Q&A with Brin Kushner, director and executive producer, AFS Productions
Lions, cheetahs, elephants? -- Hanging out with Africa’s most protected species are all part of a day’s work for Brin Kushner, executive producer and director for South Africa’s AFS Productions. FUTURE VISION talks with Kushner about how digital is creating an amazing new world for producers and directors who want to shoot in Africa.
Q. AFS has been in the business of production service for some 16 years. How much expansion do you see in the next few years?
A. We have expanded geographically quite a bit since we were founded in Los Angeles 16 years ago. We still have our satellite office in LA but our core business is centred around South Africa, the entire African continent and the Indian Ocean Islands, so Cape Town is our main base.
Q. AFS is a family owned and run business, pretty much headed up by president Dale Kushner and yourself, right?
A. Yes, we were all born in South Africa and we are family owned and run. My cousin Warren is also a working director and we represent him for certain territories. He has his own company K Films based out of Los Angeles so we do joint projects as well as all of his service work in South Africa.
Q. But you are geared to shoot almost anywhere?
A. That’s right. We have filmed from Spain to Tahiti, but we prefer to operate locally in the areas in which we have the most expertise.
Q. So what’s your main brief as a company?
A. We are mainly production service so we find locations and essentially provide everything needed for a company to come in and shoot in Africa and the Indian Ocean for the commercials and film industry. Most of what we do is advertising but from time to time, we also do documentaries and TV series and we are hoping to expand into film.
Q. You have a fair list of blue chip clients that seems to be growing year on year?
A. We seem to be lucky in that but there are reasons for that luck. We are known for providing on the ground and up close and personal service. Earlier this year we finished a shoot for Purina, as an example, and we scouted every bit of that ourselves. We can do that because we are family owned, and we work closely together. So the kind of service we provided to Purina, as an example, we’ve provided as well to other clients we’ve had since, including Kellogg’s, Hersheys, Kraft, Hewlett Packard and Google.
Q. Let’s talk about the Purina shoot. It was a brief that really tapped the kind of experience that you can offer as natives of South Africa?
A. Yes. It was a project for the Emmy award-winning Scott Duncan of Curious Pictures. The brief was to show the similarities between an African wildcat and its closest evolutionary relation--the domestic cat. We shot in the bush three hours north of Durban in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi area and then came back to Cape Town and filmed domestic cats copying the same behaviour as the wild cats. So the final flighted commercials juxtaposed the wild and tamed cats.
Q. And how wild is the wildcat compared to your average domestic puss?
A. It’s wild. It looks like a mini-lion and is definitely more aggressive than a domestic cat. I wouldn't make the mistake of trying to pet a wildcat.
Q. These are protected animals. How difficult was it to get the permit process moving?
A. The permit process is tricky, as you can imagine, but we got it within a week. It is a good example of why it always pays to use a local company that knows the ropes.
Q. So how does one go about setting up a shoot like this?
A. To begin with we spoke to pretty much every major researcher and cat handler in the country to assess what was possible to get on camera. Then we combed South Africa for the right spot for the location.
Q. But you and Dale ended up scouting the job?
A. Yeah. It was possibly not the most glamorous project we’d ever done as we ended up on our hands and knees in the bush at 4.00 a.m., crawling through wildcat pee, but it was great fun. I come from a wildlife director/cameraman background so I knew exactly what our clients were looking for, and what would be possible to get on film.
Q. The Google shoot was outside of Johannesburg?
A. Yes. It was in the area known as Tshwane about 40 minutes from Johannesburg. Our task was to get the photographer Lebo Mashiloaneas as close as possible to African elephants as he took pictures and filmed them on his smartphone. The footage was then streamed live to people all over the US via Google’s Hangout software as part of a project called Photowalk. The idea was that people could actually feel that they were there with the photographer and experiencing the moment with him.
Q. You’ve worked with pretty much all of Africa’s greatest wild animals, sometimes called The Big Five. Which species do you like to work with the most?
A. I find the elephant and lion the most workable. Leopards are very unpredictable, rhinos are not the brightest and buffalo are too cantankerous.
Q. Cape Town has regularly been the base camp for your operations. Are you using Cape Town Film Studios? They are causing quite a stir worldwide.
A. Roughly 20 per cent of our projects involve studio work and we do use Cape Town Film Studios. The scale of the new studios is incredible and everything from a production standpoint is close at hand. In our last project for E Trade, we did a massive green screen build. The sheer space available is a really big plus for multiple builds and all the production add ons that are available on site.
Q. What about availability? Is it easy to book space?
A. Admittedly we are finding that we do have to compete for studio time with the big feature films but luckily, we do also have a lot of great studio options in South Africa if the new studios are not available.
Q. It’s no secret we are in the midst of a digital revolution that has changed the industry. How much has it changed the way you work?
A. We currently shoot 80% of our projects in digital format. A few years ago it was zero. Our clients travel all over the world all of the time and want access 24/7 from wherever they are in the world and we do provide that. Digital saves money because there is no film to process; time, because we can start editing right away, or our clients can. We handle pre-production, production and postproduction concerns but all of our presentations and pitches are now done via the web so the approval process is much faster.
Q. But the wish list of your clients is obviously becoming increasingly more sophisticated, yes? You need to be able to offer your clients not just the hottest locations and decent prices but cutting edge technical savvy and the most sophisticated equipment?
A. Being on the cutting edge has never been a problem for us. The success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup dispelled any mythology that South Africa might not be able to keep up with the times technologically and as far as cutting edge talent, I think the awards South Africa brings in and the amazing talent of people like Mike Berg, production designer on Lords of War and District 9, speak volumes. This is a country with enormous talent that not only moves with the times but because it is Africa, now one of “the places to be”in terms of new business, is possibly ahead of the times.
Q. Five years from now what is considered technological wizardry today in the industry will be completely out-dated. How do you envision your world five years from now, a typical day in a super digital environment but out in the bush, perhaps, up close and personal with the Big Five?
A. Technology is advancing so quickly but looking into the future, even five years from now, anything could be possible. In an ideal super-digital environment, the future could find us on location taking mental snapshots and streaming the pictures and footage directly to clients; virtual cameras that allow you to point a hand towards the subject and film without needing an actual camera. Reading thought processes without having to talk would be amazing. I would love this for pitches as often I have so much imagery and ideas in my head for projects that can be very hard to describe verbally. When I started in the industry, I had coins in my pocket all the time to call the office from payphones. I would never have thought that in a few years, it would be possible for us to receive e-mails, calls or scanned documents from smart phones wherever our clients might be anywhere in the world.
Q. In a super digital environment, how would you manage to stick with your basic trademark--being up close and personal?
A. Good question but the relevant point is that it is not about the tools we use in the industry but about the talent and the service, and that is something we have built our reputation on. The faster we work, the more technology there is out there, the more digital we work with, the more important it will be for the human factor to be present. And the human factor is what we have grounded our reputation in. That, and service.
Captions from the top:
1) Brin and very large male cheetah taking a break from filming.
2) Here Kitty Kitty: Shooting wildcats for Purina in the Huhluhluwe Umfolozi area north of Durban.
3) Elephants up close and personal with Brin on shoot for Google’s Photowalk project in Tashwane, outside of Johannesburg.
4) Zebra and crew on Purina photo shoot in Huhluhluwe Umfolozi outside of Durban.