Tag Archives: Movies

Aida King brings on the laughs in hilarious comedy ‘Desert Drive’

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Aida King

To succeed in acting, Aida King knows there is nothing more important than self-confidence. Never be conceited but know who you are as a person and how much you are capable of. This is her mantra that drives her and is why she is such a renowned Canadian actress. She has never lost belief in herself, and when audiences watch her on both the big and small screen, she radiates.

King is known for her work in celebrated films like The Convicted, Hemorrhage, and War of Mind. She has worked with award-winning filmmakers and well-known actors, including Alexander Michael Helisek, a veteran actor and producer in Hollywood. Known for his work on the Golden Globe Award-winning television series This Is Us, the Golden Globe Award-winning hit feature film Interstellar, which starred Matthew McConaughey and the two-time Golden Globe Award-nominated popular television series Silicon Valley, Helisek was greatly impressed with King when they worked together on Desert Drive.

“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work alongside Aida, as an actor, in her leading role of Missy Lee on the comedy film titled Desert Drive.Aida was absolutely essential to the critical acclaim and commercial success of the film. Her character needed to be depicted by an actress who could convey the necessary warmth, romance, comedy and sincerity that makes her a relatable character to the audience. Aida was able to accomplish all of this and more in a performance that was at once full of force and subtlety,” said Helisek.

Desert Drive follows the life of four Los Angeles based musicians who travel from Hollywood to Palm Springs for the Coachella Music Festival. Instead of harping on aimless debauchery and excessive drunkenness, the story documents the eventful two-hour ride and all the intimate conversations and crazy obstacles that transpire on the action-packed pilgrimage.

“It’s a fun slice of life story that I think people that travel together would appreciate. When travelling in close uncomfortable quarters for a long period of time, sometimes patience can run thin and emotions run high. It’s a fun comedy with interesting characters of substance,” said King.

This movie was filmed in May 2015 and premiered at a Hollywood movie theatre later that year. Not only is the trailer featured on the distinguished website “Funny or Die”, Desert Drive was also an Official Selection at the Ozark Short Film Festival in the Summer 2016. King was proud to be part of a team and found that the chemistry between the characters is why the film went on to do so well.

“I cannot deny that I love hearing people laugh when they watch this film, as that’s the biggest thrill of all for me,” she said.

King’s character, Missy Lee, is a musician who is determined to spice up intimate conversations with the other traveling musicians as they travel for many hours to their destination.

Missy Lee was a happy-go-lucky girl that was content with being in the company of friends, no matter what the situation was. She was definitely a people pleaser and tried to make the best of any situation. While she knew that she was naïve, she was comfortable with that role among her small group of oddball friends.

While she was a bit of a third wheel friend, this character brings balance to the oddball group. While every person was completely different from one another, she played the comic relief to offset tension in the storyline and also the confident when moments were more intimate. The controversial and hilarious lines are the most pivotal plot points in the entire narrative. With such an important role, King knew she had to deliver a captivating performance to bring the film to success, and that is exactly what she did.

As The Convicted was a drama, flipping over to a comedy was a great chance to present a completely different character. This was a huge opportunity to show her versatility and show her comedic creativity. As a Canadian, the comedy culture is highly regarded, so it was natural for King to want to be a part of this film.

“I appreciated working on a character that was light hearted and fun. This was my first time doing comedy, and I loved it,” said King.

King was brought on board after the successful completion of The Convicted, the Director and Producer of the film, Josh Mitchell, decided to bring the actress onto his new projects after being greatly impressed by her talent and work ethic, both of which King is well known for.

While filming, King’s greatest challenge came from filming in the desert. Far from the climate in her home in Canada, spending hours in a small van in hot temperatures was a new experience. However, she would never let this get her down, and found that it only helped her feel as if she was truly on her way to a music festival with a group of her close friends. Eventually, that is what the cast became.

Be sure to watch Desert Drive on Vimeo on Demand to catch out King’s comedic performance.

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Experience Chen Xu’s 5-channel surround sound method in hit Chinese film ‘The Wasted Times’

When Chen Xu thinks back to his childhood, he fondly recalls the way in which his admiration for sound shaped his youth and ultimately, his career in sound mixing and sound design. For the highly sought-after sound designer, it is difficult to recall a time where sound design wasn’t his main passion. At the age of 17, Xu watched Forrest Gump and notes the experience as being the first time he ever truly fell in love with a film. It inspired him to focus on a career in sound design and gave him the confidence boost he needed to take the film industry by storm. The now 36-year old, award-winning creative is just as enthused about his art form today as he was back then. His life is enriched by the opportunity to do what he loves day in and day out and he has no desire to stop any time soon.

A typical day as a sound mixer and sound designer requires the skill and expertise to be able to record sound and mix it creatively. Although this may sound relatively straightforward, it is no small feat to achieve on a daily basis. For instance, when Xu works on set, he is required to carefully position microphones in such a way that will capture sound as clearly and concisely as possible. In addition, he must learn a film’s storyline inside and out in order to thoroughly understand the types of sounds that will complement the characters’ conquests. In addition, during the post-production process, Xu must awaken his creative tendencies and use them to apply sounds in the most unique, yet appropriate manner possible. Where Xu truly shines, however, is when he is tasked with location sound mixing for a film’s script. Knowing how to effectively capture sound in a complex location is what Xu does best. He is a master of extracting compelling sounds from a loud, busy location and ensuring that there is nothing compromising the sound in order to enhance an audience’s viewing pleasure.

“When I’m sound mixing, my work is more focused on creativity. I need to design some unique sound effects according to the images and the storyline before me. Then, I need to edit and record some foley and sound effects before I can arrange each sound element to fit perfectly into each moment within the film. All of these steps allow me to help develop and compliment the storyline” noted Xu.

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In 2015, Xu was given a script for a film titled The Wasted Times, by well-known Chinese director, Er Cheng, who was confident that Xu possessed the skills necessary to take his script to the next level. Having already secured a $23.6 million budget and two of Asia’s most accomplished and award-winning stars, Ge You and Zhang Ziyi, Cheng was determined to make this film his most successful yet. In addition, he was intent on making the sound design in The Wasted Times unlike anything his audiences had ever heard before. With that, beyond dialogue alone, he wanted to use as many location sounds as possible and to make best use of live recorded sound effects and foley. Given the film’s budget, cast, and unique content, he needed someone with both the experience and creative edge required to rise to the challenge. Fortunately for Cheng, Xu was compelled by the script and eager to take part.

The Wasted Times depicts the life of a legendary mafia boss in modern Chinese history. Through the use of a biographical narrative, the film follows a violent and betrayal-ridden deal between the Japanese army and criminals in Shanghai. For Xu, working on The Wasted Time presented a number of challenges he hadn’t previously encountered in his career. For instance, due to the fact that several of the film’s scenes were shot inside state- and city-level protected historic buildings, he had to master the ability to capture vocal exchanges in historical settings, as opposed to the more modern buildings he was used to working in. In order to do so, Xu led his team in adopting a pioneering approach whereby he recorded a 5-channel surround sound effect during production sound mixing. In addition, he made use of two additional stereo microphones in order to account for any and all reverberation, echoes, and delay of sounds in real time. This led to Xu having recorded and mixed approximately 80% of the film’s final dialogues and about 50 per cent of the sound effects using his location sound. It therefore goes without saying that Xu proved himself to be instrumental throughout the entire process, being able to provide carefully thought-out solutions to each potential problem the crew encountered. He is undoubtedly a strong contributor to The Wasted Times’widespread success and feels honored knowing that the film went on to receive four award wins and ten nominations from some of the industry’s most acclaimed organizations and festivals, including the Asian Film Awards, China Film Director’s Guild Awards, and the prestigious Macau International Movie Festival.

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For Xu, however, the true highlight of working on The Wasted Times was embedded within the reality that for him, this film was far more than just a sound production process. Being able to film at authentic locations such as the residence of Pu Yi, China’s last empire, as well as in a 1920s car loaned from an antique car museum helped Xu acquaint himself with the type of lifestyle of the individuals depicted in the film. He credits the experience of working on this film as helping build his understanding of people’s lives in that era and helping make it feel familiar to him. It was both a cultural and career-building opportunity and Xu couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.

Liam Casey Sullivan on honor of continuing the conversation about addiction

Most successful actors will tell you that they do not act for the fame or for the fortune, they act for the thrill. They act because their job lets them connect with dozens of strangers, allowing them to contemplate the various aspects of the human condition together. They act because it is their creative outlet and their chance to take an audience along journeys they may never otherwise experience. They act because it keeps them alive. It doesn’t matter if an actor is young or old, new to the screen or a household name, actors act because unlike other professions, theirs allows them to escape reality and explore their souls before the eyes of the world. For these reasons and many more, Liam Casey Sullivan acts and with his rare combination of passion, talent, and perseverance, he is likely to live before a camera for decades to come.

“As an actor, I am required to delve into the bank of my personal experiences and surface the same feelings or emotions that my character is experiencing at any given time. Through respective research and seeking sympathy for the person I’m playing — however challenging that may be — I aim to grasp a complete understanding of their point of view so that I may be able to adopt it. Once I do this, I then embark on understanding their relationship with others by sourcing parallels from people I know in my life and from other stories. Although I may not have shared the same experiences and relationships as my character, I can revert to alternate moments I’ve lived in order to render even the slightest bit of those same reactions and capitalize upon them so I may appear as though I have lived them,” tells Sullivan.

Sullivan’s remarkable ability to ease in and out of character is arguably his greatest asset, and something he has done successfully for a number of different on and off screen productions, such as for the hit teen drama Degrassi: Next Class and The Girlfriend Experience. What tends to differentiate Sullivan from his competition, however, is his ability to adopt and portray traits that are entirely different from his own personality. Not only does he do so exceptionally, he thoroughly enjoys playing characters entirely unlike him. In fact, he considers playing Dougie in the Canadian film, Mary Goes Round, to be the highlight of his film career solely because he had the opportunity to play a conceited, selfish character.

Mary Goes Round follows the life of Mary, a substance abuse counsellor with a drinking problem. After being arrested for drunk driving and losing her job, Mary returns to her hometown where she learns that her estranged father is dying of cancer and wants to form a bond with Mary and her teenage half-sister that she has never met. In the film, Sullivan’s character Dougie conceals his own insecurities through a mask of obnoxiousness and arrogance. His lack of true friendships and general loneliness cause him to fiend attention and subsequently irritate those around him.

Ultimately, Sullivan’s character proved instrumental to Mary Goes Round’s great success and his performance on screen, in conjunction with his input behind the camera, highlights just how valuable he can be on any given project. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, Mary Goes Round was featured in several other festivals across North America. In addition, it won three prestigious awards, including Best Narrative Feature at the Annapolis Film Festival in 2018 and The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2018.

What Sullivan enjoyed most about playing Dougie was the fact that he was able to explore and portray a personality type that he hadn’t ever depicted before. In addition, the film’s director, Molly McGlynn, was open to experimenting with the script and offering her cast an opportunity to rework and modify their scenes as they saw fit. Under these circumstances, Sullivan was able to allow his creative nature and unique style to flourish and he quickly proved himself invaluable to the production. Ultimately, however, Sullivan was honored to have taken part in shining a light on an extremely prevalent and relatable topic. Knowing that he was able to take part in a broader conversation about addiction left Sullivan feeling fulfilled and hopeful that audiences would be able to look at this social crisis from the unfamiliar, but interesting angle he helped create.

“In all, I liked that this story rings true to how much of an ongoing struggle battling addiction can be. A drinking problem has the power to haunt you for your entire life and this story is unforgiving when it comes to highlighting the truth and the daunting reality of addiction. This story not only spreads an awareness to the public but also gives a healthy sense of hope to those who may be facing similar problems as Mary and it felt great to have played a part in that,” Sullivan concludes.

 

Top photo by Helen Tansey

Go behind-the-scenes of ‘Pumpkin and Fried Noodle’ with Editor Meibei Liu

From the time Meibei Liu was a child, growing up in Shanghai, China, she loved watching movies. They would make her laugh, they would make her cry, and spending two hours enjoying a film became her favorite pastime. But being so young she would only take in the entire production, not appreciating the many roles scrolling past in the credits that it took to achieve the movie that just entertained her. However, this all changed when she was a teenager and decided to try making a movie of her own for fun. Despite enjoying films all her life, she knew nothing when it came to actually making one. It was a much harder process than she could have ever imagined, but she found herself constantly playing, pausing, rewinding, and cutting down parts of the film that she had made. She was a natural editor, and it was then when she fell in love with the art of editing. Now, years later, she has never looked back.

“Although the story was as naïve as it could be, the fun of making and editing the film just aroused my huge interest in filmmaking and also changed my life,” she said.

This past year, Liu has seen a lot of success worldwide. Her work on The Ballerina, The Shoemaker, and His Apprentice,Headshot, Dear Mamá, and Faith Need Not Change Her Gown have been celebrated at many international film festivals. Her first taste of such success, however, came back in 2013 when she worked on the documentary Pumpkin and Fried Noodle.

Pumpkin and Fried Noodleis a short documentary shot in Taiwan. It tells the stories of how two different families make their living as an outsider in a small village. Though tough, they still find their ways for inner peace and happiness. The film was selected for the Golden Sugarcane Film Festival, Taiwan’s first film festival where the filmmakers have to shoot and edit on site.

“I really liked that the documentary showed the culture of the village, and documented that beautiful, peaceful and friendly place, which was very different to the culture I was in growing up. It tells stories of outsiders in the villages and shows how they fight to live a better life and struggle to be part of the society over there. It’s also a story about women empowerment, telling how they managed to support the whole family without any help. Making a documentary about them was important because their way of living life and being in a difficult situation needed to be seen by others,” said Liu.

Because of the circumstances of the Golden Sugarcane Film Festival, only a pitch was submitted in hopes of qualifying as one of the ten slots. Once Liu and the rest of her team were selected, they were invited to Taiwan to make the film. During the week, Liu was with other filmmakers finding the subject to shoot and finding structure and stories. This allowed for faster editing, as she was able to spot what would work while filming. Then she finished each day with the editing. On top of this, she conducted interviews each day.

“Going there to make the documentary without knowing whether it will work or not; finding the story during shooting was like an adventure that needed a great sense of filmmaking, which I liked and wanted to be part of,” Liu recalled.

The film exemplifies how important editing is. Liu and the other nine filmmakers on the crew conducted several interviews with over ten different people, but in the editing room, Liu cut that down drastically, only showing two of the subjects that were interviewed. The film focused on their lives in detail, showing their philosophy of living rather than small aspects of many lives. Liu also made the decision of blending the two stories rather than showing one after the other, which helped lead to the warm and touching climax at the end.

“Meibei is very hard working. She edited our entire film within three days. She was very easy to work with, always there in the pre-production, making sure everything was right and very insightful about the story and production. In the post-production, she sacrificed her own personal time, which made the impossible schedule work in the end. Meibei is an editor who is very insightful and creative about creating story structure. She is amazing in terms of editing skills and at the same time, also very sensitive of capturing emotions of characters,” said Song Huang, Director.

Because of the competition, time was limited when making Pumpkin and Fried Noodle, requiring a fast, hardworking and passionate editor like Liu. On top of this, she was able to connect with the two women’s stories in a way that audiences can instantly see when watching the film, making it a true masterpiece.

 

Actor Ben Prendergast takes up boxing to play Australian icon Jo Sparro

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Ben Prendergast

Ben Prendergast says his love of film is genetic. His mother’s side of the family constantly watched classic “talkies” on repeat, watched Sunday matinees, and had a general love for iconic starlets and stories. His father’s side still had that same love for movies, but there was a passion for science-fiction and action films, with regular trips to the video store. As a child, Prendergast was immersed in all aspects of film from a young age, loving Star Wars and Casablanca before even Mickey Mouse.

“In Australia, the notion of being in the movies is so foreign, but as I got older and started to build a profile it became evident that I could actually make a go of being involved in an industry that I’d loved for decades,” he said.

As an acclaimed film and television actor, Prendergast has many notable projects on his resume. He has worked alongside Hollywood’s best, including Ethan Hawke in the feature Predestination, and starred in award-winning films like The Marker and Post Apocalyptic Man. Australians everywhere recognize his voice and face from many national commercials, and his versatility is constantly evident, ranging from genres and mediums. With every character he embodies, he does not just portray them, he becomes them. This is perhaps most evident when he took on the role of the iconic boxer Jo Sparro in the celebrated film Punch Drunk.

“Punch Drunk deals with a very real issue in Australia: the marginalization of the elderly and mentally unwell. I loved that the main protagonist was a hero in his day, someone that was very much valued as part of society, but after an unfortunate event he’s literally left to rot in an institution until he fights his way out. I wanted to be a part of the project as it dealt with a sport I love and tackled a real issue within the heart of a fantastic story,” he said.

Punch Drunk is the story of the Mighty Joe Sparro, a champion boxer who is cut down in his prime. Years later, he is in a care facility that shuts down and he needs to fend for himself one last time. Prendergast played the younger Joe Sparro, depicting his early career, showing his courage and man-of-the-people charm, and illustrating for the audience what might have been.

“Jo Sparro was a post-war young man trying to make a living to support his wife and child, so in a lot of ways his natural gift for fighting made him a more loving partner. He loves his wife Millie to death, so when they are separated it is heartbreaking. For so long, he has been confused about where he is, but when the film starts we realize he is coming out of an extremely long coma,” Prendergast explained.

Punch Drunk was distributed to a number of festivals, including Telluride and the New York Short Film Festival where it played in Times Square to an estimated 50,000 people. From there it went to the St Kilda Film Festival, where it was nominated for best screenplay, Young at Heart Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Film, Adelaide Shorts Film Festival, where it took home the Audience Merit Award, Byron Bay Film Festival, winning Best Cinematography, and an Official Selection at Dungog Film Festival, Heart of Gold International Film Festival, Little Rock Film Festival Official Selection, and Woods Hold Film Festival. After its film festival run, Punch Drunk was distributed digitally and has since been viewed millions of times online. The Director, Sam Wark, believes Prendergast’s portrayal of the young Jo Sparro was pivotal to the film’s success.

“Ben is a pro. He is so proactive in finding the way into his characters and has a limitless supply of positivity and fresh ideas. As a director looking to fulfill a vision and shape a story, it’s a joy to have someone who can bring me a hundred different bold choices on any one idea and then go further and further into the rabbit hole as the story unveils itself. He’s an actor’s actor, so he goes way beyond what you’d think an actor should do in order to prepare for a role, not only mentally and spiritually, but also physically. In the boxing scenes, he worked over the course of three months to not only become fit enough to perform the role, but also to perfectly imitate a 1950s’ boxer style, and then also the stunt falls required. The miraculous thing though is he’s able to do all of this while embodying a character and creating the empathy in the audience needed to touch people. Our audiences fell in love with that character,” said Wark.

Wark had the script for Punch Drunk in his drawer for seven years with no real plans on making it. He knew the script was a gem but didn’t know just how to turn such an important story into a film. That was until he sent the script to Prendergast, who was so passionate about the project, the director knew he had something there. Immediately, Prendergast was the only choice for the role of Jo.

“The film needed someone who could play a champion boxer without the arrogance or coldness that we see from boxers in the modern era. He needed to be a people’s champion, and completely likeable, even to his opponents. By doing this, the film could create the payoff needed to touch audiences and make them think about the mentally ill in a new and perhaps impactful way. That is what I kept in mind when preparing, and while filming,” Prendergast described.

When preparing for the film, Prendergast relentlessly trained for three months to not only get in the shape of a professional boxer, but to realistically fight in required scenes. He also took extensive stunt training in order to be ready to be hit and fall on command. In one boxing scene, he chose to fall a lot heavier than he had initially planned and ended up knocking himself out. The shot was so brilliant, it was used in the final cut of the film.

“I was introduced to the sport of boxing in a new way. I always loved to watch, but to participate and continue to practice to this day is something that the film gave me. I was also drawn into the world of past champions and the history of the sport,” said Prendergast.

Punch Drunk depicts an Australian sporting hero that never made it, someone who showed so much promise but was robbed of it, and audiences ultimately see him victorious after 60 years of solitude. Getting to be a part of such a story was truly one of the most satisfying parts of working on the film for Prendergast, beyond all the awards and accolades they later received. The best part for the actor, however, audiences may not have noticed.

“This ended up being a family affair. My Nana was featured as an extra in the film,” he said.

Check out Punch Drunk to see Prendergast’s outstanding performance.

Editor Xiaodan Yang refines artistic story in upcoming film “Summer Orange”

Xiaodan “Christy” Yang was a teenager when she realized she was meant to be a filmmaker. At the time, she and her friends at their high school in China were just having fun with a video camera. They were so excited and curious about the tool and would pretend to interview students during lunch breaks. Quickly, this transformed to casting classmates in small productions, and Yang was the leader.

“The most classic one was a Titanic parody where I picked two leading characters to play Jack and Rose from the “audition”. Then we shot the “I’m flying” scene. Their acting was so hilarious and the whole process was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it and that’s the first time I started thinking that maybe I could be a real filmmaker someday. I wanted to bring larger audiences to tears of laughter and allow them to experience all sorts of emotions through my work,” said Yang.

Despite being in charge of her high school short films, Yang found her way to a more behind-the-scenes role in editing. Now, she is an award-winning editor and is recognized far beyond China for her talent. Through her work on dramatic films such as Kayla, Witness, Sixteen and It’s Not Just About a Film, Yang’s contributions as an editor shape these important stories into pieces of art, and all those who work with her know what an asset she is.

“I worked with Xiaodan on my film, Ashram, as well as a short film called The Review. I directed the films and she was my editor for both of them. To work with Xiaodan is to have a very smart, skilled and sensitive creative partner. She is very thoughtful about her editing decisions, and a very even-keeled and well-balanced guiding creative force for the project. She’s very competent and efficient, but also artistic and intuitive. She has strong communication and learning skills, which make us work efficiently,” said Matt Marlin, Writer and Director. “Xiaodan is a strong creative presence and also very flexible with working with different types of personalities. She often juggled multiple projects when working with me, and still made me feel like my project was at least an equal priority with the other things she was working on. She can roll with any notes I throw her way, and also push back when she believes in a creative decision strongly. She has a great intuition for how to best bring out the story from the footage provided.”

When working on the upcoming film Summer Orange, an artistic story, Yang knew it would be defined by the editing. When she first read the script, she was immediately captured by the characters and could feel the desolation they felt in every word. She instantly said yes to the project.

Summer Orange is about a filmmaker dealing with his real life and the film he’s shooting. As a filmmaker myself, I felt close to him. As I was editing the film, the film also affected me in many ways. I was thinking deeply while working on this one,” said Yang.

The film follows Da, a film student in Los Angeles. During the time shooting his thesis film, his old friend, Lu, comes to visit him. It has been a few years since the two have seen each other, and they both have changed. At the same time, the relationship between Da and Xintong, the leading actress of his film, becomes ambiguous. With so many things going on, Da feels confused about film and reality.

“This is a very personal story for the director. Some plots and details come from his actual life experience. If other films are considered novels, this one is more like a prose. The story is sincere, but also abstract. Although nothing dramatic happens, the tone of the story is attractive. Sometimes life is just overwhelming, and people can’t do anything about it. The best part of this story is the dynamic between the characters. That was also my emphasis during editing,” said Yang.

Summer Orange is directed by Chen Xu, who also wrote the film. He had previously worked with Yang on Witness and It’s Not Just About a Film and knew her extraordinary editing talents would help captivate audiences to his subtle story. As the editor, Yang understood the director’s intentions of this story precisely. When going through the footage, every decision Xu made while shooting made sense to her and she knew just how to approach the editing. She could transform and breakdown the script without disrupting the artistic conception. As it was a calm story, the director chose to shoot the film in an objective way, meaning most of the shots were long takes. When Yang was editing, she watched each shot over and over to make sure she was choosing to highlight the best performances from each actor. After doing this, she still made sure not to cut the long takes, therefore ensuring the dynamic between each character was as close as possible to how it was originally shot, refining every take. She also slowed down her pace while editing and instead of simply thinking about what would be useful, she cared more about what felt right for the atmosphere.

Undoubtedly, Summer Orange will be a tremendous film and showcase what a formidable editor Yang is. It will premiere this May at none other than the prestigious Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner and will expectedly make its way to several more festivals in the coming year.

“I feel so excited about the Cannes Film Festival, since it’s one of the best film festivals in the world. I believe this is just a good beginning, and more and more will come,” Yang concluded.

China’s Xingpei Shen creates animation masterpiece with ‘Lotus Lantern’

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Xingpei Shen, photo by Rob Chron

Despite loving drawing since he was a child, it took Xingpei Shen much longer to discover he was meant to be in animation. He loved art, but in his late teenage years, he did not know how to turn that passion into a career. However, after attending a presentation from Chinese animator Lei Lei (Ray), he started to become intrigued by the idea of a career in animation. One of Lei Lei’s films, This Is Love, stuck with Shen. It was a candy-colored graphic animation paired with a silly yet sweet poem. It made everyone laugh and reminded him why he wanted to be an artist in the first place. Now, years later, he is an in-demand animator impressing worldwide audiences with his work.

Shen has had an expansive career as an animator, working on solo projects and group endeavors. His first independent film, Good Game, Bad Time, and Killer Sportsmanship, went on to international acclaim at several film festivals. This pattern continued with his work on the Huffington Post project What It Means to be Muslim in America, where Shen was one of only nine animators who were invited to make a short animation based on an audio anecdote provided on the topics of Muslim experience in America. He was also one of seven video artists featured in the traveling show Internet Yami-Ichi on December 9th, 2017at the renowned Tate Museum, where he has two animation pieces in the show.

“As a queer Chinese artist, I find my work often looks at overlooked boundaries of existences, the places of in-between, and the sweet vulnerabilities of outsiders,” said Shen.

This is exemplified by Shen’s latest film, Lotus Lantern. Lotus Lantern is a tribute to late Chinese singer Zhou Xuan, a missing link between filmmaker’s queer identity and Chinese heritage. Shen wrote, directed and animated the film entirely on his own. He had a vision in the very beginning that he wanted to make a lush and dreamy film that talks about his queerness and Chinese heritage, and he worked intensely hard to realize the goal.

“I think Lotus Lantern is important, because for one, it is a personal story about both queer experience and Chinese heritage. In the media nowadays, there is a tendency to homogenize queerness and overlook the intersectionality of different facets of identities. I believe Lotus Lantern is a genuine and vulnerable film that resists that tendency,” said Shen.

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Still from Lotus Lantern

After months of work, Lotus Lantern premiered on July 30th, 2017 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn for the 14th Animation Block Party. It then made its way to dozens more festivals and is still continuing its run with three upcoming festivals in the next few months. It was featured as Vimeo Staff Pick and Shen was also invited to talk about his process on Animation World Network.

“It feels surreal how far Lotus Lantern has gotten after I finished the film not long ago. I am still currently processing and trying not to go over my head with all the good news. I am very proud and happy, because this film is incredibly personal and vulnerable. It gives me a lot of encouragement to carry out future projects,” he said.

Shen had three main inspirations when creating the concept for his film. The first was to create a tribute for Zhou Xuan, whose music was a large part of Shen’s childhood. Growing up queer in China, Shen did not have many icons in the media that he could look up to or relate with, but he was always fascinated by the singer and related her to a goddess. When he looked back on these pivotal years, he realized his sentiments towards Zhou Xuan all tied into his understanding of his own queerness, ultimately shaping his life. He wanted to reflect that through his art.

Second, he took the visual style from his grandmother’s praying shrine. His grandmother has a shrine that she prays to daily. When Shen was a child, he was always fascinated by the strange aesthetic of all the artifacts where a gorgeous antique brass double ear incense bowl paired with a cheap oversized disposable lighter she bought at a drug store and crackling chants pour out from a lotus-shaped electronic Buddhist mantra box. The sensibility extruded from his grandmother’s shrine table inspired the campy aesthetic of this film.

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Still from Lotus Lantern

“Wow, I am mightily impressed by Xingpei’s work on Lotus Lantern. It’s a steadily emerging style of film that I’m seeing more and more of and this one goes close to top of the class in that style. One of its strengths really struck me as being the very restrained and almost understated way he managed its pacing even as it poured in more and more and more visual elements – in lesser hands the temptation to wind up the tempo would have been succumbed to,” said Malcolm Turner, Animator and Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Shen’s last source of inspiration for his film was his friend and former employer Suzan Pitt, an animator who created the 1979 short film Asparagus. A few years ago, Shen emailed the filmmaker and told her what an inspiration she had been to him. She responded and invited Shen for coffee at her home and a screening of Asparagus, where they had a long conversation about the art of animation. Throughout his entire time making Lotus Lantern, Shen kept the idea and style of Asparagus in his mind. He was haunted by the intricate psychedelic interior space of sexuality and desire in the film. He wanted to create something that was as complex and captivating.

“I really enjoyed Xingpei’s film Lotus Lantern. It seemed to be a deliberate homage to Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus, and it was really great to see an animation refer to another (great) animator’s work in a thoughtful and considerate way rather than just ripping off their style or film for effect. The deep underlying reference to Asparagus opens up ideas about identity, beauty and self, the state of reverie, but Xingpei takes them into new and compelling territory. We are made to think about the common ground of each film and the differences too. It was beautifully made and very thought provoking,” said Artist and Animator, Edwin Rostron.

LotusLantern_Stills7
Still from Lotus Lantern

One of the more outstanding aspects of Lotus Lantern is that Shen made the film with a combination of digital tools (3D software like Maya, and 2D software like Photoshop and AfterEffects) and traditional animation techniques (hand-drawn and rotoscope). It balances two different methods creatively to achieve a lush painterly quality, which is very unique in current animation. The use of these methods exemplifies why Shen is such a formidable animator.

Despite all the critical acclaim and recognition Lotus Lantern has received, the greatest accolade came at the 41st Ottawa International Animation Festival last year. On the last day of the festival, Shen was sitting alone after his film’s second and final screening. A woman from South Africa approached him and told him that Lotus Lantern truly struck her, especially when Shen talked about the influences of women in his family to him as a queer artist. She put her hand on his chest and told him she was touched before tearing up. The women then left in a hurry before Shen could get her name or her story. He calls the experience the highlight of his career.

“It was an incredibly sweet moment. I have never gotten such a genuine and strong response for my work. It reminded me of the reason why I wanted to make films and tell stories in the first place,” he concluded.

Watch Shen’s moving work on Lotus Lantern here.

Tony Nash brings on the laughs and the screams in ‘Secret Santa’

When Tony Nash speaks of his craft, he talks with the passion of someone who truly loves what he does. When he steps onto a set, it doesn’t feel like work for him, but rather it feels like a privilege to have the opportunity to do what he believes he is meant to be doing every day. This young man of Greek-Spanish descent has been acting since his childhood and has taken the Canadian film industry by storm.

Throughout his career, Nash has worked on a series of successful film and television ventures. Movies such as Saving Dreams and Meet the Parents, and shows like Petrol and Condor, the highly anticipated Audience network thriller. With every new project he takes on, it becomes clear that he is doing what he loves.

“What I like about acting is that when it is approached with the sacredness that it deserves, it first and foremost holds a mirror up to me, revealing all my hidden desires, coping mechanisms, repressions, reservations, grudges, vulnerabilities, beauties, gifts, talents and strengths. In so doing, it enables me to understand the souls of others and thereby be qualified and capable of holding a mirror up to the entirety of human nature, as Hamlet advised in Act 3, Scene 2,” said Nash.

Nash’s first true taste of international success came with the 2015 flick Secret Santa. Secret Santa is a feature length film that tells the story of a group of eccentric college kids, struggling to get through the hectic exam period. This horror/comedy is a tribute to B-Movie Slashers but also takes the conventions and turns them upside down. A liquor filled party is planned, adding a Secret Santa exchange for fun. Little do our characters know, a killer is in town and has a special present for all the good (and bad) girls and boys. Dare to open your present? It might be your last. Nash was really drawn to this project because he really wanted a comedic role to add to his repertoire, and his character also had a sweet, love element to his story. More than anything however, he loved that it was an ode to 90’s slasher films.

In Secret Santa, Nash plays Professor Preston Ramsey. The role was a lead and critical to the project as he was the red-herring in the horror plot. Throughout the film, audiences are led to believe he is the secret killer. The role was crucial as he furthers a love story between himself and the other lead, his student, and distracts the viewer from the killer, making the ending more of a surprise, staying true to the horror genre. The character was a sweet, somewhat naive college professor. He also was in a rut romantically and when one of his students started to fall for him, he began to feel alive again. He is an academic and spent his whole life indoors studying while his friends were all outside playing football. He is also a hopeless romantic and had only been in one relationship, which lasted seven years. The character had to be lovable, charming, slightly off beat, and at the same time mysterious. Nash was able to bring all that to the character as well as some humor of his own, which made the set a fun environment to work in and everyone enjoyed themselves. He was able to bring the character to life and give him that nerdy quality he needed to have plus a mature professor vibe amongst a bunch of college kids in an unexpected bloody night. Nash was perfect for the role.

“When I got the role, the first thing I did was went out and bought a pair of glasses and a tweed jacket that I thought would suit the character well. I spent time in university halls watching professors teach their classes to bright students. Also, because my character was being seduced by one of his students I watched The Graduate. I watched Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, more times than I can count” said Nash.

Secret Santa premiered in November 2015 at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival. The film was then shown at the Toronto International Spring Horror and Fantasy Festival, and the Buffalo Dreams Film Festival. It was distributed by Wild Eye Releasing and is available at several stores on DVD including Walmart and Best Buy. Nash’s take on the vital role of Professor Preston Ramsey was instrumental to the film’s success.

“Tony was pitch-perfect in this slasher-comedy. He was hilarious, charming and ever-so-subtly mysterious to lead us towards the edge of suspicion. It was a brilliant and nuanced performance by a highly sensitive and skilled actor. Bravo Tony,” said Mike McMurran, Writer and Director of the film.

After a friend reached out to Nash telling him about the role, Nash sent in an audition tape that instantly impressed McMurran, saying there would be no one better to play the role. They instantly connected, sharing the same vision for the character and the film as a whole. As it was Nash’s first time in a comedic role, he was eager to try out something different. His versatility shone, and he perfectly encapsulated the mysterious professor. Not only did he have fun, but he says the entire cast and crew became close friends during filming. Overall, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience for the actor.

“I think it’s important to have fun sometimes and do things I am not used to. I think that life is hard enough and sometimes a little horror and comedy never hurt anyone. It’s important to just take a film and just create something entertaining for people who want to see something different. And I think Mike and his crew were able to do that very well. It was exciting to film and definitely will be exciting to watch as well,” he concluded.

Be sure to check out Secret Santa and let Tony Nash make you laugh and scream at the same time.

Producer Mickey Liu went back to high school for ‘Sail the Summer Winds’

STSW on set with postcards and slate
Mickey Liu on set of Sail the Summer Winds, photo by Aijia Che

Mickey Liu knows that every day he steps onto a film set, it will be different than the day before. Every new project brings something new, and every experience is distinctive. Because of this, he always feels like he is learning something new, and no matter how seasoned of a producer he is, he finds that sometimes his experience can mean nothing in the wake of a new challenge. He is consistently exposed to talented individuals and brings teams together to create a masterpiece. For him, that is the best feeling in the world, and he loves what he does.

“Producing is about lots of instant decisions and last-minute situations, which is challenging and exciting. What’s more, I get to read many good stories… and a lot more bad ones,” he joked.

Hailing from Shenzhen, China, Liu has become a renowned producer. His work on films such as An Ill-Fitting Coat, Marie, Nocturne in Black, and Tear of the Peony have made headlines around the world. He knows what it is to tell a good story, and consistently manages to bring his films great success. However, the first time he truly felt this was in 2014, with his feature Sail in the Summer Winds.

Sail in the Summer Winds tells the story of Michael, a 30-year-old white-collar worker, who is always recalling memories with his 6-year desk mate Cammy and best friends Leon, Joyce and James about when they were 17. Back then, these high schoolers were faced with the biggest challenge of their life – the College Entrance Exam. Michael didn’t know what his future held but got an early admission to Cammy’s dream school; Cammy had feelings for Michael but couldn’t say it out loud; Joyce, once a model student at school, failed to live up to expectations at the very moment; Leon wanted to be an artist but was torn between reality and dream; James worked really hard, but things didn’t turn out great for him. Just like every coming-of-age story, they grew up and changed through the best years of their youth.

“I think the story of the film is important because it is a story focusing on friendship in high school. We’ve seen enough saccharine high school dramas on screens and they almost always center on how to get the guy or girl you like. American high school culture is very different from Chinese high school culture. I think the story provides a fresh perspective of Chinese high school life. The story would remind people of their dreams and courage, and maybe they would want to reconnect with friends they haven’t been in touch with for years,” said Liu.

When the Director of Sail the Summer Winds, Lanxin Yu, approached Liu over social media to produce the feature, Liu was immediately intrigued. Yu went to the same high school that Liu attended and wanted to film the movie there. Upon reading the script, Liu knew he wanted to be a part of the film, as the words took him back to his high school days and brought back memories of his younger self. He knew many others would be able to relate, and his partnership with Yu began.

“Working with Mickey is always a pleasure. His great sense of humor makes everyone chilled and relaxed. When it comes to the set, he’s sensitive, responsive, and caring to every crew member and tries his best to make the set an enjoyable working environment that everyone wants to come back to. When we were shooting Sail the Summer Winds, most of the crew members were first-timers, but he was very patient and made our set run like a real Hollywood set. In addition, his charisma held the crew together, not just as an efficient team, but a real family. Mickey is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. He always has brilliant ideas about the story and has a deep understanding on the structure. Therefore, as a creative producer, he gives clear notes to writers, constructive advice to directors and inspirational directions for promotions. He’s easygoing and reliable, making him the one person on set that everyone trusts,” said Yu.

As the sole producer of the film, Liu’s work was essential for the film’s success. He held the team together and drastically improved their efficiency, while still providing ample amounts of encouragement and boosting morale. He provided critical creative notes at the script development stage, created the shooting scheduling and supervised the pre-production and production. During post-production, he personally designed the merchandise and arranged for the film’s distribution.

Liu also trained the crew and brought professional help to the production, as he was the most seasoned filmmaker on the set. The majority of the crew were young volunteers looking to experience film production, and therefore required a lot of training. Because of him, he had everyone on the crew working extremely well despite their lack of previous experience.

“Although it was challenging, I actually enjoyed training the crew a lot. They were very smart and hard-working ‘students’, so it felt very rewarding seeing them successfully applying the training to their work. The atmosphere was very loving and full of energy. I loved that good vibe on set very much,” Liu described.

In addition to all of this, Liu employed some American methods of film production to this Chinese movie. The Director was pulling herself in every direction, taking on many tasks beyond what she needed to do. On Chinese film sets, this often happens, as they are very director-centric. Liu however, having experience on American film sets, talked to the director and told her how they could make everything more efficient, and she just needed to focus on her main duties as a director. In the end, it worked seamlessly.

“Producing this film was a very unique experience because I think it would be almost impossible to have this selfless of a cast and crew ever again. Everyone gave their one hundred percent for free and they never complained and never lost morale while working long hours in hot summer. It was definitely a labor of love and I was very moved by what they did and shooting at my high school brought back so many happy memories,” said Liu.

Sail the Summer Winds premiered in August 2014 at a theatre in Shenzhen and then went straight to DVD, where it sold well locally. It was covered by local newspapers and television stations in China, where it received very positive reviews. It is now available to stream online.

Liu and his team decided to donate all the proceeds from the film to his local high school, to support the film and television club there. Liu wanted to motivate the next generation of young filmmakers to follow their dreams, and in his footsteps. For those looking to do so, he offered the following advice:

“Find the stories you really love and try to make them happen. Don’t pursue certain types of stories just because they are “hot and trendy”. It takes such a long time to get them made that you may give up if you don’t love them enough. When in doubt, you can always go back to why you wanted to pursue a career in producing. It can actually give you a lot of strength. It’s all about the nuts and bolts, and your instinct is usually right,” he concluded.

 

Top photo: Zihao Qin and Mickey Liu on set of ‘Sail the Summer Winds’, photo by Aijia Che

Laura Santoyo Dangond’s sets in ‘Lockdown’ transport audiences to high school

Originally from Bogota, Colombia, Laura Santoyo Dangond has always been a fan of movies. Growing up, she watched her favorite films, like Matilda and Jumanji, and would see more than the story. She would ask her parents how the filmmakers were able to create other worlds and dreamlike elements. Although her parents did not have all the answers, they encouraged their young child to make her own hypothesis as to how “movie magic” was achieved, and she never stopped wondering. As she grew, exploring the world and various cultures, her hypothesizing never stopped, and eventually she turned her passion into a career. Now, Santoyo no longer wonders how to achieve the magic of movies, and as a sought-after production designer, she is now the one creating other worlds.

Throughout her career, Santoyo has shown just what an extraordinary production designer she is. Her work on films such as Tim of the Jungle, The Plague and Falling are just a few examples of what this acclaimed production designer is capable of. However, despite such success, Santoyo considers the pointed drama Lockdown as the highlight of her career.

“It is probably the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve had in this profession. I loved working with that team of people; we all believed in the story we were telling and together we overcame so many difficulties. Particularly for me, it taught me the importance on trusting the people you are working with and to support each other. In the end it all paid off, because it’s been one of my most successful projects,” she said.

Lockdown set

Max Sokolof, Caleb Heller, and Laura Santoyo Dangond on the set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Lockdown is about a 17-year-old boy named Julian. He is a misfit struggling through high school when he is taken hostage in the school restroom by Brandon, a classmate with a gun. Their perilous standoff proves that nothing is as it seems. Julian fights to hold onto the hope that he will survive – not just the hostage situation, but his entire high school experience. Throughout the film, audiences learn of both characters’ complicated backstories.

“This story talks about very important issues, such as depression and anxiety in adolescents, bullying in schools, access to guns, police brutality, and more that are affecting our society. It can help to bring these subjects to the table and encourage people who watch the film to have discussions about them,” said Santoyo.

After its premiere in November 2016 at the American Film Institute, Lockdown went on to be an Official Selection at many prestigious international film festivals, including the Orlando Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival, Byron Bay International Television Academy Foundation for Best Screenplay and won the Golden Lion Award at the Barcelona International Film Festival. Such success may never have been possible without Santoyo’s outstanding production design.

“It is a great satisfaction to know that all the hard work, time and effort we as a team put into this project doesn’t go unnoticed and that we accomplished the purpose of telling a story that touched so many people,” she said.

Lockdown bathroom set
Laura Santoyo Dangond, Max Sokolof and Caleb Heller on the bathroom set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Having worked with Santoyo on his previous film Hotbed, the Director, Max Skolof, reached out to the production designer knowing the caliber of her work. At the time, he did not even have a clear idea of what the story was going to be, but he trusted Santoyo to help turn his vision into a reality. In the beginning, there was no script, and Skolof only had a newspaper article that he wanted to base a film around. Knowing the difficult but pressing issues the film addressed, Santoyo was immediately onboard.

“Working with Laura is a joy. She’s always curious, always soaking up ideas, always creative. She takes disparate things and puts them together in unexpected and revelatory ways. She has the highest standards for herself. Every detail is thought of. It helps me direct and it helps the actors find real depth. And on top of all that, Laura’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet. It’s also rare to come across someone who has such a strong and unique sense of aesthetics. She’s incredibly precise when it comes to expressing the story and the characters visually. Laura is brilliant in that way. She understands the language of cinema and she uses every tool at her disposal to help tell the story. Whether it’s knowing how to make use of space, or how to evoke a certain subtext with just color,” said Skolof.

When she begins every project, Santoyo makes sure to research her characters, and Lockdown was no different. She looked into what neighborhoods these adolescents would live in, the sociological and economic backgrounds and more, just trying to get to know as much information as she could to create a realistic design that would reflect both her leads.

Upon completion of the script, she did a breakdown of all the locations and noted what bits of the story took occurred in each place. When doing this, she noted the most important location in the story was the bathroom. Its design became her priority, and she began looking for a crew that would help bring her ideas to fruition.

“The design of the restroom was the biggest challenge because is where the two boys meet, and their feelings are revealed. We used a very restrained color palette that reflects the psychological state of both of them,” she described.

Rather than using a real location, Santoyo built the entire bathroom set on a soundstage. She went back to her research and looked for paintings and photographs that evoked the same feelings and emotions that she wanted to convey and saw a pattern in the colors. Most of the references she liked used yellows and reds. With that in mind, she did a preliminary design and presented it to the director. After his approval, she ensured all other departments, such as lighting and cinematography, could work with her concept. Once the designed was approved by everyone, the members of the art team, led by Santoyo, began sourcing the materials and painting samples.

The complexity of the two characters had to come across in the visual design and Santoyo achieved such a feat. She worked closely with the director, the director of photography and costume designer to better express the anguish and anger the characters were going through. The sets that she designed allowed the actors to better understand the characters’ backgrounds and helped facilitate the process of getting into character. In one instance, she even wrote offensive graffiti in the bathroom stalls that bullies may have written about their characters.

Such small details may seem trivial to some, by Santoyo knows how important they can be, and that is what makes her such a distinguished production designer. When watching Lockdown, audiences notice and appreciate how authentic the set is and allow themselves to be fully taken away to the high school. Any moviegoer knows, that is what makes a good film, and Santoyo makes that happen.

 

Top photo by Caleb Heller