Category Archives: Film

Producer Ricky Cruz brings out the laughs with quirky characters in award-winning new film

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Photo by Arthur Marroquin

Ricky Cruz found his way into producing in an unconventional way. Rather than spending his early years dreaming of working behind the camera, he did the exact opposite. It was his love of acting that led him into the film industry, starring in the popular 2010 South African film Spud alongside John Cleese and Troye Sivan. It was one of the more celebrated local films and an incredible experience to be a part of. Cruz loved every second of it; he believed acting was where he could best help people, by becoming a character the audience could project themselves onto.

After Spud, Cruz found himself working in local commercial campaigns, practical joke television series and National Geographic documentary specials. It was the rewarding experience of seeing something he was a part of come together as a final product that ultimately hooked him and helped him decide that he wanted to pursue a career in entertainment and filmmaking, however, the more exposure he had to film sets, the more he realized his true passion: producing. Since that time, he has become an in-demand producer in both his home country and abroad, with a passion for what he does that translates directly into every project he takes on.

Known for films such as the documentary Improv a Saving Grace and the romance Mixed Orders, Cruz is an extremely versatile producer. Branching into the comedy genre, Cruz has another hit on his hands with the flick The Neighbor. The film tells the story of an offbeat and strange character who tries to befriend a new neighbor before finding a friend just like him. It explores friendship and the importance of being you.

The Neighbor is very much my signature tone of a quirky character in an honest situation comedy, but the deeper level of the character actually being considered an outlier by other inhabitants of the immediate world, gave the film a subtle nuance of real loneliness and rejection, which are two very powerful and very well understood emotions. The Neighbor is a comedy sketch yearning to have its message received via unconventional comedy,” said Cruz.

Currently on the festival circuit, The Neighbor has already won an Award of Merit at The indieFEST 2018, an Honorable Mention at The London International Comedy Film Festival and took part in The Battle of the Sketches 2018. It was an Official Selection at Battle of the Sketches, Portland Comedy Film Festival and Rock and Roll Film Festival Kenya. With the onscreen comedy chops of Willem van der Vegt (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and writer Zain Ashar, the comedy short has proven its appeal. It was also one of two projects produced by Cruz that was accepted and won an Award of Merit at the indieFEST 2018.

“The fact that The Neighbor has been such a success makes me consider all the other original and creative characters that have originated from things like off-screen improv comedy or jokes between friends. I think the origin of these sorts of characters has a lot to do with their ability to resonate so profoundly with people. They are an exaggerated but honest piece of someone’s personality and because of the respective truth involved in their creation, people tend to relate very strongly to the character. There are so many other interesting character creations that similarly explore different parts of our personality and with The Neighbor’s success, it makes me seriously consider the prospect of utilizing these empathetic and exaggerated characters in their own respective short films or one that explores many of the mentioned characters in an ensemble driven piece,” said Cruz.

Cruz was ready to produce such a unique comedy. As he started in acting, he has vast experience with improv, making him the ideal producer for this film, knowing just how to embrace elements of improv for a familiar character. He knew what parts of the character needed to be showcased best to get audiences to relate and support such an absurd creation as well as where the character would need to be further developed.

“The project really is a showcase to display the type of message I want to spread with the type of characters and humor I want to use. It’s an example of a stage sketch and improv character that translates really well onto screen and acts as evidence that material discovered or created off screen should be mined and explored and adapted if possible because, such comedically conflicted characters are excellent vessels to relay important information and messages in a way that people can easily understand and enjoy. This film offers the ability to escape and comfort simultaneously and those have always been my favorite kinds of films because it is effortless therapy and can help like-minded audience members through turbulent times without them even realizing it,” he concluded.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

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Mozhi Li on storytelling through fashion and new film ‘Where Dreams Rest’

In her teenage years, China’s Mozhi (Leila) Li was obsessed with Broadway shows and historical films. She was transfixed by what she saw on screen, with characters in elaborate costumes reflecting their personalities. Li instantly was fascinated by how fashion could be presented through the screen and on stage, and she knew she was meant to pursue a career in costume design.

“I use my gift and knowledge to help my clients pull their characters from the script to reality. Through communications and understanding of the story, I also use my aesthetic gift along with design principles to work as a team member with other visual departments, together to create a perfect frame in film. It’s more of a team job than individual success but that’s what makes me so determined with my job,” she said.

Throughout her career, Li has proven time and time again why she is such an in-demand costume designer and wardrobe stylist. Millions have seen her work in music videos for Jason Zhang and Yitai Wang and the films ZeroUnder Heart, and Where Dreams Rest. The last of which is one of the highlights of Li’s esteemed career.

Where Dreams Restfollows a young Chinese woman who crosses the US-Mexico border to chase after her American dream. It was an Official Selection at the Lady Filmmakers Festival, where many connected with the timely and dramatic story.

“The film talks about a strong feminine figure, who has this devoted love to her partner, which is touching. There are other immigrants with different races and characters in this film. Even though some of them are non-speaking roles, I love the details of the story given for each character, it gave some vulnerable feelings when I went through these supporting roles,” said Li.

Li was touched by the script and knew instantly she wanted to be a part of the film. The story is based on a working-class background. This created a unique challenge with choosing and aging costumes for the main character, while still ensuring her presentation would work well on cameras with all the colors balanced with the scene.

“Costumes can reflect large amount of details and stories behind each character. Especially for this project, the background is very realistic. It’s important to deliver the real-life texture to each costume by distressing and aging them professionally,” Li described.

The best part of the experience for the costume designer was the team she worked with. She thought the director was thoughtful and gifted, and the actors were passionate. She enjoyed her interactions with the art department, discussing ideas of color and fabrications.

“The story was touching, and all the characters have colorful personalities. I really enjoyed exchanging ideas and thoughts when I first met the director and production designer, they are talented and passionate young filmmakers. Everybody is devoted and played a great part in a team, that’s always the project you look forward to working with. All these factors made me feel it would be a project worth my time,” Li concluded.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

Animator and Graphic Designer Andrea Mercado honors celebrated YouTubers with new film

As an animator, Andrea Mercado is tasked with bringing characters to life. It is one thing to make a character move, but something entirely different to make it look like it is truly alive. This is where she excels. She appreciates that the character needs to have physicality and transfer feelings to the audience, making sure they are always rooting for the protagonist, no matter how small a story. It is such a deep and thorough understanding of her craft that makes her a formidable leader in her industry, and her passion for what she does is evident in every project she takes on.

Often working on projects that inspire both herself and her audience, Mercado’s work as both an animator and graphic designer has been seen and appreciated by millions around the globe. She finds meaning in what she does with companies like NeuroNet, which manufactures learning software for children, and a recent mobile application she created for pediatricians that allows doctors to quickly find the best dosage of medicine for various conditions. She also helps to tell stories through her animation, whether for the web series Paradigm Spiral or girls video games for Driver Digital.

“I like bringing characters to life. I like knowing that people will see the animations and feel for the characters. More importantly, I like bringing joy into people’s lives, and animation is a nice way of doing that,” she said.

Recently, Mercado also debuted one of her passion projects, the film PINOF Animate! It is a film of her own creation, which features animations from various artists from around the world to recreate, shot by shot, PINOF 9. The reason for this project is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the PINOF series, created by Mercado’s favorite YouTubers, Daniel Howell and amazingphil.

“We are just a bunch of artists from around the world who really like and admire two British dorks from YouTube,” said Mercado. “The film showcases talent from people from different ethnicities, ages and perspectives. Not all of them are professionals in the field. In fact, some of them are still in middle-school. I even received a message from one of the artists who worked with me, thanking me because now they know animation is something they are really passionate about and that a career in it is an achievable goal. At the end of the day, I think inspiring young people to follow their dreams and create their own projects is the most important thing that has come out of this project,” said Mercado.

Creating PINOF Animate! was the most fun Mercado has had working on any project in her career, but it was also very stressful. She had the opportunity to work with over 30 artists from around the world and before she could assign each of them their shots, she had to group the people based on their experience and quality of work. Advanced animators got longer shots, intermediate animators got shots that were only a few seconds long, and beginner animators got the shortest shots. She also received messages from artists who didn’t know animation but who wanted to join to project, so she gave them a few shots that would work perfectly as illustrated stills.

“Working with Andrea was a very relaxed and easy experience. She was very organized on this project, and kept the collaborators involved frequently updated with full transparency. She demonstrated full understanding if an artist was having trouble meeting their deadline. She also encouraged and supported the idea of artists showcasing to their social media any progress made along the way. I would definitely work with Andrea on any future projects,” said Victoria Putinski, Layout Artist at Wild Kratts Animation Studio who created several shots for the film.

Once PINOF Animate! was completed, Mercado uploaded it to YouTube. It did not take long for Daniel Howell and amazingphil to discover the film and tweet the link, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of viewers who quickly became fans of the unique project. Mercado was touched by such a response.

“It feels incredible. It was stressful and a lot of work, but in the end it paid off. All the fans that watched our video gave us amazing reviews and kept asking if we were going to do another one next year. Some people even emailed me saying they are ready to join the next project, even though I won’t be recruiting new talent until July. And of course, Phil Lester (amazingphil, one of the youtubers), linked our animation in one of his tweets and said it was amazing. Everyone started congratulating us and we felt very validated,” she concluded.

You can watch PINOF Animate! here.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

Zanda Tang creates epic and hilarious fight scene in award-winning animated flick

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Zanda Tang

As an animation concept artist, Zanda Tang shows his imagination and design to others through painting. He accumulates his knowledge and life experience into his art, creating a cathartic experience that audiences around the world can relate to. He researches every element of his designs, knowing the backstory of even inanimate objects, all to better tell the story he is visualizing.

Tang has risen to the top of his industry in China working on many distinguished projects. He has helped to market many illustrious brands in his country, from the China Academy of Space Technology to the Huiju Shopping Center Beijing. His work has captivated millions around the world, and several of his works, including Diors Samurai, Lion Dance, and Baby and Granny have made their way to many prestigious international film festivals.

Baby and Granny is a multi-award-winning short. The 2D animated action-comedy is about a baby and granny who share a common bond, as Baby’s mother is Granny’s daughter, but who fight like crazy when left alone.

“The story of the animation itself is one of the reasons why I joined the project. When I saw the story, I thought it would be a very interesting animation. This unexpected dichotomy lies behind the identities of two common characters. Such exaggerated and interesting stories are helpful for design. The story unfolds with a realistic plot. Granny scrambled to take care of the baby, but Baby couldn’t communicate with Granny. The story uses hyperbole to create a confrontation when two people fight. At the beginning and the end of the story, mother is at home, and they are in a normal state of quiet. And when mom goes out, two people become combative. The exaggerated character setting and rich story rhythm make the story very attractive,” said Tang.

The visuals are highly-influenced by the work of 60’s Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein. This created a unique challenge, as they had to honor his style while still making their own. Tang did his part by researching the style and the script, figuring out how to best combine them. He was the props and weapons designer for the film, so he worked closely with the team to choose a weapon that is more suitable for both characters. In the early scripts, both characters used guns to attack each other. Tang did not agree with this. He thought the weapon choice could better explain the characters and therefore further immerse the audience into the story.

Tang’s role was pivotal for the climax of the film, the fight scene. Granny’s weapon consists of two Chinese kitchen knives that are drawn closer to the character’s identity and can be used to indicate her superb kung fu skills. For Baby, he designed more exaggerated firearms, such as an oversized gun to bring a sense of humor into the picture and added lovely and lively colors to help shape the character. In the background of most of the shots, Tang also designed many flying props. The props symbolize the characters’ respective identities and show off the absurdity of the fight, making the animation that much more entertaining.

“Many people think that you can easily get a good action movie if you put a lot of effort into the character. In fact, I think when characters move, what really makes their movements seem quick is what’s behind them. In this project, I not only put some props behind the characters, but also made efforts for the rationality and sense of painting of the animation. When two characters jump up to attack each other, something belonging to their characters flies behind them. Items, like Granny’s drawstring balls and kitchenware, which fly up behind the granny’s back, the teapot, and the toys and bottles behind the baby, are added to set off the exaggerated style. The design of these weapons and props is very helpful for the animation of the story picture and character action,” Tang described.

Tang’s efforts helped bring Baby and Granny multiple awards and recognition, including Best Animation Short Student at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival and Best Animation Short Film at the London Monthly Film Festival. It was a semi-finalist at the International Online Web Fest and an Official Selection at over 11 festivals around the world.

“I am glad to have made such a challenging project work. After we tried the new painting style, we can still have such great achievements. We were lucky and our efforts were not in vain. Spending a lot of time choosing weapons and items proved to be a worthwhile investment. This reward also makes the team members trust each other more, so we have more power to plan the next project,” Tang concluded.

 

Written by John Moore

Zekun Mao uses editing to create a thrill for audiences

Zekun Mao still remembers the first time she truly noticed film as a form of art, beyond a simple form of entertainment. She was watching Christopher Nolan’s 2000 blockbuster Memento, and she was fascinated by not just the story, but how it was being told. She began to immerse herself in movies, making her realize a passion that she never knew she had. She knew from then on that she was meant to go into filmmaking, and now, as an award-winning editor, she is living her dream.

“Whatever style the story requires, I will cut the film in that way. I would describe my style of editing as naturalism. I came from a documentary background. Being natural, or being real, is the most important thing. When I am editing, I like to stick to the style of the footage and stick to the tone of stories. I love showing the story as it should be. If it should be emotional, then I will make sure the way I cut the movie will make audiences feel that particular way,” she said.

Becoming an industry leader in her home country of China and abroad, Mao knows just what it takes to captivate an audience. This is exemplified with her work on films like Jie Jie, And The Dream That Mattered, Janek/Bastard, and American Dream, to name a few.

Last year, Mao also saw worldwide success with her film Our Way Home. The dramatic thriller tells the story of Chinese-American James, who picks up his older sister Barbara from college for Thanksgiving 1962. After a racist encounter in a diner, they think they’re being followed, but it’s not someone they expected. The story spoke to Mao, who has experienced similar forms of racism in her own life, which is why she felt compelled to work on the film.

“The story is about racism, especially at this moment when a lot of similar things are happening in the world. A lot of the feelings that immigrants have are painful, confused and embarrassing. Through this story, I want to tell the world that racism is a terrible thing and it shouldn’t happen to anyone. Moreover, the story is about Chinese immigrants. I want to highlight stories that are about my own community and about our history. As a Chinese filmmaker, I see that as one of my responsibilities. I think it is very important to show the difficulties and struggles that Chinese immigrants have even today,” said Mao.

Our Way Home had its world premiere at the Hollyshorts Film Festival 2018 where it was an Official Selection and is expected to continue its film festival run this year. Mao was pivotal to the film’s success. As it is a thriller, creating tension and uneasiness is key to captivating the audience, and editing is a vital tool to achieve this. Her work created the tone, bringing the audience into this dark world, making the thriller just that: thrilling.

“I am really happy that our film has been such a success. I feel really rewarded. All the hard work that we put in was really worth it. I am so happy that the story let the world pay attention to racism that still exists today. I am happy that through this film, I speak out loud what a lot of people want to say. I am also happy that I highlighted the story from my own community,” she said.

When editing, Mao made the decision of using fast cuts. During one crucial scene where the characters are being chased, Mao used her skills to create a feeling of danger, using jump cuts. The cuts are constantly jumping between cars and between the inside and outside of the car.

Mao thoroughly enjoyed her time working on Our Way Home. Everyone she worked with was dedicated to making the best film possible, and it shows in the final cut. Mao formed great professional relationships on set, which was almost the best part of working on the film. The best, she says, was sharing the story with a worldwide audience.

“The story is the reason why I worked on this project, and telling the story is the most enjoyable part of this process. I am very happy that I was able to tell this story, because I believe a lot of people experience racism in different ways. And a lot of Chinese-Americans had the confusing moment of figuring out who they really are. I hope after watching this film, audiences can think about all these problems,” she said.

Be sure to check out Our Way Home to see a telling and timely story, and just what Mao is capable of as an editor.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

Actor Tennille Read’s Award Winning Style

Actor Tennille Read’s rising star is powered by a very particular brand of creativity, one that’s equal measures sensitivity and swagger, a super-charged dramatic formula that spans the entire emotional spectrum with undeniable in-the-moment veracity. Read truly inhabits her characters, always delivering a performance subtly imbued with the full depth and breadth of the human experience. Her award winning performance in the dramatic 2018 short “I Lost My Mind” is as ideal example of her impressive natural talent, a rich gift which, ironically, she almost didn’t take seriously.

“I did a lot of school before I could accept that I actually wanted to be an actor,” Read said. “I did my undergrad in film and theatre at Queen’s University, and then a Graduate program in Communications at Concordia University. But acting always called me back. So to step up my game, I did a three year Acting Conservatory in Toronto. That was where I learned how to approach my work with discipline, unending curiosity and playfulness, and where I really committed to being a professional actor.”

Tennille Read photo by Hamish Birt 2
Tennille Read photo by Hamish Birt

Try as she might to resist the impulse, the seed had been planted years earlier. “I was about 10 and I was watching a re-run of Growing Pains—the season where Leonardo DiCaprio is on the show,” Read said. “In that episode, he has this huge emotional scene that I was spellbound by. He just seemed so raw and vulnerable. I had a lot of pre-teen hormones bubbling up inside me at the time and acting seemed like the perfect way to let them out. I remember asking my mum if I could get an agent—I’m sure that made her heart stand still for a moment. So, instead I started doing little skits and storytelling performances for my grade five class.”

With a solid grounding in live theater and on-set film experience, the Toronto-based Read specializes in spiritually liberated, audacious characters. “I’m excited by female-driven stories and a lead character that overcomes big obstacles by discovering their own potential,” Read said. “There’s a common thread with the films I adore. They usually explore different dimensions or alternate worlds, be it space or expanding possibility. I’m a bit of a nerd about that stuff. I love the idea of tapping into something that is bigger than ourselves but that is still in harmony with us when we get out of our own way—that sparks my imagination in every way.”

This distinctive approach made her an ideal choice for “I Lost My Mind”’s leading role.

“I played the character of Penelope who facilitates a community workshop on filmmaking,” Read said. “One of her students, Wolfy, becomes fascinated by her and finds his thoughts objectifying her in her class. Penelope is pure intelligence, aspiration, with a vast knowledge of her craft, based on her own directing experience. But Wolfy is stuck on her appearance and he can’t focus on what she’s teaching the group. His thoughts get LOUD, but Penelope’s intuition and smarts have him figured out and she puts him in his place with one elegant move.”

“It was easy to relate to Penelope,” Read said. “Her situation was of a woman being objectified by the male gaze. I think every woman can relate to that in some capacity. I’ve been that woman—feeling like I wasn’t being heard and but instead being seen through a narrow lens. I loved playing Penelope because she’s firm and steady in front of this group of young filmmakers and genuinely wants to teach them and have them realize their own potential. Even when she calls out Wolfy at the end, she does it from a place of kindness and good humor, but with enough pointedness to drive her message home.”

Read’s formidable skill as a dramatic interpreter significantly elevated the film’s impact and made “I Lost My Mind” a popular entry on the busy North American film festival circuit. Along the way Read was honored with the Hollywood North Film Awards 2018 Best Actor award. Director Michael Tobin sunned up the actor’s artistic essence “Her perspective on the story that I wanted to tell was invaluable to the final cut. My process has always been a collaborative one, and Tennille brought so much of her own experience to the table that not only fit the role she played, but also enhanced it beyond my expectations. Tennille brings a compelling depth to the characters she plays that I think is a result of her own authenticity.”

That authenticity has become a professional calling card for the n-demand actor. “I recently did a season on ‘Workin’ Moms,’” Read said. “It was my first fleshed-out character who had her own multi-episode story arc. Television shoots move fast and I really like the pace—you don’t have time to get stuck in your head. But I would also like to do more film, on top of the TV work I’ve been booking.”

As an actor, Read has the perfect attitude: “The simplest way is usually the best way. Try something different with each take. Use the nerves to fuel the preparation and then let go of the work.”

Varunn Pandya talks finding the right dream and pursuing it

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Varunn Pandya, photo by Chaaritha Dheerasinghe

When Varunn Pandya, 21, was growing up, he watched all kinds of movies and found himself enamored by the different journeys they took him on and the different perspectives he felt towards the world. Today, he can proudly say that love for film has only flourished and he has since established a reputation as a talented, unique screenwriter and director. He finds the concept of writing down his thoughts and ideas to be cathartic and he has spent years attempting to learn as much as possible about the arts in order to better himself for the benefit of his eventual audiences. For Pandya, the true luxury that his profession affords him is the luxury of getting to explore different characters and different worlds. Not only is this what attracted him to writing in the first place, but it is also what keeps him coming back for more time and time again.

Throughout his career, Pandya has allowed himself to pour his heart and soul into a number of phenomenal scripts. He is his own toughest critic and his own strongest motivator, pushing himself to ensure that he only brings high quality content before his viewer’s screens. For Pandya, there is no room for slacking in screenwriting and he feels as though giving 99 per cent just simply doesn’t do justice to the tales he aims to tell. He is well known for stories like Dilemma and Homeless and he has made a prominent name for himself in the industry. He has even earned a number of competitive awards, including Best Short Screenplay at Five Continents International Film Festival and at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival in 2018. What the talented young man lacks in years of experience, he makes up for in sheer talent and so long as he has a pen and paper, he hopes to continue creating compelling stories to share with the world.

Later on in September of this year, Pandya earned himself even more recognition when his script XYZ was chosen as an Official Selection at the Trujillo International Independent Film festival and also when he won the award for Best Sci-Fi Short Screenplay at the Hollywood Just4Shorts Film and Screenplay Competition. When he sets his sights on a script, there is very little he won’t do to make it a success and these awards are a testament to that commitment.

Alongside his friend and colleague, Bader AlShuaib, Pandya developed a concept for XYZ and carefully but considerately determined how best to showcase it before the eyes of thousands. XYZ is about the human tendency to be inherently racist and biased towards people with a certain body type or complexion. In an uncertain future, it centers around Martha, a newly-wed African-American woman who convinces her husband to make her dream of having Caucasian children come true. To achieve this dream of hers, they undergo a special experimental procedure so as to be able to select each and every trait of their future children. Slowly, Martha realizes that in the process of making her dream come true, she ends up destroying everyone around her.

When AlShuaib and Pandya began brainstorming for the script, they pulled inspiration from films and shows like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Black Mirror. As both works have successfully done, AlShuaib and Pandya wanted to delve into the scientific fiction genre and determine a way to challenge the minds of their audiences with a thriller-like, psychological spin. Ultimately, they wanted to explore a deeply human story against a futuristic setting. It was unlike anything Pandya had done in the past and he was awoken by the enjoyment it brought him.

“Unlike my previous work such as The House, a futuristic setting was something I hadn’t ever tackled before. The novelty of this itself made this script an interesting challenge. Even my co-writer, Bader, had not written anything like this before and, hence, was equally passionate about diving into a new world and figuring it out. The writing process was very different to my previous projects. This was the first time I was collaborating with someone and it was important to make sure that I wasn’t curbing his creativity. In my opinion, our writing relationship was very smooth. I would write a draft and send it over to him. After a week or two, he’d tweak it and send it to me. This back and forth eventually resulted in the final script – one that we’re both very proud of” shared Pandya.

Writing XYZ and having it achieve such success in its early days served as a reminder that Pandya has what it takes to pave a change in the film industry. He considers himself fortunate to have found what he truly loves to do so early on in his career. To others out there aspiring to follow their dreams and do so with success, Pandya had the following advice to offer:

“To anyone looking to pursue a career in this industry, I would advise them to be ready to have sleepless nights, go a few months without decent work or pay, and face rejection. If they can accept this, theirs is going to be a smooth ride. I would also ask them to only pick this industry if there’s nothing else they would do even if it paid better. This industry demands that kind of a passion.”

 

Written by Annabelle Lee