Colorist Cynthia Chen shows emotion behind Sichuan Opera masks in award-winning film

When Cynthia Chen was a little girl growing up in China, she was always inspired by her mother. She was an art teacher, and a young Chen therefore began painting from a young age. She was always sensitive about the different colors she used and playing around with color always amused her. As she grew, this fascination only intensified, and she found it impacting her hobbies. She began to have an interest in photography just to play around with the photos while editing, changing the colors and enhancing them to create a captivating piece of art. When she began filmmaking, she realized how impactful color is to every shot in a piece, conveying emotions and acting as another way to tell a story. It can impact film styles, she realized, and when she already had an interest in editing films, she realized that being a colorist would allow her to explore this interest she had from childhood and turn it into a fruitful career.

Chen is both a highly successful editor and colorist. Her passion for what she does is unwavering, her talent unparalleled. Every project she has been a part of, including I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, OffsprungSlingshot Prince, and The Last Page, have gone on to critical acclaim at many of the world’s most prestigious film festivals thanks to Chen’s efforts.

“Just like editing has a rhythm to tell a story, the color, as another method to express the emotions, also can have a “rhythm” when it comes to contributing to create a film. I believe a film masterpiece must be treated and polished as a great art piece. Color grading enhances the texture of a film picture which makes it become a completed art piece. Every time I finish the color grading works, the group of filmmakers I am working with are always shocked after seeing the before and after pictures. That is my proudest moment. The whole color grading process makes me believe that my talent brings this film into a higher level,” she said.

One of Chen’s greatest successes as a colorist was the film Mask. The animated drama looks into masks in Sichuan opera that are traditionally used to reveal the changes of inner feelings and emotions of the characters participating in the drama. The masks turn abstract emotions and mental states into visible and sensible concrete images, and reveal the feelings of the characters inside the story. By raising the hand, swinging a sleeve or tossing the head, an actor uses different masks to show different emotions, expressing invisible and intangible feelings through visible and tangible masks. Mask, is inspired by Sichuan Opera Face changing. It is a story behind a mysterious mask, which shows different patterns as different lights go through.

The three characters in the film are heroes from different traditional Chinese historical contents. Qingshi Huang, represents as the breadth of vision, is the first king in Qing Dynasty.  Monkey King, one of the most famous and classical characters in Chinese fairy story, the guardians of his master, as the leader protected his group on the West Road, through eighty-one trials and finally reached the goal. Zhuge Liang, the smartest military advisors from three kingdoms era, served for Bei Liu, represents wisdom and loyalty. Those characters are also three heroes in Chen’s heart. For the Chinese native, it was an honor to work on this film that has a deep Chinese culture background.

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According to those three different characters, Chen decided basic color tunes for each one. The king Qingshi Huang has a yellow and green color tune because in Ancient China, yellow means power in social classes. Zhuge Liang, who represents wisdom and loyalty, uses a blue color tune as the main color base. In the color theory, blue connects to calmness and cool emotions. Chen set golden and orange color tune for the brave Monkey King as those colors stand for positive minds, passion and braveness. Therefore, the scenes where those three characters appear, and the weapons on their hands, have the unite color tunes.

As the entire film was CGI, the renders had a strong contrast in colors, which Chen thought looked very digital. To solve this problem, she decreased the contrast of the entire picture, adding some yellow color tune and film grains. She then adjusted each scene for each character, and finally finished the color grading work. She helped to bring the whole picture to a new stylized level.

“This short film had a very large creative space for me to try on the different color palettes and stylize the picture, which made this piece very interesting and fun to work with. The CGI images contain more color information than the images shot by cameras, so there was a lot of space for me to adjust the color for this film,” said Chen.

Mask had a tremendous film festival run with the help of Chen. It was an Official Selection at the New Media Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival of Dallas 2018. It also went on to win the Award of Excellence at both the Best Shorts Competition 2018 and the One-Reeler Short Film Competition 2017. Chen could not be happier about the film’s many accolades.

“It was such an honor to work on this project that explores such an important part of Chinese culture. This is a milestone project in that it was a brand-new experience for me. The success of this film encouraged me to do more color grading work in the future which has more culture background,” she said.

The new works Chen has contributed to, feature film Indivisible and documentary Fantastic Fungi, are expected to be released later this year. Be sure to check them out to witness this colorist’s talent first hand.

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