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Film Editors as Architects of a Film’s Vision and Goal: Biyi Toluwalase, Notable for Editing “Gangs of Lagos” and “Sista,” in Conversation with Afrocritik

Film Editors as Architects of a Film’s Vision and Goal: Biyi Toluwalase, Notable for Editing “Gangs of Lagos” and “Sista,” in Conversation with Afrocritik

Biyi Toluwalase film editor in conversation with Afrocritik

“The goal of a writer and editor, is similar. They both want to evoke the right emotions from the audience… 

By Seyi Lasisi 

When one filters through Biyi Toluwalase’s Twitter (Now X) page as I did, one easily observes a few things: He is a Nollywood filmmaker who seldomly posts about films he edited, and competing for his filmmaking interest, is his admiration of finance-related content. “If I stop editing films tomorrow, I will become a financial adviser,” he shares with me via a Zoom interview. He also frequently dishes out Bible verses and invitations to fellowships, and one is able to discern Toluwalase’s deep-rooted Christian beliefs. “My faith is one of the strongest values that I hold dearest to my heart. On a large scale of things, my faith guides my life,” the editor tells me with confidence in his voice. 

Toluwalase is one of Nollywood’s film editors with a portfolio worth coveting. Within his short stint as a film editor, he has worked on Jade Osiberu’s Gangs of Lagos and Brotherhood, the Dimeji Ajibola-directed Passport, and Kayode Kasum-directed Road to Spotlight. Although he hasn’t turned down a project on moral grounds yet, he instinctively believes his gospel-deploying tweets will ward off the likelihood of being approached for projects that will put a strain on his moral principles. 

His Origin Story

Toluwalase still holds a mental picture of the day he decided to be a filmmaker. He was around 13 or 14 years old. An episode of Papa Ajasco, one of Nigeria’s prominent eponymous sitcoms, was airing in the 90s. As the episode neared its end, a cinematic “mystery” – for which he did not know the technical name at the time – occurred. He would learn years later, that what he had witnessed was called a freeze frame, which occurs when a film suddenly freezes on a single, still frame.  He describes being enthralled by the freeze frame with nostalgia in his voice, and the young impressionable Toluwalase decided to be a filmmaker. When he revealed his career interest to his parents, they considered it a juvenile proclamation. They believed that the whiff of adolescence and the adventurous mindset of teenagehood would be smothered out of his mind eventually. But on the contrary, his childhood fixation waxed stronger. For his secondary school education, he was in the Arts department, and for university, he studied Theater Arts at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in pursuit of his childhood interest. 

Toluwalase’s first engagement with filmmaking was writing screenplays. In Nigeria, as in other parts of the world, being a full-time writer is a possible invitation to penury. The solitary endeavour demands a writer’s totality, with less assurance of financial return. Aside from being meagrely paid, Nollywood writers are always on the margin with publicity. Their names often fizzle out when conversations about a film are held. But despite the lack of success, he stubbornly clung to writing. 

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But 2018 was the year he cross-carpeted from writing to editing; the year he reluctantly started to edit professionally. His was a gradual and grudging move to film editing, as editing was a part-time activity for Toluwalase. “I learned editing as a hobby. I learned it for personal, not professional use,” he told me. As he remembers, a friend had badgered him to edit some projects, and he had reluctantly conceded to the friend’s plea. After editing professionally for years, he now recognises the proximity between writing and editing. A film begins with the writer, and after the written story has travelled through directors, cinematographers, actors, and gaffers, it finds its resting place on the editor’s screen. The editor helps to harmonise the story. “Editing is the final phase of writing for a movie,” he reveals with a self-assured disposition. 

Three years after hesitantly accepting that plea and deciding to follow film editing as a pathway, Toluwalase has worked on notable Nollywood feature-length and short films: Sista (2023), Gangs of Lagos (2023), The Kujus Again (2023), Hotel Labamba (2023), Roles Reserved (2022) and Road to Spotlight (2022). These films, in their distinct ways, propelled Toluwalase’s ascent to mainstream recognition, and to the forefront of Nollywood audiences. As one whose living is anchored on Christian principles, Toluwalase is grateful to God for this career trajectory. Despite his admirable achievement, Toluwalase still stays grounded. “I don’t get ‘high’ about those things (career achievements). But, to be honest, I wanted all these and prayed for them. When I saw them, I wasn’t expecting them to happen, because there are people who are more skilled than I am that haven’t gotten this achievement,” Toluwalase tells me without a hint of pride in his voice. 

As an apparent introvert with a mild attraction for the spotlight, Toluwalase is still a little bashful about his successes. Recently, he tweeted about his filmmaking accomplishments. At that time, two movies he edited, Sista and Passport, were the number one film on Prime Video and Netflix, respectively. When I asked about the tweet, he willfully presented the backstory that prompted him to make the post. He was conversing with friends in a studio when they discovered that Sista was the topping film on Prime Video, and at the same time, Passport was occupying the frontline position on Netflix. What ensued was numerous congrats and shouts. “The tweet,” he informs me, “was a response to the energy in the room.” For someone who defines himself as not the “typical industry person,” the exchange revealed that the editor enjoys his reclusive lifestyle. The premiere of Gangs of Lagos was his first public film premiere outing. Thus, the tweet was a subtle attempt to publicise himself. 

Biyi Toluwalase film editor in conversation with Afrocritik
Film editor, Biyi Toluwalase

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 Editors as Architects in the Filmmaking Process

Film editors turn footage from a film shoot into a complete and connected project. This is usually guided by a script and heartfelt conversations with directors or producers. By coordinating sound and visual effects, and instinctively deciding on camera angles that suit a scene during post-production, editors, like other creatives, are important members of the film set. Their job description goes beyond knotting closely linked frames together, it also involves arranging the producers, scriptwriters, and cinematographers’ distinct visions into a coherent whole. With the confidence of a school teacher, Toluwalse declares, “The goal of a writer and editor is similar,” and with poised candour, he informs me, “They [writer and editor] both want to evoke the right emotions from the audience. The writer achieves this on the page.” Toluwalase further shares it is possible for things such as camera angles and sound designs, which should evoke emotions during directing and acting to get lost during shooting, as he puts it, ‘to get lost in translation.’ “The editor helps to recover some of these visual clues during editing,” he concludes.

Days ahead of the 2023 Oscars Awards ceremony, the London-based film editor, Anthony Boys, who is also the BAFTA-nominated editor for The Thick of It started an educative thread on Twitter. The thread, – beyond praising and spotlighting the not-so-obvious technical qualities of the nominated Oscars films – was a subtle introductory manual to what film editing entails. That editors are architects was one lesson I learned from reading the thread.

Film editing is a lonely and solitary process. Despite this necessary solitude, the editor still engages with the producer or director’s opinion. In trying to explain the solitary process of his job, Toluwalase mentioned that there are different stages in editing: assembly editing, which takes three to four weeks, is the first stage and it is mostly done in isolation by the editor or junior editor. The assembly edit gives a director or producer an idea of what the project should look like. “What makes the editing process smooth,” Toluwalase begins, “is when all the people expected to give creative inputs are on the same page. When they are in dissonance, it drags the editing process. There is a lot that gets lost in translation, from production to post-production. And it falls to the editor to creatively recover what is lost.” 

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Toluwalase and I shared several anecdotes during our conversation, and I mentioned the similarity between my process as a writer and his as an editor. From working with multiple editors with distinct preferences, I have learned, through vigorous vacillating exchanges, to accommodate editors’ creative inputs. While this can be frustrating, he also found himself in conflict with producers and directors when working on projects. When I ask him about titles he would consider his best projects, he hesitates for a few seconds before responding. “I tie my preferred films to different milestones and achievements, ” he tells me. When he finally starts to list his most preferred projects, he said, “Gangs of Lagos is the biggest project I have worked on.” Gangs of Lagos being Prime Video debut African Originals means that he had to learn and accommodate the standards set by the Prime Video team. Working on Gangs of Lagos as editor and post-production supervisor comes with its baggage of worries and demands but, in hindsight, Toluwalase is happy for the experience. “I really cherish the experience because with it came a lot of growth as a person, growth in my career, and growth in my portfolio, ” he said reflectively. 

Another title he holds in high esteem is the Biodun Stephen-directed Wildflower. Wildflower is his first film that went to the cinema. Aside from that, he considers Wildflower the foundation of “version two” of his career. “Wildflower came at a time when I really wanted to transition to editing movies with better traction for the sake of my career, ” he opens up. Stranger, another of his preferred titles, holds sentimental value to Toluwalase because it was his debut film on Netflix.” Donkey Curse (which is still in festival circuits) also occupies a front-line position. “When it comes to a project I enjoyed working on, it’s Donkey Curse,” he informs. While editing Donkey Curse, he started noticing a routine and rhythm in his editing approach to certain scenes. Although all these patterns have always been there, subconsciously, it was while editing Donkey Curse he actively noticed the pattern. As Toluwalase shares, “It was while editing Donkey Curse that I discovered that I am developing a style in my editing.”

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Being underpaid and overworked are the realities of a working editor in Nollywood. Toluwalase recalls that from 2019 to 2021, he celebrated Christmas and New Year holidays working on Nollywood projects. Working on multiple jobs with close deadlines, presented slim chances of celebrating the holidays. Toluwase believes that one of the realities of Nigerian film editors is being insufficiently paid for jobs that span months, with the endless back-and-forth creative chatter and quibbles with directors and producers. With a resigned cadence in his voice,  Toluwalase shared, “The fact that editors are constantly juggling multiple projects affects their creative outputs.” With deliberate caution, he tells me, “A lot of people don’t understand the work of an editor in Nollywood. A 20-minute project at times demands more time than a feature film.” As we discuss more about this, Toluwalase recalls a recent event where a producer complained about Toluwalase’s seeming delay of their project. In a bid to “hasten” up the process, the producer came to his studio. After several hours, he notified the producer he had only edited a tiny fraction of the job. Surprised at how time-consuming the job is, the producer left. In an industry still securing its foothold, it’s important that a shared understanding of filmmaking’s role permeates the industry. This will instill respect and propel creative independence for the different professionals in the filmmaking space. Toluwalase believes that “When there is an understanding of the editor’s role, it will aid how directors and producers relate to them.” 

As our conversation hinted to end, our conversation casually dwelled on our shared attraction to Wes Anderson, the American filmmaker. What’s fascinating about Anderson to Toluwalase is his distinct and innovative filmmaking style. Of Anderson, he said, “Wes Anderson is my favourite filmmaker. He has carved a niche for himself. And I feel Anderson makes films to amuse himself.” While we discussed, Toluwalase often reiterated his interest in writing. There are scripts and drafts he occasionally returns to when his schedule permits. The scripts, which are in his closet, haven’t been gazed at by another person, save for himself. Toluwalase’s portfolio is encumbered with film projects he has edited, but he still aims to direct and write. “Writing is still dear to me. I will still love to write and direct.” 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVorte

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