Category Archives: Cinematographer

Cinematographer Ian Holliday talks award-winning music video “The World Ender”

Success is no stranger to Ian Holliday. Throughout his career as a cinematographer, he has worked on countless celebrated and award-winning projects. However, it is getting to live his dream that is the greatest reward of all.

As a child in in Vancouver, Canada, Holliday loved filmmaking. This passion persisted as he grew, and turned into a career. Last year, he filmed the award-winning film Icebox, which was screened at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. He previously worked on the decorated film Tele, and the viral video Harry Potter in 60 Seconds, where in addition to cinematographer, he also was the director, editor, and lead actor. But taking a small side step away from films, Holliday has many achievements working on music videos. This includes the video The World Ender for the band Lord Huron, from their album Strange Trails.

“I had worked on a few videos for Lord Huron before this one, and always loved the experience. The band is very interested in building a consistent and cohesive world with their music, videos, and any promotional art they release. They are very focused on building a visually and narratively cohesive world in which their work exists, so participating in the creation and visualization of that world is a lot of fun,” said Holliday.

The World Ender tells the story of a man who comes back from the dead to seek vengeance on the people who took his life. The band had previously collaborated with a writer and illustrator to produce a comic book, exploring this story in more depth, which gave Holliday a bit of a narrative jumping-off point. Using the general narrative of the comic for reference, the video tells the story of Cobb Avery, an upstanding citizen with a loving wife and child, whose house is burned down by the corrupt “Winthrop Corp.” He comes back from the dead and works his way up the Winthrop Corp chain, ultimately cornering Winthrop himself and exacting his vengeance.

“I think you can really see the comic book influence on the story, which is intentionally exaggerated and trope-y,” said Holliday. “It’s always fun to work in such a stylized visual world, and to reference such cultural staples as the films of Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. We struck a balance of being quite exaggerated in the grit and comic-book tone of the piece, while keeping it grounded enough for the violence and narrative to feel realistic, gritty, and shocking.”

The video went on to be an enormous success for both the band and Holliday. After premiering at the 2016 Austin Music Video Festival, it was an official selection at twelve more festivals, including the 2016 Orlando Film Festival where it took the top prize of “Best Music Video.” The video was also a Vimeo staff pick, which got the piece a lot of viewership.

“It’s always satisfying to see people comment on the specific techniques you used and references you were drawing from, and it was very satisfying to know we achieved that tone so well,” said Holliday.

While filming the video, Holliday and the director, Ariel Vida, decided to film in the style of 70s and 80s cinema. Referencing primarily the action and thriller films of the 70s, they chose a 2.40 aspect ratio for the imagery, and favoured extreme compositions within that frames, placing subjects on the extreme left or rights, or dead centre when appropriate. They welcomed dutch-angle shots with extreme lines of force within frame where possible. The teamwork between Holliday and Vida was pivotal for the video’s success.

“Ian is the most dedicated cinematographer I have worked with in my career in the film industry, which spans nearly two hundred film and video projects in positions from art department to producer and director. He has acute technical expertise and an unmatched passion for the craft, as well as the ability to communicate that knowledge in order to fully realize a creative vision,” said Vida. “His experience and instincts allow him to work with a variety of directors to bring to life and enhance their vision – whether it be a subtle and emotional work, or effects and spectacle-based – while also leading his crew with confidence and precision.  He is extremely clear and communicative to those working under him, as well as those who hire him. His drive, energy, and passion for his craft is infectious on every set I have shared with him. He imbues each job with an interminable enthusiasm that motivates a crew to rise to their full potential while regularly delivering a final product that not only meets, but exceeds a director and client’s expectations.”

Even with all of the success the video had, for Holliday, it was just about how much fun it was filming. For a cinematographer to have to opportunity to honor their filmmaking idols, while still capturing their own style, is truly once in a lifetime.

Check out The World Ender here.

Cinematographer Jon Keng captures beautiful moments in award-winning film “The Stairs”

Growing up in Singapore, Jon Keng was always interested in photography. This love for still images eventually grew into something more. This lifelong passion of looking through a lens transformed from still images to filmmaking, and now he is an internationally successful cinematographer.

Working all over the world, Keng has shown his extraordinary capability as a cinematographer on a variety of films. His work on the award-winning film Fata Morgana was screened at some of some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, and this trend continued when he worked on Cocoon, Home, and Tadpoles. Last year, his film The Stairs premiered at Ashland International Film Festival 2016, where it won the grand prize of Best Short Film. It also was screened at the Festival 2016, the USA Palm Beach International Film Festival 2016, and the USA River’s Edge International Film Festival where it went on to win the Special Jury Prize for Best Film.

“It feels great to be validated by the success the film has been receiving,” said Keng.

The Stairs was initially conceptualized as a television series, based around a gay, high end male escort and the lonely men he meets each week. The film follows an older man who hires a male escort for company on Christmas Eve, finding an unexpected kinship with the young man in this late-night exploration of solitude, intimacy and the basic human need for connection.

“I was attracted to the script of The Stairs initially. On the surface, it seemed very ‘undramatic’, with the entire story centered around a long conversation scene, but digging deeper, I began to uncover many subtly hidden emotional beats and arcs that each character goes through. I thought this was very tasteful and I made it my challenge to make the piece visually arresting to keep the audience engaged through the long dialogues,” said Keng.

Keng describes the style he filmed in as very calculated, as he tried to focus on emphasizing each specific beat during the long dialogues in the scenes, in order to make sure that the audience fully understood what was occurring, which largely contributed to the success of the film.

“I also played around with themes of escalating visual connection between the two actors in the film, building up to a final point of disconnection,” he said.

Keng worked alongside an all-star cast and crew on The Stairs. The film stars Tony award nominated actor Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs, Boston Public, Red Dragon). It also starred Kelly Blatz (NCIS, Fear the Walking Dead, Aaron Stone) who co-directed the film with the writer Zach Bandler (Switched at Birth).

As a director who has worked and will continue to work with Jon at every opportunity, I can say without hesitation that he has the rarest of talent in cinema: instinct. Cinematography isn’t just a technical job where someone points a camera for you at the actors or figures out where the lights should be. A great cinematographer is as much a storyteller as the director or screenwriter. Watching Jon work, he is truly “one” with the camera. It’s an organic part of them. He makes it move like a human being in a way that draws the audience into film. He has a sense for the lighting that evokes the perfect emotional response for that moment in the story on screen. He possesses nuance, sensitivity, he is a leader in their own right, without whom a director would be lost. That type of talent cannot be learned or taught, because it’s God-given. Jon has it. He is an artist in the most profound sense of the word,” said Bandler.

All who worked with Keng on the film were impressed with his cinematographic instincts. Meg Steedle, an actress known for her work in Boardwalk Empire, Grey’s Anatomy, and American Horror Story, was a producer on the film. She describes Zeng’s work as masterful.

“Jon’s was a dream to have on set. He ran the camera, grip and electrical department with an efficiency and effectiveness that kept the film running on time while still capturing beautiful moments on screen. For a producer, someone like Jon is the ideal,” said Steedle. “He’s got a ridiculously bright future ahead of him in this industry and I intend to hire him every chance I get.”

The opportunity for Keng to work with such a distinguished cast and crew was a vital aspect to his experience working on The Stairs. Blatz and Bandler knew what he was capable of, and were very open to collaboration. This gave Keng the freedom he needed me to push himself visually and experiment, and watching the actors provided inspiration.

“It was a privilege to be able to work with Anthony Heald, a veteran actor with such a strong theatrical pedigree. I was really just transfixed watching him go through his long monologues, conveying a deep sense of emotion,” said Keng. “Kelly was amazing to watch on set, as he was both acting and directing the film. He would be acting in one moment, then switch to director’s mode and talk about shots. This takes a great amount of multitasking. Despite doing multiple overnight shoots in a row, he was still filled with energy and concentration, which he was able to bring across to the entire crew.”

Keng was also a multi-tasker on set, working all the way from pre-production to post-production, ensuring everything was executed to perfection. With commitment like that, there is no doubt as to why he is considered such an exemplary cinematographer.

COELHO CREATES MAGIC BEHIND THE LENS

The film You Cast a Spell On Me is about relationships and magic. Movie magic gives us the escapism and captivating storytelling that we all desire. This magic doesn’t happen without the relationships and communication amongst the creative professionals who produce them for our enjoyment. Director of Photography Johanna Coelho’s job title may imply that she is solely focused on imagery but one of the keys to her success is the emphasis she places on communication in filmmaking. No matter what vocation you are involved in, communication may be the most important factor to success. Johanna’s shrewd understanding of this fact and the benevolent manner in which she utilizes it has made her a much sought after DP in the film industry. As a fluent English speaker who was raised on the outskirts of Paris, Coelho has a heightened awareness of the subtleties of communication and how different individuals receive and interpret information. Of course, being from France makes her very aware of romance; which made her the ideal DP for this production. Talent, communication, and a connection with the story being told were the components of the magic that she created for You Cast a Spell On Me.

It’s an obvious statement but, anyone who speaks more than one language has spent a greater amount of time dissecting and contemplating communication. It creates a deeper understanding of your own intentions as well as those of others. Life can be easier or more difficult based on the level of communication. The success of many films are based on the abilities of its creators to establish a rapport with the audience as well as to accurately depict the vision of the film. Fantasy films like You Cast a Spell On Me require someone like Johanna and Tosca Musk (director/producer) who can manifest visuals that don’t exist in our actual world. Speaking about Coelho’s work on the film, Musk declares, “Johanna’s cinematography work on this film was extremely impressive. She lead a full crew in an enjoyable environment and created visuals that were really uplifting to the story. There were also a lot of magic tricks happening in the story, and in collaboration with the art department, she brought these magic effects to life. Almost everything was done practically and it looks amazing; like real magic! She is a pleasure to work with. She was fully committed to the project and the vision I had as a Director. Johanna also was very mindful of the work of other departments, giving them their space when needed but also collaborating with everyone to have a smooth and organized shoot.”

You Cast a Spell On Me is a romance/fantasy film about a young and handsome warlock named Matt. His power is that he can charm women into finding him irresistible, literally. As one can expect, a young man with this power is apprehensive to settle down with one woman. This journey Matt takes towards finding his soulmate and depicts him losing his powers, others gaining powers, and the conflict and happy endings that one finds in romance films. Due to the nature of Matt’s character, many production departments were required to understand and work together to help create the visual “trickery” to produce the action in this film. The responsibilities of the Director of Photography can vary depending on the personality of a director. Some directors like to have a full control of the creative visuals. They have a very specific idea in mind and have a precise shot list with lighting references they want reproduced for the film. Other directors do not really want to (or know how to) deal with the visual part. They just want to focus on the actors. When similar minds meet…Coelho explains, “Sometimes you have a director in the middle of the two previous options, one that will want to share the creative approach with you. It’s a really fun process when this happens because the two of you have imaginative brains talking together about shots and exchanging visual references to find what would be the best for the story. Tosca Musk is that Director, and it was amazing to prep this film with her because we would really support each other in the process. One idea would lead to another idea and so on, giving life to ideas that might have never existed with only one person brainstorming. We were also both very open minded about each other’s input and this really helped the process.”

This template trickled down through Johanna’s ten-person camera crew. This DP makes sure to involve them in the pre-production process (especially the Gaffer and Key Grip) to keep everyone aware of the plan and prepare for lighting, etc. Johanna understands that a happy and respected crew of professionals are more motivated to work and share in a vison than those who are merely “punching the clock”, a mindset we can all relate to and understand. Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of communicating on set is with one’s self. Coelho reveals, “It is hard to stop for a second, and really look at the frame and lighting and be sure it’s the right setup. Focusing on one thing at a time is very important. If you do everything in order, your job will go much faster. You can switch back and forth between things quickly but each thing needs to be given its own respectful moment. It is also really important to know the blocking of the scene, because you don’t want to start lighting and discover in the middle of a take that your light is in the wrong place for your actor. So following the steps is key. It’s true that with everything going on at the same time, you can get lost in your own thoughts. It happened on one of my early student movies in 2011 at AFI and I was really angry at myself for having lost my point of view on the film. A teacher who watched it pointed this out to me and told me that when he would get confused on set, he would step out into the bathroom, turn the lights off so his eyes wouldn’t get distracted, take a deep breath, and remember what the movie should be for two minutes. Then he would come back on set fresh and clear minded. This is probably one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. I don’t go hide in the restrooms, but I do step outside into an empty corner where no one is talking to me and take a deep breath and think for two minutes. When I come back on set everything is fine and back in place in my mind.”

While those of us in the audience are blissfully unaware of all the moving parts behind the scenes of the shows and films which entertain us, the talented professionals creating them are always thinking of us and our subconscious desire to not be taken out of the film. None of that would be possible with the oversight of someone like Johanna Coelho. You Cast a Spell On Me was filmed in a staggering fourteen days; an incredible achievement for such a high quality production. This is only possible with someone such as Coelho who is planning out and paying attention to every possible time saving opportunity. Whether communicating with the AD to prep things while waiting for the actors, or planning the lighting so that the post production process runs more smoothly (Johanna states, “Colorist are key and they should have much more recognition as they’re always saving your back and make your work look better. I was happy I could assist in ways that helped the colorist. We would discuss it together for each shot.”).

It’s an obvious statement that every DP needs talent and the eye to find the images which the director needs. There are so many professionals in the world, it is those like Johanna Coelho whose ability to create a positive and efficient environment for filmmakers the set her above the rest.

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MAYER BRINGS A BEAUTIFUL SIDE TO “SHUN”

So much of life is about perspective. The way which we view the situation we find ourselves in, the circumstances that surround us, even the interpretation of this by others…all of these things factor into how happy or fulfilled we are at any point in our lives. The 2015 film Shun depicts these factors in the story of two chefs who happen to be father and son. As cinematographer for Shun, Avner Mayer is in charge of so many points of perspective that it’s practically dizzying. Mayer helps the audience (that’s perspective #1) to see things the way that the son (perspective #2) and father (that’s #3) do, by using his (#4) exemplary skills to communicate director/writer Shiyun (Lavi) Hu’s (#5) story. While many might see the cinematographer’s role as sitting at the camera and making sure the action is in focus, they fail to understand the depth of planning and all-seeing overlook of professionals like Mayer. Great cinematographers not only capture the action during filming but they become the eyes of both the production and the audience, coloring the emotional content to heighten what every other aspect of film creation has done, breathing life into the corporal vessel that is film. If that sounds hyperbolic to you, you don’t have experience in the film industry. A smart director understands that a cinematographer will lift a film to new heights or send it all crashing down in spite of its other redeeming qualities. Shun’s director has worked with Avner successfully on two films (the films Beyond and On The River) and it was due to his ability to cultivate depth in a film that she contacted him to be the DP for this production.

Shun is a very emotional movie for a number of reasons. It deals with a conflict between family, work, and self. Kazuki is a fifty-year-old Sushi sous chef and the right hand of his father (Yoshi) in the high-end grip sushi restaurant “Hasimoto”. Kazuki has worked under his father for the past 30 years but they have very different ideologies regarding food and life. Yoshi runs his restaurant with a strict, traditional, and almost sterile approach. He treats his food like a piece of art and believes others should do the same. For Kazuki food is a way to a man’s heart and soul, a tool to connect to people’s emotions. When Yoshi falls ill, he decides to pass the control of the restaurant to his son. Kazuki finds himself trapped between the need to continue his father’s heritage and in his own wishes. The deceptively simple storyline introduces many difficult emotional ideas. Dealing with the ailments and aging of one’s parents, the desire to find your own path in life and career while also desiring the approval of your parents; these are difficulties that many of us can relate to regardless of our country of origin or vocation. The universality of the theme allows everyone to access the filmmaker’s frame of reference but it was Mayer’s role to make it interesting for the audience. It’s obvious that this goal was well attained with Shun as it was an official film selection for such festivals as: Salento international Film festival (2016, Italy), Montreal World Film Festival (2016, Canada), the Toronto Reel Asian international film festival (2016, Canada), and as a finalist in the “Vizio” and “Dolby Vision” Filmmakers Challenge – Cinematography awards – 2016.

The differences between father and son in Shun establish the conflict that Kazuki (and we suspect Yoshi as well) must deal with throughout the film. Kazuki and Yoshi have drastically different approaches and opinions towards food and the process of creating it. Yoshi has an almost surgical, scientific approach to food making. He runs his kitchen like a Swiss clock factory. The work must be done in a precise predetermined order. Improvisation is not allowed. Yoshi’s connection to food is different. Preparing food is instinctual to him, full of flavor and improvisation. For Yoshi, food is a process of connecting with other human beings rather than a planned and organized ritual. To highlight this, Avner explains, “In order to show the differences between the father and son, we used our lights to create different energy. The lighting is clear, blue and bright when Yoshi runs the kitchen. It has an almost ambient/office feeling.  When Kazuki is in charge, the lighting changes to a dimmed yellow-red environment. This creates a much more comfortable and inviting atmosphere; like being at home.”

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Mayer also customized the lighting for the lighting for the restaurant location in Shun. The choice to create the restaurant on set rather than a preexisting location gave the production the availability to take the time and movement needed for their shots. Avner chose to use ambient studio lighting from above to again capitalize on the freedom of movement during filming. He notes, “The general approach to the lighting was high key and natural. We didn’t want the movie to feel lit but we still wanted to establish a high key ambience. In order to create this effect, we rigged big top light sources to create a soft, natural light. We aimed for a natural Japanese look and I feel we were very successful in achieving the proper look and feel. Camera wise, we wanted to be patient and static. We decided to tell the story mostly using the blocking and editing (different camera positions) and to keep it as simple as possible. This is the way the characters in Shun see the world so we adopted this approach in telling their story.”

While you can see a great deal of Mayer’s talent and skill as a cinematographer when viewing Shun, you won’t see the largest part of it. Director Shiyun (Lavi) Hu declares, “Avner is very precise in his planning. This was a great benefit to Shun since we shot almost everything in a studio, which limited our shots selection.  Avner’s preparation work with our Production Designer allowed us to maximize the space to our need’s, using lighting built into the design and creating moveable set walls for extra flexibility. I had the pleasure to collaborate with Avner as my cinematographer on previous projects. At this point we have a blind understanding of each other, which makes the filmmaking process fast and efficient.” Shun’s producer, Cedric Gamelin, states, “Usually when you shoot a movie, you have surprises in every step. In this project the process was the smoothest I have ever encountered, I must say that Avner and the team’s preparation work made it seem easy. Avner did all of that without jeopardizing the images, which were magnificent! I’m very proud to be a part of the team who created Shun.” Avner Mayer is happy to be a cinematographer that is appreciated and respected among his peers in the film industry, whether it be for his work on set or the planning of it. He relates, “Since I discovered in my early twenties that I wanted to be a part of filmmaking, to arouse that same excitement that I felt sitting in a theater…I’ve always been excited about all the parts of the process. I feel that the key for a successful project usually lays in the preparation work. It requires a lot of communication between all the key groups involved in order to be synched on one vision. When everybody is synched like that, the set can be a big celebration…and who doesn’t want to be a part of a big celebration!”

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Director of Photography Sergey Savchenko “not working for industry, but making it”

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Sergey Savchenko was born in Siberia.

“I meet people, I listen to their stories and watch their lives. I see and try to understand the visual styles and colors of different countries and places. Every day I try to develop myself, to apply my experience in creating my own style, and hone my skills.”

Those are the words of Siberian born Sergey Savchenko, when describing what he does as a director of photography. Those are the words of someone who does what they do because they love it. Every project Savchenko works on is a learning opportunity. He constantly aims to be better, and he is already respected in the industry for what he does.

“Once, when I was experimenting with video, I noticed something. It was a feeling that I was not previously familiar with. It was seeing how my thoughts and ideas became a reality through film. I understood that I can capture a mood, an attitude, a feeling. It was the spark of creation. I can’t compare this feeling with anything else. I can not only consume, but create. From that moment, this feeling for me becomes one of the most strong and pleasant. I feel that I’m alive when filming and create a certain style or idea,” he said.

Savchenko’s work is recognized across the globe, and has been nominated for several awards. He worked with REN-TV on That’s My House, which was a finalist when it was nominated for “Best Leisure and Lifestyle program spot” at the Promax BDA Europe in 2015. This year, his work on the promo Americans won Bronze in the “Best Drama Promo” category of the Promax BDA UK awards. Savchenko considers these true victories, but they still came as a big surprise.

The feeling is hard to describe. In our work, we constantly ‘run’, focusing on the ‘road’, not looking around. When your job gets to the finals of the international competition, you start to ‘look around’, trying to figure out where you are and realize that you are ‘running’ in the company of giants like the BBC and Discovery. It’s an interesting feeling,” he said.

While at REN-TV, Savchenko worked closely with Roman Toloknov, the chief Director of the Promo Department and the two became close. Tolokonov says Savchenko has a loud voice, joking that he can’t decide if it is a good thing or not, as he Savchenko is never afraid to tell even his boss when something “sucks.”

“Sergey came to our department in late summer of 2013. I immediately saw in him a man who can give good advice and bring our ideas to life. We worked for three years and got a huge number of promotional projects. Sergey is like an engine. You start the engine and it works,” he said. “Sergey has this massive energy, he loves what he does – that’s what really got to me when he came for an interview. He is not working for the industry, he is making the industry.” 

Savchenko describes Toloknov as having an excellent sense of style and humor, producing more great ideas than he team can manage to film. For Savchenko, despite the awards and recognition, it’s the people he has worked with that have made his career into something he loves.

“You know, it is always a surprise to receive awards, it’s very nice, but this joy fades away. It’s always a pleasure to share this joy with someone, but a reward by itself does not bring happiness. The award is a measure of official recognition, it affects to your confidence, but the support of a family and friends, and their faith in you, is much stronger than any award,” he said.

Having this attitude keeps Savchenko humble. Despite his many accolades, he does what he loves for himself and the people he loves. He is motivated by the challenges of the profession, which one can only do when they are truly passionate about something. He knows that every take can have a different approach, and every other director of photography will do it differently, but he takes his time and finds the best approach.

“It’s similar to how you tune a musical instrument, feeling only the vibration from it in your body. You don’t hear the sound, you only see the faces of those who listen to your music. The best gift is to see smiles on faces, this means that your music is resonance in the hearts of the audience. Your instrument is tuned. Constant practice and selfless love helps along the way. Any task has 100 ways to solve and we are always looking for the best choice. The storytelling language, the style and the color is very similar to our speech, if we start talking randomly – we might upset or offend someone, nobody likes scrappy speech. Video products directly affect the consciousness and sub consciousness of an audience, therefore it is necessary to control the quality and check 10 times to make sure, that what you’re doing is right and carries a beautiful thought,” he advised.

Savchenko is not simply a director of a photography. He is an artist. He is a creator. He knows this, but uses his gift to positively affect not only the people directly around him, but those that see his work. There is no doubt that his name will continue to roll through the credits in film and television for years to come.

“I want to grow as a director of photography and work in the film industry. I truly love what I do the more than anything in the world,” he concluded.

SIMU FENG CREATES A DARK AND MYSTERIOUS CHINA IN “SHOP OF ETERNAL LIFE”

Shop of Eternal Life is the passion project of director/writer/producer Yizhou Xu. In the film, he uses an almost literal metaphor to show the dangers we humans can make in times of desperation. It’s an evergreen tale that applies to all peoples of this planet. It just so happens that Xu’s film takes place in two by gone eras of his homeland, 1920’s and 1950’s China. Not only is there an other-worldly occult thread in the film but the obstacle of transforming downtown Los Angeles into an almost hundred-year-old China. While giving great credit to his crew and cast, Xu admits that his secret weapon for this transformation appearing so convincingly on screen was Shop of Eternal Life’s cinematographer Simu Feng. The award-winning Yizhou Xu declares, ““Simu is the most professional cinematographer I have ever worked with. Simu is such a vital part of this project because he is the metronome of the production. The most time consuming part of any film production is the lighting and camera positioning. We had a lot of shots in the film and it was paramount to have a cinematographer with the confidence to finish those shots with the highest quality and to do so very quickly. Simu finished the task without wasting a single second; and his efficiency didn’t harm the result of the image at all. Simu knows how to take limitations and challenges and transfer them into creativity.” The filmmaker’s peers and public definitely agreed with the finished product as it was an official selection at: the 36th Hawaii International Film Festival, the 20th Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, the 10th Bali International Film Festival, and the 8th San Jose International Short Film Festival. The look which Feng bestowed upon Shop of Eternal Life belies the budgetary confines which Xu relates. A story which spans the struggles of its main character, his transformation, and the cautionary tale it communicates deserves a beautiful and elegant aesthetic; one which it richly possesses thanks to Simu Feng.

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Shop of Eternal Life is a film full of fantasy and terror, relating the choices we sometimes make and the unexpected results they have on us as well as others. Even the best of intentions can result in malevolent outcomes for all involved parties. The film is the story of a poor man in 1920’s China who ventures to a pawnshop, hoping to sell his wedding ring to save his sick wife. The shop owner offers only a pittance…or a deal. Rather than money, the pawn shop owner suggests that the husband sell his heart for a great deal of money to him. The man feels he has no choice but to take the offer in hopes of saving his spouse’s life. Many years later, the husband returns to the shop to redeem his heart, but his time without a heart has transformed him into a monster. He discovers that his heart is no longer at the shop. Doomed to a heartless life (literally), he kills the pawnshop owner and assumes duties as its proprietor.

The storyline itself immediately conjures mental images of fright and fantasy infused characters and their surroundings. It was Simu’s task to make the images visible on screen to match the reality of China in the 20’ and 50’s as well as the mystic ideas presented by the subject matter. Feng relates, “The film’s visual dark tone is the key element for the story. We did this through lighting and camera work. I did thorough tech scouting with my long time gaffer Toshi Kizu and planned out the whole low key lighting scheme. I wanted the pawnshop owner character to be part of this darkness; I wanted him to feel inseparable from the shop itself. We hid several single tube kinoflos to give some small pools of light in the room and to add to the depth of the set. Camera movement was also very carefully planned out so the move was always motivated. We didn’t want the audience to feel the existence of the camera. Combined with the blocking of actors, we were able to create tension and a sense of the mystery at the same time. I’ve always felt that, by planning things out appropriately, you can help the audience forget about the technical aspects of a film and thereby lose themselves in the story…which is what we want as filmmakers and what the audience wants as well.” Yizhou Xu confirms, “Simu achieved a very strong visual style in Shop of Eternal Life; a mystery and a sense of darkness. I think this stylish look is the most important part of the film and it’s the first thing people talk about concerning this film. Because of the fascinating visual style, people have the patience to dig deeper on the subject and theme of the film. As a filmmaker, that helps me to tell the story.” Feng continues to explain the look of the film in commenting, “Because the film consists of two different time periods (the 1920’s and the 1950’s.), we wanted them to be really different, making sure the audience gets the idea that the poor man has changed into a monster. The production designer (Dara Zhao) did a great job building the set to be authentic to the time periods yet retaining our own dark and mysterious style. When we discussed the practical lights in the shop, we decided that for the 1920’s we would dress the shop with candle lanterns, and for the 1950s we went with tungsten bulbs. The practical lights are always important for me because all my lighting is motivated from these practical lights. The warm color given off by the lanterns, combined with the black pro-mist filter I put in front of the lenses, gave the 1920’s a softer and warmer tone. I shot the 1950’s with no filter and the tungsten bulbs flaring directly into the lens, making the look harsher and brighter. With more desaturation in color correction, the 1950’s looked pale and cold, fitting the change of the character.”

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Both the look of Shop of Eternal Life and the lesson of the film itself are entertaining and gripping. Yizhou Xu uses his film to communicate the idea that in our sacrificial attempts to help those we love; we risk the danger of turning into monsters. Making a deal with the devil may be very literal in this film but it has great relevance to many everyday choices. The film production itself conceals the challenges that the cast and crew overcame to create such a polished film. Simu Feng is thankful for the creative and unique approaches the production was forced to invent as he states, “Working on a small budget film is always difficult but it can be a truly fun experience if the filmmakers try to make a difference. Every filmmaker will face the situation in which they don’t have enough resources to achieve what they imagined and planned. I always believe certain limitations help yield better result by forcing creative people to come up with ‘poor man’ solutions. The luxury of a big budget does make a lot of things easier, but working on small-scale project helps me to keep the spirit of being flexible and the ability to adapt myself to changing circumstances.”

 

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A CANADIAN’S PERSPECTIVE ON “AMERIKA”

There’s no escaping the discussion of current events in America right now. That should come as a surprise to no one. With an election that has taken most of the past two years and a complete switch in the majority political party, it seems as if the entire planet is watching the US. You can’t turn on a news programs without getting the network’s opinion, so why should music be any different? Of course, musicians have long used their creativity to present their ideas, there’s nothing new to that. You can go back more than two hundred years to the protest song “Yankee Doodle” and see that even the founding fathers had musicians weighing in with their take on current events. The more overt and modern equivalent of this is the music video. “Amerika” is the song and video by Canadian band Wintersleep which presents their perspective of the modern US events and temperament. Just as with “Yankee Doodle”, “Amerika” is a protest song. The first person director Scott Cudmore thought of for the cinematographer position on “Amerika” was Peter Hadfield. This duo has worked on a number of high profile videos (including Vimeo Staff Pick “It’s Okay, I Promise” by Harrison x/Clairmont the Second and the sci-fi “Needs” video from Adonis Adonis) and both were eager to repeat the experience. Katy Maravala (producer for “Amerika”) was also keen to repeat her experience working with Peter as well. Maravala, whose client list includes; Drake, Rihanna, Arkells, and Halsey declares, “Peter has always been one of my first choices as director of photography. I feel confident in saying that Peter is one of the most genuine, humble, and talented humans I have ever met. As proof of his incredible talent, “Americka” was nominated for a UKMVA [United Kingdom Music Video Award]. The breathtaking images in this video were not easily earned. During the video we encountered some challenging locations; frozen waterfalls, old houses, a two-hour hike in the woods, and desolate buildings all in the middle of a Canadian winter. Peter remained positive, upbeat and an absolute joy to work with even during this tempestuous time.”

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While the relationship vignettes are compelling, the vistas in “Amerika” are grand and give the video a cinematic feeling. “Amerika” was shot in Hamilton, Ontario; a steel town on the coast of Lake Ontario that has come into hard times. The people of Ontario often refer to Hamilton as “The Hammer”. While the town possesses a great deal of beauty, it’s easy to see there many of its residents are surviving day to day. The opening shot was taken on the coldest day of the year with a temperature of -40 degrees F with wind chill. At times, Peter couldn’t operate the camera because the wind made his eyes water and the cold would freeze the tears. Hand warmers were taped to the camera batteries to keep them functioning. It was less than ideal circumstances. The crew shot for an uncommon five days in order to get shots at precisely the correct time of day for the desired effects. Their guerilla approach called for a lot of hiking through snow to reach some of the isolated locations. Again, less than ideal in subzero temperatures. It’s hard to find elite professionals whom are willing to endure these scenarios but Hadfield instills, “I am extremely passionate about creating socio political messages in film making. That’s what I’m here for. When I see it in other videos it makes me so happy and excited. When there’s anyone that’s willing to go out on a limb and say something truthful about the way our society is functioning, I couldn’t be more excited. Mainstream artists make art videos too. Kanye West has amazing music videos. There were parts of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” that were beautiful and evocative. Radiohead just put out an incredible video shot by Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Elswit that I definitely consider art. If I could make something as potent as that “Daydreaming” video, I’d be very pleased. The alternative artists like Wintersleep who put out videos that have less glamorization in them have the freedom to strive for more substance. They’re freer to say something political or polarizing because there isn’t as much money involved or pressure from the record companies and distributors. The music industry has fewer record companies directly involved, allowing artists to self-release. I think we’ll start seeing more videos with greater substance. We’ll start seeing more videos like Kanye West’s “Famous”. But there will always be artists on the fringe, making meaningful work and encouraging the next generation of people to develop their talent. The hope is that they use this to make a positive impact on the world. This is the agreement among all creative people; we are to use our talents to improve the lives of people and the world itself.”

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While this video may seem to be something of a mirror to hold up to the US, Hadfield professes his fondness for the artists and potential of the people found in the spirit of America. He recognizes that the film world finds its epicenter in the US. Peter comments, “There are great music videos and incredibly talented artists coming out of Canada, but most talented people here end up going to America and succeeding. There are amazing opportunities there, you can’t deny it. I think being on a set in Hollywood would be an amazing feeling. I think the greatest joy is being on set, with a camera on my shoulder. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting to the right location at the right time and capturing something special. It’s extremely satisfying and inspiring, and leaves me wanting more and more. Being a cinematographer takes a lot of self-discipline; staying focused and working towards an unattainable goal. That unattainable goal is being a great cinematographer. The challenge is getting than next great shot. I’ve got in insatiable appetite for capturing images, and as my taste and skill grow, I’ll always be reaching for the next shot that means something.” Striving for greatness, isn’t that what we all want for America?

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