For as long as she can remember, Dixie Chan recalls having a deep passion for the art of filmmaking. When she was a child, she would actively search for the “behind-the-scenes” footage of her favorite films and study the styles and techniques through which they were created. Particularly, Chan found herself interested in the making of documentaries. There was something so intriguing about how the lives of the individuals or concepts presented in narrative documentary style films would tell themselves. As she got older, Chan began exposing herself to film festivals around the world and her fascination with the visual and narrative power of documentary films grew stronger the more that she watched. She could often be found in the back of a film screening, jotting and scribbling notes about the techniques and ideas that interested her most. Flash forward to today, and Chan has developed a remarkable career as a film producer, exploring her love for documentary style films and forming a livelihood around it.
“What I love is that every documentary project has a certain theme, message, or vision. My role as a producer, then, is to flesh that out by searching for the right people and the right places to tell those compelling stories. In the field of documentary storytelling, you look for these compelling characters and you let their lives tell their stories. With that, preproduction work often involves extensive research, most of which is done in the field with locals. As a producer, I am always the first one to access the location and characters, so a big part of my job is to gather as much intelligence for the shoot as possible. Subsequently, I cast characters and scout out the best filming spots and angles. I also brainstorm with the field director about how we can bring our narrative ideas to life, from the types of scenes that can be shot to the kind of questions that we can raise during interviews,” shared Chan.
During her career as a producer, Chan has worked on some of National Geographic and The Discovery Channels most prestigious documentaries. Her work on documentaries such as Frontier Borneo, The Bridge, Warriors of Wood and Stone, and Expedition X — Silk Road Rising, are the reason that she has earned such a strong reputation amongst her peers. She is well known for her ability to see a project through from conception to post-production and her unique style makes her a force topple reckoned with in the producing community. In fact, the caliber of work that Chan is capable of producing typically earns her a significant amount of praise and award buzz in her field. For instance, it is no coincidence that after Chan produced Frontier Borneo, it went on to receive a nomination for Best Documentary Series at the 2017 Asian Television Awards, as well as an Official Selection for the 2017 Eco Film Festival in Singapore. These awards were little, however, in comparison to the recognition she received for her work on National Geographic’s hit series, China From Above.
China From Above is a 2-part documentary commissioned by the National Geographic Channel which takes an aerial perspective showcasing how China has transformed its cities and infrastructure over the last three decades, whilst still retaining its strong traditions. From the monumental engineering feats of the Great Wall, to innovative and unique farming techniques, and a massive water splashing festival, the show illustrates how these strong traditions have shaped China’s landscape to make it uniquely recognizable around the world and truly magnificent, especially from the air.
Chan began working on China From Above in 2014, partway through the show’s production. Given that aerial cinematography was still a relatively new style of filming, she was eager to explore her own personal production style along with it. At the time that Chan was asked to join China From Above’s production team, management had identified a gap in communication between the show’s Chinese and Australian partners. Fortunately, Chan had experience working on Chinese documentaries and being bilingual, she was able to communicate extensively in both Mandarin and English on all logistical and editorial matters. She was thrilled that she was able to bridge the gab between Chinese and Australian work cultures. Though it was challenging at times, she was rewarded by the opportunity to expand her experience within the field of documentary style film production, as well as to explore her potential as a bilingual producer.
As the show’s lead producer, Chan had a very large task on her hands. Given the fact that aerial documentaries were so new and unexplored, she had few points of reference to go by when researching and planning the film’s production. For this reason, she motivated herself to utilize the skills she had already established throughout her career and adapt them for this new and unfamiliar style of filming. In addition, she had her work cut out for her when it came to scouting characters and locations to feature in the show. She was in constant battle with climate and terrain conditions, travelling through extreme winter and desert conditions at even the best of times. Beyond that, she carefully and considerately searched for characters who would bring a certain degree of unpolished authenticity to the footage. For this reason, she spent countless hours grooming candidates and refused to stop searching until she found the best possible individuals for the job.
“There was one instance where I arrived on location to work on a story about Kazakh Eagle Hunters and realized that the characters that were introduced to us were not ideal for our project, and had to spend another 5 hours traveling in the snow to find a more authentic candidate. I am a perfectionist in that regard. I never take the easy way out especially when it comes to characters and stories,” told Chan.
Though daunting at times, her hard work eventually paid off in the end and Chan considers her work on China From Above to be one of the greatest highlights of her career. For anyone who worked with her on the project, it is no secret why. She placed a great level of dedication and effort into ensuring that each second of film was edited and refined to shed China in the most compelling light possible. Felix Feng, Vice President of Operations: China, Natural History New Zealand, worked very closely with Chan when researching and scouting locations for the show and knows how particular she was about capturing high quality content throughout the duration of the filming process. He credits her as having been the reason that the project was executed so smoothly and considers himself fortunate to have been able to collaborate with such a high performing producer.
“It was a great experience working with Dixie on this award-winning and breakthrough project about China. Her patience, hard-work, smart and creative thinking, persistence, and proper communication skills were very valuable in the production of China From Above. This helped us in an extremely smooth execution in both the research and ground shooting of the production. Today, the show has a viewership of over 200 million people and is one of the best rated documentaries in China. Dixie was a hero behind the scenes and is one of the biggest reasons why it was so successful,” added Feng.
After it premiered, China From Above went on to earn a slew of awards and praise at film festivals across the globe. For instance, the film won the award for Best Camerawork and Best Cultural Issues at the New York Festival Gold Awards in 2016, as well as a Gold Panda Award at the 2016 Sichuan TV Festival, and more. In addition, it received over 130,000,000 views within the first two weeks of premiering in China and was later named China’s most viewed documentary TV series in 2015 by China Mainland Media Research Co., Ltd. Its widespread success and praise was above and beyond what Chan had dreamed of for the series and she feels fortunate to be able to have played such a prominent role in creating it.