Anyone who has been in a long distance relationship will relate to the film “Distance.” Whether it’s romantic or platonic, being separated from those you love is difficult, particularly when you are on opposite sides of the planet. To communicate the feeling in images, director Haixiao Lu enlisted Ruixi Gao to take the helm as cinematographer. Based on her previous work in productions like Last Call, Locked, Under the Pieces, and others, Lu was confident that Ruixi could deliver the sentiment and creativity he was looking for; a notion that was proven correct when “Distance” earned wins at the 2017 Hollywood Film Competition, the LA Shorts Awards, and the NYC Indie Film Awards (earning the Best Short Film). Gao is justifiably proud of the look of the film. What it lacked in big budget financing, Ruixi made up for in creativity, tenacity, and good old fashioned hard work; it’s a situation she often prefers as it requires her to prove her ability to deliver an exemplary product regardless of the monetary factor. The slick look and beautiful vibe of the film belie any struggle to make it. While the storyline of “Distance” may be painful and the process of making it hard fought, watching the film is completely effortless and enjoyable.
The perennial theme of the movie is love, in particular a long distance relationship between young lovers. While in China, a young Korean girl meets a boy and the fall in love. When her love goes to study in LA she is understandably heartbroken. They go about living separate lives while still in the relationship. While it is difficult, they FaceTime every day. Inevitably the spacial distance and their busy lives take a toll, creating an emotional space between them. With a grand romantic gesture to surprise him, the girl flies to LA but finds him in the embrace of another woman. In a letter, she tells the boy that the memory of their love will endure but the relationship cannot, at least it cannot for her. In the final frames we see the two former lovers returning to the places they were in the beginning of the film but appearing changed. While this story is not new, the way it is communicated is done with such grace and beauty that it elicits a transcendent beauty and pain which cause it to be markedly different than similar films that preceded it.
While many filmmakers romanticize over the days of actual film, Gao feels that the digital age has empowered many cinematographers to create a higher quality of imagery in films within greater time and budget constraints. Even more, the transition from film to digital has allowed DPs to create looks previously impossible. The result is the transition to a new age of a more realistic sensory experience, a richer color screen, and new innovation opportunities. Rather than a detriment, Ruixi considers the advantages of digital to be a powerful tool to be used in the appropriate manner. That said, she is fond of using an analog methodology when it is called for…as she did with an important aspect of “Distance.” When the director (Haixiao) told Gao he wanted to have a split screen simultaneously showing the male character in LA and the Female in Korea, Ruixi experimented with different ways of achieving this for the film. She reveals, “It’s always a challenge when you want to achieve the look of a big budget film on a smaller budget but I honestly feel that there is no substitute for being creative. I studied and researched a lot of different methods for doing a split screen. I did camera test before the shooting and then showed the director my experimental video. I simply covered up half camera’s screen(monitor) and then combined the two in post-production, placing one on the bottom. Together they made a perfect complete picture. There are many ways to shoot. Working with the editor gives a variety of means to achieve the effects needed for this.”
While the filming was done in one city, it was Ruixi’s job to make sure that the main characters appeared to be in locations on opposite sides of the planet. The moods of the boy and the girl would also need to be passively communicated to relate the emotional mood of the characters. Gao used a simple lighting design for the film with low key lighting and a soft filter for the Korean girl and a somewhat more revealing and higher key lighting for the boy in Los Angeles. Gao professes that a simple design is typically the stronger one in her estimation, which director Haixiao Lu agrees with. He notes, “Anyone who has seen Ruixi’s reel will attest to how attractive it is. She has this innate ability to find the natural beauty in all things, which is always the most honest and powerful when it comes to visual imagery. I did not hesitate to seek her out to be the DP on this film once I saw the reel. She really knows how to work with a director. She is a passionate artist and working with her is exciting because of this. Talent such as hers is rare.”
Ruixi Gao is a reminder to all in the film community that embracing a “hands on” approach to innovation can mean using traditional tools or the most advanced ones available. The only rule that is important in art is the constant pursuit of it. The form is elevated by those who take risks and follow their own muse. While Gao may have learned from others, she forges ahead with an open mindedness that serves her and those she works alongside well. The pain that one feels when watching “Distance” would not be as intense and ironically enjoyable without the look this cinematographer has created for us.