Cinematographer Simu Feng and Director Paul Kowalski have worked together on a number of films. Although they both possess many impressive attributes, perhaps the strongest reason for their successful working relationship is that they are both classic over-planners. Both of these men subscribe to the idea that you should check every production aspect a number of times and have a back-up to your back-up. The security with which this empowers the entire production team allows the artists they work with to create outstanding films that are critically and publicly praised. As proof, consider that their latest collaboration, Breathe, which received more than thirty recognitions and awards from all across the globe including; Cannes Short Film Corner (France), Visioni Corte Film Festival (Italy) (Finalist – Best International Short Film), Southampton International Film Festival (UK) (Official Selection) (Nominated: Best Short Film, Short Screenplay, Leading Actor in a Short, Cinematography, & Score), Beverly Hills Film Festival (Best Short – Audience Choice Award), Aesthetica Short Film Festival (UK) (BAFTA Qualifying) (Nominated – Best Drama), and numerous others. The exemplary work that this duo creates together gives credence to the idea that great art is great art, regardless of your background or history. These two filmmakers come from drastically different backgrounds. Born in London to nomadic Poles, Paul Kowalski grew up in the Middle East Africa and across America. The only child of a civil servant and a nurse, Feng grew up in Shenyang, China and then moved to Beijing to study Geophysics in college. In an abrupt turn, he was accepted to the Beijing Film Academy graduate school and never looked back. While both of these filmmakers pursue the passion of their art, Kowalski notes that it is Simu’s calm nature and demeanor under the stress of production and filming schedules that aids in the director’s ability to remain calm while working together. The cinematographer is Kowalski’s barometer and governor at the same time; a great bonus to the heart of any successful working relationship.
Psychological thrillers have become Paul Kowalski’s calling card. He is adept at making films of this genre and he knows it. Simu Feng has worked with this director multiple times due to his creative and discerning eye for imagery in these films. Concerning Feng’s proficiency, Kowalski declares, ““Simu was integral in bringing my wildest imaginations for Breathe to the screen. Whether it was devising shots in our pool sequence where we had to closely follow our protagonist swimming, or in an operating room watching him perform neurosurgery, Simu was always able to offer practical, creative, and unique solutions to bring the story to life visually. A truly great professional brings more than this to the table though. Working with Simu was a total pleasure. His calm and reassuring presence on set complemented my own directorial intensity and was often a rock amid the chaos of production. The camaraderie he promoted among his camera team made on-set execution a breeze and helped us get over production hurdles when they arose, with great ease.”
Breathe depicts a neurosurgeon’s psychological battle with reality in coming to terms with his wife’s death. The tragedy has propelled the main character into a place in which discerning reality from the images that haunt him is a constant struggle. As he descends into a surreal state, one gripping scene shows him descending into a pool; he struggles for his own life in the same way he struggles to accept the reality of his situation. Feng comments, “For the night pool scenes, we wanted the space to represent his sub conscious. We wanted the pool to be dark, scary, & moody, regardless of what a public pool should look like. I lit the scene mainly using the reflection of the water, creating a constant flowing light all around the area, adding to his unstable status of mind. I cared a lot about the eye light in the scene. I wanted to enable the audience to see into the character and feel his emotions. For this scene, we really wanted to be with the character…to jump into the pool with him and swim with him while feeling his pain through all the action. To do this, I did some research. I measured the size of the pool and came up with a plan that we could afford. We set up a 21’ ft. crane on the track along one side of the pool and swung the camera into the pool area just above water. For some shots, I had my camera operator walk into the water, holding the crane head and following the actor swimming. The shots turned out really well.” Kowalski expounds, “We needed highly-charged, stylized images to help represent our protagonist neurosurgeon’s growing derailed state of mind. The ALEXA was the solution. In our night pool photography, this camera was able to vividly capture flickers of reflected light, rendering them in crystal clear, ethereal blues. In our operating room scenes, the camera allowed us to keep skin tones vibrant while maintaining the low-lit, psychological (over naturalistic) feel we were after. The quality and flexibility of the ALEXA greatly contributed to the mood and style of the film.”
Simu enjoyed creating and designing ways to “trick” the audience when it came to guessing what was real and what was imagined in Breathe. He relates, “Since our plot is not one with a lot of twist and turns, a great deal of the plot point is in the subtext. We really need to figure out a way to keep the audience with the character all the time, immersing them into the world of this film. We took a lot of time designing the shots, making sure we covered all the beats and delivering the emotion for each moment. For me, the great enjoyment in being a cinematographer is that you get to create a story and touch the audience with your images. I enjoy turning the words in the script into something tangible and delivering the emotion of the story through imagery. I get the most sense of accomplishment when a scene is cut together and works the way it should; plus, it’s so much fun working with lighting and playing with all the cameras. It is such a creative job. It forces you to keep coming up with new ideas. I love to do a job that isn’t routine and repetition.”
As a fan of the US film industry, Simu has aspirations to make it his professional home. He admits to watching both films from his native China as well as US productions in his formative and adult years but makes note of his admiration for the infrastructure and lineage of American film. He states, “I think the US film industry is a fully developed industry in every aspect. There are rules to follow and paths to pursue; a design to getting things done. For example, you make a short, go to festivals, get noticed, and develop an independent feature. Then you go to festivals and get noticed by big studios. Whereas in places with developing film industries, filmmakers need to find their own ways to develop their career. The US has created a proven system that is admired across the whole world. I’m excited about being a part of that established model.”