Growing up in Singapore, Jon Keng was always interested in photography. This love for still images eventually grew into something more. This lifelong passion of looking through a lens transformed from still images to filmmaking, and now he is an internationally successful cinematographer.
Working all over the world, Keng has shown his extraordinary capability as a cinematographer on a variety of films. His work on the award-winning film Fata Morgana was screened at some of some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, and this trend continued when he worked on Cocoon, Home, and Tadpoles. Last year, his film The Stairs premiered at Ashland International Film Festival 2016, where it won the grand prize of Best Short Film. It also was screened at the Festival 2016, the USA Palm Beach International Film Festival 2016, and the USA River’s Edge International Film Festival where it went on to win the Special Jury Prize for Best Film.
“It feels great to be validated by the success the film has been receiving,” said Keng.
The Stairs was initially conceptualized as a television series, based around a gay, high end male escort and the lonely men he meets each week. The film follows an older man who hires a male escort for company on Christmas Eve, finding an unexpected kinship with the young man in this late-night exploration of solitude, intimacy and the basic human need for connection.
“I was attracted to the script of The Stairs initially. On the surface, it seemed very ‘undramatic’, with the entire story centered around a long conversation scene, but digging deeper, I began to uncover many subtly hidden emotional beats and arcs that each character goes through. I thought this was very tasteful and I made it my challenge to make the piece visually arresting to keep the audience engaged through the long dialogues,” said Keng.
Keng describes the style he filmed in as very calculated, as he tried to focus on emphasizing each specific beat during the long dialogues in the scenes, in order to make sure that the audience fully understood what was occurring, which largely contributed to the success of the film.
“I also played around with themes of escalating visual connection between the two actors in the film, building up to a final point of disconnection,” he said.
Keng worked alongside an all-star cast and crew on The Stairs. The film stars Tony award nominated actor Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs, Boston Public, Red Dragon). It also starred Kelly Blatz (NCIS, Fear the Walking Dead, Aaron Stone) who co-directed the film with the writer Zach Bandler (Switched at Birth).
“As a director who has worked and will continue to work with Jon at every opportunity, I can say without hesitation that he has the rarest of talent in cinema: instinct. Cinematography isn’t just a technical job where someone points a camera for you at the actors or figures out where the lights should be. A great cinematographer is as much a storyteller as the director or screenwriter. Watching Jon work, he is truly “one” with the camera. It’s an organic part of them. He makes it move like a human being in a way that draws the audience into film. He has a sense for the lighting that evokes the perfect emotional response for that moment in the story on screen. He possesses nuance, sensitivity, he is a leader in their own right, without whom a director would be lost. That type of talent cannot be learned or taught, because it’s God-given. Jon has it. He is an artist in the most profound sense of the word,” said Bandler.
All who worked with Keng on the film were impressed with his cinematographic instincts. Meg Steedle, an actress known for her work in Boardwalk Empire, Grey’s Anatomy, and American Horror Story, was a producer on the film. She describes Zeng’s work as masterful.
“Jon’s was a dream to have on set. He ran the camera, grip and electrical department with an efficiency and effectiveness that kept the film running on time while still capturing beautiful moments on screen. For a producer, someone like Jon is the ideal,” said Steedle. “He’s got a ridiculously bright future ahead of him in this industry and I intend to hire him every chance I get.”
The opportunity for Keng to work with such a distinguished cast and crew was a vital aspect to his experience working on The Stairs. Blatz and Bandler knew what he was capable of, and were very open to collaboration. This gave Keng the freedom he needed me to push himself visually and experiment, and watching the actors provided inspiration.
“It was a privilege to be able to work with Anthony Heald, a veteran actor with such a strong theatrical pedigree. I was really just transfixed watching him go through his long monologues, conveying a deep sense of emotion,” said Keng. “Kelly was amazing to watch on set, as he was both acting and directing the film. He would be acting in one moment, then switch to director’s mode and talk about shots. This takes a great amount of multitasking. Despite doing multiple overnight shoots in a row, he was still filled with energy and concentration, which he was able to bring across to the entire crew.”
Keng was also a multi-tasker on set, working all the way from pre-production to post-production, ensuring everything was executed to perfection. With commitment like that, there is no doubt as to why he is considered such an exemplary cinematographer.