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PRODUCING LOVE’S 2ND CHANCES: MING QIU

(By Winston Scott)

Leo Johnson - on set

Like many of us, Ming Qiu is fascinated by the complexity of relationships. Her secret superpower which separates her from most mortals is that, as a film producer, she has the power to give life to the stories of relationships which she finds interesting. Making a film is part discovery, part catharsis, and a whole lot of work. The diversity of the films she produces mirrors the vast array of relationships and their emotional toll that each of us can experience in our lives. This is what filmmakers do, they present stories that makes us laugh, inspire us, and hopefully help us to understand each other and ourselves. One day Qiu is making certain that furniture is burning properly (wait for it, you’ll find out) and the next she is reverse engineering the weather…it’s all a part of movie making and the wild ride that draws creative personalities such as Ming into an industry that gives something to the world.

Evan Bluestein gave Ming the script for his film “Leo Johnson” and she immediately knew that it was too good to not be a part of. The genre was comedy and romance but it was the deeper meaning that cinched the deal for this producer. At its core, “Leo Johnson” is about fear in a relationship and what we are willing to face. It’s an idea that Qiu would like more people to believe in, the notion that we would not only reject the fear which makes relationships so hard but that we would also face our personal fears down for those we love and cherish. Her way to promote this sensibility was to produce this film which espouses such notions.

Leo Johnson - location scout 1

Director Evan Bluestein wanted Qiu to produce because, in addition to witnessing her consummate professionalism on previous projects, her dark humor and fearlessness reminded him of the female lead in the film. He notes, “It’s always tricky to find the balance between humor and heart, and I was fortunate to work with Ming because she is such a collaborative, creative, and a passionate producer. From the beginning of our development process, Ming was an advocate for the love story and for making it the central dynamic from which the plot would grow. What I truly appreciated about working with Ming is her passion for the possibilities of the medium. She has a unique point of view that I’m sure I cannot sum up, but I know it has to do with dry humor and love and seeing the best in people. And that is something that makes its way into all of her films and is the mark of an artist.”

Leo Johnson - location scout 2

Qiu’s determination was challenged at several stages by factors which sought to impede or stop the film’s creation. The usual expected schedule conflicts, rental break downs, and even the Director of Photography leaving near the completion of film could not hamper the film and its producers resolve, in fact…it may have reaffirmed this determination. As sometimes occurs, the characters in the film itself were a metaphor for the cast and crew in so far as love kept them from giving up on their shared goal. In “Leo Johnson” the male lead (Ben) is extremely afraid of fire but he distracts his friend by setting her couch on fire so that his girlfriend Donna can escape during their ring-stealing crime scene; extreme limits for love, just as Ming wished. Being able to keep a cool and positive head during challenging times is made easier by a sense of humor. Qiu boldly states, “I can’t imagine a producer who isn’t able to be funny during these challenging moments. It’s a quality that keeps you and your team healthy during all the production headaches. In fact, all great producers I know are funny people. Film producers who are not funny probably have all pivoted to other careers.”

 

Rosita Lama Muvdi (Director of “Till I See You Again”) echoes that statement proclaiming, “Ming’s amazing sense of humor, coupled with her dedicated abilities as a talented producer, made working with her on ‘Till I See You Again’ an unforgettable experience. Her intoxicating personality made anyone on the production team excited to be around her, which, in turn, made the set a fun and productive environment to be in. With all the demands during production, Ming was always there to make sure production ran smoothly, ensuring both the cinematographer’s and my vision were able to come to life.”

“Till I See You Again” is a benevolent tale about time travel. While most time travel tales are about riches or crime (and end up with karma serving justice), this tale focuses on a father who simply wants to take care of his daughter. An older man (James) calls his daughter but is ignored. He is given a chance to travel back and have a younger version of himself shower his daughter with gifts and love. Through the experience we see that father and daughter in present day have a warm and full relationship.

Till I See You Again - film festival

What was so unusual and challenging for the filmmakers of “Till I See You Again” was that there was essentially no dialogue in this story. Qiu admits that she is fond of dialogue in her productions and this was new territory for her. What was also unique was the writer’s determination to film one particular scene that communicated the time travel effectively to the audience. Ming describes the scene and how it was created, “Rather than use VFX, We shot the scene with everything moving in reverse direction with the rain from a rain tower. Our actor had to rehearse quite a few times to make sure his walking backwards looked 100% like walking forward when the footage was rewound. The visuals turned out amazing. Looking back at our night in/next to cold rain, all of us felt that having certain constraints actually pushed our creativity to a new level.”

There are many attributes which make Ming such a fine producer: an understanding of the workings of each department of the production team, extraordinary communication and organizational skills, insight into story development, and others…but it’s her curiosity which she feels makes her most important. The desire to find a creative solution to a shared goal is one she shares with the characters in these films. For another film she currently produced titled “My Zombie Club” the Art Department was having difficulty discovering a means to attach vines growing around the main characters derriere (a curse given him by a zombie lord). A diligent producer, Qiu researched until she found the perfect wardrobe piece that would serve both the art department, VFX department, and still allow the actor to retain some modesty. While it’s an unusual and humorous example, this is the challenge of any relationship…finding a solution that we can all live with. Ming Qiu is an living/professional model of the ideas illustrated in her films.

 

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Producer Mickey Liu brings music and drama together in acclaimed film ‘Nocturne in Black’

Growing up, Mickey Liu always found himself stuck between two different pathways as a child. He studied business, but he loved the arts. However, as a teenager, he realized he could combine both these passions and become a professional producer. A producer is a leader, a problem-solver, a caretaker, a doer, a negotiator, a storyteller and an artist. Liu aims to be all of them, and he has achieved his goal, becoming one of China’s leading producers.

“The lack of professional producers is one of the biggest problems in the film industry of my home country. I feel the responsibility and urgency to become one. It’s very challenging, but also very rewarding,” said Liu.

Liu’s work in Chinese film is renowned. His movies such as Sail the Summer Wind, An Ill-Fitting Coat and Tear of the Peony exemplify Liu’s determination to transform the Chinese film industry and allow for more professional producers to take lead. However, one of the highlights of his career comes from his work on the 2016 film Nocturne in Black, which is actually in Arabic.

“I wanted to work on this project because of its powerful script with a musical element of the story. It was one of those rare cases where I immediately knew I would regret not being part of this. It was definitely a very ambitious and challenging project, but if we could pull that off, we would send a powerful message,” he said.

Nocturne in Black takes place in a war-ravaged Middle Eastern neighborhood, where a musician struggles to rebuild his piano after it is destroyed by terrorists. The film premiered and was an Official Selection at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado along with Liu’s film Tear of the Peony. From there it was an Official Selection at the Los Angeles Shorts International Film Festival, won Best Director at NDU International Film Festival, The Marion Carter Green Award at the 2016 National Board of Review, Gold Circle Award Grant Winner at the 2016 Caucus Foundation, and Best Short Film Narrative at the Long Beach International Film Festival. What was the most exciting for Liu, however, was when he received the news that Nocturne in Black was shortlisted for Best Live Action Short for the 89th Academy Awards.

“It was definitely the highlight of my career. I remember receiving an email from Producer Felecia Hunter with the subject line “JESUS CHRIST” and a link to the Hollywood Reporter article in it. I was literally shaking while scrolling down the list and found out that we were shortlisted. I had no idea it could go that far, and I still feel very honored and blessed to be a part of it” said Liu.

When putting together a team for the film, Producer Felecia Hunter approached Liu, knowing what an asset he could be as a co-producer. The two had worked together in the past, and she knew he had great experience putting together and designing posters. Once he was approached, Liu read the script and immediately decided to jump on board. He then created the pitch book and designed posters when the film was just a script, which ended up being essential in the success of their Kickstarter campaign, and he also designed the look of the Kickstarter page. Half of the film was financed by the crowdfunding campaign. Liu also contributed editing notes in post-production.

NIB at LA Shorts Fest with producer Felecia Hunter
Mickey Liu and Felecia Hunter at the LA Shorts Fest

Hunter and Liu attended several film festivals and awards to help promote the film. During the film’s festival run, he helped with coordinating the transportation of the film’s DCP copy and created promotional postcards for Nocturne in Black. Liu played a critical role in financing and marketing of Nocturne in Black, and that is exactly why Hunter approached him to begin with.

Mickey is organized, thorough, and possesses a very keen eye for details. He knows how to communicate with department heads quickly and effectively, ensuring a productive working environment on set and throughout post-production. Mickey is an asset on any project or event he works on. He always goes the extra mile by working long hours; triple checking details; and doing much more than is required of his job description. Through our work together, I had the delight of experiencing his extraordinary talent shine from pre-production to having films he produced screen at the Telluride Film Festival and other notable festivals worldwide. Mickey Liu is a gifted artist, but also a skilled professional and invaluable collaborator. His writing, producer’s vision, and narrative insights have always been revelatory – the sign of a mature and talented film producer – and add an unforgettable quality to any project he takes on,” said Hunter.

The story is set in Syria, but for safety reasons due to the civil war in the country, the production took place in the director’s home country Lebanon. Liu was working long hours just to put together a good pitch book; he did a lot of the research and exchanged notes with the Director, Jimmy Keyrouz, to ensure the look of the pitch book matched Keyrouz’s artistic vision. He then worked on the typography and details of the book for days, and this was only the first step.

“Everyone on the team pushed themselves to a whole new level because we wanted to have the best possible version of the film. It was really a labor of love and I could feel it when I was working on it,” Liu described.

The team was one of the best parts about working on Nocturne in Black for Liu. He was extremely impressed with everyone’s commitment to the story and with the professionalism on set. Everyone was at the top of their game, and they were having fun. More than anything, however, Liu was most inspired by the story they were telling. He knows the importance it has and encourages audiences to see it.

“It’s imperative to remind people about what is happening in the forgotten parts of the world – murderously effective, half-ton barrel bombs are constantly dropped on innocent civilians. It’s a story about human spirit standing up to oppression, evil, and terrorism. In the story, playing music is the protagonist’s ultimate act of defiance in a world where music is banned. I think it sends out a powerful message. Our director once said, “Art is a mighty tool that helps us fight extremism and terrorism.” In some way, making this film is our way to join the fight,” he said.

Be sure to check out Nocturne in Black so you too can join the fight.

 

Top photo by Lingyun Zheng

Production Designer Laura Santoyo talks new film ‘Falling’

Learning about various aspects of humanity is a passion of Colombia’s Laura Santoyo Dangond. Originally from Colombia, she has also lived in Peru and Canada, and loves to travel to experience different cultures and learn new languages, fluent in Spanish, English, French, German, and Portuguese. This desire to learn about the world and its people is part of what led her into filmmaking. With every new project she embarks on, she gets to tell a different story and learn something new about history, society, the human mind, and more. Beyond the stories, she works with people from all over the world that have different backgrounds and ways of seeing life, and together they share and experience their differences through their art. As a production designer, Santoyo takes everything she has seen and practiced and channels that into creating visually stunning and captivating sets and props that fully transport audiences into what they are watching.

“I make an effort to stay true to the story and what the characters are. I do a lot of research on the characters and the environment where they live. I also try to have many exchanges with the director where we discuss characters and share research and inspiration images, etc. to understand their vision and the direction they are taking the story to. I like to play with colors and used them to imply aspects of the story that are not explicitly spoken by the characters,” she said.

Santoyo is known for her work on award-winning films such as Lockdown and Tim of the Jungle, both of which made their way to several of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Last year, her film The Plague premiered, reminding audiences of what she is capable of, as Santoyo created a dystopian world. Her most recent film premiered just last month at the Slamdance Festival, and once again Santoyo shows she is unrivaled as a production designer.

Falling set_2
Bill Bowles, Laura Santoyo Dangond and Ewen Wright on the set of Falling, photo by Sam Shaib

“As soon as I finished reading the script I felt like I had to be part of the project. It is one of the most original scripts I have read, very intelligent and I thought that it was a story that had to be told and that I wanted to tell it,” she said. “The script of this film describes a number of absurd situations and uses humor to address subjects that are affecting our society. It was very important that the design of the movie supported the comedic tone without ridiculing the situations.”

The film tells the story of a potentially psychosomatic white man, a woman stuck in a vortex of mansplaining, and a young black man confronted by the racial disconnect of society, each trying to make sense of their lives as their worlds are set on an inevitable collision course in this surrealist comedy.

It was important for Santoyo and the rest of the team to differentiate the three storylines that run parallel to each other and to show the absurdity of the situations without being too over the top. Therefore, they assigned one color to each character.

The first story, about a man who can’t walk, represents the feeling of impotence that someone watching the news at night can feel when they see injustices with no way to help. This character takes the “sickness” he feels to the extreme. Therefore, they decided to use the color blue with him, which is very clinical.

The second story, about a woman who’s caught in male-dominated conversations turmoil, was assigned the color red. She is often angry and frustrated, and all the men that she’s with see her and other women as objects. Santoyo felt red reflected these feelings.

The third story is about a black man, who in the most absurd situation, ends up being shot by the police. The filmmakers gave him the color green, because he’s young and innocent at the beginning and at the end it is his case that makes the man in the first story sick.

“As a society, we are still fighting against racism, social injustice and women’s equality and this film raises awareness on these subjects in a comedic tone. I believe that it is very important to have films like this one because we can start generating discussions that could eventually lead to change,” said Santoyo.

Working on Falling has been one of the most fun experiences Santoyo has had throughout her career. From the first time she read the script, she knew it was going to be challenging because there were many locations with three different stories that at the end become one. Each story had elements of magical realism that could also be difficult to achieve in production design. Santoyo wanted to enhance the experiences of the character through the set, but not overdo it to a point that the messages behind each scene were lost. She managed to find the perfect balance, always keeping in mind the color palette they had decided for each character early on in production.

“I think many things make Laura an excellent designer, collaborator, and professional. The first thing that comes to mind is passion. She’s clearly passionate about what she does – she made it clear that she seeks out work that she connects with on a personal and aesthetic level. Once she’s onboard, she’s obviously all-in. That shows at every phase of a project when you see her initial ideas, the hours she’s putting in, the attitude she brings to every meeting and production day, and the diligence with which she executes. Beyond that, she’s a professional with outstanding training, instincts, and experience. She knows how to present her ideas clearly – both verbally and visually, she has leadership skills, she remains calm under pressure, she knows how to prioritize, stay organized, and keep others motivated to work at a high standard,” said Ewen Wright, Director.

Wright was looking through portfolios and films for a costume designer when Santoyo’s work caught his eye. He asked the costume designer who the production designer was that possessed such talent. He immediately reached out to Santoyo, who was extremely responsive and receptive to the idea of the film. They immediately began a strong partnership and shared ideas about the film.

Falling Set
Ewen Wright, Laura Santoyo Dangond and Yonit Olsen, photo by Sam Shaib

“Laura has a creative voice, and in a key role on a collaboration that can’t be undervalued. She brings her lifelong sense of design, studied theory, and just pure instinct to her work in a way that gives her work a through-line. I really enjoyed developing a shorthand with her. Lastly, she has a phenomenal attitude and work ethic. She went above and beyond for our production – and even when things went wrong, or the hours ran long, Laura was a reliable source of positivity and joy. As a leader on the team, she set a tone for those around her that I know contributed to all of us doing better. When I was stressed or needed a moment, I always knew I could rely on Laura for a laugh – just as the rest of the time I relied on her for her eye on the image,” Wright continued.

Working with such a committed team was one of Santoyo’s favorite parts about filming Falling. She found everyone came together to tell such an intricate story, and she was constantly inspired by those she worked alongside. However, it was the message behind the film that truly made the experience for the production designer.

“I am so proud to have been a part of this film. I think it’s a story that captures the feeling that something is wrong in the world and the willingness to change it, but not knowing how to go about doing so. I think many people feel that now. I’m thrilled to know that it’s being watched by many people and it can maybe inspire some change in our society,” she said.

Now that Falling has begun its film festival run, Santoyo is looking forward to her next project. Undoubtedly, she has a very bright future ahead of her, and audiences can continue to look for her name rolling past their eyes in movie credits for years to come.

“I want to keep exploring and finding new stories to tell and more talented people to work with. I am looking forward to creating more worlds where magic is possible. I want my work to reach even larger audiences and present stories to the public that entertain them and that touches them. I have a couple of projects in line for this year that hopefully will help me accomplish this,” she concluded.

 

Top photo by Jesper Duelund

SALLY KINGSFORD IS HAPPY TO BE THE HEAVY IN THE AWARD-WINNING “STAMP”

Headshot 3Australia’s Sally Kingsford in known for playing comedic roles. She’s good at it and both peers and public know this. Being funny on camera is an inherent trait for some actors and it most certainly applies to Kingsford…she understands this. As Ashely in the award-winning and commercial hit Australian television comedy series “Summer Heights High”, Sally became an instantly recognizable comedic personality in her homeland, Europe (BBC 3), the US (HBO and Netflix) and other parts (such as the Comedy Channel in Canada). Numerous other productions have made use of the actress’s propensity for comedic moments but it was award-winning director Lukas Menitjes who wanted to flip that concept. He asked Kingsford to appear as the heavy, known as “The Suit” in his film “Stamp.” More known for being the always positive and often abused well natured character, Sally’s portrayal of “The Suit” in “Stamp” is that type of person we all love to hate, or at least strongly dislike. The actress was eager to show a greater breadth of range to her abilities in this film. While she has been often praised for the performances she’s given in a host of beloved productions, “Stamp” allowed her to show how she can bring a darkness to comedy as well.

Lukas Menitjes wanted to create an absurd comedy in “STAMP” and he felt that Kingsford would be the perfect villain for his story. As “The Suit” Sally appears as an obnoxious, self-involved, self-important professional with an over-inflated ego demanding others cater to her demands and condescending attitude. There’s plenty of comedy, based on reality in events of one Monday morning in a coffee shop. Rebecca (the barista) is hounded by a customer (Andrew) to get a free coffee after she refuses to give him an extra stamp on his coffee rewards card. Andrew tries various disguises to trick Rebecca into serving him. Rebecca eventually relents but takes solace in making Andrew the wrong coffee. “The Suit” adds to the chaos of the film (and Rebecca’s stress) by making her life at work a living hell with her demands. In a passive aggressive display, she complains on the phone to her friend about the barista right in front of her. “The Suit” serves to contribute a strong sense of reality by providing a more realistic character for Rebecca (the barista) to interact with in contrast to Andrew’s over-the-top characterisation and actions.

STAMP #2

Ask a director and they’ll likely tell you that the actors they choose for their villains are the ones who present them with a sense of humanity and relatability rather than one dimensional and cartoonish. In spite of her character’s exhibited negativity and rudeness, Sally sees her as very sensitive and donning a harsh defensive exterior to avoid being hurt. Meintjes confirms that it’s the actress’s ability to go deep into a character that caused him to approach Kingsford for the role. He professes, “Sally is an incredibly talented and diligent performer. In STAMP she delivered an excitingly bold and magnetic performance as ‘The Suit.’ The best actors have an insatiable inquisitiveness; this obsession enables them to create memorable performances. I can’t think of a more fitting description for Sally. Her passion is quite unlike the motivation I’ve seen in other actors. She is determined, honest, and possesses unequivocal integrity.”

Kingsford describes her preparation for roles as detective work but perhaps not in the traditional manner followed by most actors. Rather than delving deep into her own character first, Sally prefers a holistic sense of story, viewing the characters and actions from different angles/perspectives and then honing in on her place in the “big picture.” When she finally began focusing on her role in “STAMP” she looked outward. She communicates, “I did a lot of people watching. There is a street in Melbourne called Collins Street and the top end of it is known as the ‘Paris end’; it’s where all the most expensive designer stores are and where the most elite businesses and firms have their offices. This was the kind of place I imagined ‘The Suit’ going to work. I loitered around and watched people going to work in the morning paying particular attention to their physicality and imagined the kind of lives they lived. I knew that Andrew’s actions in the film were going to be over the top so I approached ‘The Suit’ in a very natural manner. I really enjoyed this role that was really a dramatic character in a comedy. I’ve done a lot of work in comedies being the funny one and it was nice to switch that around in this film.”

STAMP #3

Not only was “STAMP” embraced by the public but the short film received three nominations and a win at Australia’s Martini Awards. While the film industry peers who voted for the it appreciated Kingsford and her fellow cast and crew’s talent, the general audience recognized a part of their own lives that was delivered in a way that somehow made a common & difficult occurrence entertaining and enjoyable. Beyond the experience of working with the talented production members of “STAMP”, the woman in “The Suit” notes that there are some valuable life lessons to be taken from the film: 1) Don’t try and cheat the system, it won’t work, 2) Hard work and determination doesn’t always pay off, & 3) Don’t work as a barista…the customers are either incredibly rude or crazy.

 

Ask an Expert: Executive Producer Ed Egan provides insight and advice

I’m Executive Producer Ed Egan, and for over 15 years I have worked in the television industry, becoming recognized as one of the leading game show producers in the world. As Executive Producer, I am responsible for leading teams who produce great television shows, but I am also tasked with developing new ideas to create formats which have the potential to sell all around the world. I have worked on many leading gameshow formats around the world, in the US, UK and Australia, for networks such as NBC, ABC, BBC, ITV, Network Ten among others.

Gameshow formats are notoriously difficult to crack and small, seemingly insignificant tweaks can have profound repercussions if they are not discovered through intensive gameplay testing. The last thing you want is to discover a flaw whilst filming a show, as there can be millions of dollars at stake. This is why an experienced Executive Producer, who can put together a strong team, is vital in the production of any new format. I have become well known for working on pilots and first seasons for my ability to tweak gameplay and iron out any potential problems that could arise.

I believe the most important role of an Executive Producer is to lead a team in a way that ensures every member provides their best possible work on a production and feels valued in what they are making.

Here are my quick tips to leading a production team to produce the best shows possible:

Choose the right team

It all comes from having a great team. Not only does it make your life as an Exec easier, it also makes the best product. Meet lots of people and spend time interviewing them. Some people give great interviews, and some don’t, but it’s important to make a distinction between those that can talk well and those that can actually do the job! Make sure to always check as many references as possible. Personality is also important though, as the people you are employing are going to be a team and will need to work well together. Finding a good, balanced mix with strong abilities is the key.

Stay in contact with people you’ve worked with.

It’s important to know what the availability is of people you like that you’ve worked with previously so that you can plan for when productions begin. Sometimes it can take weeks to get a full team on board and the more aware you are of who is and isn’t available at all times, the better prepared you will be.

Note down ideas

Keep notes in your phone when you see something you like or that inspires you. A film, another television show or even the design of a restaurant you happen to be in – if there’s something visual you like it may be useful in a show at some point. Commercials are often very useful starting points when trying to explain your vision of a project to people for the first time. Also, keep notes on possible talent that you see, whether this be TV, film or theatre, as you might want to use them in the future.

Enjoy it

We’re very fortunate to work in a creative industry that often affords us the chance to go to exciting places, meet interesting people and we get to be creative. Enjoy it, encourage it in others and aim to inspire those who you are working with. They will be running teams in the not so distant future, so try to set a good example.

Believe in yourself

Like so many other Execs, we question ourselves and our abilities all the time and that’s not a bad thing. But, you are at the level you’re at for a reason, so make those decisions and stick to them. It’s important to remember that at times, especially when the going gets tough.

And finally…

Work hard and be nice to people!

Animator Sijia Huang brings joyful characters to life in new film ‘Breakfast’

As an only child, Sijia Huang was always looking for ways to entertain herself. She didn’t have any siblings to play with, and growing up in Chongqing, China, she immersed herself into movies from a young age, finding that it not only passed the time, but consumed her every thought. She knew she had to be a part of that world, and loving drawing from an early age, she became committed to knowing everything she could about animation. She studied her favorite films and scoured video stores to find new movies she could learn from. Now, she is an acclaimed animator, winning audiences around the world over with her unique style and commitment to her craft.

Her films Box Home, Quitting Brave Victory, Measures and Frames and Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil have allowed the world to see just what Huang is capable of. Her ability to generate smooth animation while still maintaining a good balance between tension and looseness generate the perfect rhythm for her films. She knows that in animated films, her work is the entirety of the visual aspect, making up 50 per cent of the movie goers experience, and she knows how to make that lasting impression.

“Just like having good actors or actresses in a film, a professional animator can create lively characters that will contribute lots to the story. A good story is one of the most important parts of a film. The power of a well animated character, a good story, and the aesthetic value behind an animated film is why I want to be a professional animator,” she said.

Huang’s most recent film is titled Breakfast, in which she was both the director and leading animator. She designed and crafted all the puppets and did all the stop-motion animation. Breakfast is a combination of 2D and stop-motion animation. The character design is what intrigued Huang to take part in the film, with a unique take on stop-motion puppets. She also found the script interesting, with funny and unique characters.

The story begins with two hands hitting two eggs. As the hitting goes on, the two eggs start to crack and finally explode into pieces. Two creatures come out of the eggs. One is a duck with hairy human legs. The other one is a muscular man with duck feet. The duck and the man both have a crush on each other and start to dance. In the middle of the dance, the two hands interrupt them by hitting them on their heads. A chase and fight commence. In the end, it turns out all the encounters and fights are happening in a child’s imaginary world when he plays with his toys – a rubber duck and an action figure, during his breakfast.

“The story is more about viewing the world with children’s perspective and the positive messages behind the story include love, support and equality,” said Huang.

Huang began working on the animation back in 2015, and it took over two years to perfect every image. After premiering at the New York Short Film Festival 2018 where it was an Official Selection, the film has already seen great acclaim. It was an Official Selection at the 2018 GUKIFF Animated Short, UK Monthly Film Festival, and the Oniros Film Awards. It also had an Official Screen at the Oregon Shorts section in the 41st Portland International Film Festival. At the Los Angeles Movie Awards, Huang was awarded with Best Animation for her work on the film, and at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival she won Best Director. Needless to say, none of the film’s success could have been possible without her considerable contributions.

“Knowing the film has been so successful means a lot to me, as the director and the leading animator on this film, I had a lot of pressure. At the beginning, I didn’t know if the audiences would like the characters or not. This film is all about these interesting characters, which I personally love and had lots of fun on animating. It turns out that audiences really like it too, Every effort paid off at the end,” said Huang.

Huang was responsible for all the stop-motion animation in Breakfast, which was 90 per cent of the entire animation. Stop-motion requires working with puppets. While making the puppets, she was very careful when it came to the mold and cast process, one of the greatest challenges. When she began the process, she had no experience in casting them, and through trial and error, eventually created characters that were even better than the original design.

TeamPhoto
Sijia Huang, Stan Lee, and Yifu Zhou with the Digital Domain team

“I first met Sijia when we worked together on some digital content pieces for Stan Lee, and immediately recognized her exceptional talent and matchless vision. She is one of these rare talents, as she clearly demonstrated in Breakfast, and her reputation precedes her in the industry. Her stop-motion work is renowned for being refreshing in the animation world, as it is simultaneously mature, artistic, and avant-garde,” said Yifu Zhou, Vice President and Visual Effects Supervisor at Digital Domain.

Although they are not human actors, Huang says the puppets require a lot of care. For example, the Duck character has a pair of hairy legs that need special handling and care when animating. Therefore, she chose to only touch the joints that she needed to bend so that the leg hair would not fall off. She also used baby powder to help reduce the stickiness of the silicon surface.

“The ball and socket armatures were so fun to animate. I enjoyed the experience of animating on stage. It is hard to imagine without the ball and socket armatures, how to work on some of the shots. The most difficult part is to animate characters in the air. Two characters in the film are made of silicon and super sculpted. The materials and steal ball and socket armatures make the puppets heavy to animate. In order to stable them in the air, I used special designed rigs, so I can tie the puppets to the flying rigs to create movement in the air,” Huang described.

Music was also a big part of the film. Not only did Huang find the ideal composer in Lance Trevino, she also needed the choreography to be perfect. This required an ample amount of research on Tango dancing in order to perfectly execute the animation. To do so, Huang analyzed the patters of the dance steps and extracted the key movements to fit the animation style. Her dedicated resulted in the Tango being the highlight of the film.

“I loved the film, so animating it was really fun. When you see the characters on this film, you will know why I love them so much,” she concluded.

Be sure to check out Breakfast to know just what Huang is talking about.

Chinese Actor Yifan Luo talks upcoming film ‘Rift’

As a child, growing up in Shanghai, Yifan Luo did not see himself as an actor. In fact, he was very business oriented, and the arts were not a feasible career option for him at the time. However, as a teen, everything changed; when he stepped on the stage for the first time as the lead in his high school play, he experienced the unique sensation that only comes from doing something you truly love. His passion for acting was born at that time, and now, over ten years later, this passion only grows stronger each time he steps onto a new set.

As an in-demand actor in both China and abroad, Luo is constantly looking for different roles than those he has played previously. He aims to portray as many different personalities as possible, from a schizophrenic psychopath in the film SAM to a jokester college freshman in the feature Talentik. His versatility knows no bounds. With the four films he has coming out this year, each character explores a different side of humanity. In the upcoming movie Rift, Luo once again plays a different role than he ever has.

“The character of the psychologist is somewhat complex. Yifan is perfect for the role and his performance is excellent. He is a professional and dedicated actor. I definitely want to work with him again,” said Jing Ge, Producer.

Rift is a compelling science fiction film focusing on a series of characters. It begins with Sergeant Howard receiving a case that Professor Miles is missing. The main character, Yu, is considered as the prime suspect. However, Yu denies everything. According to his testimony, Yu killed Proffesor Miles ten years ago for the professor’s plagiarism of his thesis paper. Yu was sent back to China after he was released from the prison. Through investigation, Howard believes that he is lying about something regarding the case. However, the psychological consultant, Gu Shenming, holds a different opinion. Yu gives them an unbelievable explanation that he comes from a parallel universe. Howard doesn’t believe Yu, but he has no evidence, so he has to release Yu after 48 hours. Yu’s girlfriend Xin bails him out. Howard is shocked when he sees Xin, because this girl was murdered five years ago by a serial killer. When Yu sees Xin, he is also surprised that Xin is still alive. Two days later, different female bodies are found in suburban Los Angeles, related to a serial killer, all while travelling through parallel universes.

Rift 3
Yifan Luo in Rift

“Science fiction is always what people like to watch. Especially now in China, it is a very popular topic in film/TV shows. In this story, we see different kinds of people, good and bad. It is a real society that the film creates. It brings us a world where the hero is a real man who would never reach his goal without the help of people around him. Of course, the hero gets what he needs in the end, which also encourages the audience to go for what they want,” said Luo.

In Rift, Luo plays Gu Shenming. His character is the psychologist that works for the police. He talks to the suspects and makes the conclusion regarding whether they are lying or not. In the story, when the main character comes from a parallel universe, nobody believes what he says. Therefore, the sergeant sends Gu Shenming to talk with him and expects that he will be proved a liar. As the conversation progresses, Gu gradually believes in what the main character says and starts to suspect that the sergeant actually knows a secret about the case that he doesn’t want other people know. Finally, Gu makes the conclusion that the main character is not lying about anything, which infuriates the sergeant.

Gu Shenming is the only person that believes in what the main character, Yu, says about travelling from the parallel universe. Without the character, the main character would have been sent to prison at the very beginning. It is this character that keeps searching for evidence that proves Yu is not lying about anything, and the psychologist is the one who finally destroys the sergeant’s plan. During the process, Luo’s character is under the immense pressure but never gives give up. He does his duty as a psychologist and prevents the main character from being persecuted.

“I read the synopsis of the story before I went for the audition. I really liked the idea of a parallel universe. The character I auditioned for is a very smart psychologist who works for the police that diagnoses whether the leading guy is crazy or not, since he keeps talking about a parallel universe, which is totally what I’m good at. I believed that I could do a very good job in playing such a role,” said Luo.

As the story has the setting of a parallel universe, the actors were required to frequently move between the universes in the story, meaning the cast and crew had to constantly change the set, costumes, and makeup. Because of this, everyone had to be on top of their game. Luo made sure to be extremely familiar with the script and storyline, even for scenes he was not in. This also created a great sense of teamwork between everyone on set, as they were constantly working to make filming as smooth as possible. For Luo, it was working with everyone on the film that made working on Rift such a great experience.

“It was a great experience to work with Yifan. He is very professional and very passionate. As a partner, he is very considerable. He even helped me read the lines so patiently when I was doing my close-up shots. He always spends a lot of time working on the character before he goes to set. He is also creative at the same time. He has a sense of humor that makes his acting unique.  He is one of my favorite actors I have ever worked with,” said Yun Xie, Lead Actress.

Keep an eye out for Rift at a film festival near you.