Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Jun Li Honestly Sees Son of Wanderer

Son of Wanderer

Movie fans across the world are familiar with the marquee names of actors. Directors and producers like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Quentin Tarantino have also achieved the king of international notoriety that places them in the celebrity category. For each of these, there are legions of publicly unknown artists whose talent creates the stories that tug at our hearts, unearth laughter, and move us to appreciate the world we live in. Though the public may be unaware of these exceptionally skilled professionals, those who truly understand the storytelling process proclaim their contributions. Three-time Academy Award winning producer and writer Jana Sue Memel has produced more than twenty-five feature films as well as countless live action shorts airing in more than thirty countries. In discussing the film Son of Wanderer (on which she served as screenwriter) Memel points out, “The Camera Man position on a film is truly underappreciated. Jun Li was the camera operator/Steadicam operator for Son of Wanderer and his insightful contributions were a direct part of the recognitions the film has already received.” These recognitions include wins for the film at the London Independent Film Awards, Los Angeles Film awards, Rome Independent Prisma Awards, and others. While the producers, directors, and others are the brain which comprehends the story, professionals like Jun Li are the eyes which allow audiences everywhere to see first-hand the events which unfold on the screen. They are the windows to the movie’s soul. As the camera operator’s motto states “We see it first.”

 

Son of Wanderer is a story that allows us to see that holding back from those closest to us can cause a great divide. Mingzhe Li is a successful artist in the US but originally from China. He appears to have a great life with a beautiful and loving wife but he is estranged from his mother [Li]. When Li shows up unannounced at the couple’s San Francisco home, the motivation for this visit is kept secret. Through flashbacks we learn that Mingzhe’s father was a famous and talented artist in the 1970’s before the Cultural Revolution in China and alcohol led to his downward spiral. The family eventually dissolved and when her teenage son showed an inclination for art, Li quickly snuffed this notion. This planted the seed of resentment which would separate mother and child. In present day, Li finally informs her adult son that she has come to America to inform him of his father’s death. A torrent of emotion, years in the making, erupts and Li leaves for China at once. Only Li’s secret box contains the antidote to their discourse.

 

Director Chi Zhou and cinematographer Nan Li wanted to express the unusual coldness between mother and son in the movie, without the need for exposition. In many of the scenes, there is literally a divide between them. Jun’s skill with the Steadicam was heavily utilized in Son of Wanderer to obtain not only the composition but the feel which was so essential to this film. His carefully calculated movements with tight lock offs and use of negative space for both characters establishes a tone that belies its difficulty to create with a Steadicam. What might appear as dolly and track moves are in reality Jun’s skills operating at an exceptional level. He communicates, “I’m very delighted this film received so many cinematography awards. There are three main points made the look of this film. Because the theme of this story is a modern family drama, we based it in a realism style, emphasizing the saturation from very beginning. Secondly, in order to make each character stand out, we used a wide open lens for the whole shoot. The very shallow depth of field creates a grand cinematic look. Finally, the slow and gentle camera movements run through the entire film and transfer this sense of timing to the audience. All of these components were carefully crafted to help the viewer feel the emotions of our characters.” Camera operator/Steadicam operator Jun Li’s contributions to this production are key in presenting the story and its success. The verification of this is found in both the awards Son of Wanderer garnered as well as the deeply moving experience of watching this acclaimed film.

 

 

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Manifesting a Shop of Eternal Life with Dara Zhao

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Creating a mood, an emotional atmosphere; this is the immense contribution of a production designer in the film world. The audience, the actors, and the crew are all required to do less belief suspension when the PD cultivates the world envisioned by the director. Dara Zhao is asked to glimpse the vision of her collaborators through their eyes, whether that be a dark one or one of optimism. It’s something she’s known for doing exceedingly well. She has been sought out by Indie filmmakers and massive production companies, as evidenced by her current work on the live-action version of The Little Mermaid. Her role as PD on Shop of Eternal Life skews to a tale much more about the foreboding and menacing topic of mysticism and the afterlife. Regardless of the subject matter, those who collaborate with an exceptional leader in the film community like Dara are eager for the opportunity because they know that her eyes can see their way to replicating the artists’ imaginings.

 

Many films are about sacrifice but Shop of Eternal Life is an original and cultural take on the specific cost of this. Every culture has its version of Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairytales, and the like; stories of foibles and redemption. Shop of Eternal Life takes place in the not so distant Twentieth Century and depicts the personal cost of trying to do something to help others. The plot follows a poor man who approaches a pawnshop owner about buying his wedding ring. Explaining that he needs money to pay medical expenses for his sick wife, the man’s offer is countered by a covertly sinister one from the shop’s owner. Rather than a small sum of money for the ring, the pawnshop owner suggests the man sell his soul for more than enough to cover all the hospital bills. When the man returns to the shop many years later, to collect his heart, the events which transpire are both shocking and telling about the potential for danger we all possess. There’s an obvious occult/metaphysical component but this applies aptly to the human character as well.

 

Shop of Eternal Life culminated in a DGA award for director/producer Yizhou Xu, who in turn praised Zhao for her ability to help realize the world he envisioned. The film which stars Award-Winning actor Jesse Wang (of the film God’s Not Dead and CBS series Code Black) as Chaofeng, Allen Theosky Rowe as Mr. Song, and Gengru Liu as Xiao Dong. Taking place in the 1920s and 1950s with nearly all of the action occuring in a pawnshop, the aging of the characters as well as the advancements in technology is subtly visible. Beyond the aesthetic challenges of manifesting this are the budgetary constraints for a smaller Indie production such as this. Dara remarks, “Yes, the most substantial obstacle for a smaller film is always the financial one. Ha. The freedom you experience is what you balance this against. I’m proud that we created two different decades in such an authentic manner. This was a really interesting environment which offered great potential. I wanted to create a narrow and isolated space; one with an unspecified location which seemed very real, especially with a sense of hopelessness at moments. Even thought this was a period piece, it was more like an allegory; a Faustian story. It was hard to combine these fantasy elements into a realism society environment. I used a lot of metaphors to support the storytelling. We used authentic props and set decorations from China but created what we needed when it didn’t exist.” The results are dramatic. Dara’s dedication and skill resulted in the world of Shop of Eternal Life transporting the looming anxiety of its characters directly into the psyche of the audience. The slow impending sense of doom and the constant comfortability one experiences when watching Shop of Eternal Life is a testament to the expertise of Dara Zhao to fully realize the world the film’s director aspired to display. Viewers don’t want to contemplate budget or lighting, or any other facet of the production process. Dara Zhao makes that concept a part of her equation when working on every production. It’s for this reason that you’ll find her working on productions throughout many different countries for quite some time.

 

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Cinematographer Carl Nenzén Lovén Enjoys International Acclaim

carl-1Cinematographer Carl Nenzén Lovén’s sterling professional reputation is distinguished by his signature mix of gorgeously captured visuals, encyclopedic knowledge of camera equipment and his unflagging zeal on location—no matter how challenging the setting may be. In just a few years’ time, the Swedish-born Lovén has emerged as an international force, one whose quickly growing resume of professional achievements reflects his generosity of spirit.

Whether it’s a music video, short or feature Lovén delivers spectacular results, working not just as lead cinematographer but also, when a project appeals, serving in innumerable capacities in the camera department, sometimes as assistant cameraman or working the crucial on set function of focus puller.

Lovén’s expertise proved invaluable on his most recent assignment, ‘Go Back to China,’ the forthcoming dramedy feature from noted producer-director Emily Ting.

“I loved the script when I read it,” Lovén said. “The story follows Sasha, a trust fund baby who will lose her fortune unless she returns to China to work for her father’s toy company. It explores the complex relationship between a neglectful father and a daughter who’s been brought up in a wildly different culture, so it’s a really interesting combination of elements.”

“I was first assistant camera for the Hong Kong, and China portions of the movie,” Lovén said. “I was the only one flown in from the US as camera crew, to oversee, and act as connection between our DP (director of photography) Josh Silfen and the local crew. Since I’d spent roughly four years of my life there, studying Specialty Cinematic Arts at Hong Kong City University, I was well equipped to interact with the locals—far better than someone who had just arrived.”

While he could navigate the cultural landscape with ease, Lovén was presented with a different challenge—limited technical resources.

“I helped in the pre-production picking camera body for the China portion, as well as advising [on] lenses,” Lovén said “When presented with a new project I usually go through my mental library and evaluate why I would select a certain camera or a certain lens, consider why we would shoot on film, or why shooting digital would be the better choice. For ‘Go Back to China,’ it wasn’t so much choice, but more based on the rental house’s existing equipment, I got us the best gear we needed for the job.”

The cinematographer routinely mixes art and science, and Lovén also served as de facto trouble-shooter. “As first assistant my main job is to save time, and make my DP’s job easier,” he said. “That means advising on maybe how to make a shot different, or foresee things that have to be taken care of later. Apart from being second in command for camera crew, and head of gear, I was also focus puller.”

’Pulling focus’ is the act of changing a lens’ focus in correspondence to a moving subject’s distance from the focal plane, to maintain a sharp, consistent image. It’s a subtle but critical element: if an actor moves away within a shot, the focus puller will change the distance setting on the lens in precise relation to his changing position, or shift focus from one subject to another within the frame, as dictated by what the shot requires. Thus the focus puller/cinematographer is hands-on steward of a film’s entire visual narrative, and Loven’s technical skill and intimate knowledge of cinematographic and optical theory is second to none.

”Carl was an essential member of the team on Go Back to China,” DP Silfen said “He always rolled with the punches, navigating the challenges of working with local crew in a foreign country, and his focus pulling was spot on.”

Lovén always impresses with his characteristic blend of involvement, energy, technical knowledge and distinct knack for dynamic visuals. Not surprisingly, director Ting tasked him with some additional follow up.

“When the Asia portion of the movie wrapped up, I was called back to Los Angeles to do the pickup shots as well,” Lovén said, “It will premiere at SXSW this year, will be screened at the San Jose Film Festival and they are securing more festivals each day.”`

“It was a great experience, and I am really excited to see how the film turned out.”

All That Glitters is a Timeless & Timely Tale

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Liv Li on the set of All That Glitters

While great storytellers can relate any tale in a gripping manner, it’s always best when they have some direct personal attachment to it. The film All That Glitters is a story of female perseverance and empowerment; a poignant topic these days perhaps more than ever in the world. Director and writer Lincheng Yang had a strong attachment to the story (more about that later) as did first assistant director for the film Liv Li. Gender does not usurp talent but we also find ourselves in an era where thankfully it is also not prohibitive. The plot of this film is made more authentic by both the talent and experiences of these incredible women who created it.

 

The female experience permeates nearly every aspect of All That Glitters. Madison Greenlund appears as Helen Noah, a talented copywriter in her twenties who has not come into her own professionally. As a young girl, Helen (played by Sierra Anne Murphy of Paramount Pictures distributed Bumblebee) was diagnosed with scoliosis. The ridicule she received in her teen years destroyed her self-esteem and has held her back in her profession now as an adult. Her work partner [Jerry] is a charismatic handsome writer who is more than eager to take credit for Helen’s exceptional work. Judy is Helen’s feisty and well-intentioned boss who makes it her mission to challenge this young female writer to rightfully claim her recognition for her talent.

 

All That Glitters is based on Lincheng Yang’s own personal experience. Present day finds her as an acclaimed and respected film director in a primarily male dominated field. Placing Liv in the first assistant director role further ensured that the production process flowed smoothly, safely, and exceptionally at the hands of yet another female filmmaking professional. Li confirms that she has found herself in scenarios that called for a woman to step up and command the same treatment and respect that male counterparts are given. She affirms, “I think in this male-dominated industry, it’s very hard for woman to break through. Even today, we have to force ourselves to speak up in this industry. If you want to straighten a rusty and distorted pipe, the force you use to do it will always be harder than the initial power that’s placed upon it. I’m glad to see that the most powerful unions, like the DGA, are putting more attention and strength in actively helping women empowerment in this industry and other minorities of the society, like LGBTQ community and minor ethnic groups.” Juggling the logistics, preparing daily call sheets, checking cast and crew, and maintaining order on the set, Liv’s skill, talent, and determination are unquestionable. Her work and that of the entire production received numerous recognitions including Best Narrative Short Film at CineCina, Best Director & Best Short film at NXT UP, Best Cinematography at the Los Angeles Film Awards, and Official Selection of the Elijah Wells iGen Film Festival and The Film Collective.

 

The fact that female filmmakers are the creative forces behind such exceptional productions is important to state and yet the fact that it must be reiterated seems somewhat defeating. Lincheng Yang, Liv Li, and countless other female filmmakers will increasingly be recognized as leading voices in the field. While their part in the continuing exposure of their art demands long hours and difficult situations, ours responsibility as the audience is as simple as sitting back and enjoying what they have created for us.

Walt Disney Animation Studios Hosts Bali: Beats of Paradise

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In a moment that mirrored the artistic exchange of the film Bali: Beats of Paradise, Walt Disney Animation hosted the talent of the film for a screening at their studio. Director Livi Zheng, Executive Producer Julia Gouw, and gamelan composer Nyoman Wenten viewed the film with some of Disney’s most creative forces, including the producer of Moana and the Head of Story for Frozen. Disney’s invitation is yet another indicator of the recognition Bali: Beats of Paradise has been receiving since its US release on November 16, 2018.

Beyond exploring the culture that created Balinese gamelan music, the film displays western artists being influenced by its character; integrating gamelan into modern day western musical styles. A question and answer session followed the screening in which Wenten, Gouw, and Zheng discussed filmmaking and Indonesian culture. Nyoman Wenten remarked, “It is amazing how quickly like-minded people attract each other. I can already see the start of a beautiful relationship between Livi and the creatives at Disney. I don’t know if any other Indonesian before Livi Zheng was ever invited to show their movie in front of the top brass in Disney. This is amazing and it makes me proud today to be an Indonesian”

Receiving a hospitable tour of the Disney Animation Studios, Livi revealed, “Disney is  remembered fondly by many children around the world. I remember so many happy memories from watching Disney movies; I am very glad that today I was able to be here and introduce my unique culture to the hardworking artists at Disney”. Executive Producer Julia Gouw noted during the film’s premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills last November, “Crazy Rich Asians put Singapore on the map, so we hope that Bali: Beats of Paradise will put Indonesia and Bali on the map.”

Livi Zheng Directs Music Video for Grammy Award Winning Artist

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(On the set of “Queen of the Hill” in Joshua Tree)

Livi Zheng recently directed the music video “Queen of the Hill” featuring Judith Hill a Grammy Award winning artist and contestant on The Voice (US season #4). “Queen of the Hill” is a unique collaboration between two genres of music: funk and Balinese gamelan. The music video itself is a kaleidoscope of funk and traditional Balinese dance and costumes.

“Queen of the Hill” was shot in the Southern California’s Joshua Tree desert. Filming in the desert is always a challenge but doing so in summer, as in the case of this music video, is even more so. Shot in a single day, the greatest challenge for the Queen of The hill team was transporting a Gamelan ensemble during rising temperatures in excess of one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Director/Producer Livi Zheng only had access to one set of the large gamelan ensembles and if the set broke during three-hour truck drive, or cracked under the heat…that’s it, show over.

The making of “Queen of the Hill” is featured in the full-length documentary Bali: Beats of Paradise. Also directed by Livi Zheng. Bali: Beats of Paradise will be released in theaters November 16, 2018. This epic story of Balinese music and the spread of gamelan was shot in Bali, Indonesia, and The United States. The executive producers of the film are His Excellency Ambassador Umar Hadi, Indonesian Ambassador to South Korea, former Consul General of The Indonesian Consulate in Los Angeles, and Julia Gouw.

Julia Gouw, on the list of 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking in the US, was born in Indonesia but has lived in the US for the last forty years. Her passion includes promoting Indonesian culture in the US internationally. Julia Gouw and Livi Zheng have collaborated on projects ranging from filmmaking to concert production.

Sought After Editor Aijia Li: A Master of the Cut

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No matter how powerful the actors’ performances, how brilliant the director, or how adept the cinematographer, the film that audiences ultimately see is only as good as its editor. When tens to hundreds of hours of footage reach the editor’s desk, the success of the film is in their hands. Like a conductor who turns the unbridled chaos of an orchestra into the most beautiful of symphonies, a great editor can create a timeless masterpiece from a million disparate pieces, and that is exactly what editor Aijia Li accomplishes with every project she takes on.

Hailing from Changchun in northeast China, Aijia developed a passion for film and photography when she was just a teen. She spent her youth hungrily absorbing every movie she could get her hands on. By the time she reached college she’d accumulated a huge collection of movies, and was falling more in love with filmmaking with each passing day.

“I’ve had a passion for telling stories since I was a kid, and then I started writing stories and novels. But film has always been my spiritual food,” Aijia recalled. “In junior high, I spent all my allowance on DVDS, and now my parents still have a few boxes of my collection in the house.”

It was during college that Aijia seriously began experimenting with creating and editing her own films. She discovered just how crucial the editor’s job was to the overall process and realized that she had a natural aptitude for the delicate and often-arduous job. But editing films was not just something she was good at — it was something she loved. As an editor, Aijia was able to work hand-in-hand with the director to shape and define the story as they envisioned it. It’s not much of a stretch to liken her role to that of a midwife, guiding the film through the last critical stages before it enters the world.

“Film can [only] be film because of editing. A good editor can save the director’s life. I think in the digital age, the editor as the director’s closest partner may become more and more important,” Aijia explained. “The relationship between the director and the editor is like a marriage. After they finish shooting the film, the director spends more time with the editor than their own family. A good director understands that the film is the editor’s work. Before editing, what the director has is only the raw material.”

Editor Aijia Li
Film poster for “The Moon Also Rises”

Nowhere is the power of that partnership between director and editor more evident than in the quality of Aijia’s work. Time and again she faithfully executes the director’s vision, blurring the line between art and science with equal measures of calculated efficiency and creative instinct. The 2018 drama “The Moon Also Rises” is a perfect example of Aijia’s unparalleled editorial prowess. Simultaneously moving and thought-provoking, “The Moon Also Rises” is an existential exploration of the impacts that people have on the lives of those around them, and the lasting traces they leave when they’re gone.

“This film is different from any other film I’ve edited,” Aijia said. “In the process of cross-editing, the difference between the images and the proportion of the frame gives the audience a strong sense of the drama’s conflict… The director of this film is a pure artist.”

Faced with the daunting challenge of creating a final product that lived up to director Yao Yu’s lofty expectations, Aijia’s work on “The Moon Also Rises” was a trial by fire. The resulting film is a testament to both her technical expertise and keen creative instincts. Impressed by the film’s concept and execution, judges at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival included “The Moon Also Rises” in the festival’s 2018 lineup of screenings.

Aijia had already cultivated a stellar reputation as an editor prior to “The Moon Also Rises.” Among her earlier works was the inspiring 2016 film “Short Term” about the unlikely paternal bond a homeless man develops with a young boy he finds living on the streets. Written, directed and edited by Aijia Li, “Short Term” explores the perennially-relevant subjects of poverty and racism and the impacts they have on the most vulnerable members of society.

“As the editor, the only way to make this kind of emotional story great is to edit by heart. I understand the characters, I feel them…,” Aijia explained of her process. “Another thing is, less is more. I don’t cut too much when there’s a heavy, emotional moment. I hold it. Because good editing is not just about skill and it’s not an editor’s showreel. It’s a story.”

Aijia Li
Film Poster for “Short Term”

That philosophy guided Aijia’s work throughout the editing process, and when critics and audiences watched “Short Term” it was obvious she had a gift possessed by few others in the field. The film immediately caught the attention of festival judges across the country. In addition to winning top prize at the 2016 Women’s Independent Film Festival, “Short Term” was also a semi-finalist at both the Los Angeles CineFest and the Hollywood Screening Film Festival. It was also an official selection at the International Family Film Festival, the Lady Filmmakers Festival and the Glendale International Film Festival — where it was also nominated for two additional awards.

Among some of Aijia Li’s other masterful works as an editor is the recent film “Float,” which earned multiple prestigious awards from the 2017 European Independent Film Awards, Hollywood Film Competition, London Independent Film Awards and the LA Shorts Awards, and Pantha Rahman’s dramatic film “Deceased,” which was chosen as an Official Selection of the Nepal Human Rights International Film Festival, Bucharest International Film Festival, Indian Peacock International Film Festival and more.

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Editor Aijia Li at the Glendale Film Festival for the film “Short Term”

“I have encountered many editors during my time in the film industry, but Aijia was my only choice to work on this film. Aijia has the best feel for editing out of any professional I have ever worked with,” admits “Deceased” director Pantha Rahman.

“I was incredibly impressed by the high level of emotion she added to my film… Ms. Li’s unlimited knowledge and understanding of editing was evident in every single cut she made… Her vast knowledge and wealth of experience were essential in building the film’s narrative structure… Without Ms. Li as the editor of ‘Deceased,’ the engaging visuals and sentimentally resonant narrative would have never come together, making me forever grateful for her work on the film.”

Editor Aijia Li
Film Poster for “Deceased”

A great editor understands a film’s story and characters as well as they understand the technical aspects of the job. In many ways a film is a lot like an unassembled puzzle when the editor’s job begins. Only, this puzzle includes hundreds of extra pieces and there is no picture to reference. The only way to know where the pieces go and what they’ll form is to fully understand what the director’s vision is and how to bring it to life. In the simplest terms, that’s what Aijia Li does — from thousands of scrambled, disparate pieces, she builds stories with the power to move audiences to laughter or tears.