Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

GIVING A 50’S LOOK TO SHAKESPEARE WITH RUOXUAN LI

When it comes to revered creative works, there are those who believe that a classic is not to be touched and those who believe that the spirit of creating art is in pushing those boundaries and buttons, to attempt to develop a new piece of art that both pays homage to the original and seeks to place it in a contemporary setting that it might be more accessible to the general public and thereby spur them to revisit said classics. Costume designer Ruoxuan Li has worked with those on both sides of this idea. She feels that her role is not to be the one who is polarized on the topic but to grow through embracing both perspectives. This what me be referred to as a “creatively open mind.” It’s something that would seem to be inherent in the artistic mindset but is not always so. Luckily for those she works with, Li has the pedigree and the experience to enable both factions. When ISC (Independent Shakespeare Company)was presenting a modernized production of Shakespeare’s “The Two Men of Verona”, Ruoxuan was an obvious choice as costume designer. Li cut her teeth in Shakespearean theater at the at Wimbledon College of Art, University of The Arts London. Since then she has worked on countless productions including Distant Vision with Francis Ford Coppola. Intensely familiar with both traditional and contemporary approaches to the look of stage, TV, and film, Ruoxuan worked with director David Melville to place the characters in a modern world for crowds of 20,000 in Los Angeles.

Melissa Chalsma is the artistic director of the ICS production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” who sought out Ruoxuan and enlisted her into the production team. Melissa describes, “I was first attracted to Ruoxuan’s work because of her outstanding portfolio and the breadth of her experience. She is an inter-continental artist who excels in a wide range of styles, has done excellent work in a variety of mediums, and has wonderful inter-personal skills. Without Ruoxuan “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” would not have looked as good as it did, nor would the actors have even as able to do their jobs. She created an entirely unique world with vastly different styles authentically placing the action in the 1950’s. Each costume piece supported the actors in their work. Speaking personally, the costumes Ruoxuan created were absolutely perfect!”

Early meeting with the play’s director set the tone that the play should be apolitical and be a place of respite for the public to escape the volatile events around them. Melville communicated to Ruoxuan that he was interested in a Rockabilly style that was full of bright and engaging colors. The two primary challenges in this is that Shakespeare is not known for its use of bright colors and, as a native of China, Li does not share the same frame of Americana reference that many might in regards to the 1950’s Rockabilly style and era. Research would begin for her at ground zero rather than twenty or seventy-five percent. To fit the classic Shakespearean sensibility into a new concept of 1950’s, she started by matching the social group status for characters such as the greasers for the outlaws, teddy boys/girls for the naughty ones etc. Li then tracked each character’s change of status and change of their mental/emotional evolution, trying to express the changes cohesively through costuming. She was given some allowance to be not period-dead-on but tried to catch key elements of the 1950’s rockabilly look such as white socks, rolled up hems, pointy shirt collars, circle skirts, etc. These helped to sell the period when it’s not a full-on authentic period show.

It’s the very nature of a mingling of the arts that they affect each other. This also applies to the costume design; add maneuverability to that as well. The Rockabilly application to this classic Shakespeare play was like an actor itself, taking on the visage of a “greaser” from the era. This meant that the music and style of the 1950’s was inseparable from the look Li created. Watching the rehearsal is a key part of her process in finalizing the costuming. Ruoxuan relates, “When I saw the rehearsal with the band and all of the dancing, I realized that the research I did was not fully matching the energy on the dance floor. There were actors rapping the Shakespeare lines, the duke being the drummer at the same time, one of the two gentlemen acted like a nerdy teenage facing his lover…all these sparkling moments gave me inspiration. I switched my color palette to a much more vibrant and youthful combination of bright pastels and saturated jewel tones. I shortened all the skirt for dancing, added ruffled collars for crab the dog, and asked the attendant rapper turning his bell boy hat front to the back. These might seem minor but they bring everything into focus.”

Broadway World stated, “Ruoxuan Li’s black leather jackets for the outlaws, and circle skirts and preppy plaids for the leading players all lend authenticity to the period and its unbridled optimism.” This statement communicates the concept that the costuming itself is part of delivering the emotion to an audience, an emotion that must be congruent to that of the intent of the director. With this understanding, Ruoxuan takes great care to plan and maintain an aesthetic consistent with her director’s goal. This process begins with a conversation that continues up until the actual showtime. A strong sense of design partnered with an ease of flexibility is what has resulted in so many directors seeking out Ruoxuan to create the look for their productions whether it be stage, TV, or film.

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BEBO’S CIRCUS IS ANIMATOR SOYEON YOO’S MESSAGE OF HOPE

Animator Soyeon Yoo wants to achieve something with her creations. She’s not focused on becoming rich or get millions of “shares” on social media. She wants to create stories that touch those who view them. It’s important to Soyeon that she create empathy between the stars of her animated films and everyday people. By witnessing the struggles and accomplishments of the characters she presents, it’s her hope that she’ll create some tenderness that the public can retain from the experience. Yoo’s film “Bebo’s Circus” is a delight to the eyes and brings tears to them at the same time. While the story is exceptional, it’s far from what she originally had in mind. She explains, “I wanted to make heart-warming and dramatic animated film. Originally, I had the idea of a bunny that has big teeth saving other bunnies when they were in danger but I wanted to make a film more relatable to people.” This is when the idea of an older clown who has fallen on hard times and forgotten about his passion. Soyeon wanted everyone to understand that even the most joyful of us experience trying and depressing moments in our lives. Recalling the struggles of her time in art school and how she had lost the enjoyment and curiosity of creating art, Yoo formulated the idea of a clown who struggled and then reignites his own joy…with help from a friend.

Bebo is an older clown who still performs to audiences. He reminisces about the old days when things were easier for him as an entertainer. The crowds were larger and more accepting. When he makes mistakes on stage these days, some individuals react very rudely and this disheartens Bebo. The sad clown flashes back to one particularly enthusiastic girl who loved Bebo’s act. Inspired, he returns to the stage with new vigor. Upon completion, Bebo hears a lone fan applauding. He strains to see who it is and finds the same little girl, now grown up and still holding a juggling ball from his clown act all those years ago. The woman throws the ball back to Bebo as if metaphorically returning his love of performing and being a clown to him.

The story is touching and endearing but Soyeon needed a look that would enhance the message and tone of her story. The style of the animation she used for this film is 2D traditional animation, which is all done via computer using the tablet called ‘Cintiq’.  Using computer 2D animation software called ‘TV paint’ for the animation required drawing every frame to create each sequence for the film. Soyeon would first draw a test animation to see how many frames would be needed for each sequence and then move on to drawing the entire main key poses. Following this, in-between drawing for the characters were created and then a final clean-up of all the animation. A few sentences are all it takes to describe but many weeks to manifest.

Her malleable skills were also required in regards to art direction because this was Soyeon’s self-produced animation film. One of the main uses of this was in making the “Color Script” for the film. Color script is the early stage of mapping out the color, lighting, and emotion for the story of the film. Choosing different colors according to story arc are essential to delivering the emotional impact, especially in animation. For example, Yoo decided to apply de-saturated green/grayish tones for the first arc when the main character was having a hard time and then later placed warm brown/yellowish tones gradually toward to the end of the story to convey a happy ending.

One of the most pronounced characteristics of her style is Soyeon’s use of music with animation. The two seem intertwined in a dually productive correlation in virtually all of the productions in which she has created and is involved in. It’s obvious that she feels that music and the visual aspect of animation are twins. She describes, “The role of music is one of the most important elements for this film. The music was definitely a huge part of the film that helped to enrich the story. It helps to imprint and translate the mood for the film. Instead of dialogue, the music represents old clown’s emotions. The cornet part sounds like old clown singing. I wanted the music to lead the story like a narrator.” Yoo worked with composer Steven Van Betten to create the sonic landscape that complemented her visuals. Betten declares, “I am honored and proud to have composed the score for Soyeon’s film Bebo’s Circus.  The film takes a simple and universal theme of overcoming challenges and presents it in a compelling, genuine, and heartfelt manner. I was Inspired by her creativity and ability to take artistic challenges and turn them into fuel for pushing through her creative boundaries. The finished product of the film is both strong technically and artistically inspired. I sincerely hope that I have the opportunity to collaborate with Soyeon again in the future.”

“Bebo’s Circus” received great recognition including inclusion as an official selection at the Golden Bridge International Film Festival, the Mindfield Festival (Los Angeles), in addition to receiving the Best Jury Choice Award at the Direct Monthly Online Film Festival and the Best Animation: Diamond Award at the LA Shorts Awards. While these are all appreciated by Yoo, the most important to her is that of the person who first gave her the idea of the clown…her own brother. Soyeon explains, “I’m so happy that many people in the industry enjoyed the film. While that means a great deal to me, I really created it for regular viewers to find inspiration. My brother suggested the idea of a clown. His enjoyment was so important to me because I hope it will prove to him that you can have an idea and literally create something from that idea that other people will be positively affected by and will be inspired by. That’s the real reward and my original intention.”

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A FAMILY OF FRIENDS HAS MANY FORMS IN “PARKED”

There’s something romantic and endearing about a group of people coming together to support each other’s attempt to bring out the best in themselves and their dreams. It might be possible to make it on your own but when you do it with a trusted group of confidants it’s so much more enjoyable. “Parked” is a Canadian production which tells the story of five men who attempt to navigate the highs and lows of life. It’s a theme that is synonymous with the writers who created this show. In a small writers’ room, Gorrman Lee, Executive Producers Adam O. Thomas, Tracey Mack, Siobhan McCarthy, and Actor/Co-Producer David Lewis spent many long nights together writing what ultimately became a season of six full webisodes and twenty-five interstitial videos. The struggle that artists take on to test themselves, to aspire to create something which binds viewers together, it’s just as touching as the obstacles and experiences of the characters in “Parked.” Great things are achieved in life when people work together to support each other’s dreams, whether in real life or the stories which resemble it.

Here’s something that any true artist will tell you, greatness is found in the idea and the manifestation of it not necessarily in the execution of it. There’s a reason that songwriters receive a larger portion of the income generated by a song than those who perform it. Creative individuals understand that the idea itself is the keystone. The modern presentation of this is the fact that many of the productions that are presented on the web rival, and sometimes exceed, the stories presented on more traditional platforms. When writer Gorrman Lee saw the pilot for “Parked” shared on Facebook he thought “They’re doing this on the web? It’s so good!” The show’s pilot is so well produced and funny that it stands as a testament to the excellence of work being created outside the traditional system in today’s marketplace. When Lee had the chance to meet Siobhan McCarthy at a pitch event, he made it his mission to convince her that he could be of benefit to the show as one of their writers. He recalls, “I was very professional about it. I told her how much I enjoyed the pilot and asked if they were looking for people to join up; if so, I’d love to have a coffee with her to discuss. Asking people to coffee in this industry is a great, low-pressure way to get an in.” To Gorrman’s delight and the shows benefit, it worked.

Parked with EP Siobhan McCarthy

“Parked” is about a group of 30-something dads, plus their one non-father pal, struggling with their late coming of age. While at first glance the characters might seem homogenous, each one has their own story to differentiate them in the group. The same can be said for the writers. As the youngest in the writing room and the only non-parent himself, Gorrman related most to the character Josh (the burnout, non-father of the group). While Lee and Josh vary greatly in personality, being of a certain age and place in your life naturally presents a shared perspective. Josh is found to be somewhat abrasive by the audience of “Parked” but Gorrman enjoyed the exercise of finding the sympathy/concealed soft side of Josh. The dichotomy of Josh was as entertaining for Lee as a writer as it was for the viewer. In episode #5, “Waiting for Kiddo”, Josh appears insufferable as he enters the scene complaining about how lame kids’ birthday parties are and how he’d much rather spend the day getting stoned. Lee’s writing shined a light on Josh’s humanity by showing just how hard he’s willing to work to get a child to attend this party with him. It looks creepy from the outside but Josh’s unawareness of this ultimately comes off as sweet because he just wants to hang out with his friends.

In a similar way to Josh’s willingness to step out of his comfort zone to keep the group together, Gorrman took on a writing assignment for “Parked” that was well outside his wheel house. Adam O. Thomas (Executive Producer of “Parked”) notes, “Gorrman was a key member of our writing room. He helped find the humor and really had a strong handle on how to shape a scene. If we were going off on a tangent, he was always the one to help bring us back around. He also made sure we never took the easy way out. I loved him for that. We broke down episodes and then assigned each writer some. Gorrman had a couple of the toughest. One was a musical episode and the other had to dance around the theme of child abduction to find the comedy in a dislikable character…. not an easy task. When he turned in his episode, I laughed out loud. It was perfect!” The musical episode referred to was entitled “Master Baker” and required Gorrman to create a Rap video. While most people think of writers as professionals who create based on something which they already know and actors as professionals who educate themselves/research about things they don’t know, Lee’s situation with this episode seems to indicate that writers are much more like actors in their approach. He was given an outline and lyrics for the song but the rest of creating the scene was up to Gorrman. He states, “I’m not really a Rap fan, my wife is though. I’m a writer of color. I’m Chinese-Canadian. It was important to me to research enough that I wasn’t being offensive or inappropriate in satirizing rap with three white, and one Indian actor. I think we pulled it off because of how silly our characters looked. The joke was on them, and not at the expense of rap.” The writer admits to feeling a great sense of accomplishment standing on set and watching the rap video sequence being filmed with Davinder/Sean Amsing is in his hot tub alongside Jimmy Z /Colin Foo. The entire cast and crew seemed to revel in the ridiculousness of the scene which Gorrman had concocted. It was obvious to all that the cast was living out the same fantasy that their characters connected with. “Parked” actor/writer David Lewis confirms, “Gorrman’s voice was definitely a distinct one. His episodes were some of our strongest. His understanding of character and story structure was invaluable. I’ve been working in this industry for over 25 years and have seen both good and bad writing. Gorrman’s writing is very good!”

Parked at Leo awards

Part of success is accepting both achievement and disappointment with grace. “Parked” received multiple nominations at the Leo Awards (Canadian based awards) in 2016 and a win for best actor (David Lewis). It was an instance of public affirmation in the industry for this production. With equal measure Lee describes, “It was a wonderful moment for all of us. While I remember that easily, I also remember the many long days and nights churning out ideas and breaking stories. I wish we could’ve come up with a way to shoot our original idea for the season finale. It was about Josh realizing that he had drunkenly donated sperm to a local sperm bank and convincing the other dads to help him break into the bank and steal it back. It was our take on a ‘bank heist’. Thinking back to this pitch still makes me chuckle. There’s always something to work towards.”

THE LOOK OF A NEW SPORT: TIM SMYLLIE

If you want proof that the technology which surrounds us is changing every aspect of our lives, look no further than E sports. Unless you’ve buried your head in the sand for the last couple of years, you know that E sports has evolved into a massive industry with attendance that rivals other major sporting events. The Riot Games – 2016 League of Legends World Championships had 20,000 attendees; that’s a rock concert sized crowd. Riot Games understood early on that this event was going to be unlike anything seen in E sports previously, which is why they contacted Troika whose status is iconic in the sport graphics industry. The tech minded fans of E sports are hard wired to be aware of the most cutting edge presentation and Riot Games rebuffed any notion of disappointing them. Troika partnered with Riot Games to develop a broadcast package and live projection mapping, both built and designed together as a cohesive story for the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. The unique, game-driven visualization showed which teams had the advantage, built anticipation for crucial moments, and celebrated spectacular achievements. All of this was designed to enhance the live game experience and bring to life this virtual sporting event on a massive scale.

The intention of Riot Games was forward thinking and far from short sighted. The young and emerging E sports industry is set to take over the world. Riot approached Troika to help them innovate and cultivate a style not only for their band but to change the perception of the overall industry itself. Tim Smyllie was at the heart of that innovation. His designs were both the basis and set the style for the final piece. Tim was brought in due to his bold and unique design aesthetic. A native of the UK, Smyllie brings a decidedly European uncluttered clarity and personality to his work that is streamlined and timeless in its restraint. The purpose being to have impact through a bold use of typography and color without being brash or shouting. The influence of those Tim has worked with in the American industry has left subtle impressions on him leading to an even more original character to his sensibilities.

Though he had been a gamer in his earlier days, Smyllie’s unfamiliarity with this particular game required some education prior to contemplating an approach. League of Legends is a team game which pits rival teams against each other. The vast and expanding professional league is part of the phenomenon of E sports. The finale for the world championships of League of Legends (LOL) was held at the Staple Center in Los Angeles. Riot Games tasked Troika with creating all the graphics for the live finale. The graphics would be played on vast screens in the center of the arena and projected on the huge floor where the players were seated. Tim’s role on the project was that of lead designer/art director. Leading the creative development stage, he would manifest a brand new identity from scratch. This required Smyllie to work closely with the client to ascertain exactly what they desired. Part of Troika’s process is to involve the client early on in the creative development stage to produce a truly collaborative experience. Once Tim established the look, a team of animators executed the package using his designs as the basis. Tim worked closely with Gil Haslam, Seton Kim, and Mark Lee on the project. Troika Creative Director Seton Kim remarks, “Tim’s creative development on Riot’s LOL was outstanding! He always tries to push the boundaries and his determination to think outside the box on this project was inspiring to the rest of the team. This was an amazing opportunity for us to innovate. I was determined for us to experiment and challenge the client with what was possible. Tim was very much the experimental progressive part of our team. When we presented his work to the client, we had a few ‘wow’s’ and they were clearly impressed by what he had created. Riot Games came to us to help them see what was possible and help guide them to something new and exciting. Tim clearly wanted to lead this challenge that the client sent us and that attitude was exactly what I was looking for.”

League of Legends varies greatly from traditional sport, making it much more challenging in terms of creating the proper sensibility. It was essential that what Troika created was authentic to the game and the tonality was true to spirt of the genre. To understand this, the team brought in avid LOL fans as reference points. LOL is incredibly detailed and complex. There are many aspect and layers to the game. Players can completely immerse themselves in the gaming experience, spending very long periods of time playing. Learning the principals, essential details, back story, and spirit of the game were essential for Tim to convey the proper attitude in his work for LOL. As a designer/art director working in branding, getting the tone right is the core of every project to connect with an audience. Fans have a very deep connection to the game and anything that doesn’t feel authentic will be rejected immediately.

While the work of designing, presenting, and creating these visuals can be arduous, it’s only by witnessing the public’s reaction that they are truly judged as successful or not. Luckily for Tim, the League of Legends World Championships took place at the Staples Center during a time when he was able to attend. The experience was impactful. Smyllie recalls, “Having never been to anything like that before, it was a very interesting experience. Seeing and interacting with the fans was very rewarding and gave me invaluable insight into the industry itself. I learned so much about the sport from seeing it firsthand. In my line of work, to get an immediate first hand response from your audience is rare and there is nothing more powerful than having 20, 000 people screaming a response right next you! To see the work on the big screens is also very valuable. There is no way of testing out graphics on a huge screen so getting to see it play out in real time meant a lot.” Mark Lee (Art Director, Troika) adds, “I loved Tim’s ambition on this project. The success of Riot owed a lot to his drive for excellence. Out of anyone on the team, Tim was driving the innovation.  His relentless desire to push the envelope on this project was inspiring to myself and the rest of the team. Working on a new phenomenon such as E sports is when you need the best and most experienced heads to be on the team because we need to make the most of this golden opportunity. Tim seized the opportunity with both hands and I loved that.”

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RAFAEL THOMASETO KEEPS THEM COMING BACK FOR MORE

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A producer is the closest thing the entertainment industry has to a parental figure. As the head of any production, this individual oversees every aspect from beginning to end and ensures that it all runs smoothly. It’s a tiresome and exhausting vocation, the main reward of which is getting more of the same work. A producer will tell you that they choose this vocation because they love the creative process and being surrounded by others who take part in it. For a successful producer, diversity is the key. Similar to directors, a producer’s work on a notable ad campaign can mean as much (or more) recognition and compensation than on a film or TV presentation. The career of Rafael Thomaseto encompasses all of these different creations, leaving him in the enviable position of having an eclectic body of work and possibilities to pursue. His resume encompasses a strong list of production credits, including independent films, commercials for major brands (such as Chanel, Samsung, Nissan and Jose Cuervo), the clip of the song “Perfect Illusion” by the iconic Lady Gaga and the production of videos for the YouTube. The common thread among all these is the talent and work ethic he possesses. The best advertisement is performing your job with excellence and the word is out about Thomaseto.

As producer of the film “Inherent Greed” (Directed by Zachary Wanerman), Rafael oversaw this production which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and also impressed Louie Torrellas (CEO of Ambitious Media Productions). Torrellas relates, “One of the executive producers on the film recommended Rafael to my company, Ambitious Media, which was in charge of producing Inherent Greed. We hired him and he instantly took over the project and made it work, to great acclaim. Our first partnership was such a success that as soon as I received the briefing of the entire media production for LA Style Fashion Week, Rafael was the first name that popped into my mind. It was going to be a challenging job but I was sure he was qualified and experienced enough to handle it. Again, my expectations were attained. Once Rafael joins a project, he will do anything possible to make it work and to make it the best.”

Hired by Ambitious Media as head of production for the city’s biggest fashion event would seem to be a completely different environment than that of a soundstage or location shoot for a film however, Thomaseto’s skill set is equally applicable to both. Though Los Angeles Style Fashion Week has been around in some incarnation since the 70’s, the past decade has seen it evolve into a much more expansive and widely attended event. The city and the industry have taken an obvious step towards using their entertainment producing infrastructure to promote the fashion scene as a major player worldwide. While the surroundings and the players are different than the ones he is so accustomed to, many of the applications of Rafael’s abilities are lateral. Instead of overseeing a film production, he developed a documentary which showed the increase of the fashion scene in LA. Locating and hiring the director, cinematographer, and film/photography crew to shoot interviews with the major players in the fashion industry as well as the big name models who would be appearing at the event; all these were familiar procedures for Rafael though they were in a wildly differing venue. The producer notes that his ability to bring aboard world renowned fashion photographer Lemuel Punderson as the main director for the production was a particular source of pride.

A complete dichotomous experience of working with the beautiful people, Thomaseto’s past success on a number of productions for Traverse Media resulted in them hiring him as part of the production team for the experimental “Crypt TV.” Traverse Media, a production and talent management company committed to creative and enterprising content and filmmakers, hired Thomaseto as part of their Production team coordinating the project for Crypt TV. Crypt TV is a digital genre brand co-founded by Jack Davis and horror icon Eli Roth. Declaring its motto as “#WeirdIsGood”, Crypt TV creates and distributes dark, edgy, and scary video content on Facebook and across its family of publisher sites. One year after launch, with 2 million direct social followers and a syndication network of 2.5 million unique monthly visitors on the sites in its network, Crypt TV has quickly become the fastest growing leader in digital productions of this genre. In addition to working with the best up-and-coming filmmakers across the world, Crypt TV creates engaging original video content directly for the Top Hollywood Studios including: Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Netflix, and others. Crypt TV is uniting fans and creating a movement that’s redefining what the future of the genre among millennials.

Although hired on shortly before the shoot, Rafael quickly solidified all aspects of the production of the three short films which Traverse created for Crypt TV: “Lust Kills” (62,000 VIEWS), “Gluttony Kills” (371,000 views), & Sloth Kills (272,000 views). These three films were produced in just a matter of weeks and had received several thousand views in a mere matter of hours after being released. The expediency and process by which entertainment is created and delivered continues to evolve with technology and the public’s sensitivity to it but the need for professionals like Rafael Thomaseto will be a constant throughout these changes, as will the need of entities like Ambitious Media Productions and Traverse Media. The upcoming projects which Thomaseto is currently involved in with both companies assures this fact. The new edition of LA Fashion Week (which is a biannual event), an indie feature film in 2018, and several short films (a continuation of his partnership with Crypt TV) will all add to the association that Rafael has with both Ambitious Media Productions and Traverse Media in the very near future.

 

WHY NICKY MARTIN LOOKS SO FUNNY

Comedy feels a certain way and it looks a certain way. There are not specific parameters which define this but it easily recognized. When you feel something is funny or see something that is funny, you know it. It’s a characteristic older than cinema itself. Before there was sound in films, comedy was more accurately conveyed than any other sentiment. Xing-Mai Deng displays this concept exceedingly well in Andrew Elliott’s “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar.” As a cinematographer with a highly diverse list of award-winning film credits (including this one which received an LAIFF award for Best Comedy/Dramedy and a Jury Award at the Melbourne Indie Film Festival), “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” is yet another example of Deng’s ability to visually achieve the intent of the writers and directors he works with in an exception manner. With the ubiquity of the pursuit of fame, often via social media these days, the film’s story reveals the all too common hopes of someone who wants to be famous almost solely because they desire fame.

In an ironic turn, this written story necessitated studying reality TV productions in order to accurately be presented with authenticity. The look of the film needed to bring out the absurdity of the story while spoofing the standard reality TV show. The film’s director and Xing-Mai researched several American reality TV shows to study their lighting, framing, and documentary-like camera movement. The blocking and camera angles were all decided before the filming to achieve a deliberate chaotic appearance for the shots.

Much of the look of “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” required Xing-Mai to use his extensive knowledge and talent to appear as if he did not possess these attributes. It’s an aspect that took him some time with which to relax. Constant second guessing and reassessment of going too far was required. He explains, “I purposely moved the camera in an amateur way in order to make the film look absurd. High-key lighting and amateurish camera movements brought the feel of a valid reality show to our film. There wasn’t any dramatic lighting. The camera movements followed the actors in a passive way rather than anticipating the characters’ actions as compared to a scripted production. We wanted to have the reality TV feeling but we also wanted some cinematic moments in the film. Some of the reality productions I researched were not lit at all. I added contrast for most of the scenes to give a cinematic touch to it but used it sparingly. Most of the reality TV shows I studied were not comedic so the usual reality TV look would not serve ‘Nicky Martin’ as it still desired to look funny. We did not want it to look like normal mockumentary as that look has become fairly common and we wanted something that stood out.”

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The improv nature of the film and the actor’s performances kept Deng on his toes and required a fair amount of improvisation on his own part. As different cast members spontaneously changed and evolved their parts during the actual filming, Xing-Mai was required to essentially collaborate with them in terms of lighting and framing the scene, accepting what he could get away with in terms of these parameters. With knowledge of this potentiality in advance, he created general lighting schemes based on the blocking and devised a plan that would give the widest coverage possible while achieving the largest part of his goal. Because the film is a comedy, Deng used a wide warm color palate.

“Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” is a spoof comedy about a man who wants to be a country music star but doesn’t know how to sing or play guitar. He wants to be a cowboy but he’s afraid of all four-legged animals…so he rides on stools. Upon hearing about a singing contest at the County Fair, Nicky gathers his cohorts and prepares for what he believes is the chance of a lifetime. Numerous efforts towards achieving his goal of becoming a legitimate cowboy fall short. In a scene which drives this failure home and yet endears the audience to his tenacious drive, Nicky and his close friend Mickey reconcile by riding their stools together into the sunset as they have learned that being a cowboy is not about being famous but rather about possessing the cowboy spirit.

Andrew Elliott, the mastermind behind “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” communicates, “I honestly had always planned to convince Xing-Mai to be the DOP for this film, since it’s very inception. Xing-Mai’s insight was invaluable to the success of the shoot. He was able to quickly and efficiently form a great crew and was always present with ideas and suggestions on how to make thing flow more smoothly. His work ethic was unquestionable on the shoot. Nicky Martin went on to success in the festival scene the following year, winning awards at several of these. Xing-Mai’s understanding of the story and unique ability to shoot the film played an integral part in winning these awards and in the success of the film as a whole.”

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Immersing one’s self in an industry that contains some of the most skilled and creative minds and then attempting to shed the abilities you have come to rely upon as second nature in order to move you forward in said industry is disconcerting at best. Shakespeare often depicted the person who appears as the fool to often be the cleverest of all; communicating the idea that the misdirection of the depth of one’s knowledge and abilities is often the most difficult task of all. In “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar”, Xing-Mai Deng proves that he’s no fool but he knows how to convincingly present the appearance of one to the laughter and enjoyment of his audience…and does so as a master.

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.