Compositor Ranran Meng takes audiences back to 1970s NYC for HBO’s ‘The Deuce’

For Ranran Meng, compositing is like decorating a building; as the final step of the filmmaking process, her role as a compositor, is to make a scene look complete and beautiful, just as an interior decorator would a room. She makes the footage look the best it can possibly look, ready for audiences all over the world to be taken in by the story, transported to different places and time, and to be purely entertained.

Meng has put her extraordinary touch on many of the world’s most popular recent films and television shows. These include Netflix’s hit rom-com Set it Up, Amazon’s award-winning television series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the Emmy-nominated film Fahrenheit 451, to name a few. Her talents extend to commercials, collaborating with iconic brands like Microsoft, as well as virtual reality, having worked on the Harry Potter franchise award-winning video game The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them VR Experience in 2018.

Last year, Meng also worked on the second season of HBO’s Golden Globe nominated series The Deuce, starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Based in 1970s New York, this show gives a raw and gritty portrayal of the prostitution business that was so publicly executed at that time. As a result of police crack-down, the characters are forced to venture towards relatively safer and more discrete forms of the same work.

Meng, already a fan of the show’s first season, was happy to use her talents on such an enticing story, even if it meant she would be exposed to some spoilers.

I have not watched any show talk about the porn industry before, so this was a really unique project to be a part of. The story involves the government and police corruption, the violence of the drug epidemic and the real-estate booms and busts that coincided with the change. It really allows viewers to imagine what 1970s New York City was like,” she said. “I love the old stories and the older looking sets, it’s like seeing something from the past, even if it is not a true story. It gives an idea of what the old society was like, making it real for audiences.”

When working on The Deuce, Meng had a tremendous amount of responsibilities, making sure the VFX would really allow audiences to transport back in time to the 1970s without being noticeable. To do this, she used compositing techniques like 2D tracking, 3D tracking, roto and paint skills. In the original footage, there were modern things in the background that wouldn’t work with the time period, so she used her software to replace this with older images, making every detail work for 70s New York City.

These small details included erasing modern road stripes or signals and replacing them with the older styles, which meant she had to 3D track the scene and simulate a 3D scene of it, and then use paint techniques to paint out a newer, cleaner, no-stripes road image. She would then project the new painted road image on the 3D space and bring in a 2D plate, and then add new render stripes footage. Finally, after bringing back the cars, she used 2D tracking and roto/paint skills to do the motion work and to simulate the exact same traffic lights and shadows to bring them back to the scene. This made the scenes still have the same shooting elements, but with a perfect, older environment. Viewers may not notice things like the road signals in the background of a dramatic scene, but they would notice them if they were modernized, which is why Meng takes such care and pride in her job.

“This project is the story about the 1970s in New York, so it is interesting to make a modern city into an old-time city. I enjoyed the process of seeing how the city changed. It let me know how accurate the scene should be for output, as even a little light sign should be changed back to that period. It really magnified my attention to detail,” said Meng.

Meng’s work allowed The Deuce to be more believable and precise, allowing viewers to have the ideal entertainment experience from the couch of their homes. She used advanced high compositing techniques to achieve photoreal effects, making her indispensable to putting together such a high-end television show.

“I am proud of myself to have been a part of this great project. The post-production did a very good job and presented a real 1970s New York City to the audiences. I had a good experience working with my team and I am very much looking forward to the show’s next season,” she concluded.

The Deuce will return later this year on HBO.

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Zichen Tang uses cinematography to show a story, not tell it

The importance of cinematography, says Zichen Tang, a master of his craft, does not lie with whether an image is real or not, but if one can make the audience believe it is real. With this approach, Tang continuously transports audiences to different places and times, immersing his viewers in the world he has created through his work. He likes to express himself through his art, knowing his fans enjoy his individualistic approach.

“Cinematography is sharing your story not by telling it, but showing it,” he said.

Throughout his esteemed career, Tang has proven time and time again why he is a sought-after cinematographer in his home of China and internationally. Whether creating a viral video, like the humorous and enlightening Unspoken Rules of Chinese Gift Giving or an award-winning film such as The Last Lesbian, Tang’s talents are always on display.

Yet another success story for Tang came last year with his award-winning film The Somnium. It is the story of a single mother who can’t recover from the loss of her beloved son and joins a research program to live in a dream state of her memories, while her mom fights with her to keep her in the present reality.

“The story was interesting. When I first read the story, it reminded me of an episode of my favorite show, Black Mirror. I always wanted to make a film like that. I like it because it’s not an ordinary ‘happy ending’ film, but the type of story that makes people think. On the surface, it alarms the potential harm that technology could bring to us, but deep down it was the mom’s choice that caused the tragedy. So, the core is really about humanity,” said Tang.

The Somnium premiered last year at the Los Angeles Independent Film Awards, where Tang was nominated for Best Cinematography. He was awarded Best Cinematography at the Los Angeles Film Awards, where the film also took home Best Director and Best Editing. The film made its way to several more festivals throughout the year, winning more awards and enthralling audiences all over the world with the help of Tang’s work.

“I was thrilled when the awards started to be announced one by one, while at the same time I feel we deserved it. Everyone on this project was talented and worked really hard. They believe in the story,” said Tang.

Tang was asked to come on board by Director Jingyu Liu, who had always wanted to work with the cinematographer after seeing his work. Tang was eager to form a partnership, advising her on her previous film, Shallow Grave, which was nominated for Golden Reel Award. When Liu sent Tang the script, he knew instantly this would be a great project for them to take on together.

“I was thrilled after reading the script. It was still a draft, but I could already tell its potential. The director and I have very similar tastes, so during pre-production, instead of trying to convince each other of things, we were inspiring each other. Often there would be many disagreements between cinematographers and directors, but on this project, we seldom had a disagreement. Instead, we have been focusing on finding better and more creative ways to tell the story, making the process rather delightful,” said Tang.

Making The Somnium was fun and rewarding for Tang. As a cinematographer, he was heavily involved in the script, putting his heart into the project from the very beginning to the very end, going through almost 20 drafts as it changed from the first draft to the final production.

“I was developing the story with the director all the time, and during that process, we had been talking about how we should shoot it as well. Often filmmakers have a problem when they find out something in the script is wonderful in theory but can’t be expressed visually. That was never a problem for this project. I was a visual consultant during script development and made sure this is a story that would be best told in the form of film,” he described.

The Somnium was just one of Tang’s many award-winning projects last year, and he has a lot lined up this year to continue his success and keep showing the world his outstanding talent as a cinematographer. It wasn’t always an easy path to get to where he is today, but he always persevered, and it was well worth it. He knows he will never stop learning new tricks of the trade and is eager for every new project he takes on.

“The best way to make it in cinematography is to learn from others. There’s a saying, ‘good artists copy, but great artists steal.’ It’s not encouraging plagiarism or anything, but saying that we should watch what other artists have done, think why they did it, and learn from them,” he advised.

Storytelling for Social Justice

Ishita Srivastava
Digital Content Producer Ishita Srivastava

Human beings have been reminded, time and again, thanks to history, that they haven’t always thought and acted in the best interest of society. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in the world – there’s a good chance that the country that you live in might have a history of violence and injustice that still affect the way it operates today, from an individual to a systemic level. However, thanks to media, technology and the overall awareness it’s led to, more people today are focused on social justice than ever before.

One of the individuals at the forefront of this movement is Ishita Srivastava, who is a major influencer in the world of culture change. Art and entertainment are becoming more and more deeply intertwined with social justice efforts. We need not look further than examples such as the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, led by actors and creatives like Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes, and Jay-Z’s work against mass incarceration, including helping to finance a documentary about Kalief Browder, a Bronx high school student who was imprisoned for years without ever being convicted of a crime.

Ishita Srivastava understands the valuable intersection of pop culture and social justice, and how all scale and influence of Hollywood on people’s attitudes and beliefs make it an effective conduit for creating a discourse about important social issues. Through her work as a digital storyteller, producer, and culture change strategist, Srivastava is dedicated to challenging society’s traditional ideas about caregiving and  gender roles and helping audiences understand that in order for us to live in a more equal and just world, these norms need to evolve.

During her seven year stint as a digital content producer at Breakthrough, a human rights organization based out of both the United States and India, Srivastava helped challenge norms and attitudes around gender by leveraging a powerful range of storytelling media and tactics.

While working as Breakthrough’s multimedia producer and deputy director, Srivastava tirelessly created content ranging from satirical films to documentaries, such as Mansimran, which was featured on MTV, and Deport The Statue, a satirical short film that was featured on globally-known media outlets such as CNN, Huffington Post, and BBC.

She was also instrumental in creating the #BeThatGuy campaign that urged men to take a concrete stand to interrupt gender violence, also a key theme of Breakthrough’s “Ring The Bell” campaign. She makes no secret of her ambitions and optimism, stating in an interview about the campaign: “We believe that it is especially important that men act as leaders and allies in what we call The Breakthrough Generation: the generation that will reach a critical mass and trigger a global tipping point that makes violence against women unacceptable in this lifetime.”

The “Ring The Bell” campaign was an incredible success, and it included sports star and former NFL quarterback Don McPherson, in addition to the critically acclaimed Colombian poet, actor, and author, Carlos Andres Gomez, who recently won the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize. With an entertaining edge and poignant message, several of the videos went viral and one of them was even shown during the NASCAR Speedway Championship. Another example of innovative, edgy content that she produced  for Breakthrough was the Breakthrough U Puppet series conceptualized by Srivastava herself for a college-age audience, it addressed pertinent issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, hypermasculinity, and non-consensual image sharing. She was able to create and present the content in a manner that was relatable to college students nationwide, and the series even included such notable puppeteers as Paul McGinnis and David Bizzaro of Sesame Street fame.

Ishita Srivastava
Ishita Srivastava with puppets form the “U Puppet” series

Ishita Srivastava has an incredible and unique set of skills that she is now utilizing as the Director of Culture Change at Caring Across Generations. She is a key founding member of Storyline Partners, a collective of some of the most well-known social justice organizations in the U.S, collaborating with the entertainment industry to seed and influence stories and increase the visibility of those who are either misrepresented or underrepresented in pop culture. In her role at Caring Across, her most recent campaign was inspired by the film On The Basis Of Sex, which focuses on the early career of legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and features well-known Hollywood staples such as Kathy Bates, Armie Hammer, and Felicity Jones. The campaign, titled #WeKnowYouCare, has already gained a tremendous amount of traction, and aims to reimagine the idea of masculinity in the context of male caregivers, urging a wide range of people, especially men, to understand how important the issue and work of caregiving truly is to society as a whole. The #WeKnowYouCare campaign has been featured in notable media outlets such as Bustle and PopSugar, as well.

Those who have worked with Srivastava have pointed out that she is simultaneously “generous and mission-driven,” and the fact that she has been behind so many successful campaigns is certainly proof of that. There is no doubt that storytelling has been an effective way to challenge and transform cultural norms throughout history, and Srivastava understands the need to use all the resources at her disposal to help create change.

“Ishita’s greatest strength is her ability to tell stories that have the power of transforming cultural norms. She knows how to identify which stories will resonate with an audience, and work closely with the subject of the story in order to ensure that their experience is represented authentically and in the most compelling way possible,” explains digital strategist Mihika Sapru, who worked closely with Srivastava at Breakthrough.

“She also has the unique ability to take heavy subject matter and convey it in a way that drives positive action, making her work effective and valuable in the social change space… She’s also not afraid of taking risks and creating edgy and provocative multimedia campaigns that reach beyond the usual suspects and spark important conversations with non-traditional audiences.”

Story Movements
Ishita Srivastava Speaking at the Story Movements Conference in LA

As an experienced digital storyteller, producer and someone whose work has been at the cutting edge of culture change strategy, it’s not surprising that Srivastava is often invited to discuss her work at forums and conferences about leveraging media for social change. Most recently she was asked to take part in the prestigious Story Movements conference hosted by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University. During the conference, which was held on March 1 and 2, Srivastava gave a powerful talk about her cultural change work at Caring Across Generations and the #WeKnowYouCare campaign, for which she leveraged partnerships within the entertainment industry and the film, “On the Basis of Sex to engage men who are caring for family members in the U.S..

It’s clear to see that Srivastava’s instinct, intuition, and skills for visual storytelling are valued by many, she understands how to tell effective stories in a way that engages people, and most importantly, she’s using those skills to uplift the voices of those who are the most invisible or marginalized in pop culture.

 

Art Director Li Li talks living her dream and working with Only in Beverly Hills

10625162_10202971608393258_9079929232043761374_nLi Li spent her teenage years captivated by the popular television series Mad Men. The iconic series, following Don Draper and one of the most prestigious advertising agencies in the world, did not only entertain Li, but inspired her. She wanted to be a part of the same world, working with prolific brands and creating unique advertising content. With a passion for the arts and business savvy, it didn’t take her long to emerge as an in-demand art director in her home country of Taiwan and abroad.

Li spends every day doing what she loves, and that passion translates directly into her work. Award-Winning Jewelry Designer Evelyn Huang has been greatly impressed with Li’s work, bringing her on board to promote both her brands EvelynH Jewelry and Light Legion, seeing tremendous growth from Li’s efforts. She saw similar success working with lifestyle brand Neon Beige and has no plans on slowing down.

“There’s no limitation to how you want to complete a project as an art director, as long as you have a great team and good connections. It is always interesting to work with various talents around you. It is also very rewarding when I can bring the best out of someone and put everything together as a masterpiece,” said Li.

Li currently works with the exclusive brand Only in Beverly Hills. One of the city’s newest boutiques has become the number one spot for gifts that celebrate the inimitable glamour of Beverly Hills.

“I like the idea of celebrating Beverly Hills and especially that the products are not limited to apparel but accessories, home goods, and books. I thought it would be a great opportunity to discover art direction in a different category,” said Li. “I like how the owners are very open to new ideas and are always willing to try something new. The idea of the brand is also original, and I think it’s one of the keys to success of building a business.”

Li took over as Art Director for the store almost a year ago and has a variety of tasks that are essential to its success. She arranges/directs photoshoots for marketing materials and lookbooks, manages the social media and creates original content for the channels, and designs promotional artwork such as posters, store cards, and flyers.

“I love to be included in the design process as well as promotion decisions. The two owners value my marketing ideas and aesthetics. This gives me a lot of opportunities to grow the business,” said Li.

Processed With DarkroomOn top of her everyday responsibilities, Li has found other ways to help the brand grow. She brought in Vogue model Hanna Gebrehiwet to be featured in the promotional material for Only in Beverly Hills. Besides photoshoots, she also brainstorms with the owners each week regarding new promotional ideas.

Li has improved the aesthetic of the brand, allowing the new business to emerge as a Beverly Hills staple. She feels grateful when she sees continued sales increases due to her efforts, her hard work paying off. Most importantly, in her opinion, she builds content for daily posts online.

“When people hear of a brand, they go on its Instagram and scroll through to get an idea of what the brand is about, especially millennials. This is why social media is so important to business nowadays. It can be a good catalogue as well as a bridge between business and consumer,” she concluded.

Go to Li’s website and follow her Instagram @li58li.

Artist Marie Peter-Toltz and Psychotherapist Tracy Sidesinger to Present at the Art and Psyche: The Illuminated Imagination conference

“Tristes Tropiques” Acrylic and spray paint on canvas 55 x 55 inches 2018
Marie Peter-Toltz’s ‘Tristes Tropiques’, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 55 x 55 inches, 2018. ‘Tristes Tropiques’ is currently on view at Show Gallery’s (Los Angeles)

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, art gives viewers insight into the inner workings of an artist’s mind, their values, desires, culture, the society they live in, and so much more. Along with the ability to shed light on the artist’s world, art also reveals a great deal about the inner psyche of the viewer in the way that they personally experience it.

The deep connection between art and the psyche is one that renowned painter Marie Peter-Toltz and esteemed New York psychoanalytic psychologist Tracy Sidesinger will be exploring next month at the University of California, Santa Barbara during the Art and Psyche: The Illuminated Imagination conference, which runs from April 4 – 7. Sidesinger and Peter-Toltz will be presenting their ideas on Friday April 5 in the workshop “Constructing a Life of Jouissance from Feminine Desire: Voices from Psychotherapy and Painting.”

Marie Peter Toltz Olivia Fougeirol
Artist Marie Peter-Toltz photographed by Olivia Fougeirol, Los Angeles, 2019

Artist Marie Peter-Toltz explains, “Jouissance is reclaimed as ecstatic, sacred development of the individual fostered by collaboration between psychotherapist/patient and artist/viewer, requiring desire over its inhibition.”

Discussing their work from the standpoint of desire, the two women, both respected figures in their fields, will cover the psychoanalytic history of desire and its inhibitions, develop conflict theories while also drawing attention to relationists and French feminists. Sidesinger and Peter-Toltz propose that desire is ‘accessed through the imaginary, on an individual level but also co-experienced with others.’ They will dive into the way desire manifests in practice within the realm of the creative space and through artistic expression.

Tracy Sidesinger
Psychologist Tracy Sidesinger in New York, 2018. 

“To speak about desire, we also have to speak about what inhibits it. This is particularly true for women who are still much more understood as the objects of desire, than as those who also have their own desires,” says Sidesinger. “Yet the tension between desire and inhibition is psychologically present for everyone, to the extent that desires are seen as culturally disruptive, dangerous, or limited by the traumas of life.”

Peter-Toltz says, “I think a lot of the artistic impulses and desires or lack of desire are embedded in our psychological state of mind. A lot of the creative process and/or the work in the studio is about each individual’s psychology, one doesn’t exist without the other one.”

Bringing together experts from the art and psychology worlds, the Art and Psyche Conference is designed to engage the imaginative processes of psychotherapists of all kinds alongside members of the art community in order to creatively expand one’s understanding of depth psychology.

Peter-Toltz is known throughout the art world for her intimate and expressive paintings, many of which weave in biblical and mythological themes with a heavy emphasis on feminine sexuality. Though the natural evolution of her work reveal a marked change in her subjects and the way she has portrayed them over the years, it is near impossible to look at any one of Peter-Toltz’s paintings without experiencing an emotional response.

“Each artist has different methods of working, each series has a different purpose, the way our cells are constantly renewing themselves, the creative process is in constant ‘mutation’. I want the paintings to make me feel a particular way which often is completely opposite to what comes out as paint,” admits Peter-Toltz.

“The sadder I am the brighter the colors become. I am interested in this dichotomy, how sadness, frustration, fear can be expressed with bright happy colors and how bright happy colors can be fueled with despair and hopelessness.”

Marie Peter-Toltz
Marie Peter-Toltz’s ‘de Toi à Moi et de Moi à Toi’, Oil on canvas, 52 x 48 inches, 2018. ‘de Toi à Moi et de Moi à Toi’ is currently on view in the Sydney CBD at the UBS/ Chifley Tower (Courtesy of Nanda/Hobbs Gallery), Sydney, Australia

Since childhood Peter-Toltz has immersed herself in the arts with the unceasing courage to allow her inspirations to come out through creative expression. However it is in the past decade that she has really come into her own. The presence of desire is clearly apparent in Peter-Toltz’s paintings and with desire being a cornerstone of the presentation she will give alongside Sidesinger next month, she’s the perfect art expert to talk about its unignorable presence in the creative process.

“I have been asked to participate in diverse conferences, although this particular one, is very specific and will mainly relate to the divine feminine and the illuminated imagination,” explains Peter-Toltz. “I am thrilled that our proposition was accepted, and it will be the first conference that I will give on this particular subject of third wave feminism, human psychology and creative process.”

Sidesinger has practiced clinical psychology for over a decade, emphasizing unconscious processes in healing and creativity. When asked why she focuses on desire, she says “returning to the emotions of what one desires is to enter the true space of loss, creativity, and being. What we think of as feminine desire is particularly suited to healing because it is more comfortable with the unknown. It takes us to what remains yet in possibility.”

Earning widespread recognition for her work as an artist, some of the accolades Peter-Toltz has accrued in recent years include praise for her “Tonight Think of Me” exhibit at Australia’s renowned Nanda/Hobbs gallery in Sydney, as well the most recent Artist Award from the University of California (Santa Barbara) for the “Art and Psyche” upcoming conference, the  LCU Award for Women, the New York Studio School’s Concordia and Fellowship awards, the National Association of Women Artists Membership Award, and more.

Marie Peter-Toltz
Marie Peter-Toltz’s ‘Le Monde Retrouvé’, Oil on canvas, 52 x 48 inches, 2018. ‘Le Monde Retrouvé’ is currently on view at the UBS Bank / Chifley Tower (Courtesy of Nanda/Hobbs Gallery), Sydney, Australia

Peter-Toltz’s voice as an artist is one that strikes a chord with international audiences, so it’s not at all surprising that galleries across the globe such as those in Paris, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles have chosen to exhibit her work.

“I believe we are all born artists. Every child is born a natural artist, a creator, a maker. The only difference is that some of us – as we grow and become adults – continue to make art and others stop. There are so many factors and reasons that come into play as to why one person becomes an artist and another person moves away from it.  Maybe this could explain why people are so drawn to the arts, because art is in each and everyone of us.”