Actor Donald Heng’s Thoughtful Brand of Sci-Fi Storytelling

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If you’re a fan of fantasy/horror, chances are good you know  Donald Heng’s work. The Vancouver-based actor has been seen in a wide variety of settings—comedies, drama, made for TV movies, weekly series, indie films—but in recently, Heng had settled into a shadowy niche in the unpredictable, spine-tingling world of the SyFy television network’s original thriller content. With guest appearances on several different SyFy shows and his recurring Ghost Wars role as the edgy Deputy Larry Foon, the talented, versatile Heng is making dramatic tension his calling card. Tinseltown News Now caught up with Heng between shoots to discuss this latest upshift in an already impressive career

 

Q: You have had some good professional fortune at SyFy — do you feel career momentum is building at the network?

A: Definitely. This whole business is not for the impatient that’s for sure. Someone once told me that acting is a marathon, not a sprint, and that has always stuck with me. There may often be little rhyme or reason in this industry, but if you’re in it long enough and are prepared and constantly working on your craft, momentum will occur.

Q: You have previously appeared in “The Flash,” and “Supernatural,” please discuss these experiences

A: It was a relief to finally get to work on “Supernatural.” That show has been [produced] in Vancouver for 12, going on 13-14 seasons. My entire circle of actor friends have been on it, so it was great to get any kind of part on the show. But my character got to interact with Jared and Jensen and that was incredibly fun. They were really nice and welcoming and the jokes and pranks are non-stop whenever they yell cut. “The Flash” was also incredibly exciting in its own right. I read the comics as a kid and so there was of course that part of me that was freaking about getting my ass saved by the Flash not once, not twice, but three times. Some of the stunts in that show were also the most fun I ever had on set. It was like riding a go-kart down an empty street and my fear was not hard to fake [laughs].

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Q: How did you come to meet “Ghost Wars” creator-writer-producer Simon Barry?

A: I may have met him earlier when I auditioned for “Continuum” but I can’t say that definitively. But I definitely did meet him for “Van Helsing,” and then again later for “Ghost Wars.” He is an incredibly humble, personable human being and, of all the producers I’ve worked with, definitely made the biggest effort of including and inviting the cast to collaborate in his projects. During the table read for the first episode, Simon told everyone that he wanted to build these characters with us and if there were certain lines that didn’t sit well with our characters, to bring it up to him and he would work with us to change it.

Q: Were you cast on “Continuum?”

A: No, I did audition for it a couple times but unfortunately that show ended its run before I had a chance to be in it.

Q: Discuss your experience on “Van Helsing”

A: When I got cast in “Van Helsing,” I was very excited to work with Michael Nankin, who has had a long tenure with SyFy. I had done a couple workshops with him while studying at the Actor’s Foundry, so it brought me a sense of validity to be able to work with him in that capacity.

Q; How did Mr. Barry come to select you for “Ghost Wars?”

A: That’s something you would have to ask him [laughs]. I’m sure the decision didn’t rest solely with Simon, but that is a very interesting question that I wonder about all the time. When I show up on set after every casting, I always have the urge to ask the director/producer ‘why was I selected?’ Truth be told, in this industry, the best actor often doesn’t get the job.

Q: How has it been working on “Ghost Wars?”

A: It was great, it was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. The cast and crew were great. We spent some time up in Squamish for the shoot and it was absolutely beautiful. We had dinner with Simon and David (the director) and they told us some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard in my life regarding their experiences in the industry. I had always wanted to play a police officer so that was a huge checkmark off the bucket list.

Q: Your character is particularly nuanced for a horror/thriller, please discuss
A: My character, along with most of the characters in the fiction town of Port Moore, treats Roman Mercer [Avan Jogia] as an outcast. Roman’s mother was into witchcraft and the rumor goes that she has put a curse on this town. After a paranormal bus accident, my mother is among the dead and I blame Roman for the incident until his supernatural abilities are revealed.

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Q: How do you prepare a characterization like that?

A: I try to find the everything that is relate-able between my character and myself. Fortunately, Deputy Larry is a very human character, much like the rest of the other characters. When it’s boiled down, it needs to make sense behind the horror and the gore, this was a project that really tried to make sense of every nuance, character motivation and plot. So, as Deputy Larry, I had to find in me what it meant to lose the most important person in my life, and what I would want to do to the person who took that away from me. Apart from envisioning supernatural entities, there wasn’t a whole lot else I needed to work on besides those two dichotomies.

Q: The horror/fantasy genre offers limitless possibilities in plot and action, please discuss working in this style

A: Well, it’s always fun because it is, in a way, the epitome of acting. It’s the reason why kids grow up loving Superman and Batman and the Power Rangers—it brings you into a world of fantasy where you don’t need to be yourself, but it is also constantly evolving. A movie about Batman 20 years ago is considerably different than a movie about Batman today. I just watched “Black Panther” and that movie is so good because it successfully ties in so any historical themes and elements into the fantasy. That way, the films are marketed not only to kids who adore the superheroes, but also the teenagers and adults who just want a film that touches them.

Q: The “Ghost Wars” cast also features some other notable talents, please discuss.

A:  The best part about working on this show was definitely the cast. I didn’t see the cast list until a week after I had been cast the project and I was floored when I saw that Vincent D’Onofrio and Meatloaf were involved in it. It was also nostalgic for me to be able to work with Avan Jogia because he was in the first project I’d ever auditioned for (“The Gym Teacher”). I didn’t end up getting that one but it was still a nostalgic feeling to be able to work with him.  But D’Onofrio—man! I have a story. We were in the midst of a break while crew was turning over the cameras and Vincent and Jesse (Deputy Norm) are walking by me about to go outside for a smoke. Vincent turns to me and asks “do you want one?” as he’s pointing to his box of Cohiba cigars. I responded, “uh…uh..yeah… I’ll do some.” And Vincent goes, ‘Do some?, it’s a cigar, it’s not drugs.’ I laughed sheepishly and followed the up to the rooftop. The thing is, I never smoked a darn cigar in my life and I inhaled my first bit before being told I wasn’t supposed to do that. I didn’t care, I just couldn’t say no to being able to tell people I had a cigar with Vincent D’Onofrio!

Q: Does SyFy feel like home to you now?

A: I definitely feel comfortable with the science fiction genre. I know what to expect when I do work on it and it makes me all the more excited when I have the opportunity work on that type of show. Though like I mentioned before, all shows are constantly trying to find the best way to connect with their viewers and the core of all good shows are the same, they have to respond with a story that’s human at its core.

 

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Art Director Phenix Miao creates stunning sets for Lepow Commercials

P9Phenix Miao was eight years old when he began drawing. He believes art is part of his blood. His great grandfather owned a famous antique house in Shanghai, and that passion for design passed through generations. Growing up, his house was always full of antiquated artifacts, and even at a young age, Miao became fascinated by them. As he grew, his love for art and design only intensified and he became interested in decorating, arranging, and building a scene. There was only one path for him that made sense, and it was becoming an art director. Now, he is celebrated in both China and abroad for his art direction, and he has no plans of slowing down.

Whether it be with film, television, or commercials, Miao constantly shows viewers just how much talent he possesses. In the 2016 movie Shanghai Sojourner, Miao helped transport audiences to Japanese-controlled Shanghai during World War II. In the acclaimed film Lottery, Miao created a fairytale like world to show the euphoria of a starving, young orphan getting his hands on a winning lottery ticket. Using his commercial senses, Miao also helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars with his work on a crowdfunding campaign for Itron Battery. He is extremely versatile with a love for what he does.

“Art direction and production design is a large part of telling a story, so I insist on harmonious and mindful designing. When I’m creating a scene, I make sure to consider the person that will be in it and whether the scene corresponds with the one who lives/uses it. Sets are like extensions of the characters,” he said.

Miao once again achieved this with his work on several commercials for Lepow. The technology company manufactures mobile accessories such as the portable power bank, external battery, and the smart bag. Starting in 2015, Miao took on the role as art director for the premiere commercial for Lepow’s TV Show Box. From there, they made a follow up commercial showcasing the product, and a year later, another long commercial showcasing the brand as a whole.

On the set, Miao was responsible for the entire visual experience. He aimed to make everything the director imagined into the scene a reality. He designed the color and artistic style, selected the best and most suitable materials, maximized every detail, and designed the design space. As the leader of the creative team, he aimed to take the big picture and divide it into small, tangible tasks that would be easy to complete within the timeframe they were working in.

Working closely with the director, Miao discussed every shot individually, wanting to understand the exact feeling the client was looking for. Every aspect was important to create an entire world in the set, from colors to the smell, even though viewers would not experience that. Miao shows such commitment to every detail of a project, that it makes everyone he works with greatly appreciate his talent.

“Phenix is a great leader of the art department and ensures everything goes smoothly. He is essential as an advisor, balancing out my ideas and feelings of the clients through his work. He is a comprehensive creator with a deep understanding of filmmaking, more so than any art director I have worked with. He is constantly curious and always eager to learn new things. In terms of production design, Phenix has an ability to take even the largest set and make everything extremely detailed. Even when I can’t describe exactly what I want, he finds a way to not only make it, but he produces work even better than I imagined,” said Peter “Zhen” Pan, Director.

Miao and Pan have worked together multiple times in the past, and Miao is always the director’s go-to art director. Their personal relationship has transformed to a friendship over many years of collaboration, and Miao knows how to transform Pan’s vision into a reality. Miao appreciates Pan’s different taste and feeling about color and the “rhythm” of the set and props compared to other directors. He understands Pan’s “language” and this connection ensures productivity and efficiency on set, as they communicate seamlessly.

“We work like a family and talk to each other directly no matter what the opinion or issue is. On set, everyone makes sure to do their best work possible. The Lepow commercials were no different. It was a great time and wonderful teamwork. All the guys try to help one another. Working on a series of commercials has allowed us to become familiar with each other, and it is a very relaxed working environment,” he said.

The campaign has been a great success both for Miao and Lepow. Despite this, Miao doesn’t think about what he has achieved when he sets his sight on a new commercial. When he sets out to make something, he expects success because otherwise he would not live up to what he knows he can do. That is what makes him such a formidable art director and production designer.

“We put so much wisdom and effort into these commercials because we had a goal, which was to make Lepow feel satisfied and see sales growth from our work. When that happens, I don’t celebrate, I just know that for the next one we should do even better. The series turned out beautiful for sure, and that is our work. That I can feel proud of,” he concluded.

 

 

Tony Nash brings on the laughs and the screams in ‘Secret Santa’

When Tony Nash speaks of his craft, he talks with the passion of someone who truly loves what he does. When he steps onto a set, it doesn’t feel like work for him, but rather it feels like a privilege to have the opportunity to do what he believes he is meant to be doing every day. This young man of Greek-Spanish descent has been acting since his childhood and has taken the Canadian film industry by storm.

Throughout his career, Nash has worked on a series of successful film and television ventures. Movies such as Saving Dreams and Meet the Parents, and shows like Petrol and Condor, the highly anticipated Audience network thriller. With every new project he takes on, it becomes clear that he is doing what he loves.

“What I like about acting is that when it is approached with the sacredness that it deserves, it first and foremost holds a mirror up to me, revealing all my hidden desires, coping mechanisms, repressions, reservations, grudges, vulnerabilities, beauties, gifts, talents and strengths. In so doing, it enables me to understand the souls of others and thereby be qualified and capable of holding a mirror up to the entirety of human nature, as Hamlet advised in Act 3, Scene 2,” said Nash.

Nash’s first true taste of international success came with the 2015 flick Secret Santa. Secret Santa is a feature length film that tells the story of a group of eccentric college kids, struggling to get through the hectic exam period. This horror/comedy is a tribute to B-Movie Slashers but also takes the conventions and turns them upside down. A liquor filled party is planned, adding a Secret Santa exchange for fun. Little do our characters know, a killer is in town and has a special present for all the good (and bad) girls and boys. Dare to open your present? It might be your last. Nash was really drawn to this project because he really wanted a comedic role to add to his repertoire, and his character also had a sweet, love element to his story. More than anything however, he loved that it was an ode to 90’s slasher films.

In Secret Santa, Nash plays Professor Preston Ramsey. The role was a lead and critical to the project as he was the red-herring in the horror plot. Throughout the film, audiences are led to believe he is the secret killer. The role was crucial as he furthers a love story between himself and the other lead, his student, and distracts the viewer from the killer, making the ending more of a surprise, staying true to the horror genre. The character was a sweet, somewhat naive college professor. He also was in a rut romantically and when one of his students started to fall for him, he began to feel alive again. He is an academic and spent his whole life indoors studying while his friends were all outside playing football. He is also a hopeless romantic and had only been in one relationship, which lasted seven years. The character had to be lovable, charming, slightly off beat, and at the same time mysterious. Nash was able to bring all that to the character as well as some humor of his own, which made the set a fun environment to work in and everyone enjoyed themselves. He was able to bring the character to life and give him that nerdy quality he needed to have plus a mature professor vibe amongst a bunch of college kids in an unexpected bloody night. Nash was perfect for the role.

“When I got the role, the first thing I did was went out and bought a pair of glasses and a tweed jacket that I thought would suit the character well. I spent time in university halls watching professors teach their classes to bright students. Also, because my character was being seduced by one of his students I watched The Graduate. I watched Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, more times than I can count” said Nash.

Secret Santa premiered in November 2015 at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival. The film was then shown at the Toronto International Spring Horror and Fantasy Festival, and the Buffalo Dreams Film Festival. It was distributed by Wild Eye Releasing and is available at several stores on DVD including Walmart and Best Buy. Nash’s take on the vital role of Professor Preston Ramsey was instrumental to the film’s success.

“Tony was pitch-perfect in this slasher-comedy. He was hilarious, charming and ever-so-subtly mysterious to lead us towards the edge of suspicion. It was a brilliant and nuanced performance by a highly sensitive and skilled actor. Bravo Tony,” said Mike McMurran, Writer and Director of the film.

After a friend reached out to Nash telling him about the role, Nash sent in an audition tape that instantly impressed McMurran, saying there would be no one better to play the role. They instantly connected, sharing the same vision for the character and the film as a whole. As it was Nash’s first time in a comedic role, he was eager to try out something different. His versatility shone, and he perfectly encapsulated the mysterious professor. Not only did he have fun, but he says the entire cast and crew became close friends during filming. Overall, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience for the actor.

“I think it’s important to have fun sometimes and do things I am not used to. I think that life is hard enough and sometimes a little horror and comedy never hurt anyone. It’s important to just take a film and just create something entertaining for people who want to see something different. And I think Mike and his crew were able to do that very well. It was exciting to film and definitely will be exciting to watch as well,” he concluded.

Be sure to check out Secret Santa and let Tony Nash make you laugh and scream at the same time.

Producer Mickey Liu went back to high school for ‘Sail the Summer Winds’

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Mickey Liu on set of Sail the Summer Winds, photo by Aijia Che

Mickey Liu knows that every day he steps onto a film set, it will be different than the day before. Every new project brings something new, and every experience is distinctive. Because of this, he always feels like he is learning something new, and no matter how seasoned of a producer he is, he finds that sometimes his experience can mean nothing in the wake of a new challenge. He is consistently exposed to talented individuals and brings teams together to create a masterpiece. For him, that is the best feeling in the world, and he loves what he does.

“Producing is about lots of instant decisions and last-minute situations, which is challenging and exciting. What’s more, I get to read many good stories… and a lot more bad ones,” he joked.

Hailing from Shenzhen, China, Liu has become a renowned producer. His work on films such as An Ill-Fitting Coat, Marie, Nocturne in Black, and Tear of the Peony have made headlines around the world. He knows what it is to tell a good story, and consistently manages to bring his films great success. However, the first time he truly felt this was in 2014, with his feature Sail in the Summer Winds.

Sail in the Summer Winds tells the story of Michael, a 30-year-old white-collar worker, who is always recalling memories with his 6-year desk mate Cammy and best friends Leon, Joyce and James about when they were 17. Back then, these high schoolers were faced with the biggest challenge of their life – the College Entrance Exam. Michael didn’t know what his future held but got an early admission to Cammy’s dream school; Cammy had feelings for Michael but couldn’t say it out loud; Joyce, once a model student at school, failed to live up to expectations at the very moment; Leon wanted to be an artist but was torn between reality and dream; James worked really hard, but things didn’t turn out great for him. Just like every coming-of-age story, they grew up and changed through the best years of their youth.

“I think the story of the film is important because it is a story focusing on friendship in high school. We’ve seen enough saccharine high school dramas on screens and they almost always center on how to get the guy or girl you like. American high school culture is very different from Chinese high school culture. I think the story provides a fresh perspective of Chinese high school life. The story would remind people of their dreams and courage, and maybe they would want to reconnect with friends they haven’t been in touch with for years,” said Liu.

When the Director of Sail the Summer Winds, Lanxin Yu, approached Liu over social media to produce the feature, Liu was immediately intrigued. Yu went to the same high school that Liu attended and wanted to film the movie there. Upon reading the script, Liu knew he wanted to be a part of the film, as the words took him back to his high school days and brought back memories of his younger self. He knew many others would be able to relate, and his partnership with Yu began.

“Working with Mickey is always a pleasure. His great sense of humor makes everyone chilled and relaxed. When it comes to the set, he’s sensitive, responsive, and caring to every crew member and tries his best to make the set an enjoyable working environment that everyone wants to come back to. When we were shooting Sail the Summer Winds, most of the crew members were first-timers, but he was very patient and made our set run like a real Hollywood set. In addition, his charisma held the crew together, not just as an efficient team, but a real family. Mickey is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. He always has brilliant ideas about the story and has a deep understanding on the structure. Therefore, as a creative producer, he gives clear notes to writers, constructive advice to directors and inspirational directions for promotions. He’s easygoing and reliable, making him the one person on set that everyone trusts,” said Yu.

As the sole producer of the film, Liu’s work was essential for the film’s success. He held the team together and drastically improved their efficiency, while still providing ample amounts of encouragement and boosting morale. He provided critical creative notes at the script development stage, created the shooting scheduling and supervised the pre-production and production. During post-production, he personally designed the merchandise and arranged for the film’s distribution.

Liu also trained the crew and brought professional help to the production, as he was the most seasoned filmmaker on the set. The majority of the crew were young volunteers looking to experience film production, and therefore required a lot of training. Because of him, he had everyone on the crew working extremely well despite their lack of previous experience.

“Although it was challenging, I actually enjoyed training the crew a lot. They were very smart and hard-working ‘students’, so it felt very rewarding seeing them successfully applying the training to their work. The atmosphere was very loving and full of energy. I loved that good vibe on set very much,” Liu described.

In addition to all of this, Liu employed some American methods of film production to this Chinese movie. The Director was pulling herself in every direction, taking on many tasks beyond what she needed to do. On Chinese film sets, this often happens, as they are very director-centric. Liu however, having experience on American film sets, talked to the director and told her how they could make everything more efficient, and she just needed to focus on her main duties as a director. In the end, it worked seamlessly.

“Producing this film was a very unique experience because I think it would be almost impossible to have this selfless of a cast and crew ever again. Everyone gave their one hundred percent for free and they never complained and never lost morale while working long hours in hot summer. It was definitely a labor of love and I was very moved by what they did and shooting at my high school brought back so many happy memories,” said Liu.

Sail the Summer Winds premiered in August 2014 at a theatre in Shenzhen and then went straight to DVD, where it sold well locally. It was covered by local newspapers and television stations in China, where it received very positive reviews. It is now available to stream online.

Liu and his team decided to donate all the proceeds from the film to his local high school, to support the film and television club there. Liu wanted to motivate the next generation of young filmmakers to follow their dreams, and in his footsteps. For those looking to do so, he offered the following advice:

“Find the stories you really love and try to make them happen. Don’t pursue certain types of stories just because they are “hot and trendy”. It takes such a long time to get them made that you may give up if you don’t love them enough. When in doubt, you can always go back to why you wanted to pursue a career in producing. It can actually give you a lot of strength. It’s all about the nuts and bolts, and your instinct is usually right,” he concluded.

 

Top photo: Zihao Qin and Mickey Liu on set of ‘Sail the Summer Winds’, photo by Aijia Che

IN BRAZIL & GREECE, MODEL-ROCKSTAR IS PRONOUNCED “TAPIGLIANI”

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During music award show season, it’s likely that you have seen constant advertisement declaring pairings of artist as “the performance of the century that you cannot miss!” While most of these never match the hype, one collaboration which has been an overwhelming success is fashion-meets-music. Most Americans are very familiar with the Victoria’s Secret special which features their fashion models and popular music artist; in Greece, a similar production is the famous Madwalk. Madwalk is the most popular show of its kind in Greece, combining famous singers and the work of well-known fashion designers. The show airs on television once per year and has done so since 2009. It’s a presentation of what is wonderful and beautiful in Greece, the centerpiece being the lovely models which adorn the creations during each performance. For model Alana Tapigliani it’s an opportunity to do what she is known for and celebrate Greece at the same time. Tapigliani appeared in 2012 presenting the Deux Hommes brand. Madwalk is more than an awards program for Greek citizens; it’s a national event and they take great pride in the artistry of their country. Even though Alana is known for her international modeling career, she admits that appearing on Madwalk had the result of her being stopped by the public to a much greater extent than ever before.

There’s a duality to the attention one receives from being involved in such a prestigious show as Madwalk. Alana’s excitement about appearing on the program was heightened by the exuberance of her friends and family. This is certainly meaningful on a personal scale but professionally, the fruit of this appearance made Tapigliani a very sought after model in Greece. While often admired, models don’t always receive the praise of other entertainment professionals; the praise Alana received from her appearance was a welcome exception to the common rule.

The Ace agency from Athens chose Tapigliani to work with designer Kostantinos Mélis for Madwalk. Mélis found his eponymous haute couture house in 1997 in Greece after a stint in London. Known for designing wedding gowns of exceptional aesthetics and quality, he then turned to a collection of haute couture gowns. His designs have been equally embraced by critics and the public, often donned by celebs on the red carpet.

Appearing as the only model representing the work of Melis was beneficial for any professional, a fact recognized by Alana. However, this was only half of the fun for her involvement in Madwalk. Each model is paired with a famous singer and Tapigliani made her appearance with Giorgios Mazonakis. The iconic Greek singer sang “Parole.” Being sung to by a music artist everyone knows while you are wearing dresses of incomparable beauty; it was no less than a magical moment for this model, but not one without concern. She reveals, “Of course I was very happy and excited to be there. In your mind you think that everything will be perfect and that’s what you want to portray for the audience. It’s their moment, not really your own. In truth, there were a million things going through my mind at the time. As a native of Brazil, the negative-four Celsius winter in Greece while wearing a dress was less than comforting. Towering high heels may look great, but the experience is equally uncomfortable. I wouldn’t trade it for anything but my pleasant expression during the appearance was not completely honest. At some point I was able to be lost in the moment.” For Alana, that moment was when the music took over. There’s an undeniable power to music which allows all people, models included, to don a powerful stance. Tapigliani exhibited this during Madwalk, capturing all eyes as she strutted around the catwalk. The music, the lights, the DJs, and of course the designs which Alana and her fellow performers wore created a spectacle which transfixed the audience.

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 Madwalk may be a Greek event but it is viewed widely across the world. Tapigliani received attention from even more designers and took part in events like this in other countries. She credits Madwalk with giving her both the exposure and confidence to relax and enjoy them. Because it was the first experience of the kind, she confirms, “Madwalk was my first time doing this kind of a show with singers, the stylists, and the like. You never forget the first time, especially doing a live show like this one for all of Greece. At the risk of sounding trite, the biggest reward was doing Madwalk itself. Big productions such as this one have not been around that long and they give an opportunity for a model to do something completely different. A live event is always more challenging; an internationally televised one is even more so. I love doing work like this where the designs and the music excite me. Madwalk was the beginning of a new era for me and it will always hold a special place in my heart because of the start it gave me.”

Laura Santoyo Dangond’s sets in ‘Lockdown’ transport audiences to high school

Originally from Bogota, Colombia, Laura Santoyo Dangond has always been a fan of movies. Growing up, she watched her favorite films, like Matilda and Jumanji, and would see more than the story. She would ask her parents how the filmmakers were able to create other worlds and dreamlike elements. Although her parents did not have all the answers, they encouraged their young child to make her own hypothesis as to how “movie magic” was achieved, and she never stopped wondering. As she grew, exploring the world and various cultures, her hypothesizing never stopped, and eventually she turned her passion into a career. Now, Santoyo no longer wonders how to achieve the magic of movies, and as a sought-after production designer, she is now the one creating other worlds.

Throughout her career, Santoyo has shown just what an extraordinary production designer she is. Her work on films such as Tim of the Jungle, The Plague and Falling are just a few examples of what this acclaimed production designer is capable of. However, despite such success, Santoyo considers the pointed drama Lockdown as the highlight of her career.

“It is probably the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve had in this profession. I loved working with that team of people; we all believed in the story we were telling and together we overcame so many difficulties. Particularly for me, it taught me the importance on trusting the people you are working with and to support each other. In the end it all paid off, because it’s been one of my most successful projects,” she said.

Lockdown set

Max Sokolof, Caleb Heller, and Laura Santoyo Dangond on the set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Lockdown is about a 17-year-old boy named Julian. He is a misfit struggling through high school when he is taken hostage in the school restroom by Brandon, a classmate with a gun. Their perilous standoff proves that nothing is as it seems. Julian fights to hold onto the hope that he will survive – not just the hostage situation, but his entire high school experience. Throughout the film, audiences learn of both characters’ complicated backstories.

“This story talks about very important issues, such as depression and anxiety in adolescents, bullying in schools, access to guns, police brutality, and more that are affecting our society. It can help to bring these subjects to the table and encourage people who watch the film to have discussions about them,” said Santoyo.

After its premiere in November 2016 at the American Film Institute, Lockdown went on to be an Official Selection at many prestigious international film festivals, including the Orlando Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival, Byron Bay International Television Academy Foundation for Best Screenplay and won the Golden Lion Award at the Barcelona International Film Festival. Such success may never have been possible without Santoyo’s outstanding production design.

“It is a great satisfaction to know that all the hard work, time and effort we as a team put into this project doesn’t go unnoticed and that we accomplished the purpose of telling a story that touched so many people,” she said.

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Laura Santoyo Dangond, Max Sokolof and Caleb Heller on the bathroom set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Having worked with Santoyo on his previous film Hotbed, the Director, Max Skolof, reached out to the production designer knowing the caliber of her work. At the time, he did not even have a clear idea of what the story was going to be, but he trusted Santoyo to help turn his vision into a reality. In the beginning, there was no script, and Skolof only had a newspaper article that he wanted to base a film around. Knowing the difficult but pressing issues the film addressed, Santoyo was immediately onboard.

“Working with Laura is a joy. She’s always curious, always soaking up ideas, always creative. She takes disparate things and puts them together in unexpected and revelatory ways. She has the highest standards for herself. Every detail is thought of. It helps me direct and it helps the actors find real depth. And on top of all that, Laura’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet. It’s also rare to come across someone who has such a strong and unique sense of aesthetics. She’s incredibly precise when it comes to expressing the story and the characters visually. Laura is brilliant in that way. She understands the language of cinema and she uses every tool at her disposal to help tell the story. Whether it’s knowing how to make use of space, or how to evoke a certain subtext with just color,” said Skolof.

When she begins every project, Santoyo makes sure to research her characters, and Lockdown was no different. She looked into what neighborhoods these adolescents would live in, the sociological and economic backgrounds and more, just trying to get to know as much information as she could to create a realistic design that would reflect both her leads.

Upon completion of the script, she did a breakdown of all the locations and noted what bits of the story took occurred in each place. When doing this, she noted the most important location in the story was the bathroom. Its design became her priority, and she began looking for a crew that would help bring her ideas to fruition.

“The design of the restroom was the biggest challenge because is where the two boys meet, and their feelings are revealed. We used a very restrained color palette that reflects the psychological state of both of them,” she described.

Rather than using a real location, Santoyo built the entire bathroom set on a soundstage. She went back to her research and looked for paintings and photographs that evoked the same feelings and emotions that she wanted to convey and saw a pattern in the colors. Most of the references she liked used yellows and reds. With that in mind, she did a preliminary design and presented it to the director. After his approval, she ensured all other departments, such as lighting and cinematography, could work with her concept. Once the designed was approved by everyone, the members of the art team, led by Santoyo, began sourcing the materials and painting samples.

The complexity of the two characters had to come across in the visual design and Santoyo achieved such a feat. She worked closely with the director, the director of photography and costume designer to better express the anguish and anger the characters were going through. The sets that she designed allowed the actors to better understand the characters’ backgrounds and helped facilitate the process of getting into character. In one instance, she even wrote offensive graffiti in the bathroom stalls that bullies may have written about their characters.

Such small details may seem trivial to some, by Santoyo knows how important they can be, and that is what makes her such a distinguished production designer. When watching Lockdown, audiences notice and appreciate how authentic the set is and allow themselves to be fully taken away to the high school. Any moviegoer knows, that is what makes a good film, and Santoyo makes that happen.

 

Top photo by Caleb Heller

Executive Producer Ed Egan talks reviving his childhood favorite “Catchphrase”

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Ed Egan

Ed Egan has been a television addict all his life. Ever since he can remember, he has loved watching television, and knew from an early age that he would work in the industry. Now, he is an executive producer working on some of the world’s biggest game shows. He is not only an industry leader in Britain, but internationally as well.

Ever since he began working in the industry, Egan has had ideas for new formats and ways to tweak current ones. Starting from the bottom, he worked his way up to executive producer and showrunner, now being able to create the shows that he has always wanted. His work on ABC’s hit 500 Questions was then recreated in Germany and the United Kingdom after its success in the United States, and he developed the concept for ITV’s 1000 Heartbeats, which went on a very successful run for the network. He started Tipping Point at its inception, which now has hundreds of episodes, and his newest series, Genius Junior starring Neil Patrick Harris, premieres this Spring on NBC.

Despite this success, however, the British native says the highlight of his career came when he revived the classic game show Catchphrase. The original was a childhood favorite and was one of the shows that gave birth to his love of television. Being able to bring it back to air, and film it in his hometown where the show first began, was a special moment for this seasoned executive producer.

“I had been a massive fan of this show when it was on TV when I was young, and so I jumped at the chance to bring it back to our screens so that people could watch it again, or discover it for the first time. The show is perfect. It is the ultimate play-along show, which I love, as people can’t help but try to shout answers out when they are watching. It is a game show that anyone can play and is suitable for the whole family which is quite rare these days. It appeals to people from 8 to 80,” he said.

In the original series, two contestants, one male and one female, would have to identify the familiar phrase represented by a piece of animation accompanied by background music. The show’s mascot, a golden robot called “Mr. Chips”, appears in many of the animations. In the revived version of the show, the same format remains, but there are three contestants and there is no particular attention paid to gender.

Egan’s thorough understanding of the original format was essential to bringing the show back and making it a success. He knew just what was important for the new version to be a hit again. He was able to bring on board some of the best game show producers and production staff in the country, and together they knew the right type of contestants to cast and the right level to set the gameplay at. Not only did he update the format, but he got a younger generation interested in the show, applying to be contestants and also watching each week. The casting producer of the show, Helen Finnimore, was extremely impressed with his talents when they worked together.

“I have known Ed Egan for many years as both a television production professional and a friend. Without doubt, he is one of the most respected executive television producers in the industry. Prior to being head-hunted to relocate and work in the United States, Ed had worked on many internationally recognised programmes here in the United Kingdom and has maintained his position at the forefront of the entertainment business through these incredible accomplishments,” said Finnimore. “I had the pleasure of working closely with Ed on the Catchphrase revival series here in the UK in 2013 and again in 2014. Ed is a rare talent, one of the few executive producers I have met who truly understands the British and American audiences. He’s fantastic to work alongside, maintains a level of professionalism throughout and moreover, has an unparalleled ability to develop and adapt new and exciting formats. This unique flair has become his trademark in the industry both sides of the pond.”

When STV was looking to revive the hit show, they approached Egan knowing of his reputation as a tremendous showrunner. At their first meeting, they offered him the job. Egan wanted to keep as many parts of the original format as possible, but he knew the necessity of updating the show to bring in a newer and more modern audience. The show is very graphics heavy, so he knew that one of his main roles was developing the new look for the animations, as the technology had moved on so much since the original series. Egan wanted to keep up with what people were used to seeing in the modern era of apps. To do all this, he put together a team that not only worked together well but formed a strong bond.

“I loved the fact that the team who I put together all became great friends, and it was a real pleasure to work on. It is a fun format and we had great fun making it. I became good friends with our host Stephen Mulhern, who is the nicest and most professional host a producer could hope to work with,” Egan said.

The relationship Egan forged with his host meant that they were able to be very open and honest with each other, which Egan says is essential to get the best performance from on-screen talent. It also helped calm his nerves about reviving a cherished show for so many people, but once the show aired, his worries immediately evaporated.

“I was nervous about bringing this show back as it had been such as huge show back in the 80s and 90s and I wanted people to like our new, updated and modernised version. I was so pleased that it did so well on its return and I’m very proud that it’s still doing well today,” he said.

The revival began airing in 2013 and Egan produced its first three seasons. The show is now on its sixth season, and since Egan brought it back, it has been the top-rated Saturday night show on ITV. His production and development work with Catchphrase and ITV, as well as such well-known production companies as BBC, Endemol, RDF Television, STV Productions and Warner Horizon in the United States, confirms his reputation as one of the industries go-to executive producers and a highly sought-after talent. He’s achieved a level of prominence rivalled by few in the industry and continues to build upon his achievements.  

Be sure to check out the revival of Catchphrase to see how Egan modernized a classic.

 

Showrunner Séamus Murphy-Mitchell dons Red Nose to raise millions for charity

Séamus Murphy-Mitchell has always loved television. As a child, he would constantly flick through the only two channels his family received, tuning into his favorite shows. Now, he makes his favorite shows. As an executive producer, Murphy-Mitchell is involved in the entire creation process, from beginning to end, and has a say in every aspect of a production; that is what he likes about being a showrunner. He gets to be creative whilst still being collaborative, and work alongside him have the same passion for television that he does.

“When I was a kid, I was once sent to a child psychologist to evaluate my lack of attention in class. Her final analysis was that I shouldn’t continue to watch Aaron Spelling serial dramas late into the night before school the next morning,” he joked.

This Irish-native has made a name for himself internationally, leading not only his country’s industry, but abroad as well. Having led shows such as hit BBC America series Almost Royal and the multi-award-winning BBC talk show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross to great success, Murphy-Mitchell has shown the world what he is capable of. His work on The Adam Buxton Podcast and 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy show audiences just how versatile this executive producer is, and he is always looking for new challenges. This is exactly what he got when he decided to run the very ambitious, live broadcast of 24 Hour Panel People.

“Working on 24 Hour Panel People was very challenging, but in many ways illustrated all the best bits about working in television. We were working as part of a large team to deadline on a ground-breaking project. I’ve probably never been so sleep deprived as I was when we finally came off air, but we still went out and had fun afterwards to celebrate,” said Murphy-Mitchell.

24 Hour Panel People was a 24-hour, live broadcast to raise money for Comic Relief and run up to the United Kingdom’s famous “Red Nose Day”. Since its launch in 1988, Red Nose Day has become something of a British institution. It’s the day, every two years, when people across the land can get together and do something funny for money at home, school and work. There’s a fantastic night of TV on the BBC, with comedy and entertainment to inspire the nation to give generously. Comic Relief spends the money raised by Red Nose Day to help people living tough lives across the United Kingdom and Africa, tackling issues like poverty, hunger, and mental health.

“Comic Relief is a huge charity that raises an enormous amount of money and does a huge amount of good around the world. 24 Hour Panel People was a great example of how this charity always embraces new ways of engaging with an audience, and for that reason it was a great success,” said Murphy-Mitchell.

Taking on the network’s first 24-hour broadcast was a challenge Murphy-Mitchell was more than up for. Live from BBC Television Centre, from midday March 5th to midday March 6th, 2011, the epic event featured comedian David Walliams front and center alongside a revolving door of eminent comedians, sports stars and actors as he took on the challenge of hosting a mammoth and constant succession of the UK’s greatest panel shows past and present.

Including such beloved panel show institutions as Blankety Blank, QI, The Generation Game, Call My Bluff, Have I Got News For You and Whose Line Is It Anyway, Murphy-Mitchell produced the live show nonstop and seamlessly throughout the night, single handedly running autocue and the floor and ensuring Walliams was mentally alert, focused, funny and robust as he persevered throughout the night. He also brought a considerably younger audience to Comic Relief, ensuring the broadcast would succeed for years to come.

“Once the live broadcast came to its finale, Séamus then edited the entire 24 hours into 5 half hour compilation specials which were broadcast nightly on the BBC over the week of the Red Nose campaign. 24 Hour Panel People went down in charity history as a seminal, ground-breaking occasion which not only raised millions of pounds for Comic Relief but set the bar for future fundraising events across the globe, all with the help of Séamus,” said Suzi Aplin, executive producer of Comic Relief and 24 Hour Panel People.

When Aplin was looking for a showrunner to produce the show, which in the end amounted to 22 different comedy entertainment formats in 24 hours, she knew she needed an experienced executive producer to lead the broadcast to a success. Having worked with Murphy-Mitchell in the past, she knew he not only had the talent, but would be up for the challenge. Once he was approached, Murphy-Mitchell knew he wanted to produce the show. The BBC had never attempted a 24-hour broadcast before, and he knew he could help lead the inaugural broadcast.

“It was a really exciting project from the very beginning. I had worked for Comic Relief in the past and I was very keen to work for the charity again, particularly on a project so unique and unprecedented,” he described.

From the moment pre-production began, Murphy-Mitchell and his team were frantically busy. They had to secure the format rights for the 22 different shows they were going to have on the show, and once they achieved such a feat, they had to then break them down and figure out how to adapt them into a 24-hour time period.

“Securing rights was a big part of the project’s success. I spent a long time convincing Sir David Frost that we wouldn’t destroy his Through the Keyhole format. In the end, he was delighted with its contribution to the success of the night,” he said.

After achieving this, they had to book tickets and fill the chairs for each of the shows. Murphy-Mitchell had three teams assigned to this Herculean task, as hundreds of people were needed to fill all the chairs. Each team looking after an average of five formats, along with three directors to work eight hours each throughout the night.

“Most of us didn’t sleep at all for 40 hours or so as we were all up at the crack of dawn on the morning of the broadcast. David Walliams was completely heroic. The point of the show was that David would appear in all 22 of the formats over 24 hours. At some points he was so tired that he was incoherent, but he still managed to be funny in every single show,” Murphy-Mitchell described.

In 2011, Comic Relief managed to raise a whopping £108,436,277 (over $150 million USD) for Red Nose Day, and Murphy-Mitchell’s 24 Hour Panel People was a large part of that. Not only does this showrunner entertain his audiences, but he also gives back, and that is what makes his work so enjoyable.

Sijia Huang shows the importance of music in animation

When Sijia Huang animates a film, she sees herself almost like a choreographer. She aims to make every movement as seamless and fluid as possible, almost like an infinite tide. This is her priority with every project she takes on. She always ensures she has the perfect balance between tension and looseness, generating the ideal rhythm for all of her films. She does not limit herself to one type of animation, and as long as the audience is moved by her work, she is happy. It is this mantra that makes her one of China’s best animators, and why she is taking the industry by storm.

Huang’s style is evident in every one of her films and is perhaps best displayed in her award-winning film Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil, a film conveying the struggles of humanity. Since then, Huang has seen continued success. Quitting Brave Victory, a film about warrior who begins a journey to find his strongest opponent, has over 2.6 million views online. BoxHome, is a story of a couple who live in a box, went on to win several awards. Breakfast, a fun film about a child’s imagination, made its way to several prestigious international film festivals.

“As an animator, I work for a variety of fields including film, television and commercials. I animate characters based on designs and stories. I would like to say animators are like magicians who bring things to life,” she said.

Huang’s flair for animated choreography is exemplified in the collaborative film for the event Measures & Frames. A partnership between a group of filmmakers and a group of composers, Measures & Frames featured the internationally renowned Pendrecki String Quartet performing five pieces of contemporary classical music paired with original visuals projected against a three-screen display for an unforgettable pairing of image and sound.

Measures & Frames aimed to create a conversation between the pictures and the music. They made something more like a painting: a world that embodies a story-like idea or emotion. It’s an audio-visual experience that gives the audience a new entryway into the music. Suddenly, audiences see structure and form that we couldn’t see before. What seemed impenetrable and unfamiliar can suddenly become inviting and enjoyable, especially with a very conceptual, sophisticated piece like Arcadiana, the film that Huang worked on for the event, which was a main part of the entire production. Music is a large part of Huang’s life, and this project gave her the opportunity to showcase this passion. It was also her first opportunity to animate to the music of a strong quartet.

“I was so happy that I could be the animator for this project. It made me want to make more music related projects. If an opportunity comes up to work on a music video in the future, I will jump all over it,” she said.

When the Director of the project, Michael Patterson, was looking for an animator to bring such a unique film to fruition, he thought of Huang’s work on her film Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil and knew she was just who he needed, knowing she was capable of choreography, which was very important to Arcadiana. He invited her to take part, and she immediately said yes. Patterson is famous his work on the animation for the famous A-ha music video “Take on Me” as well as creating the characters Stray Mob and MC Skat Kat, who appeared in Paula Abdul’s music video “Opposites Attract”.

“Music is abstract and invites the audience in—the visuals have to do this too,” said Patterson when speaking of why Huang’s animation was vital to the project. “The multi-sensory experience invites the audience to understand the form of the music in an expanded way. If you’re depicting the music too literally, you’re limiting the freedom to personally engage.”

Huang designed the main character that was used in the film and did the stop-motion animation. At the beginning of the production, she wanted to shoot the animation using the down shooter with paper cut puppets. When she showed the director her work, he asked me if she could also try to animate another 2D version using After Effect. In order to create a more defined looking for the skeleton puppets, she used the latest character pin and created the dance for two skeletons. With each revision, Huang got closer and closer to their vision, until finally she achieved perfection.

“I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sijia on a project titled Measures & Frames Sijia created the portion of the show that featured two skeletons dancing with one another. This part of the production was crucial to Measures & Frames, and Sijia was the only animator capable of combing choreography and animation to make our vision a reality. Her mastery of a variety of animation techniques made her indispensable to the project. Specifically, her utilization of Adobe After Effects, a digital visual effects, motion graphics, and compositing post-production application, was key to finishing the animation on the project. Sijia’s high skill level in using the latest animation techniques, as well as her remarkable versatility and distinct style, vastly elevated the visual portion of Measures & Frames,” said Michael Patterson, Grammy Award-winning filmmaker and Director, specializing in TV spots and music videos.

Huang stands by famous composer Veronika Krausas, who once said, “For some audiences not familiar with new music and it’s their first time hearing not one but five new works, it’s tough. I think that the added dimension of the video helps smooth that out a bit. This is a way for audiences to actually experience the music more and become more familiar with it. The video helps acclimatize people to the sounds, and then they’re more able to appreciate them.”

Those who attended Measures & Frames on March 28th, 2015, were wildly impressed with both Huang’s animation and the event as a whole. Experiencing music in a visual way was captivating, and Huang thinks it is of great importance.

“If the diverse crowd that delivered a standing ovation at the evening’s conclusion is any indication, this type of visual music experience has opened the doors of classical composition to a newer, younger crowd than the form has seen in quite some time,” Huang concluded.