Face-to-Face with iDidTht: Featuring Ian Gabriel from Giant Films

Director Ian Gabriel from Giant Films is back in South Africa on a more permanent basis, after an adventurous time in La La Land chasing The Big Picture and after winning some international Best Picture awards for his 2015 film Four Corners. So we asked him to meet us at the first place you return to after an overseas trip, the Spur! Okay, one would ideally like to treat a man of his reputation to lunch at say Willoughby’s, but who on earth has an editorial budget for Willoughby’s and guys, for goodness sake, it’s ‘One, Two, Free Steak Thursdays!’

As a director, Ian’s passion for performance and love for his actors is uncompromising. His visual flare for filmmaking is almost as distinctive as his trademark brightly coloured shoe and sock combination. It’s no secret in the industry that Ian can make anything he touches look upscale and classy, even on a tight budget, so what will he do with this Spur lunch?! He immediately orders a mineral water. Boom! Within mere moments he’s already made the joint classier! Who orders mineral water at the Spur? I quickly cancel my ‘Wacky Viennas and Kid’s Cone on the Go’.

Ian jumps right in: “Making movies is the most rewarding occupation, and the most fun there is. Whether it’s a big picture like the 3 season 13 part TV Series we’re hoping to bring to South Africa (the reason for my time in LA) or the 30 second commercial I’ll be doing next, the space between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is the place where I enjoy myself most!”

He eagerly opens his laptop, to show us some of his earlier work. But something else, more sinister, catches my eye…look how worn his keyboard is!


You just know that when Ian Gabriel is your director, you are in safe hands, which is more than we can say for his keyboard. But his age and experience makes him one of the most trusted and prolific director’s in the industry. He’s directed critically acclaimed films such as Forgiveness (2004) and Four Corners (2015), where he managed to achieve beautifully honest and raw performances from his actors. But it’s in the way Ian achieves those same sincere performances from non-actors – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, American aviation hero Chesley Sullenberger, Miriam Makeba and Cristiano Ronaldo, to name a few – in a one minute commercial spot, that’s testament to his talent.

“Part of my job is to create an event, that you can get swept up in – maybe something large and chaotic or something intimate and real – that’s the kind of film making that excites me. It’s born entirely out of the world I have to imagine and I have to share that imagined world with the agency creative. When you make the event real you create a world for the actor and a believable space for the non actor, and they can excel in that space. I like to create a world for them, somewhere they can live in – and so can the viewer.’”

iDidTht’s Director’s Chair for Ian Gabriel

After getting face-to-face with Ian Gabriel, we’re awarding him his very own iDidTht Director’s Chair. So now you know what chair to put him in when he’s on set – it’s like a public service we’re offering, our pleasure.

Congratulations Ian, you get this creepy red armchair in the woods! *crowd goes wild*

An armchair represents comfort and after so many years in the business, Ian is super comfortable with his craft, and so are the teams and actors around him. His commercials all just turn out looking expensive and beautiful, they really do, hence the leather. The red speaks to the passion in his work, it takes you on a visual journey with a strong emotional response and his filmmaking is filled with a sense of magic, as he so often creates entire worlds for his actors to live in – and Ian, that’s why we put you in this scary forest with two eerie birds…aren’t you lucky!?

After studying law, politics and philosophy Ian wanted an escape from the political situation in South Africa and decided to hitchhike to Swaziland where he taught English, maths and history. Noble as it was, we can thank our lucky stars that he decided to return. He made the move from academia to the arts and in his early twenties he started working as a producer/stage manager at Johannesburg’s famous anti-apartheid theatre venue, Dorkay House. Yup, that’s where Nelson Mandela and Winnie first met. Mandela was on Robben Island by the time Ian started working there, but as fate would have it, their paths would cross many years later when Ian would direct him in a commercial. Soon he was seduced into film and has since worked across the world all the way to the Arctic Circle. In 1996 Ian and his family moved to Cape Town where he and his wife, producer Cindy Gabriel, founded Giant Films.

Ian Gabriel Did This

His portfolio is testament to a director with a deep understanding of storytelling and performance. His distinctive style is visually and aesthetically excellent and there is an unwavering production standard across all his work. Here are some of iDidTht’s top picks.

Nedgroup ‘Sully’

Rand Merchant Bank ‘Together’

VW Passat ‘Journey’

Four Corners Trailer

Sanlam ‘The Herd’

VW Polo ‘Snow’

On Sully: “We shot all the performance and the plate shots in one long day in New York before shooting some great aerials above the city, and then added in the 3D plane work. The 3D impact of the plane with the water was tough to get right, but the end result is really great. A lot of people don’t realise how much 3D there is in that spot – all the plane footage was created after the shoot.”

On RMB: “We had to work very fast because the rowers were all preparing for the Olympics. So I had to make this really chaotic live training set, so that when the squad came in they were immediately caught up in what was going on. We’d already set up the shots, had everyone in positions and just put the Olympic rowers in for those short moments.”

11 Questions for Ian Gabriel

1. What movies have influenced you most?

Cabaret I would say. Apocalypse Now obviously, because it’s such an event and Eraser Head – ooh freaky. Oh, and the first season of True Detective – great, very dark.

*A few days after the interview we receive a text from Ian: ‘Please add Amores Perros, Crash and Nosferatu. I like films that come at you in layers and linger on in memory. And change the way you see the world – or maybe even yourself. About to head off to AfrikaBurn – may I see you there?’ I reply: ‘Nope, it’s Wacky Wednesday at Steers today. Enjoy x’

2. What are non-negotiables for you on set?

You’ve got to have respect for the actor, and space for the actor, and make sure the actor is okay. Because if you haven’t got that, you’re lost. And great communication with the creatives.

3. What is the first thing you do after you wrap a shoot?

Thank everyone. I’ll start with the actors and I’ll end with the actors and then I’ll thank other people. And every now and again I have to thank someone that I wish I didn’t have to thank, but I’ll thank them anyway.

4. If you could be anything on the Spur menu, what would you be?

Buffalo wings. They visually speak to me…

5. What do you love about the industry in South Africa?

The South African commercial industry is unique. We’ve got such an organic film making culture – the industry is compact so we have more opportunities than most to work with great talent that we all have access to. Boards that excite me are those with very strong ideas, ones that need an emotional response. I like to create worlds with humour and emotion.

6. What is the one thing you wish you could say to an agency when you direct a commercial?

Sometimes when I’m working with an actor, someone will say to me “please go and tell him to do X” and I think to myself, if I tell him to do X I’m never ever gonna get it. The art of seduction is important in film. I want to say “I want to get what you want to get, but I’ve got to sneak it in, seduce the actor into believing in and delivering the desired effect. Or it’s going to look false.” You’ve got to sneak the direction in through the back door. We have to ‘find’ the truth, because it shows if we don’t.

7. What’s the best industry related advice you’ve received?

Decide if you’re a producer or a director.

8. Who is the most famous person you have in your contact list?

Sophie Nélisse…do you know who she is? The girl who played the lead in The Book Thief.
(I nod and excuse myself to the bathroom to Google her. She is totes famous!)

Please take a screenshot, we promise to take out the information.
“Fine, as long as you promise to take it out.”
We promise, just take a screenshot. Ian just screenshot it!
“What? How do you do that?”
Ian, okay, to screenshot you hold this button and this button together.
“That’s amazing.”
Ian, how do you usually screenshot something?
“There are things I need to learn…”

9. One thing nobody should be without on set?


10. Would you rather have no knees or no elbows?

Hmm, I use my elbows more often than my knees. Like at the moment I’m resting on them. I’m fine without knees right now.

11. When you directed Charlize Theron in the Sun International commercial, how did she pronounce her surname in real life?

Charlize, if you’re reading this (of course you are) please come home. Obviously we don’t let Ian leave without giving him the full Spur experience. It might not have been his actual birthday, but after that mineral water we thought the man deserved a Chico the Clown!

Get in touch with Ian and Giant Films through his producer emma@giantfilms.tv or find our more about Giant Films right here, right now.

Produced by the iDidTht Content Studio
Credits: Writer – Anne Hirsch / Art Director – Julie Maunder

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