approach to architectural visualisation”. It’s an approach that has led them to be commissioned by the likes of Nowness, Samsung, Guinness and Saatchi&Saatchi. At their studio in South East London, I sat down with Jonathan Gales to speak about how, from Bartlett graduates, Factory Fifteen has grown into an established creative practice in its own right.
(Above: still from the film City)
You all studied together. Would you say your early studio work is consistent with Factory Fifteen? Visualisation was prominent within Unit 15 at the Bartlett; was that the starting point for the three of you?
We all studied architecture and now we’ve all transitioned into the world of design and animation, producing commercials and hopefully feature length films. But all three of us freelanced for various different clients while studying for our Masters at the Bartlett. I used to work with photographers as a photo assistant, Paul used to work as a visualiser and Kibwe was working as an architectural engineer. We all ended up working with the architecture practice that Kibwe worked with for his Part 1, and essentially an opportunity came up for us to work together.
We all wanted to make a project after leaving university, by using all of our skills together rather than working individually. When we first set up Factory Fifteen it was just us three guys in a small studio in Brixton. Then we scaled up and we had around 6 of us, and we’ve grown in the last few years. We just moved into our new studio with a much larger team, complete with The Factory, our event space, as well.
(Above: still from the film Jonah)
Do you feel Factory Fifteen challenges the traditional role of an architecture practice? As visualisers you do not directly identify as a practice, however you have participated in built projects. What was it about the traditions of architecture that swayed you to explore a more unconventional form?
I feel like architecture is such a broad subject and the subject field has space for people in all creative fields, from visualising to engineering, from project management to construction. With Factory Fifteen we’ve decided to focus on design and visualising buildings and space, whether they are within a fictional project or with an architect. We’re not architects and we don’t advertise ourselves as an architecture firm but I think we do design spaces and we do design buildings. Just not necessarily ones that get built.
Do each of you have particular strengths? What’s that creative, professional and personal dynamic like?
We all share a strength in that we’re all quite ambitious and driven. I think we all seek a kind of gratification for creating our own work and we didn’t necessarily want to work for somebody else. But each one of us brings something slightly different to it, yes. Kibwe is very focused on the narrative and the drama. Paul’s very technical and sometimes more interested in more abstract projects, but that’s not to say he’s not interested in the dramatic side either. I’m very much interested in cities, people and how we use space—also documentary and filmmaking.
Those strengths collectively have a lot of overlaps within them, so a lot of our projects are to do with people and cities and technological influences, whether that’s using technology to influence a story or a project. So yeah there’s a lot of overlaps for sure.
(Above: still from City)
The varying sense of scale within your projects is fascinating; maybe it’s your use of concept design that’s a heavy influence.
We’re very focused on fictional projects that have rigour in their design. Architecture school taught us to develop a backstory to narrate projects. Particularly at the Bartlett, architecture and storytelling is pushed so much you build a world that may make a lot of sense to you but maybe not in the real world.
That’s a kind of storytelling I feel that architects have done through the ages—from Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the inherent furniture and décor within his buildings to Le Corbusier and Eames. I don’t feel it’s far different from that.
(Above: stills from Jonah)
Could you describe how you use artwork books as a part of your projects’ creative process?
For instance, for Jonah, a short film that won a Sundance award, the effects were particularly important. The story is set in the fishing town of Zanzibar narrating one man and his town’s recognition of instant fame through his discovery of the world’s biggest fish. The story goes on to show the negative effects of newfound stardom and how a once humble town becomes a tacky, tourist-laden hub that ends up losing its original fishing roots it once was so proud of.
The story ends with Jonah as an older man, hunting down and killing the fish to destroy what it represents. As it was set in Zanzibar, as a team, we thought out everything from the cafés and the bars to the what-if moments of the giant fish. I think it’s that backstory we’re really into, and the artwork books are really just a way of condensing ideas, like a portfolio.
(Above: still from Jonah)
On the topic of storytelling, are there particular dystopian or sci-fi novels that interest you guys personally or spur your work to be as imaginative as it is?
In earlier projects, I was more taken—because of studying in Unit 15—with some of Ballard’s writing, which is slightly chaotic in its nature. A lot of things go wrong, often in interesting ways. Also totalitarian science fiction like 1984 and Brave New World. Recently, one of the biggest references for me is the Japanese animation film Tekkonkinkreet, it’s both rich in its design—so normal yet detailed and not normal at the same time. It’s really beautiful. Nothing at the moment is specifically driving us as we’ve moved away from the kind of hard sci-fi books, but we like the new weird stuff like China Miéville’s novels.
(Above: still from City)
Could you tell me about your recent film City commissioned by Nowness?
It came at a point where we’d worked on a lot of CG and live action projects and I think we really wanted to go down more of a documentary route with it. We’re really interested in the way that cities around the world have a degree of familiarity, and with City we wanted to capture that homogenous nature of cities but also the variance. We focused the shoot by approaching subcultures within cities. For instance, in La Paz we focused on female wrestlers, while in New Orleans we focused on a female motorcycle gang—we also followed more generic people. I think for us it’s a love letter to the city, like wow cities are awesome, they are dynamic and have colour and energy. I hope it comes across that way.
For those of us who don’t know, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the dynamics of working with clients. Do they usually come to you? What’s the process of putting together a proposal and getting approval (presentations, pinups, briefs, storyboards)?
I think there are three routes of getting the work or a project. One is when a client approaches us if they have a project they want to get made; normally an architectural project and we tend to work with architects on that directly. The second is through a commercials agency where a brand will be commissioning a piece of work, such as an advert or another branded project. We’ll be contacted and pitch against other directors for the piece. Then we have to respond to their brief and put together a proposal, compete and really convince them to pick us, which is good competition of course. The third is original content, where we develop our ideas and then look for people to help get them made, either by taking our work to brands or specific people to leverage either some funding or after we’ve tested our visualisation first.
(Above: still from City)
You do these fantastic films which often don’t last very long, and I think there’s a general understanding that renderings and visualisations take a very, very long time to produce. There’s an implicit slowness in filmmaking that might even relate to the time taken in building-making. Does that slowness and care help create a bond between you and the film—or perhaps even you and a character in the film?
I suppose some part of that is purely logistical as they do take a long time. It’s funny because the project I probably relate the most is my Masters project, as I did it solely on my own. With larger projects there’s sometimes a personal and natural dislocation when the team is larger. I still like shorter film, music videos and, as you say, really short films. With smaller projects you have the freedom to test ideas and techniques that maybe you couldn’t with a higher risk job such as a commercial or feature film. Those shorts are obviously less funded, but yeah I still feel quite connected to projects I did around 6 years ago.
What’s next for Factory Fifteen?
We’re working on a lot of drama at the moment, which is slower to get made due to finance and labour intensity. But we’re about to release a piece called Robot and Scarecrow that Kibwe directed, which has been two years in the making so we’re very excited. It’s a modern fairytale and has some great VFX work within it and of course, due to it’s nature has required a lot of hard work.
Is there an ultimate ambition or a direction in which you’re steering the studio towards?
We're still more interested in projects we like to do rather than ones that are profitable, but we have probably become a bit more fussy with what we want to do. We’ve invested in more kit and we have a bigger team and more knowledge within the team, which is great and makes us even more ambitious.
–Images courtesy of Factory Fifteen. To see more of their work, click here.