A Serious Man: For Maria Cinematographer David Wyte shares his story

Released in late 2020, For Maria: Ebun Pataki was met with critical acclaim from all over the world. Special praise was reserved for the handling of its adult themes and the acting performances of lead actors, Gabriel Afolayan and Meg Otanwa. Director Damilola Orimogunje admitted to doubts about how his debut effort would be received, especially back home. This was a story that was outside mainstream Nollywood and markedly different from even the supposed arthouse entries. It was not a comedy, not a thriller, or anything suited to the confines of any generic box. This was a story about regular Nigerians, told by artists with something to say, presented with uncommon honesty, and with visual ideas that were foreign to our garish preferences.

A lot of these highly acclaimed visual ideas can be traced to David Wyte, a cinematographer with a serious relationship with the craft. David is a quiet man. He’s not wont to toot his horn on social media, although he’s started doing that. But it’s still about the craft. A quick gander across his Instagram stories on a regular day would likely reveal short explainers on different aspects of cinematography. David is all about knowledge. His road to eminence is cratered by the influence and teachings of gracious mentors and he’s eager to make all the knowledge available to whoever is interested.

David insists on actively participating with the director through the entire shelf-life of a project. He doesn’t believe in coming in late and leaving early; he wants to know the story as intimately as anyone else so there’s a solid philosophical framework that guides the entire process of lighting, lensing, and even editing.

Now, the visual assuredness in For Maria starts to make sense. It wasn’t a gamble, a shot in the dark, or a fruit of happenstance. Its success was the reward of a very rigorous collaboration among craftsmen at the highest level of Nigerian cinema.

David Wyte chats with Filmkaku about his beginnings, his present, and what holds for the future.

Filmkaku (FK): How did you get into cinematography?

David Wyte (DW): How do I start? I never thought I was going to be a cinematographer due to my background. I grew up in a face-me-I-face-you apartment and living that kind of life never made me think I was going to do something as sophisticated as filmmaking. It wasn’t even something I had in mind.

FK: Interesting, so what was your first interaction with film? 

DW: I grew up in the streets of Lagos and my landlord’s son was a producer. He took me to Tajudeen Adepetu which was formerly called Alpha Vision. It was a big company that ran commercials like Family Circle, Everyday People, and Blaze of Glory. I went there to audition as an actor but I didn’t do well enough to be selected. I was then given the job of a crew member and started as a production assistant. I worked there for years before I gradually started handling the boom mic. It was there I met Segun Oladimeji popularly called PamPam. 

David Wyte at work
David Wyte on set

FK: Interesting.

DW: Segun saw the commitment with which I worked and told me I would make a fantastic cinematographer. In my mind, I didn’t even know how the thing worked. I was just all over the place. He gave me my first lighting book which I later gave out about a year or two ago. 

FK: Can you remember the name of the book?

DW: There was no name. It was a photocopy. I think he got it while he was at ITPAN.

FK: Oh, okay.

DW: I read the book as he instructed, and then got the opportunity of working on the set of Everyday People as a light man. It was a shoot that required us to camp. When I had to light a scene, I would quickly run back to my room to read up on three-point lighting and come back to light the scene. With that, I slowly knew what it meant and my understanding grew. Whenever I visited a set, I tried to stay as humble as possible and didn’t immediately reveal myself as a filmmaker. I just watched keenly and took note of any technique that amazed me. I also contributed where I thought I could. And I still do these things, anyway. That’s a summary of how I started.

FK:  So you kept learning from that point?

DW: Yes. At a point when I just started working, the same person who took me to Alpha Vision got me a gig to work under Onye Ubanatu on the project The Station. I worked on the project as a camera assistant for a period of six to nine months. Working directly under Onye Ubanatu allowed me to learn from him. He taught me how to handle cameras and other important techniques during the duration of the project. After that gig, I started practicing on my own. Till I met Taiwo Omowunmi, an editor. I worked with him for a bit, shooting with a camcorder and when Canon 7D came out, he downloaded a tutorial for me. That was one major push that launched me further into my cinematography career. I also started studying Philip Bloom too.

FK: Philip Bloom was the DSLR  champion back then.

DW: Yes, Philip Bloom was like a teacher to me. Everybody close to me knew this, including the directors I was working with. They all knew Philip Bloom. I was always watching Philip Bloom. Back then, I had like 1 terabyte worth of Philip Bloom tutorials on every camera at the time. Most times when reading about all these cameras, Philip Bloom would challenge you to understand the camera at a very deep level and view it as a tool for storytelling. And that was like a breakthrough for me. I did a film with Taiwo Omowunmi titled The Republic that was seen by Walt Banger after which he hired me to work on the set of Wages which won in the category for best short film at the 2014 AMVCA. I also worked with him as the DOP for another project titled Gbomo Gbomo Express.

Gbomo Gbomo Express

FK: Funny how I never thought that you were the DOP for Gbomo Gbomo Express.

DW:  I think, at that time, I didn’t know how to “blow my horn” 

FK: I can see you are trying now though.

DW: Even Dami Orimogunje was not happy that I didn’t push For Maria: Ebun Pataki. Every time I’m on set, actors would point to me as the guy who shot ‘For Maria’ and I wouldn’t even talk about it. It got to a point where people started doubting if I was serious. I also did a couple of titles like Strain by Uduak Patrick and Bonnie and Clara by Yemi Jolaoso, and others. 

The For Maria team

FK: Okay, I want to talk more about your relationship with Damilola Orimogunje, because it seems you guys have a really beautiful partnership going on right now. How did you meet Dami?

DW: When Dami was working in R2tv, I had a childhood friend named Promise Uwambani who happened to be their PR guy. At the time, Dami was about to resign from his job. He was also on the lookout for a cinematographer and Promise told him about me. We did our first short film together titled Family for which we cast Paul Utomi and Joy Ubeku. I can remember he reached out to me and we shot the film on a Canon 7D. After that, we did our next short film titled Mo, after which we made another short film before shooting Losing My Religion. After Losing My Religion, I told Dami that these short films were getting too much and it was time we try our hands at a feature-length film. I got a call from him one day saying we have to jump on a story. He got Femi Tunray, a screenwriter, to write a first draft. Then did some reworking till he was ready. The rest, they say, is history.

FK: I can deduce that you as a DOP and get involved with Dami when you start talking story.

DW: Dami isn’t the kind of person that would call you for a job and just want you to come and shoot. Dami wants you to follow through with the process, the story, what you think about it, and which character you can empathize with. He is always bringing three people into that process: the DOP, the Art Director, and the Director. We are always together, sometimes over the night having drinks and food while talking about the story.

When we finally get the story right, we move to the breakdown of cinematic shots, one by one. Sometimes we know these breakdowns may not translate to the screen as we want but we still have to go through all these elaborate thought processes. I tell people that it’s normal for the Director and DOP to fight on set and that it’s just a matter of understanding. I also tell Dami that whatever we’re shooting should never go beyond one minute.

Anything beyond one minute in a movie is very long and if the dialogue isn’t strong we can’t keep the viewers. If Dami says he needs a particular shot, I always insist on a backup shot. Most Directors feel they don’t need it, but in my opinion, it’s easier for you to take it out in the edit than to not shoot it at all. One of the key things in filmmaking is knowing how to communicate with people and stop making them feel they don’t know their job, even though we know some of them do not know their job and they in turn don’t want other people to know that they don’t know their job. Sometimes, there’s a subtle way I communicate with Dami while trying to insist that some things get done. Directors that I have worked with know that for me to insist on a shot then it has to be a very vital one because I hardly talk.

For Maria: Ebun Pataki
For Maria: Ebun Pataki

FK: I know you have executed other projects but let’s continue talking about For Maria a bit. During the production process, were there any visual references that you had, and how did you interpret them? 

DW: We had a lot of designs and ideas for the set, including the categories of colour we wanted. Dami sent me some movies as references for the work. Titles like Mother of George and If Beale Street Could Talk emerged. Personally, I don’t fancy the idea of watching films before a shoot because the cinematography of the other work distracts what I have planned for the particular shoot. I end up being indecisive about what I want to do and this in itself takes valuable time. I just tell people to give me a good art direction for the character they want to focus on and I can it pick up from there. In Dami’s For Maria, I tried as much to play with natural lighting because we already discussed that there wasn’t going to be too much camera movement in the film. Even at some point where the framing wasn’t balanced, I moved the camera against Dami’s wishes, but subtly enough that it wasn’t noticed by the audience. We only made motivated camera movements where necessary. For instance, when Derin was coming back from the hospital with her mother-in-law, we had to move with them up the stairs. 

FK: Okay, let’s talk a bit technical. What camera package did you use, in terms of lenses, and type, and why did you make those choices?

DW: My camera was the regular Black Magic 4k pocket, a set of Rokinon lenses, matte box, no filter – the only filter was a Neutral-density filter for exterior shots. We had no follow focus. We were going for something simple and effective.  

FK: That’s a great way to collaborate. Anyway, what kind of projects do you think you would like to shoot next? Are you looking to challenge yourself and try other narrative forms?

DW: I have a script that is a time-based narrative. I’m supposed to be in camp but I haven’t been called in yet. I also just finished working with Yemi Jolaoso on Toxic – the movie, and an epic film which I finished a couple of weeks ago. But honestly, I don’t know what kind of film I want to do next. 

FK: It’s been great chatting with you, David. We’re really looking forward to what the future holds for you.

DW: It’s been my pleasure, guys.

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