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FILMMAKING WITH TALENT AND HEART: ZHENG HUANG

The role of producer is about money and schedules, correct? In its most simplistic terms, yes but it’s also about much more than that. For Zheng Huang it’s about art, personal connection, and the bonds that tie us to each other. While that might sound overly emotional, one should remember that we are dealing with the artist temperament; they are known to investigate feelings. A producer is the boss of a production. Everyone has experienced a boss who is only concerned with the bottom line as well as the one who is interested in you performing your job with excellence because you are happy to be there. Huang is very much the later. Every producer has a budget, schedules, etc., the nuts and bolts of their job. Approaching their role from an emotionally inspiring place is just as vital as a cinematographer who looks for the moving aesthetic in the frame (rather than one who simply makes sure everything is in focus). This approach is as intuitive as breathing for Zheng, which is likely why he has become such a sought after producer. Often the difference between good and great is how much you care; Zheng Huang cares a great deal.

Upon returning for the Cannes Film Festival, where his film “Lost” had been presented, Huang was interviewed about this by Neo. Neo was not only the host of an interview show but is also a director. Neo was instantly appreciative of Zheng’s passion for film and his unique perspective, so much that he enlisted him to take on the role of producer for his film “Never mind I Remember.”

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The film details the plight of a family who is forced to deal with an all too familiar difficulty in life. When seventy-year-old Lily loses her husband Frank to a heart attack, her son Jackie comes to her aid. He discovers very soon that his mother is dealing with a very acute case of Alzheimer’s. While Lily struggles to deal with her own constant sense of disorientation and unfamiliarity with those around her, Jackie comes to terms that he must now be the caretaker for his mother and realizes (perhaps somewhat selfishly) the impact on his own life. While both deal with the loss of Frank, Lily deals with the confusion of why her husband is not with her. The film is acted with mastery and captured with the same level of excellence. In one of the most tender and heart breaking scenes, mother and son find themselves in the same tent they used to play in decades before as Lily asks her son when Frank will return and he replies, “Let’s wait for him together.”

Zheng was drawn to this intensely emotional story by the script as well as a personal connection. He shares, “My mom’s aunt has had Alzheimer’s disease for many years but her only child never comes back home to see her. Luckily, her husband takes care of her very well. Because of genetic inheritance of Alzheimer’s, my own mother worries that one day she will begin to show signs of this disease. I am her only child and she has fears about my being too busy to take care of her properly. When she told me these fears of hers, I realized that this is a very deep and powerful topic, one which I want to explore. The son in the story is MYSELF but also every single child who has a busy career and big ambitions. Alzheimer patients can be a big burden for their children but there is no option here. Our mothers are our caretakers, our protectors from the moment we first come into this world. I directly relate to the story of this film and I know that there are many other people who do also. I knew that I wanted to be a part of telling this story and it demanded to be told with the proper emotional lens.”

The vast majority of a producer’s work for any project is in coordinating and scheduling, there’s no denying this fact. Obtaining permits, scouting locations, casting, “connecting the dots” is the norm for producers in a wide variety of settings. The secret ingredient of Huang’s approach is his focus on the communication and relationships of those he is involved with on each project. Neo, director of “Never mind I remember” reveals, “I feel extremely fortunate to have had such an excellent producer as Zheng Huang on my film.  As we were preparing for the shoot, I was having some problems with my 1st AD. This person has also directed and was giving a great deal of unsolicited opinions about the shot list. When I approached Zheng about the situation he said, ‘Neo, I will always support you whatever the decision you make in the end. If you tell me you will fire the 1st AD one day before shooting, I will be your 1st AD if you need; whatever you need, I’ll be there. The most important thing is: you have to be happy with what you do. You have to create your film, not your 1st AD’s film, or anyone else’s.’ This stirred something in me and I was able to confidently move forward and resolve the issue with my 1st AD, which meant that the entire production would benefit as well. Instances like this prove how Zheng is so much more than your average producer or someone who schedules events.”

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When discussing his definition of a producer, there are many familiar tasks and terms that Huang uses to describe his day to day. There’s a verbiage that he has in common with his peers and then there is one word which he continually refers to that stands out; empathy. It’s not something that you often hear a producer discuss as part of their skill set and yet Zheng professes that it is an essential part of what makes him successful as a producer. For someone who works with artists every day, it seems an obvious trait; to those who work with this producer, it is obviously Zheng Huang.

GORKEM CIFTCI: BEHIND “WOMAN WITH NO VOICE”

Gorkem Ciftci is pleased with himself, not in a smug manner but with a sense of satisfaction that he has made a positive impact. As the Art Director of the campaign “Woman with no Voice” Ciftci conceived of and created a campaign (with his team) to dramatically raise awareness of domestic abuse in his homeland of Turkey. While his vocation most often has him working with clients who are promoting everything from interior design/aesthetics to cars to TV programs, Gorkem has also utilized his talents to promote many socially minded ventures that exist in and border on altruism. The role of art director is itself steeped in both the creative mind and the business sense; it perfectly suits someone like Ciftci who thinks of helping others aspire to a better life and possesses the real world skills to enact this. While this may sound like an extremely benevolent view of those involved in the business/advertising realm, one need only consider Gorkem’s work on “Woman with no Voice” to understand it in a real world application. He passionately explains the situation and his motivation to become involved stating, “The real problem about domestic abuse in Turkey is that nobody is brave enough to speak out. The women who suffer from domestic violence are often economically dependent on their husband; this is why they choose to keep silent and not to talk about it. Silence of the oppressed makes this violent epidemic inevitable. Moreover, in rural parts of Turkey, religion and bigoted traditions contribute significantly to the suffering of women. They are often forced to get married in very early years, very few of them have chance to get education, and they are not really counted as human beings but rather the commodities of men. As a proud feminist, I have been seeking any chance to get involved in campaigns to combat patriarchy in Turkey. And I was fortunate to take part of a few over the course of my career. I knew that this one was going to be the boldest one. I knew from the start.”

This campaign was part of a greater movement named ‘’Every Breath, a Voice’’ that was dedicated to combating and ending domestic violence in Turkey. Numerous campaigns were created and events held annually to raise awareness on the issue. This group wanted a bold and provocative campaign that would spark national debate. As art director, Gorkem wanted to find a unique and dramatic way to convey the idea that the plight of these women was not receiving the attention that it deserved. He explains, “After researching and reading the stories from victims of domestic abuse, I had reached to the conclusion that a single major characteristic of victimized women is their silence, hopelessness in other words. With this focal point, we needed to come up with a creative execution that demonstrates the silence of these victimized women in an interesting and creative way; that execution was to associate this oppression with Facebook’s automatically playing mute videos (Facebook plays videos on mute in order to not disturb users while scrolling down on the newsfeed. This feature has been very significant to the Facebook users).

 

This idea was powerful but also created a major problem for Gorkem. This gravitas of the presentation rested on the idea of silence; if this silence was broken by a voice over it would diminish the power of the visual. The presentation would be decidedly simple. A woman cries out in front of the camera, wearing a plain dark shirt and a wedding ring while standing in front of a dark gray background. The drama is exponentially intensified by Ciftci’s decision to place text in the box to the right of the screen (the voice icon on Facebook video bar) corresponding to the Facebook feature. This communicated the twist that the cries for help from these women are not heard as the viewer attempts to increase the volume of the audio. It cannot be overstated how emotional and heart-wrenching the campaign is (https://vimeo.com/172093012).

Thirty Turkish actresses were viewed to portray this simple yet highly emotive role. The performance of the actress seen in the campaign is haunting, which is appropriate. Far from the glamour and excitement normally associated with being on set, Ciftci relates, “The set suddenly become a dark and depressing place as we began shooting. This was quite surprising for me. Even though we all knew that it was a screenplay, the screams of the actress were something terrible to witness knowing that millions of women suffer domestic abuse and had to face these horrors on daily basis. The original film had no audio, but we had to hear her screams in the studio for the sake of persuasiveness. Witnessing a re-enaction of such horror was upsetting to all on set that day. However, I also knew that this was a powerful cause and could not wait to have the film published so it would start contributing to the positive change.”

A significant difference between the “Woman with no Voice” campaign and those of a similar intention in the past is that the decision to use Facebook and Twitter to share its message resulted in a mass proliferation (via “shares”) and immediately accessible metrics. As opposed to traditional TV or print campaigns in which the public’s reaction is often uncertain, social media allows for immediate responses and feedback, without censorship. As the creators of “Woman with no Voice” had hoped, a national debate was triggered and millions viewed it. One of the most unexpected outcomes of the campaigns viral nature was that men were very eager to talk about the issue and were among the majority of those who “shared” it.

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(CRYSTAL APPLE FESTIVAL AWARD CEREMONY 2015, UNIQISTANBUL, ISTANBUL)

“Woman with no Voice” was overwhelmingly accepted and praised by the public. In addition, it received copious accolades that included: 1x Gold, 1x Silver, 1x Bronze at Crystal Apple Festival of Creativity (2015), 1x Gold Mixx Awards Turkey (2016), 1x Bronze Mixx Awards Europe (2016),
& 1x Gold, 1x Merit at Kırmızı Advertising Awards (2015). While awards always have a beneficial effect on a professional’s career, Gorkem states, “My involvement with this campaign truly deepened my understanding that I could use my role as an art director to really make a change. I think if we all found ways to use the abilities we have to help others rather than only to support ourselves, the world would be a much better place for everyone. I am humbled that I was able to do even a little bit to help the women of my country and I’ll be looking for opportunities in the future to do more.”

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(KIRMIZI AD SHOW 2016, ZORLU PERFORMANCE HALL, ISTANBUL)

 

DIRECTOR ALEXANDRA LA ROCHE ON HAVING FUN WITH EUREKA

Science and Tech nerds are the new rockstars. There was a time when the brains behind these types of advancements were kept hidden away while the powers that be put a public face on those they deemed marketable. Carl Sagan, Steve Jobs, and many others completely changed that. Sci-Fi Channel’s “Eureka” presented the idea of an entire community of these brilliant minds. The Emmy nominated and Leo award-winning TV show was a ratings hit during its six year run as one of Sci Fi’s highest rated series. One of the brilliant minds behind the scenes of “Eureka” was director Alexandra La Roche. The writers of the series are self-proclaimed science geeks who structured many of their themes on real or postulated science. This coupled with the show’s heavy oversight by actual science consultants not only informed La Roche but required her to be on her toes. In contrast to the normal greed, sex, and ensuing power struggle, “Eureka” episodes presented conflict of a more cerebral nature. Alexandra concedes that it’s one of the most unusual and fun shows she has ever directed precisely due to this aspect.

“Eureka” is the story of a scientific community, in large part based on the perspective of the town’s sheriff Jack Carter. Carter cooperates with scientific geniuses in the community who work for Global Dynamics. They often find approaches to resolving situations that require more cerebral effort than “stop in the name of the law.” A perfect example of this is “Up in the air.” This episode was based on the opening sequence of the show which depicts the town floating away as the Sheriff watches. The opening had never been explored as a story before. What seemingly starts out as a normal bank robbery quickly became a situation in which the entire bank had been taken, the whole building! An element of the Higgs Bosen (based on real science) has been stored in the bank and somehow is effecting everything in the town. Carter is tasked with having to get the element contained and bring everything back to earth. Unfortunately, the bank is floating 4 miles above the earth and nothing can fly him there. He does make it, but the bank is on a terrible tilt and when he does get the element contained, the bank starts to plummet, listing back and forth and sending him in all directions with amazing physical comedy from Carter, played by Colin Ferguson. The day is saved at the last minute and order is restored. Even though “Up in the air” employed extensive use of VFX and filming trickery to make the scenes believable, Alexandra believes that the performances of the actors are the cornerstone to any production. For this particular episode, the physical comedy performed by Colin Ferguson (starring as sheriff Jack Carter) due to the gravity challenged nature of the situation was a high note (no pun intended). On working with La Roche, Ferguson proclaims, “Alexandra is one of, if not the best, director I have ever worked with.
I think it is fair to say that I have a deep understanding and appreciation for Alexandra’s talent. When we worked together, we worked in tandem to improve, correct, defend, and in short, save eighty plus hours of television from lesser hands than hers. She has the rare ability to follow the story, hear the actors, know the technical, and bring it all together in a manner that gets better, quantifiable results, faster than most, and in the form that others only dream they could achieve. This is exceptional. She always helped. She was never wrong. Not once. Our show had the quality that it did because of Alexandra La Roche. When I am asked by someone which episodes to watch to see if they will like I show I always say ‘Up in the Air’ or ‘Smarter Carter’, both of which are Alexandra’s episodes. She is an ally, she is a friend and she is someone I will always look up to.” Perhaps the reason that Alexandra is so respected and appreciated by the actors she works with is due to her honesty with them. She stipulates, “I had an excellent rapport with all the actors on ‘Eureka.’ Our deal was simple; I did not lie. If Colin wanted an honest opinion, he knew he would get it from me. Actors are so used to smoke being blown up their asses, they were really quite happy for me to say what I really thought. Of course, I never approach any situation with a negative. If I see a problem, I only mention it if I have a solution or proposal on how to solve it. This is what I know endeared me to the entire cast, with a particularly close working relationship with Colin as he trusted me implicitly.”

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One of La Roche’s favorite experiences directing for Eureka was the episode “Smarter Carter.” It combined many of the elements that were so endearing about the series: science, VFX, and comedic performances. A confrontation between sheriff Carter and two disembodied legs in the town square was a scene which Alexandra had conceived of herself. Kevin Blake (played by Trevor Jackson) and the sheriff square off with the legs in an attempt to capture them. The director describes, “It was written as a simple chase through the town square ending in a crash into the café patio. Parkour was just getting really popular so I expanded the scene and created a sequence where the legs jump, leap, and hang all over the town square ending up with Carter pinned in a head lock. This was a massive sequence and I had to call out to the actors every beat and every move because the legs were all CGI.  I had no voice left by lunch!! We had to use green screen elements as well. It took 7 hours to shoot, but it was a great scene, very funny and well worth it.” These situations give evidence that La Roche had a deep understanding of the personality the producers wanted “Eureka” to project. While executing these scenes can be taxing and stressful, the final result was well worth it. Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 8.58.16 AM

While “Eureka” left a lasting impression on its fans and science nerds everywhere, the road is two-way. Alexandra admits that to this day that she gravitates towards science magazines on plane rides and whenever she has free time. The experience working on “Eureka” led not only to many more professional opportunities (La Roche has directed CW’s “Flash”, USA network’s “Dead Zone”, and many others) but left her with a lifelong interest in science. Sometimes the conduit for learning resides in unobvious means.

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SOCIAL MEDIA PRODUCER EZGI EREN: MAKING DREAM COME TRUE

Social Media; it’s intimidating and sometimes confusing to older generations and the thought of being without is unthinkable to younger generations. Your interpretation of it and its prevalence in your life is somewhat delineating and defining of your generation en masse. Social Media producer/manager Ezgi Eren is right in the sweet spot of Social Media (SM) and the idea of online interaction. Forgive the pun but she seems to be hardwired to achieve in the industry. She grew up in Izmir on the west coast of Turkey and used Myspace to connect with others worldwide about her interest in music, fashion, and creativity. A self-described shy young girl, being online empowered her with an ease of sharing thoughts and ideas. These days you’ll find Eren shuffling back and forth between her two modern day home cities of New York and Los Angeles conducting her work with clients and growing their brands with her SM skills. Her early interest and embrace of SM and its ability to connect with others for a variety of ends has served both Eren and those she works with quite well.

Dreaming has always been a part of Ezgi’s formula for life. While attending university she had thought she would be pursuing a role in music management, working with famous musicians from around the world. Her intuitive nature working with SM would lead to a redirecting opportunity. She recalls, “I was 20 when I started an internship at Opening Ceremony Web. I applied when I was still in Turkey. At that point going to New York was still a pipe dream but I ended up having a few Skype interviews and got the job; they even waited over a month for me to get my visa. My official title was Online Marketing and Social Media Intern. I worked directly with the Social Media manager and I learned a lot from her. I started out with compiling FB albums with the brand’s press mentions and later got to help with insights and analytics to figure out which posts work best on all social channels. I learned a lot about insights during this internship. I tracked all stats on google analytics and presented these to the whole team once a month. It was terrifying as an intern but I’m so grateful I got to do it as it made me so much better at public speaking.” Once again, SM helped a somewhat shy Ezgi break out of her shell.

Eren’s skills became so adept that she was recognized and hired to work as a social media manager to celebrity hairstylist Jen Atkin, whose social media presence is almost as well-known as her famous hair styles! Atkin was chosen Creative Influencer of the Year in 2016 by WWD. “Jen Atkin has always been one of my professional inspirations. I think she was one of the first people who was relatable on social media without even trying. She just makes her followers feel like they’re on her journey with her and I think that’s a powerful connection to establish. It’s such an honor to work as a social media manager to one of my ultimate social media she-roes!” notes Eren.

 

Ezgi is also most recently working on a new segment for Whitney Casey’s company Finery. Finer  is a highly interactive web based system for organizing, styling, and management of one’s wardrobe. It’s yet another indicator how people are using online methods to cultivate organization and style. Ezgi was brought on as Finery’s social media producer/manager shortly after the company’s conception in 2016. Casey (CEO & Founder of Finery) states, “It was important for us to have a social media manager from the beginning of our company to make sure we have a strong visual brand identity from the get-go. Ezgi worked closely with us from the beginning to achieve that and knows a lot about who we are as a brand and who exactly our customers are. “ Finery recently launched an exciting new segment on the site called “Featured Wardrobes”. Casey states “Our initial idea was to launch a blog for Finery to dip our toe in content and spotlight our friends and people we admire in the fashion industry but then we started receiving more and more comments from our users asking for styling advice, inspiration, etc. People don’t just want to see their clothes; they want you to help them put them together in different ways. We had various wardrobes we were curating for different reasons, mostly to continuously test out the site and its new features. Ezgi started helping me put one together and I loved all the items she curated, I even bought a few!! Most importantly it was great to see a wardrobe in front of you that was curated for a specific style. This combined with the comments from our users had us thinking, why not feature different influencers every month and give their fans a chance to go through their wardrobe digitally, instead of going with the same old blog content? Ezgi has been a key player in Finery in this process of rolling out a whole new way of presenting content. She knows the brand so well and cares about developing real relationships with our audience, which is part of what makes her so great at what she does.”

Seeing this professional woman who shuttles back and forth between NYC & LA, working in an exciting new industry…it’s hard to imagine that shy young girl from Izmir who only gained the courage to truly open up when she was typing to someone on a computer. In such a short amount of time both Eren and the way the world uses SM has evolved a great deal. Learning to find your passion and embrace change has worked well for Ezgi and it’s a good lesson for all of us. When considering change she states, “I think about this a lot because there’s no way of predicting what shape SM will be in in 20 years or more, but I think a big part of working in SM is collaborating with people from many adjacent industries: photography, videography, design, tech, styling, & others. I try to acquire as many new skills as possible from them along the way and just be more prepared for whatever SM managing turns into in the future.”

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CINEMATOGRAPHER SHOWS BOTH SIDES AT THE SAME TIME IN PARENT, TEACHER

Chris Lew is someone who enjoys learning. Though he has served on numerous productions as Cinematographer, he is adamant that being creative is not about being comfortable. Anyone who pursues growth comes to the realization that growth only comes about through tension, stress, and (hopefully) release. He accepted the DP position on the film “Parent, Teacher” with the understanding that it would be difficult in a number of ways for him. What he had not expected was that this would be his closest foray into actually becoming a passive actor in a film. It’s an interesting and unusual experience that began when the film’s writer/director Roman Tchjen approached Chris to be the DP for this tense film.

“Parent, Teacher” tells a story that is not completely unheard of. What it does so ingeniously is to communicate the emotional temperature of a room during a stressful situation. In “Parent, Teacher”, a father meets with his son’s teacher after school when his son is accused of attacking a classmate. Who is right and wrong in the situation becomes increasingly harder to define as the father and teacher argue their beliefs.

Roman Tchjen has a long history of collaborating with Lew, creating a high level of trust and understanding between them. When Tchjen wanted to present a story in a very non-traditional manner, he was firm about the need for Chris’s involvement. While most films display the commonly used and accepted approach: shooting coverage, having a protagonist with a clear goal, a clear villain whom the hero must overcome etc., Roman wanted to create something that was more honest and lacked a clear answer because in real life these types of issues aren’t black and white. Going into the film, Lew and Roman made the commitment to have as few cuts as possible. The entire film was to be split it into two takes, foregoing any coverage, any establishing shots, or cut aways. This is the cinematography equivalent of riding a bull at the rodeo while being handcuffed from behind. All of the “go to” tropes of a DP were stripped away leaving Lew to formulate an approach that would still stimulate and entice the viewer. Chris communicates, “We focused solely on the performance and the conflict between these two people. This goes back to taking risks. After reading the script I knew it wasn’t written to be the most visually stimulating film so rather than making the visuals flashy, which Roman really didn’t want, I instead thought of ways to make it immersive and use that to make the film engaging and interesting. It was this approach that contributed to the decision to shoot extremely long takes. It took a lot of work for Roman and even more so for the actors. There were many sessions leading up the shoot where everyone practiced their lines. Once they were feeling comfortable, I came in for my own rehearsal to see how we could block the camera. I needed to know at what point I was going to be on each character and if we were going to see some lines spoken on camera or off screen. Making sure I was on the right actor for an expression was key too. It was a lot like a dance that the actors and I were doing together!”

A reason for which Roman was so insistent concerning Lew coming aboard as DP was due to his style. Just as director’s have a signature which leads many to hire them, Lew has been recognized for his ability to enable the audience to have an intimate experience via his choices and camera work. It appears effortless for Chris to make the camera unnoticed in any way and at the same time pick up every nuance in the actors faces. The question of how does the action on screen affect how much the camera moves really comes down to the content. Film is art and art is subjective. For Lew it comes down to the content of the scene and the emotion the he and the director want to convey.

“Parent, Teacher” required extensive preproduction for Chris which is very atypical for a DP. The story and the unique approach necessitated Lew being there for rehearsals. Because the camera essentially appears as a mute third party witness, Lew needed to almost “perform” as another participant in the scene. Every project prior to this one had this DP engaging in the typical method of planning the scenes out based on the locations with the director as they reviewed photos. By contrast, in this production the camera was very much a character in itself, with blocking and queues that needed to be timed down to lines. If Lew and Tchjen wanted the film to feel completely out of the norm they were going to have to start with this beginning stage. Long takes helped with this. When the father first walks into the classroom at the beginning of “Parent, Teacher”, the camera follows him in but then hangs back as he walks over to the teacher to shake her hand and sit down. This was the wide establishing two shot to set the scene. As the teacher starts to explain what had happened, the camera begins to slowly creep in. Lew’s advance is so slow and subtle that you don’t even notice as he moves in to a close up. Chris describes, “Eventually we’re out of the two shot and just on the father when he starts to explain that he doesn’t see anything wrong with his son’s actions. I wanted to isolate him in the frame at this point to represent that he is in his own world. He’s clearly an immigrant and not used to Western ways of handling situations of violence. The teacher becomes increasingly frustrated as the two cannot agree on what is right and wrong, all the while the camera is slowly getting closer and closer. I tried to hide the walk in with the camera panning back and forth between each character. Just before the climax of the argument, the father has given up and is lashing out at the teacher, feeling targeted and attacked for his beliefs. Here, the front of the lens is inches away from the actor’s face. You see every detail of his expression and all the frustration in his eyes before he jumps up away from camera breaking the tension. Essentially I wanted the entire conversation to be one slow, imperceptible push in that brings the audience closer as the tension rises.”

Chris felt the camera needed to be handheld to create this immersive feeling, to make the audience feel like another person in the scene. It was a decision that Chris would have regreted if not fully committed to achieving the goals he had set for this film. The challenge was the length of the takes and the physically demanding nature of the equipment he chose. “Parent, Teacher” was shot using the Alexa XT which is a large, heavy camera. Hand holding it, trying to keep the frame steady for such long takes is extremely difficult.

Producer Kegan Sant admits to being overwhelmed upon seeing the final product. He declares, “When you are in preproduction of a film you have a vision in your mind of what you hope it will look like. I can honestly say that the idea I had for ‘Parent, Teacher’ pales in comparison to what you see when viewing it. Christopher was essential to the way in which the story was presented to our audiences. His incredibly striking camera work and expert understanding of shadow and lighting allowed for the film to reach impressive narrative heights. The way in which he reflects the overall despair and confusion of our main character throughout the frames is what makes Christopher such a valuable asset to any production that seeks out his talent. His efforts throughout the film solidified the film’s high standing and reception. We would not have received the same overwhelmingly positive reaction without his talent as cinematographer.”

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Chris Lew admits that his work on set left him consistently soaked in sweat from long takes wielding a heavy camera. However, he also admits that taking a risk and trying to create a film which stands apart from the norm is something that he will hold onto much longer than an aching back or sore arms.

IS PHIL LUZI THE SUPERHERO GENRE’S FRENEMY OR BFF?

There’s no being lukewarm when it comes to superhero movies. It’s either love them or mock them. If you’re not standing in line to see the newest Marvel or DC Batman vs. Superman vs. King Kong vs the Crab Legged Prestidigitator film, then you’re likely mocking those standing in line. Wrong; in fact, wrong bigtime! A group of very funny and very talented comedy actors/singers showed their affinity for these films while also pointing out some of their shortcomings in the appropriately titled Man of Steel Song. If you recall the Dean Martin Roasts (the present incarnation of which is the Comedy Central Roast), then you understand that the purpose is to show love and also keep someone aware of their fallibility. The combination of superheroes, comedy, and singing was the triple crown for Canada’s Phil Luzi. Luzi is an instantly recognizable name in Canada’s improv scene as well as on comedy series (such as CBC’s “Terrific Women”) and feature films (The Devil’s Tail), and is vigilant in his search for different ways to display his talent and sensibilities. Truth be told, Phil was beyond being a pushover when Melissa D’Agostino (Writer and Star of Man of Steel Song) asked him to join the cast. Luzi confesses, “I was so excited when I was invited to play Green Lantern in the super hero parody Man of Steel Song, which went on to be a huge success. Not only did I get to perform as Green Lantern, but I was also the lead male voice on the soundtrack! That’s something that’s been on my bucket list forever. I love playing and singing with Melissa, not to mention with other cast members who are absolute dynamos. We were given the opportunity by our director, Matthew Campagna, to improvise and play, and I believe that’s what makes the short so, so good!”

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Man of Steel Song became an internet sensation, and went on to be featured and recognized in many film festivals. It satirizes the disposability of franchise film-making that is rampant in the superhero genre, namely between DC and Marvel. In the short film, superheroes gather in a church to mourn any shot they may have had at a big screen feature. Luzi plays The Green Lantern, made famous by Ryan Reynolds. While D’Agostino’s Wonder Woman has reason to feel upbeat these days, Phil’s character comes to terms with the likelihood that his shot at anything more might be over too since it was a box office flop; all thanks to the overexposure of the golden children of the comic world, Batman and Superman. The superfluous drama in which the actual superheroes are immersed exacerbates the implied and stated comedy of Man of Steel Song. Perhaps the only thing funnier than someone who isn’t in on the joke is an individual who simply doesn’t have a comedic thought or expression. Phil states, “I think any grown person wearing a cape in tights and makeup is hilarious. Also, I love wearing a cape in tights and makeup. Green Lantern, specifically is hilarious to me because, if anything, I’m a Superman fan. The Green Lantern is MAYBE in my top 5 and even then, I don’t really know if that would be the case if his lantern was another color. Truthfully, I don’t really follow superhero movies as an adult like I did as a child. As with the tooth fairy and Santa, there just came a time when I stopped believing. I lost interest somewhere along the way when the novelty of it wore off and superhero movies became a dime a dozen.”

The ironic thing about Phil’s involvement in this production is that it reminded him of his real life superpower as well as realizing a dream of his own. While a blemish faced teenage Peter Parker became bitten by that radioactive spider or an adolescent Bruce Wayne began his training to become the world’s greatest detective, it was his natural inclination to easily elicit laughter that set a young Phil Luzi apart from his classmates and peers. He recalls, “Being comedic is the first talent that made itself apparent to me while I was growing up. Friends would say ‘you’re so funny!’ or ask me to say something funny! For a while, I took it offensively like I was a clown or something. Like they were laughing AT me and I didn’t know why; like the Joe Pesci scene in Goodfellas when he freaks out on Ray Liotta. But now I love the idea of making someone laugh. It’s the best sound in the world. It means someone is watching, that I have an audience. I guess I prefer comedy more because I love laughing so much myself. The sound of it means I’m doing something good…that something I’m doing is making someone’s day better or more memorable.”

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In the short film, Melissa D’Agostino rewrote the lyrics to the famous Crash Test Dummies hit “Superman’s Song.” Luzi sings the male part in this duet and delivers it with impressive facility and presence. One almost wonders if he lip synced to a professional vocalist performance but he is adamant that the male singing was all him. “Singing on the soundtrack was without question my favorite part! It has always been a goal of mine to be on the soundtrack of a film, whether it was an animation or a musical. Man of Steel Song gave me that first opportunity. I love singing, and it’s actually been a while since I’ve done a musical. After I started Second City, that part of my life sort of dwindled. The only time I get into a sound booth now is for commercial or animation voice gigs, so this was a real treat. This was my chance to bring that part of my performance abilities back to the surface, and now I want to do it more!” comments Luzi.

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As Phil did in his younger days, the makers of these superhero franchises might misconstrue the intention of Man of Steel Song if they hear of it secondhand or don’t truly pay attention when viewing it. They would make a serious mistake if they took it as ill-natured mocking. It is the most affectionate type of comedy; that which says you are loved and we feel close enough to you that we can say it is funny when you stumble on a pebble in the road. Luzi is an ideal messenger for this. His leading man looks, his comic timing, and his singing ability just might place him in contention for an actual superhero role and, more than anyone, Phil Luzi finds that incredibly amusing.

JUN XIA MANIFEST THE VISION OF “SHE GIVES ME SIGHT”

In spite of what the tabloids would have you believe, filmmaking is a team effort. While directors and actors are the faces of this mode of entertainment, the success of each production owes just as much to the talented professionals who perform their feats of magic and ability behind the camera. Think of it like this; if you order a fantastic meal but it isn’t handled properly or delivered properly…then it’s no good to you. Those whom the public never sees are as responsible for the gripping and endearing stories that we all love just as much as the marquee names we all know. Jun Xia may not be a household name but this editor is widely known and respected in the film industry. His editing has enabled the stories of fright (as in “Emily” and “Inside Linda Vista Hospital”), the touching stories of love and love lost (in “The Good Memory”), and of perseverance and the human spirit in “She Gives Me Sight.” This story of a young blind boy who is given a gift stronger than that of sight by a loving family member is the type of inspirational film that simultaneously evokes tears and admiration. Honored with multiple awards (at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival, Love Shorts Film Festival, LA underground Film Festival, and many others), “She Gives Me Sight” has a distinct pacing that is the result of Xia’s collaboration and planning with director Jiping Liu. When viewing the film, it is apparent that this approach is a major part of how the story is delivered and thus a result of its recognition in the film community.

“She Gives Me Sight” is a story about a little boy named Cecil whose life is full of bullying and darkness. Cecil was blinded in an accident and now lives with his grandmother in a small town. His only playground is the front yard of the old house in which they live. After little Cecil lost his sight, his grandmother decides to give Cecil love and light. Rather than treating him gently or with sympathy, she treats him more strictly than before. She continually asks him to help with simple housework. The neighborhood kids laugh at Cecil and taunt him. Although his grandmother is a witness to all of this, she doesn’t say anything about it. When a mishap occurs during these common house chores, Cecil breaks down. He is astonished that his grandmother does not take his situation into consideration and treat him differently than before he lost his sight. That night, she tells Cecil a bedtime story about a rose and a butterfly and how the rose promises to fight against the wind and keep blooming. Cecil dreams that night and understand that the story is about him and the rose’s story is his own. Three years later, Cecil became a successful author and writing a book named She Gives Me Sight about his childhood, and thanks his grandmother for teaching him to persevere and find his own way.

Because such a vast amount of the story is driven by narration and dialogue, Jun had copious discussions with the film’s director Jiping Liu in regards to how the editing might add to the story’s action. It was Xia’s contention that if the film were edited in exact correlation with the script, it would not achieve its full potential. In his mind, there was more happening in this story than what was directly stated. He explains his approach commenting, “I used the method of Parallel Montage in the film. I created it on the basis of a lot of dialogue and narration of the film, which made the overall movie more interesting. In this film, when the grandmother reads,  coaxing the blind boy to sleep, the imagination in the blind little boy’s mind, the imagination of him in childhood, and in the period of growing up were interspersed with editing. In addition, the things that occurred at different times and locations were edited together, which made the rhythm of this story more compact.”

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Jiping concedes, “Jun is a very smart when it comes to filmmaking, especially for editing. His approach is always well thought out and is about serving the message of the film. It was a great experience to work with such a fantastic film editor. Jun agrees noting, “I can’t overstate how important I feel that it is to be a modest filmmaker and editor. Receiving advice from others whom I respect about my own editing methods will only lead to increasing the integrity of the film.”

While a plethora of awards, nominations, and “official selection” accolades point to the widespread recognition of “She Gives Me Sight” by the film community, it’s the power that the film has on the individual when viewed that reveals its true impact. The film’s tone creates such a strong connection between the audience and young Cecil that it is almost unfathomable to think of its presentation as any other way. What Jun Xia and Jiping Liu created together is a moving and epic story of love overcoming life’s harsh blows. The rose that defies the wind can be found inside any of us; Jun Xia made certain that all viewers understand this lesson.