Category Archives: Filmmakers

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.

PRODUCER GIGI HUANG HAS AN ECLECTIC WORK PALETTE

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For Chinese producer Huang Zhe (known in the industry as Gigi) it has never been a decision of nurture vs nature but rather both. Raised and educated early on in China, she chose to pursue a career in production based on an acting experience the summer after graduating high school. While she didn’t fully embrace acting, the idea of telling stories has always been something to which she was drawn. Beijing China is known universally for Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall but, this Beijing native refers to “HuTong” as the personal defining spot in her home city. As she explains, “My favorite place in Beijing is still the Alley that we call ‘HuTong. The  ‘HuTong’ culture still retains its own character, which attracts everyone’s attention.” This fixation with authenticity, history, and character is a trait which Huang has brought to the many productions and type of productions with which she has been involved, making her an indispensable part of each. Whether aiding a director to achieve his/her vision, tweaking budgetary and scheduling constraints, or helping to produce stories which she feels emotionally attached to; Gigi has become a much sought after and respected producer in the modern film industry.

A great producer, much like a great actor or any other exemplary professional, feels that every project shares the same importance in the sense that it is an opportunity to create greatness. Gigi has produced a variety of commercial productions alongside notable directors such as Zhen Pan and Bianca Yeh. Working with animals, minors, brutal weather conditions, all variables are welcomed by Gigi as she thrives on problems solving. While adversity dissuades others, Gigi comments, “A producer must be a thorough and excellent problem-solver. We always stand in the position where the problem exists. There are so many details I have to think of in advance, requiring not just ‘a plan’ but a plan B or plan C for each situation.” Director Zhen Pan worked with Huang on commercials for Lepow [electronics] and declares, “It was a great experience working with Huang Zhe on the Lepow Branding Commercial. She’s such a leader, great listener, and talented individual. If you need help, she’s always there no matter what you need or which department you are in. She always thinks outside the box, managing to figure out a best way to help you solve the problem which, as a director is what I value more than any other trait.” While cats are notoriously independent/non-team players, the spots which Gigi produced with director Bianca Yeh for Katris appear seemingly effortless. It was such a positive experience that Yeh made sure Huang was signed on as producer for the spots she directed for JieLing Liquid Repellent spray, and Zephyr (high end stove/range), even though the production efforts had to be based on completely opposite sides of the country.

Most of Huang’s film productions are based around a more serious and contemplative tone. While she enjoys this approach in the film’s message, Gigi feels that it is in a large part her responsibility to set a positive an upbeat tone for the crew and cast who create the film. The 2016 film Promise Land dealt with the struggle of a man and woman of Jewish descent and their avoidance of the German military in the late 1930’s. Behind the scenes, the cast and crew were dealing with filming in very cold weather conditions. Gigi appealed to their sense of determination by appealing to their stomachs…and some very fine meals. Produced by Huang in the same year was I Heard the Flowers Blooming When I Was 80, a film which communicates that it is never too late to realize a childhood dream. This movie was originally crippled and seemed to be out of commission until its director persuaded Huang to come aboard and essentially “reboot” this project (which would go on to win for Best Screenplay at the 4th Golden Panda International Short Film Festival). One of the essential characters in the film is an old piano. As one can imagine, transporting this instrument across streets during filming was not an enviable task. Gigi’s planning of locations and “alterations” to the piano made for a very appreciative crew as well as a successful and award-winning completion. Max and Aimee, which Huang produced in 2015 was close to her as it deals with the topics of dementia and Alzheimer’s which has directly affected her own family. The film received worldwide critical acclaim and awards including a Special Mention Award: International Open Film Festival (IOFF)Lima Bean Film Fest (and countless others). Max and Aimee’s director/writer: Michael Alex Pearce was so impressed with how the film turned out that he approached Huang recently about creating a Virtual Reality version of it (which was completed in early 2017). Definitely a new type of production for Gigi but one which she threw herself into completely, as with all her projects. Kathleen Courtney (line producer of the 2013 feature film The Boy Next Door starring by Jennifer Lopez) enlisted Huang to work on this feature film and states, “I enjoy Gigi’s enthusiasm, as did everyone on set. I hope to work with her again in the future.”

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Even though she has steered so many successful productions, Gigi leans on her early experiences and states, “I really like working behind the stage rather than being on the stage or in front of the camera. When I think of that first experience I had, after graduating from high school; when a few of my best friends and I went on a trip and filmed a movie for my friend’s portfolio to get into USC…I learned so much during that trip. We didn’t have advanced equipment, the only thing that we had was only a video camera, but we used different ways to solve problems. I still remember using small sprinklers to make the raining scene and using a bicycle instead of a moving dolly; I was riding on a friend’s shoulder and finished the high angle shot. In many ways, this experience taught me that if you want to make a film, you find a way to make it happen. My resources may be more plentiful and available, the cameras and gear and more advanced, the cast and crew more talented but, once you have a problem or snag in the production, you fall back onto what you know. For me, I learned that what I know is that I have to plan as much as possible and improvise when all else fails.” Isn’t that exactly what every filmmaker wants to hear from the mouth of their producer?

 

 

GREENWOOD ISN’T AFRAID OF THE ANTI-SEQUEL

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There is a quote that is attributed to many fine actors that states, “Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.” It has been repeated by Academy Award winners like Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon (most consider Edmund Kean to be the originator) and speaks to the fact that making something seem spontaneous and light hearted takes a fair bit more convincing than a dire situation. There’s also a fairly common belief that the film industry takes itself too seriously and rejects mockery. This is a notion to which Canadian writer/producer/actor Troy Greenwood does not subscribe. As a part of the FAFC (Film Actors Fight Club), Greenwood helped create the award winning film Diamond Planet. With a very self-deprecating approach, Diamond Planet poked fun at filmmakers, the film industry, and even film students. In this production, fools abounded while intelligence was scarce. The film was so popular that Troy decided to write/produce and act in the sequel…a sequel which is in fact about a film that is not yet a film. As proof that filmmakers revel in self ridicule, Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon was embraced with greater enthusiasm than the original (winning at the Calgary Film Challenge and going on to screen at the Sun and Sand Film Festival in Mississippi). Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon is a testament to the fact that as long as creative individuals take themselves too seriously, there will be peers among them who remind us all how absurd they seem.

It has increasingly become commonplace for filmmakers to feed upon themselves, recycling films and themes from the past, sometimes even repeating the same current day premise but with different casts. While Diamond Planet shone a light on laughable concepts in modern film, Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon turns its gaze to the film industry’s lack of originality and ingenuity. It seems that the current M.O. is to go for a wide audience that assures box office rather than fosters new ideas and artists; at least for the most part. Greenwood had a clear idea for a sequel which immediately follows the action of the first film. In Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon, Ollie Swagger (the filmmaker from the original Diamond Planet) steals the idea for the “Diamond Planet” that was pitched in the first film. He’s going to try and sell the idea to a studio at the annual pitchtime event. Unfortunately for Ollie, when he was bragging about it the night before the meeting, his nemesis overheard him. The next day when they are seated together, Swagger starts into a pitch about “Diamond Planet”. In the film’s premise, the Diamond Planet will cross between the sun and the earth, magnifying the sun’s rays and burning the earth to a crisp. The government wants to send optometrists into space to change the curvature of the Diamond Planet rendering the rays harmless. However, Swagger’s nemesis jumps in, pitching his movie “Emerald Horizon” about a giant emerald planet and ophthalmologists in space. We, as the actual audience, see cuts back and forth between trailers for these films as they are pitched. Each trailer becomes more and more ridiculous until they’re basically turned into one complete parody of a movie; to which the studio’s representative responds “I like it, but how about a hamster!” The unseen wink with which Greenwood delivers the humor is obvious to all. One need not look too far into recent movie productions to see evidence of this scenario. Cutting to the core of the movie’s lesson, Troy notes, “Anything that tries too hard to purport itself is funny.”

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Due to the nature of “Diamond Planet” (the spoof movie) being a science fiction suspense thriller, the production value and the cast for this sequel necessitated a sizable increase from the original Diamond Planet. Because the original was so successful, it helped to propel much of the original cast and crew into busier careers and thus some key players proved unavailable for this sequel. Luckily the popularity of Diamond Planet attracted the interest and involvement of a large number of respected Canadian actors (both films are Canadian productions). This included noted theater and film actor Stuart Bentley. Greenwood’s prowess at a multitude of production roles, in addition to the script is what enticed Bentley to join the cast of Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon. He comments, “Over the years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with Troy Greenwood on stage and in film. In a production of Inherit the Wind Troy gave a masterfully understated and relatable performance of the accused schoolteacher, Bertram Cates. Troy effortlessly navigated this difficult character, drawing in audiences and critical approval. I had the opportunity to act in Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon which Troy wrote, directed, and starred in. Troy had written a wonderfully funny script, and easily navigated the tricky job of acting and directing in his own production. He took great care of his cast and crew, and kept the production flowing on time, while being careful to ensure that every needed master and coverage shot was captured to realize his artistic vision. Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon was a great success with judges and audiences and continues to be one of my favorite film projects of the past several years.” In addition to Bentley, the considerably larger cast included notables such as Jesse Collin (Fargo), Helen Young, and many others. Troy remarks, “Stuart, Louie, and Helen were all a breeze to work with. Stuart’s presence as the president had a great gravitas to it.  He really milked the moments of humour in the script, nailing the timing of lines to keep the pacing moving as the film progressed. Helen was also wonderful to work with. I had an interesting shot envisioned where the camera rotates around her before landing on the president; she was a trooper repeating the sequence a number of times while we worked out the technical kinks with the camera movement.”

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Another positive aspect of any sequel is that the success of the initial production allows for a higher production value in the second installment. The aforementioned larger cast and a greater array of interesting locations (including the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, and the Springbank Airport Flying Club), were augmented by state of the art VFX. Greenwood relates, “I invested money to buy specific models we needed through a 3D modelling page.  Specifically, I got two distinct space ships for the two different versions of the trailer within the film, and planet models for the solar system, and then a diamond model so that my VFX artist could place them into the editor and articulate them to create the sequences you see in the film.” In fact, Troy concedes that he had to make sure the graphics were not too professional, in order to add to the humor of the trailers and the actual film itself.

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Diamond Planet 2: Emerald Horizon represents a blind spot in the film industry. While a considerable number of studios and filmmakers steer towards repeating proven ideas rather than creating new ones, Troy Greenwood has found a way to turn that concept around and use it against the very premise it represents…and still be wildly entertaining. Greenwood refers to comedy as a unique beast, remarking that you can plan all you want but often what is required is to just sit back and watch. Be careful filmmakers, you are being watched.

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Camera operator Mike Heathcote “moves with grace and precision of a dolly” on upcoming series The Handmaid’s Tale

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Michael Heathcote is from Toronto, Ontario

Michael Heathcote is a storyteller. He does not write them, nor does he read them aloud, but his work allows film to come alive. Perhaps this is not as obvious as an actor, but Heathcote’s work as a camera/Steadicam operator allows the stories we watch on the big and small screen to come alive. It is that we don’t know he is there until his name passes by our eyes in the credits that makes him so outstanding.

In his words, Heathcote describes the camera operator as the one who is responsible for physically operating and composing the camera to best tell the story. The camera operator can operate a camera on a dolly, sticks, remotely on a crane, handheld on the shoulder or with a special camera stabilization device called a “Steadicam”. A Steadicam is a specialized tool that takes years to master. The camera operator wears a vest and connects a spring arm that distributes and supports the weight of the camera counterbalanced on a post. With years of experience the camera operator can move the camera smoothly over uneven terrain, up and down stairs or in locations where a dolly track cannot be laid. The camera operator works with the director and cinematographer to help them execute their vision.

“There was just something about looking through the lens of a camera, seeing the action and performance live and being responsible for composing the frame to tell the story that excited me,” said Heathcote.

Heathcote has already had a career many dream of. The Torontonian worked on award-winning films and television series with Hollywood’s biggest stars. This past year alone, he worked on the critically-acclaimed Canadian television show Cardinal, filmed the pilot for the new show Issues, and worked alongside Academy Award winning director Alexander Payne on the upcoming film Downsizing, starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and Bruce Willis. He also filmed the Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood classic, that comes out this Spring.

“I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have worked on such an amazing TV series as The Handmaid’s Tale. There were so many talented people involved who worked very hard during pre-production, production and post-production as they prepare for the April release. It was an absolute pleasure to work with them. Every day I came to set I was excited and inspired to do my best work,” said Heathcote.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future dystopian England, where a woman named Offred is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship. The director, Reed Morano, wanted the audience to experience the story through the lead character of Offred as though they were right there with her, experiencing and seeing things as she did. To achieve this look and feel, Heathcote would use either handheld or Steadicam very close to the actors.

“As a Director of Photography that has always acted as my own camera operator and someone who has a very particular taste when it comes to composition and framing to capture emotion and light, I had never been impressed with anyone operating for me, much less satisfied. That was until I worked with Mike Heathcote on the series I directed, The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only was I pleased with Mike’s interpretation of the visual language I had set up in the show, but his talent blew me away.  Mike, as a Steadicam operator, moves with the grace and precision of a dolly,” said Morano. “You never feel that the shot is a Steadicam shot.  You’re never aware of the camera- which to me is the sign of an amazing Steadicam move.  It’s the mark of an incredible operator.  Not only that, Mike’s skills as a handheld operator went far beyond my expectations. Operating handheld takes a certain level of intuition that cannot be taught.  You either have ‘it’ or you don’t. Mike has it. The camera was always where I wanted it to be, always elegantly framed.  And there is no greater compliment I can give. I feel so lucky to have found him.”

In addition to working with Morano, Heathcote worked closely with the cinematographer, Colin Watkinson. Morano and Watkinson recognized Heathcote’s talents early on, and encouraged him to express any ideas he had, and gave him the freedom to explore a shot.

The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most creatively rewarding projects I have had the pleasure to work on,” described Heathcote. “We went against conventional TV framing and were trying to do something different with this project. I really enjoyed trying to find new and interesting compositions that helped tell the story. Every day I was excited to get up for work.”

Watkinson truly believes that choosing Heathcote as a Steadicam operator was one of the best decisions that they made, and his work contributed to the overall success of the series.

“Not only has he maintained a truly professional attitude throughout production, but Mike also delivered Steadicam shots of the highest quality. He has executed perfectly each director’s needs, maintained our style for the show and continues to add his own flair to raise each shot to a beautiful level. It has been an absolute honor and a pleasure to work next to someone who cares so much about his craft and at the same time showing an interest in the project, which makes him a complete team player. High praise indeed yet entirely out of merit,” said Watkinson.

It is without a doubt that with Heathcote’s talent and determination, his work will continue to impress both those who he works with, and audiences that see what he is capable of.

The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Wednesday April 26th, on Hulu. Check out the trailer here.

PRODUCING A PAINFUL WAR FILM WITH “DAVID” YU HAO SU IN “RESURGENT”

Yu Hao Su is Harvey Keitel. Okay, maybe he isn’t the Oscar nominated actor but just like Keitel’s character Mr. White in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, David (as Su in known) has a reputation for being a “fixer” in the film industry. When the 2016 Action/Thriller Resurgent needed to do a reshoot for scenes which take place in Afghanistan, David was contacted to contribute his exemplary producing skills. A reshoot is so crucial to a film because it has to match the existing footage in so many ways as to seem and feel that it was part of the original filming. Any deviation from the tone and mood of the existing principal footage could derail the already massive amount of work a production has executed, to say nothing of completely distracting the audience. As the editor of this film, no one is more qualified than James Stiegelbauer to comment on the work of David on the reshoot. Stiegelbauer proclaims, “Yu-Hao was calm under pressure. When our director made last minute script changes, everyone was concerned it couldn’t be pulled off but Yu-Hao didn’t even flinch. He made a few calls and quickly got everything that was needed. Yu-Hao is detail oriented, resourceful, and is never afraid to get his hands dirty. I would ask him to work on every job if I could. We could not have finished Resurgent without his hard work. He coordinated with the actors, locations, and crew quickly making all the necessary arrangements to meet our needs. As an Editor, I’m not on set, but I do need to be in constant communication with the director and cinematographer. Yu-Hao was crucial in this communication. This ability to be able to keep the work flowing even as unforeseen factors arise and must be dealt with…that’s what the truly great producers possess.”

Resurgent is a film which depicts the story of a mercenary who must come to terms with a botched mission in order to return to the battlefield. Max, the main character (played by Manny Cartier) is suffering from the pain of his partner who has died in a military missionary with him in Afghanistan. The action and military theme of this film necessitates stunts, something which David is familiar in dealing with. Setting the table in a safe manner for these stunts is highly important to him. He notes, “We have a lot of stunt in the film. I need to make sure the stunts are done right in order to make sure the actors are completely safe. We not only have the stunt coordinator on set but also a set medic. This may seem obvious but every little situation must be planned for regardless of if it ever needs to be used. We also have a weapon wrangler on set to make sure people are aware on set, even though the weapons are just props. My job is not only to make sure the stunt scenes are well-planned but also to make sure the set is safe. I take stunts very seriously. Because it’s an action film with a lot of stunts (and we filmed in a dessert to cheat it as Afghanistan) I needed to make sure our production was a self-contained unit with everything we could possibly need at a moment’s notice. It’s not easy to shoot stunt scenes with weapon props in the desert. I need to make sure everyone is safe not only because of the stunt actions but also the difficult shooting environment.”

For those of us who don’t work in the film industry, it might be hard to understand exactly what a producer does on set. For those who do work in film, it’s difficult to overemphasize the impact a producer has on any film. A producer’s role can be described as parent, police officer, president, healer, and best friend…all in one person. A producer is the person who supplies what you need even before you understand and comprehend that you need it. It’s a conflicting situation for most producers. They love what they do but they rarely are afforded the opportunity to lose themselves in the fun of watching the movie magic they help to create. David states, “Being in charge of the reshoot for Resurgent was fun, there’s no mistaking that. I just had to always be thinking a few steps ahead. There is really no time for losing yourself in the moment. It’s interesting to shoot an action film. The stunt sequences with the stunt coordinator are fun and look amazing in the film. Watching that when the film is finished is fun. There are always challenges that are unique to each film. The desert location we filmed didn’t have a phone signal or Internet. It’s very hard to run a set without this technical stuff. We ended up planning it well and got the work done in spite of this. There is nothing to complain about for me. I’m so excited to be a part of this industry. To focus on the story and tell the story from an essential human’s point of view. I believe truth and humanity is the key to delivering a story everyone can understand and connect to.”

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ALL HEED THE MESSAGE OF AWAKEN

The arts have been the creative analogous tool of creative types for centuries. This format to communicate the real life situations with which society is confronted must often be done in a covert manner. In order to avoid strife and previously held opinions, avenues like music, literature, theater, and film, are utilized to help us see things from other perspectives. This methodology often finds us sympathizing in a first person sense, placing ourselves in the shoes of others and their circumstances. Historically, great art has struck a chord in the collective society and spurred on movements that create change. This is the story told in the film Awaken by Bruce Sze Han Chen. It is a lofty idea that he proposes in the film. In order to successfully bring about his vision, Bruce obtained the successful production talents of “David” Yu Hao Su. The many accolades and recognitions that the film has received prove that this decision was well founded for all involved parties. Some of the achievements include: Accolade Competition 2015 (Winner-Award of Merit), Alaska International Film Festival (Winner-Northern Lights Emerging Talent Award), California Film Awards (Winner-Diamond Award), Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards (Best Production Design), Mexico International Film Festival (Winner-Golden Palm Award), World Film Awards, Jakarta (Award of Merit), and on and on. Regardless of geographic location, audiences were captivated by Awaken’s message, a message which was delivered exactly as its creator had envisioned thanks to the support and talent of his producer David (as well as co-producer Pin Chun Liu). As with any great artist, having the professionals around you to allow you the freedom to create your art is paramount.

Awaken is a story which is applicable to any society, political system, or theology on the planet. The heroine of the film is Sophie. She has spent her life working in an enormous factory. In this facility, the workers’ minds are controlled by the music which is ubiquitous. One day, Sophie is suddenly impervious to the effects of the music and she decides to destroy the music system in order to free everyone from its effects and the factory’s dictator who is in control. The message is thinly veiled but easily understood; be in control of your own life rather than to unconsciously follow a path which is handed down to you by others, others who may be less concerned about your well-being than their own. As a producer on Awaken, it was David’s role to assist Bruce (the director) to find a production designer, costume designer, and other principle team members. Location and casting was a particularly vital part of this film. The lead actress playing Sophie is a minor which meant that scheduling needed to be coordinated around strict guidelines. The futuristic location of a massive factory was coordinated among three different venues. To further complicate things, an enormous amount of extras were cast and then supplemented with VFX to complete the proper feel of the factory and its workers. David reveals, “We needed to create a lot of workers to show how big the factory is and how many people are controlled by the dictator. We decide to use VFX to duplicate the workers. We found an excellent VFX team to helps us prepare the work and coordinate it with the Camera and Art departments. Even though we decided to use VFX to duplicate the workers in the factory, we still needed a huge amount of extras to create the materials for the VFX team. Also the location we had for the factory was huge, so it required us to have an enormous amount of extras on set. My production team and I posted casting information online and called all the actors we knew in order to have so many extras come to our set. The VFX works is the most challenging part for me because we had a very limited budget and time to plan the VFX. It ended up that the VFX scene worked very well and it’s all because of the teamwork each department devoted.” To fully understand the role David played in Awaken, consider that the actual principal filming took five days. His preproduction involvement began two months prior to filming and his post-production work took place for three months following its conclusion. That’s a ratio of 1/20 or more. The beauty and strength of the message in Awaken solidify the fact that when creative artists of all vocations work together, they can create and communicate in a manner that reaches the public and critics. The beauty of this film lies not only in its aesthetic but also in its content, both of which are fueled by the amazing team that brought it into existence.

 

 

 

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DIORS SAMURAI IS ZHENG KANG’S ACTION/ROMANCE AT ITS NERDY BEST!

Doing your best and always giving one hundred percent are more important now than ever. Information is instantaneous these days and you can google anything in less time than it takes to yawn. Zheng Kang has always given his best and it is starting to supply dividends to his career. Belying his young age, Kang’s animation productions have already reached achievements like being used by faculty at USC School of Cinematic Arts for graduate animation classes (Lion Dance, in which he oversaw a group of professionals spread across five continents), working on the Comedy Central’s TripTank (contributing to every episode of the entire second season), and others. As such a recognized part of the animation community, his diverse creations are receiving great attention. one of his earliest productions, Diors Samurai, shows a different side of Zheng’s sentiment and may soon be made into a series production at a US network. Diors (Chinese for “loser”), gives a hint to the humor found in this action animated show. One cornerstone of Kang’s work is that it is always different, thematically and stylistically. A viewing of the Diors Samurai trailer (http://vimeo.com/189854381) reveals how different it is from his other work (https://vimeo.com/190416387 Baby and Granny for example). It is not hyperbolic to state that each new film Zheng starts receives the respect of him breaking his approach down and starting fresh each time. As both a director and an animator, Zheng Kang has learned to give each story the opportunity to become its own entity.

Production I.G.’s Dead Leaves (distributed in Japan, North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) and Samurai Jack (the American animated series on Comedy Central) both inspired Kang’s approach for Diors Samurai. He wanted an Eastern influence, time travel, a love story, all augmented by his sense of humor and wit. The tale of Diors Samurai is that of a hero who falls in love with a beautiful princess and is heartbroken to learn that their love is forbidden. A chance encounter with a magical elder reveals that he may marry the princess if he travels through time to find her in the dystopian future. He jumps at the chance and finds her, only to learn that she is now a successful police officer with no memory of him! Yota (the samurai) must divide his time between saving the city from ruthless organized gangs, trying to understand this confusing modern world, and hopefully sweeping the princess off her feet! While the story is full of action and danger, it’s the characters who drive the story and interest viewers the most. Yota is a very strong samurai but very tiny. He grew up with his lord’s daughter and was in-charge of protecting her every day. Yota fell in love with her but never told her as society would not approve of this. When the princess is selected to marry another lord’s son, Yota cannot do anything about it and is beside himself. While he is adept at fighting and killing, he does not know how to express his feelings and show love. The “Diors” or “loser” facet of this character comes from his unrequited love as well as his inability to express himself (a modern view of loser for certain). The princess in Diors Samurai is perhaps one of the most positive and well-rounded female Asian leads accessible to viewers these days. In ancient time she is very elegant, like every traditional princess in our mind. In the future however, she is tough, strong, and highly proficient with firearms. The princess possesses qualities that appeal to every type of fan and contradict stereotypical female roles.

While Diors Samurai is definitely an action program, Zheng confirms that it shares a common thread with all of his creations, “It’s a love story. People search every day for love and to find their partner. That’s a basic human need. I know that people have an immediate thought in their minds that a samurai/warrior is very serious and not in touch with their feelings. Their mission is always to protect and serve their king. I wanted to create someone who is just like normal people, someone who feels loves and is eager to get love. Yota has some strength but also has drawbacks. He might be a winner as a Samurai but might be a loser in life. That’s a universal story no matter what part of the world you are from or what you might do in your life. We all struggle for love and we all want it.”

Perhaps the most striking and apparent aspect of Diors Samurai is the mixture of Eastern artistic style with a western based theme and emotion. The clash/combination of the two serves to heighten the impact of both in this production. Zheng states, “I grew up with comics and manga. I began to draw them when I was a little kid. So my drawing style is highly influenced by Japanese anime and manga, which looks very Asian. I also enjoy western storytelling like Pixar and Disney features because they always have a clear and simple storyline. They’re character-driven, there are three acts, and the motivations and conflicts for every character are easy to understand. I enjoy Asian storytelling very much but I have to say, sometimes it’s too cultural and you can get confused if you’re unfamiliar with that culture.” Caroline Hu (formerly the Character Artist at Warner Bros. Animation and Conceptual Artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation/now the Artist at Warner Bros Consumer Products) notes Zheng’s successful integration of these two cultural traits. She relates, “Zheng’s approach to storytelling is both collaborative and diverse, and is exactly what Hollywood needs right now. It’s very refreshing to see. His successful marrying of two cultures, Asian and Western, to create a number of globally successful projects, is no small feat. Zheng’s animation and direction skills are superior. As a member of the Animation Faculty at USC School of Cinematic Arts, I often refer to his projects when addressing undergrad and graduate film students in my masterclass, even using Zheng’s materials as a teaching aid to show the students how things should be done!”

His role as director/animator has become commonplace for Kang these days but his work with composer Torin Borrowdale on Diors Samurai was one of his first entries into overseeing multiple facets of an animation production. Zheng understood that the mixing of cultures in his story, combined with the dichotomy of a Samurai in love, meant that he needed a soundtrack that would mesh with these ideas. Add to that, the need for intensity in the actions scenes and the music suddenly became paramount. Kang recalls, “I was always looking for high energy, with Japanese traditional instruments and elements in the music. Because it’s an action-comedy, high energy music can work very well with every sequence. Because the characters are Samurai, Japanese traditional instruments and elements can help build an authentic atmosphere. I found some reference music for Torin so he could understand what I wanted, but he also provided great ideas which made the final music much better than the reference music, suitable and unique! After this first cooperation with a composer, I understood how important music is for storytelling. I respect composers very much and would like to work with them to achieve great and unique music. For me it’s always a mind- blowing experience and learning opportunity when I work with my composers.”

The interest in Diors Samurai does not rely solely on the achievements of Kang’s more recent productions. With Official Selection Screenings at the: Trailer Fest Film Festival, London Monthly Film Festival, Direct Short Online Film Festival, Creation International Film Festival, and the Play Film Festival, Diors Samurai was highly noticed when it first was made available as a Short. Now, the industry that has become so captivated by this director/animator’s lauded animation productions has also rediscovered the time-travelling Samurai that began it all. Sword in hand and princess in heart, Yota is disproving his own moniker to his creator Zheng Kang.work-on-animation