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.

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