The Assistants: The Foxy Five’s Thandi Gula-Ndebele

In this 4-part miniseries, 10and5 takes a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day lives of creative assistants.

Set life is unpredictable; it’s early hours, late nights, crisis managing and re-shooting the same scene multiple times. It’s not like a tolerable 9-5 profession that you conveniently forget about after eight hours at the office. One requires a passion bordering on obsession to survive the incredulous schedules and shot-list demands. We chatted to Thandi Gula-Ndebele, the assistant director of The Foxy Five, to find out what the job entails and what she loves about working in the medium. 

  Thandi Gula-Ndebele  

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the industry.

I’ve loved telling stories for as long as I can remember, and have always found ways to express my ideas or make sense of the world through visual mediums. I intend to ignite consciousness and empower people through the stories I show. I’m a visual storyteller passionate about photography, filmmaking and more recently, art direction. At the moment I’m an assistant director, cinematographer and sometimes co-writer of The Foxy Five.  Although I’m in my last year of Film school at UCT, I feel like I “guerrilla-ed” my way into the industry. I learnt a lot from assisting on random sets and began to focus and grow more once I started working with my friends, who often shot music videos. After working as a production assistant on Dope Saint Jude’s music video, I took up more assisting roles and eventually became D.O.P and directed my own music videos. I worked with my mentor at the time at Greenback Media Group as an editing intern but got to assist on a bunch of sets. It was lots of fun. Early mornings and lessons from that time are how I’m here today. Even now, I’m mostly doing what I enjoy with people I enjoy being around and from whom I can grow.

Describe an average day as an assistant director.

Haha, there’s barely a separation of days or let alone an “averageness” to them. It’s a lot of planning and unpredictable events.  As an assistant director my priority is to pay attention to detail and make sure that the vision discussed with the director comes to life and that their intention is fulfilled.

My days as an assistant director usually start early. After gear checks and probably a key crew meeting the night before, I meet with the director and producer to talk about a plan of action, refining the vision and handling all the checks for gear, shot-lists and such. I’m usually on my feet, being an extra pair of eyes and ears as an extension of the director and making sure every shot is taken the way it should be. This means keeping track of how the film is taking shape and constantly realigning myself and others on set with its vision, and giving constructive creative input where needed.

What tool/object is invaluable to your work and why?

Despite all the things I can think of that I feel I can’t work without, most times I’ve found that a hat or scarf are invaluable tools. Regardless of whether I’m shooting indoors or outside, I’m pedantic about precision when we are taking a shot. It kills me when everything is perfect in an image but you can’t see it precisely enough or if one thing is oddly placed. Keeping a hat on set is my favourite way to give myself a world where it’s dark and it’s me and the image. I get to make sure I’m happy and the director will be happy with all the details of the image by blocking everything else out to look at it. Some cameras come with hoods for this but I find them awkward and uncomfortable.

Thandi Gula-Ndebele

What qualities do you need to be excellent at your job?

Patience I think is the biggest factor, because even if you’re paying attention to detail (another necessary quality), you need to be willing to wait and allow moments to be in order to pick up on what is important to capture about them. Even to understand someone else’s vision requires a low-key abandoning of the ego and a receptivity with calmness so that you understand what is required of you. A lot of days are long. You need to be passionate in order to remain dedicated and to sustain your energy. Also, if you don’t know how to communicate effectively, you end up working inefficiently so that’s another major key.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to do?

When I was shooting an experimental film I had to get an aerial shot from over an abandoned lion’s den. It was awkward and complicated and the only way I could do it without falling in, was to tie myself to the top edge of the fence using my jacket while paint was being thrown down the pit. I used my jacket to remain suspended and safe as I leaned over death’s edge for the shot. Totally worth it.

Tell us the most important lesson you’ve learnt on the job.

The answer is no until you ask. Every single time I’ve wanted to create something or haven’t known how to, asking for guidance, funding, equipment or even inspiration has always led me in the right direction. Asking myself what my intentions are, and other people of theirs, asking for knowledge and asking for help has all made me sure that you never know it all. You can never learn enough and that’s okay, the more you ask the more you learn.

What’s most rewarding about the job?

I think it’s getting to experience a figment of someone’s mind or my own in a shared reality. I love that films and photography create a collective experience and I’m always so inspired by the way a vision is actualised and an intention is fulfilled through them. It’s like you get to learn all sorts of things from something you didn’t physically experience, and the journey of creating that virtual experience unveils lessons of its own in your physical reality and psyche.

Follow Thandi on Instagram and Twitter.

Thandi Gula-NdebeleThandi Gula-Ndebele    

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