With Dreaming Whilst Black, director Sebastian Thiel tells the story of Kwabena — an aspiring filmmaker trying to make his career dreams come true.
But Dreaming Whilst Black has its own story: a journey from popular web series to the BBC. Below, Sebastian takes us through directing the show, from pitching to production, and also provides his own invaluable advice on making the transition from YouTube to a major broadcaster.
I remember watching the Dreaming Whilst Black web series at a screening five years ago. I absolutely loved it and felt like it was UK’s closest thing to the show Atlanta — and I LOVE Atlanta.
Fast forward five years. Adjani Salmon, the co-writer and star, and his team were considering me to direct the Dreaming Whilst Black pilot for the BBC. I was excited to say the least. I felt that this was special, and I knew it was a great fit for me as a director, even though my previous work reflected a very different vision than the one I had for this show. In my pitch, I focused on my strength — which is working with actors and focusing on the heart of the story. I supported the pitch with strong references and ideas for the specific tone I wanted to achieve. It was great to hear that I was on the same page as the team.
Generally, I write and direct, so this was my first time bringing to life someone else’s words. Initially this was nerve-wracking, but I came to enjoy the process of carrying through the vision for the writers.
The tone, comedy and opportunity to create a piece of work that can touch the black community is what was driving me throughout the process. Due to the lack of content out there that reflects the black experience in the UK, I felt a responsibility to make the show something that our community especially can resonate with. This came from choices in music, like the opening song by Fela Kuti and songs from independent artists like Dionne Reid. I tend to like to avoid chart songs. I also encouraged improvisation to pull out authentic reactions that may not have come from the script. It was a joy to collaborate with such talented actors.
In terms of the camerawork, I wanted to give the actors a lot more space physically — so we didn’t do many close ups. This way, you can frame things better and pull out physical comedy. I also prefer seeing two people interact as opposed to always getting jokes through cutting.
It was important that the framing, cutting and scenes were carefully considered. I wanted this show to feel very controlled, simple and cinematic. The main character Kwabena is a filmmaker, so I thought: “What kind of show would he like to make? Let me do that.”
I think keeping the work grounded in reality is what allows us to navigate through the shifts in tone throughout the show. Life in itself has so many colours in it, and that’s how I wanted to approach this work. We wanted Kwabs’ work life to feel depressing. But whenever he was taking steps out of that life, into the new world of filmmaking, we wanted to push for a more warm or lavish feel.
The DoP Jon Muschamp and I worked a lot on prep. I gathered quite a few references and created a storyboard for the episode. We then replaced some images with recce photos which helped us have a strong sense of what we were doing before getting on set. Jon and I also created some rules for the show, to help us with a shorthand when filming and communicating with each other. Even when under pressure, we were both on the same page, which was great for such a fast-paced shoot. We were trying our best to achieve something that felt cinematic, and in the comedy world you don’t get as much time, so we had to really pick our battles. We had a ton of locations and it was a very ambitious project to do in five days. But we made it work.
I have now had the amazing opportunity of taking two web series from YouTube to BBC3: Just a Couple and Dreaming Whilst Black. For me there’s something really exciting in transitioning a TV show from YouTube.
Just a Couple is a web series I wrote and directed via my own YouTube channel in 2013, which caught the attention of Big Talk productions, who helped me get it on to BBC Three. When creating a web-series, my main focus was to create content to share with my peers. I didn’t have the intention to try and get anything on TV. The whole point of making the shows was to create what I never saw. I didn’t go to film school. YouTube was where I went to learn, create and try to find my voice. Once you build an audience and create good work, doors can open in so many unexpected ways.
One of the most important things to do when you are transitioning a show is to honour what it was and where it was coming from. You need to find a way to evolve the work but still keep the essence — what captivated audiences initially. I have seen so many people deviate from their original ideas to fit a box as soon as they start to work with mainstream production companies and channels. I feel like this is a huge shame — it was that raw approach that got you in the door and built your audience. It is amazing to work within the big machine, but it’s important to maintain your vision.
Through my work with Dreaming Whilst Black, I want other young black filmmakers to feel like it’s possible. The show explores Kwabena’s dreams to be a filmmaker whilst being black in the UK, and the show in itself is proof of Adjani Salmon and me, as young black filmmakers in the UK, bringing our dreams to life.