When Shuntian Jiang decided he wanted to make movies, he considered being a director. However, he discovered quickly that directing is often more managing and hustling than it is creating. Jiang knew that lifestyle wasn’t for him; he is an artist. He quickly fell in love with cinematography, because the only thing that makes him happy is to tell a good story with emotional images.
Throughout his career, Jiang has shown the world why he is such a celebrated cinematographer in China. His contributions to countless productions, including La Pieta, Path to Salvation, and No Home for Young Man, have impressed the masses, with his passion and determination shining through in every shot.
“When I was growing up, I never felt like I could work a regular office job. Just the thought of it killed me. I think I’m very blessed to become a working cameraman. I love to wake up each morning and go to a strange location and make it look nice. I also love the vibe of a production, people with the same passion making movie magic happen,” he said.
One of Jiang’s more recent projects is a commercial for the Japanese sports clothing and accessories company Descente. The purpose of the commercial series is to promote the 2019 spring/summer apparel, featuring international movie and TV star Daniel Wu.
As the cinematographer, Jiang worked closely with the client and director as well as the still photographer to come up with the look to best showcase their product and the charisma of super star Daniel Wu, best known for the Netflix series Into the Badlands. Wu is a legend in Hong Kong cinema, and Jiang was honored to work with such an icon and create a series of commercials for a famed brand like Descente, which was formed in 1935.
“Descente is a good combination of fashion and function. The quality is very good, the fabric texture is very hi-tech, which is great for extremely close up shots. The designer has included many details in the clothing, so I can get a lot of different close ups for different looks. Basically, there are a lot of options for how I can show the products,” said Jiang.
The commercial features Wu participating in a variety of sports in different Descente outfits to showcase the function of the product through his charisma. There were eight different looks, and they had to shoot everything in a singular day, which was an enormous challenge but one Jiang looked forward to. It was a daylight shoot, so he didn’t use any lights. He had a grip team just to hold all of the equipment to follow the star so he could move quickly without sacrificing quality. In a shoot with such a short time frame, this approach was essential to the commercial’s success. Jiang had everything planned perfectly during pre production to ensure a smooth shoot. He scouted the location and took photographs of each possible frame beforehand to show the director. His work ethic was outstanding.
“I liked the working style of this commercial; it is a little different than other shoots, but it was still a very interesting experience. We really needed to focus to make sure there were no mistakes, but once a look was completed, we relaxed a bit while we planned out the next one. This made it feel more like 30 minutes of intense work here and there rather than an exhausting 12-hour day,” described Jiang. “Another thing I really liked was working with Daniel, he is such a big star but he is very humble and professional.”
The Descente commercial was distributed on the WeChat page. WeChat is the most popular Chinese chatting/social media app and has more than 1 billion users. The commercial is also displayed on the front page of Descente’s official Chinese website. All the site visitors see it immediately, where it links directly to the products.
“Even though everyone was expecting this project to be a success, because it’s a very well-known brand with a very well-known star, I’m still really happy when my friends and family see the commercial. They just see it randomly on WeChat, without me sharing it to them. It’s such a great feeling,” he concluded.
As an industry leading producer and director, whenever Jamly Yang steps onto a film set, she is a leader. She is in charge of both the artistic and business sides of the production, ensuring everyone works harmoniously to make the best piece of art possible. When directing, she is highly creative, looking at each shot from an artistic standpoint to make the film a success, and when she is producing, she ensures each project she embarks on reaches its maximum potential.
“The responsibility of a producer is not just making sure the production makes a profit, but also to have eyes for stories that can change people’s lives,” said Yang.
These stories are what Yang is known for and are evident in her films The Screenwriter in the Restroom, The Invisible Superman, The Milk Tea, and many more. She also brings that sense of storytelling to her commercials, and with award-winners like the Alpha Browser Commercial, Doritos Campaign, Folgers Coffee, and beyond, she knows how to make an advertisement that not only resonates with consumers, but also entertains.
Yang has worked with many renowned brands throughout her career, including Nike. Yang shot for the iconic sporting wear company back in 2017 for a campaign that went on to win Best Commercial at the San Francisco International New Concept Film Festival 2018.
“This is a trend in the commercial industry, using stories to sell products. It is a trend I both enjoy and believe in, and I love making commercials that move audiences not only to buy something, but also get them to feel something,” said Yang.
The commercial tells the story of three generations of a family. A man gave all the best to his son, and now that the son is a father, he tries to impart some of his own father’s wisdom to his son, and Nike is a part of that. It is a beautiful story.
“Most Nike commercials we see are all about strength and power, but how do you bring more customers who are not entirely about that lifestyle, but who are just normal people who need to exercise every day? You need a touching story. Everyone has a father, everyone runs. Everyone has something from their parents that they cherish. For this Nike commercial, it’s a pair of running shoes that ties to three generations,” said Yang.
The commercial was shot at Land’s End, one of San Francisco’s most iconic spots and a beautiful scenic backdrop for the video. Yang directed, produced, and wrote the commercial, handling the majority of the responsibilities from casting to distribution. She is thrilled to play such a large part in such a successful commercial, especially because she is and has always been a fan of Nike.
“Everyone likes Nike. It’s so iconic to the point where they almost don’t need commercials at all. It is more like a culture than just a sporting wear company, and that’s how Nike differs from other brands,” she concluded.
When watching the animated 2011 hit Rango, inspiration struck Qiao Wang. At the time, he was a graphic designer, creating still images, but when watching the film, he was transfixed by the technology used to create such realistic computer animation. Always a fast learner, Wang began to study new styles of mathematics and computer science to combine with his artistic background, wanting to create similar films to that which so motivated him.
“The visual effects industry in filmmaking was still fresh and new to the world, and not a lot of people knew what it was in my country. I enjoyed what I did as a designer and artist, but I would have definitely changed my career path earlier if I knew what VFX was,” said Wang.
Since that time, the Chinese-native has gone on to become an internationally sought-after Character Technical Director and Character Effects Artist. Using his skills in both mathematics and design, Wang helps to conceptualize some of the most beloved characters in many recent popular films, including Rocket the Racoon and Groot in the mega blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. Not limiting himself to just one medium, Wang has collaborated with Justin Timberlake on his latest music video, “Filthy”, and worked with world renowned companies, like Target, on national commercial campaigns.
“Qiao is both technical and artistic, he contributed to the team and film’s success in many aspects, including troubleshooting and solving technical issues on hero characters, and developing aesthetics for character cloth and hair simulation and skin deformation,” said Fabrice Ceugniet, Creature Pipeline Technical Director at Method Studios.
Ceugniet and Qiao worked together at Walt Disney Animation Studios on the upcoming film Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Godzilla: King of Monsters. The two had previously worked together many times, and recently worked on a commercial series for the leading automotive company Lexus. The commercials, such as “2018 Lexus Golden Opportunity Sales Event: Lap the Planet” provided a unique and fun challenge for Wang, who delivered both technical and art direction to the digital Lexus vehicles. He took on many responsibilities for the commercial, working closely with the Character Supervisor, CG Supervisor, VFX Supervisor, Producer, Art Director, Model Maker, and Animators.
“Vehicles are like characters, they have characteristics. Especially Lexus vehicles; they are not only transportation tools, but also a work of art to me. To be able to help build extremely realistic CG Lexus cars sounds very cool, especially as they are the best-selling luxury cars in the United States. I’ve done human characters, cartoon characters, spaceship vehicles, utility vehicles in feature films, and more, but this was a type of project I’ve never done before. I always love to experience new challenges,” said Wang.
The goal was to create realistic CG Lexus cars to express their high performance. This meant that everything had to be exactly the same as the real cars. Wang was up to the task, so he first started doing research and development on rigging setup for cars, watching many videos to find out the details of movement of a race car’s wheels, suspensions, etc. He also had a few meetings with animators to ask them about what needed to be provided. After all that, Wang did not use the auto mastic vehicle setup tool to rig the cars. Instead, he scripted his own procedural Lexus cars rigging tool to provide animators with only a few very intuitive custom controls. He was also able to widely use the ‘Piston’ rigging system that he personally developed previously to fix bugs and improve features to make it a very powerful component in our character technology pipeline. These systems require less setup time and provide institutive and realistic controls for improving the motion of vehicles and many auto parts. On top of all this, Wang also solved wheel spinning motion blur issues to achieve the realistic yet artistic wheel effects. It requires a lot less rig rebuild time when there are model updates for over 10 vehicles. Undoubtedly, the vast technological improvements that Wang implemented saved not only him, but the entire team time, money, and effort.
“I really like the fast pace of this type of project, and the final results are fantastic. The whole production process went super smooth. I also like the different ways of logical thinking to explore and solve various fully mechanical rigging challenges for the vehicle parts,” said Wang.
The commercial series was to promote the 2018 Golden Opportunity Sales event for Lexus. Wang’s work was pivotal to the commercials’ success, and ultimately that of the sale. The company knew they needed someone with his talent, which is why they reached out to him in the first place to take the task. Wang did not take this honor lightly and is extremely happy with the outcome.
“It always feels great to know that our work is helping clients to make more money. I was amazed at how real those cars look, and how beautiful. Even though I work in the industry, if no one told me, I wouldn’t know those were computer generated cars,” he concluded.
Avatar, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings. It isn’t difficult for cinephiles to think of how visual effects broadened their minds, transforming their favorite films and making the impossible, possible. In modern entertainment, it is an essential part of the filmmaking process, often in the most unobvious ways, cleaning up blemishes that makeup cannot, or adding a pivotal piece into the background.
“VFX visualizes the idea and surreal environment the writer has in mind. It enables so many possibilities, empowering the film production. VFX is the most direct way to translate the idea to the viewers. It is just stunning, period,” said Aaron Wei, Senior Compositor.
Wei is celebrated in both his home country of China and the United States for his work in Visual Effects. Using his skills to help make projects like The Americans, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Shades of Blue, and Gypsy the successes they have become, millions around the world have seen Wei’s work, and often didn’t even know it. He strives to make his work unidentifiable and natural, knowing that it will help audiences feel fully immersed in the story.
“Aaron is a passionate and talented artist. His enthusiasm and perseverance was evident in his approach to each project,” said Eran Dinur, Visual Effects Supervisor.
In addition to movies and TV shows, Wei enjoys using his skills on commercials. Companies like Toyota and Smart Car have benefitted from his artistic knowledge, and he loves being able to see his work on a YouTube ad or national television screens, which is just what working on commercials offers on a regular basis.
In China, Wei has worked with industry leading companies, like Canon. In 2013, he worked on the camera company’s commercial. He knew that for such a popular company, he had to ensure every shot was perfect so not to damage their reputation and to draw consumers to the product.
“We needed to composite a Canon camera bag on the model’s shoulder. The work was done by another artist, but I found the shadow casted by the bag put on her was not convincing. Then I took over, looked very closely at the real shadow on her clothes and creatively painted the shadow for the bag. Because I was trained as a painter for a long time, this task was not very difficult for me, but could be very challenging for others,” said Wei.
Wei also worked on a unique project titled The Soul of Dance to promote the work of the Tang Hui Studio Department back in China. It was creative work for building the company’s image, like an experimental lab.
“It’s like there’s no limit of what we can do. No clients’ requirement and no official deadline, it’s like a dream position. This project was one of many I have done in the studio,” said Wei.
Rather than using video editing software, Wei worked in Photoshop, using filters to create each key frame for the video, and then did the final assembling in After Effects. This approach was unconventional, but it worked. Even years later HuiTu image showcases this video as their iconic work in the company’s history.
Undoubtedly, Wei has had an extraordinary career, with many exciting projects lined up. For those looking to follow in his footsteps, he offers the following advice:
“Make sure you understand what the career you are heading into entails. I have seen people complaining about the job, saying things like ‘I don’t want to face the computer all day long in a dark room.’ Yes, that’s exactly what your life will end up being, so make sure you are okay with that. Understand your passion and personality. Before you pick up this job, do some research on the different departments in this industry. There are CG artists, producers, compositors, technical directors, creative directors, and so many more. You may excel better in one concentration than another,” he advised. “But most importantly, love what you do, and try harder. You may be asked to execute an idea that you do not necessarily agree with, and you may strongly believe your idea is better, but you have to give the higher-level executive what they want. You can certainly bring your idea up, but in the end, you are doing whatever your clients ask for, and they are always right.”
Not many children can grasp the understanding of color and architecture the way China’s Phenix Miao could. At a young age, he was quickly able to spot the small details in furniture and props in daily life. It was a hobby and skill that he quickly realized could transition into a career. Working as a successful Production Designer and Art Director, Miao is now a leader of the industry in China.
Throughout his career, Miao has shown what a dynamic Art Director he is. With his work on films such as Shanghai Sojourner and Lottery, Miao’s attention to detail and vast talent is evident. He also lends his skills to commercial work, recently creating a series of promotional videos for Lepow and another for Itron Battery to promote their crowdfunding. With an outstanding number of viewers online, the Itron Battery commercial is one of his greatest successes in his esteemed career.
“Phenix is a very rare talent with both marketing and artistic sense. We worked closely on the Itron commercial, talking a lot about budget and production. Phenix was vital for the success of the commercial, and even found the location at a very affordable price, which helped the feeling of the film. He helped me to balance the art and budget so well. He is an expert when controlling the costs of everything. Phenix understands the difference between marketing value and artistic value, and he understands people. From his angle and visual aspect, he did a great job making the crowdfunding video look appealing. A crowdfunding commercial should be tangible and amiable, not chasing perfect as a normal TV commercial would. Phenix told me that crowdfunding is not charity, you need to let people feel this is a hopeful product and company. This outlook inspired the team. His outstanding communication skills allowed everyone to clearly understand what we were doing. He is a great leader and creator,” said Alice Fan, Producer.
The Itron Battery commercial advertises the company’s portable battery bank, the world’s fastest portable charger. It completely charges in 18 minutes, and within three minutes, one phone can be charged. The commercial showcases the product while still being comical and informative. It features two leading characters, one explaining the charger, and another looking to purchase one. They run through many different scenarios in which one may need a charger, leaving viewers both entertained and in need of the product.
“All the people that worked on this commercial were so professional. We did our work really fast, because we were so familiar with each other. From scene to scene, people just did everything very naturally. There was such chemistry, everything was as natural as breathing,” said Miao.
This commercial was not Miao’s first experience with a crowdfunding style video. He previously helped to raise $217,501 USD for Pivot Turingsense crowdfunding, achieving 274% of their goal, and for HiSmart crowdfunding, they reached 531% funded after raising $297,106, with the videos being the main source of awareness. That being said, the Itron commercial was by far the most successful, with hundreds of thousands of views online and reaching 706% of their goal by raising $289,472. It was also an Official Selection at the 2016 International Peace & Film Festival in Orlando, Florida.
“I still feel really excited about this commercial. When I hear so many people talk about it, I almost want to run up and interrupt them to let them know that I worked on it. That’s how proud of it I am. It is a big success in three aspects: art, commercial and crowdfunding,” he said.
Miao and the Director of the shoot, Peter “Zhen” Pan, had known each other for ten years when the opportunity to work on the commercial arrived. Miao is the director’s go-to art director and was the first person he reached out to. After reading the script, Miao accepted right away.
“Peter and I are golden partners. He knows I am a great Art Director that is full of ideas and the perfect match for what he wants. He just called me and told me the details about this project and we started working on it that same night. He always gives me enough space and time to design and develop my ideas. He fully respects me,” said Miao.
As the Art Director, Miao was in charge of the overall look for the commercial, selecting the best and most suitable artistic elements while leading the creative team. He designed a concise, natural, and clean aesthetic while controlling the style. He understands the difference between market value and artistic value, setting him apart from his colleagues. For this Itron commercial, he designed the color tone with Pan and knew to keep in mind the difference between a regular commercial and a crowdfunding commercial. He made sure to meet the requirements while planning the artistic elements around the brand, creating a higher brand value for the video. This allowed the product to stick in customers’ minds.
What was perhaps Miao’s most considerable contribution to the commercial, however, was finding the location of Elliston Winery. Miao enjoys working in historical settings, and the winery is no different. When decorating a historical set, Miao plays with the flavor that they bring to the table and plans everything around the atmosphere they possess. His passion for the location was passed onto the entire cast and crew. They treated it like their homes, making sure to respect every piece of furniture and brick in the building. Such respect for his setting and its parts is a main reason Miao is such a formidable artist and leader.
“I have been Phenix’s Assistant for years, but I also see him as my guide in my film career. He is not only in charge of the art department but is also a tremendous team leader. He understands style and perfectly controls the appearance of every image. Phenix is a great mentor and teaches me all of his techniques and knowledge. He is a talent but also very easy going. Phenix always knows how to take a director’s idea and turn it into something special. He knows how to make the effects suitable and always has new, practical ideas that come from his plethora of experience. I think the fact that he has also worked as a director and writer allow him to understand the role of the art director even better, and it sets him apart from the rest,” said Qin Zheng.
Ever since Ron Grebler was a child, he knew he wanted to direct for the big and small screen. Growing up in Toronto, Canada, he loved watching movies. He always enjoyed being transported to a new world through a film, with each image impacting his emotions. When he would watch, he felt fully engaged, and knew from early on that he wanted to be a cinematic storyteller. Now, he is a top Director and Producer in Canada.
While working with AXE and “Canada’s MTV’s MuchMusic”, Grebler helped take a revolutionary advertisement to the next level. Promoting AXE Hair Products, Grebler produced and directed a series of branded videos for the network’s “Spring Break Special.” The first of its kind on the network, three segments were seamlessly integrated into the hugely successful special to look like programming, not commercials.
“It was flattering to be chosen to work on a new concept of content with such an entertaining and iconic brand. As a commercial and branded content producer and director, it’s a rare opportunity to be asked to launch a new product for a successful brand. AXE was known for its body sprays and very entertaining commercial spots. When they were launching their first line of hair care products it was hard not to jump at the opportunity,” said Grebler.
What made the project fun for Grebler was the “hidden camera” aspect of the commercial. Part of the videos featured the main talent of the commercial asking vacationers questions about his hair, and the unsuspecting vacationers were unaware they were being filmed. This created a fun energy that was maintained throughout the three videos.
“It’s easy to work with Ron. He genuinely loves the craft of producing and directing and wants to put as much as possible into every commercial. We continually chose Ron because of his reliability, professionalism and his creative style. He was a ‘one stop shop’ for production, and we were confident that the final product would be engaging and of high quality. He has a producer/director’s ‘personality’. He’s creative and quick thinking, clear-headed, and dedicated to crafting the best programming possible with the budgets he’s given,” said Randall Graham, the Creative Director of Brand Partnerships and Commercial Production at Bell Media.
The campaign went on to be a large success for both AXE and MuchMusic. Despite the challenges that arose from shooting in Cancun, Mexico, the most popular Spring Break vacation destination, Grebler rose to the occasion. Without him, the campaign could not have achieved what it did.
“Working with Ron is often a fast paced and well thought out environment. Ron is always determined to exceed the expectations of his clients which often means maximizing every available minute. Being in a foreign country with limited tools at our disposal outside of what we brought allowed Ron and crew to think and operate outside of the box yet maintain high standards of production. Working with Ron is, at its core a job but also a classroom. Ron is a vast vault of production and creative knowledge which he is happy and eager to share. In all my years of knowing Ron, he’s always had the mentality that learning never stops and teaching others is always an available opportunity. Ron is always encouraging, positive and motivational on set which makes the complicated and sometimes unpredictable production days not just manageable but fun as well,” said KJ Fuhrman, the Production Coordinator of the campaign.
Grebler is known for his outstanding and memorable commercials. In addition to the AXE campaign with Much, he recently worked on a group of national commercials for Belair Direct. The campaign was seen by millions of viewers across Canada and was highly successful for both Belair Direct and Grebler.
“Working on a commercial of this magnitude was a lot like juggling 300 hundred balls at once. There were so many little details, all time-oriented and interconnected, and if one falls, the others fall too. It was crazy but it was fun,” said Grebler. “There’s also that satisfying feeling of turning on the TV and seeing the spot I worked on for 3 months appear on different major networks. It’s also cute when my mom and dad call me to say they saw my spot on TV.”
Working with FUJI, Grebler reached an even bigger audience than Canada, as his advertisements were seen all around the world. Working as the director for the campaign, Grebler created two separate commercials, one for national television, and the other for internet use.
“It was an intense, short project that necessitated a lot of focus and particular attention to detail. I was strongly involved in the pre-production and production design, especially when it came to sourcing props and building sets. I was very hands on because for both the agency and client, the overall look of the set was extremely important. Since the concept included having a hand built craft to be used as a ‘hero’ prop, I specifically chose the artist to construct it and oversaw and approved the construction and color scheme,” said Grebler.
The decisions that Grebler made for the commercials led them to be immensely successful. FUJI then decided to launch the commercials in Japan, and are considering a roll out to other international markets.
“Ron brings a fresh creative perspective as well as a lot of focused energy, enthusiasm and organization to every project. He has a depth of experience across many different brand categories and demographics and knows how to make every video unique, visually appealing and successful in its goal. He excels at translating the agency creative and client brief and crafting it into engaging video content that will keep consumers and audiences tuned in … and that’s the whole point of a commercial,” said Rebecca Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer Fish Out of Water Design, the agency that created the commercials.
Grebler’s reputation of being extremely thorough while working extremely quickly make him extremely sought-after not only in Canada, but internationally as well. He is truly exceptional at what he does, and his passion for what he does shows in every project he works on.
What started out as a love for building retail window displays turned into a successful career as a production designer for Toronto based Andrea Leigh. She always loved building something captivating from nothing, where passers-by would turn to see what was not just her work, but also her art. This innate talent turned into a career, and now she is one of Canada’s best production designers.
It seems like a long time ago that Leigh was fixing window displays, as she has worked on several celebrated projects as a production designer, including the award-winning film Friends Like Us. Leigh knew after reading just a few pages of the script that she needed to design for the film.
“The minimal and sleek vision the director had for the main home really drew me to the project. It’s always fun to work on a job where you actually enjoy the content. The script was funny. The dynamic was entertaining, and it was nice to work with the amazing and talented Toronto cast,” said Leigh.
Friends Like Us tells the tale of a struggling couple – broke and pregnant – who find success through ripping off their friends. The plot twists when one of the women finds out about the affair two of them have been having and they accidentally murder their husbands with a piece of modern art.
“I got to feature some of my favorite artists in the main location we shot. Huge pieces, some abstract, some minimalist. Overall, the opportunity to design a space that said so much by not having much in it was a nice challenge. It really reflected the characters’ sense of new found wealth,” Leigh described.
The film went on to have enormous success at many prestigious international film festivals, and was even nominated for “Best Short Film” by the Director’s Guild of Canada. The production design was vital to the success of the film, and the recognition the film received was amazing for Leigh.
“It’s exciting to know it made it beyond just a ‘project’. You never know what will come of features and shorts. Sometimes they don’t make it anywhere. Sometimes they get wide recognition and reviews. Toronto can feel like a small city sometimes, so when something truly great comes out of it, word gets out fast,” she said.
Success such as this follows Leigh with each project she embarks on, showing audiences around the world why she is so exceptional with what she does. While working with the popular cosmetics brand E.L.F., the commercial Play Beautifully was aired on televisions across North America, and went on to have more than 2 million hits on YouTube alone.
“I feel a lot of young women connected with this commercial, and connected with the brand. It feels like we really got the message across, and that it was more than a commercial. It was more of a story, following the girl,” said Leigh.
The commercial featured an all-female cast, and was shot at numerous locations across Toronto. Leigh says it hardly felt like work, going to coffee shops, bars, rooftops, and more in the middle of the day. Leigh, who has also worked as an interior designer, says designing rooms for young women came naturally to her, and her own living space was even used as one of the shooting locations. She truly felt right at home.
“I have worked closely with Andrea on numerous productions and virally popular commercials, and have become familiar with the level of professionalism and skills required to be a top tier production designer and art director. My experience has led me to believe that Andrea is one of the most prodigiously successful professionals in her field,” said David Quinn, the director of the Play Beautifully commercial who has worked with Leigh on many commercials with the production company Skin & Bones.
The idea was to make the commercial look more like a short film than an advertisement. This is what drew Leigh into the story in the first place. She is a story teller, and her designs play a pivotal part in any story, almost as an extra character. It was a story brought to life by what she describes as amazing cast members. It was also relatable in so many ways for lots of young women.
“You have a rough time, a bad break up, your friends are there for you and sometimes you just need to throw on some lipstick, build your confidence back up after a broken heart and head out on the town with your ladies,” Leigh concluded.
The striking talent of Yihong Ding as a production designer and art director is literally visible in every project she has touched. She moves seamlessly through the worlds of film, television and advertising; not an easy feat when one considers that the approach a person must take when designing the ambiance of a feature film to match a director’s vision is vastly different from their approach to creating the backdrop of a commercial meant to persuade an audience of consumers.
Originally from Shanghai, Ding studied in London and eventually got her master’s in production design at the world-renowned American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Since then, she has been hard at work on an ever-growing list of projects. To ensure each film, show or commercial conveys the right mood and feeling, she works closely with the director of the production to capture and physically recreate their vision. From color schemes to lighting, props to set design, she is responsible for turning the conceptual into the living, breathing worlds we see on film.
Ding has worked on projects ranging from The Birthday Boys starring Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mr. Show) to Mandala, the winner of the 2015 Los Angeles International Film Festival award for Best Foreign Film. She’s done several commercials for Diomany high-end lingerie and served as art director of an advertisement for the Microsoft Outlook app. It’s her work on films like Mira however that really showcases her incredible talent for production design and her awe-inspiring ability to create a self-contained world on the screen.
Working on director Amanda Tasse’s Mira, currently in post-production, Ding was given a dual-challenge. First was creating a marine biology research laboratory complete with the appropriate scientific equipment and actual jellyfish tanks. Second, she had to design an intricate “memory wall” which the title character uses to keep a log of her life.
“I had a lot of fun doing the research for this project,” said Ding, who studies every project’s background meticulously to ensure the environment seen on camera is authentic and accurate. “We ended up filming at an empty lab on Catalina Island, and dressing the lab into the jellyfish lab for the story.”
Filming on an island presented its own challenges. Ding had to personally pack all of the glass tubes and prop equipment by hand, and shipping all of the fragile items to Catalina was expensive and required her to closely observe weight restrictions and eliminate any waste in the budget while maintaining the realistic integrity of the set.
“Finding the jellyfish tank was another challenge. They were all costume-made and very expensive,” she said. “I almost had to build them myself, but luckily we found a person that was willing to rent three to us for a really great deal.”
The experience tested and proved Ding’s invaluable ability to balance the creative and financial sides of production design with aplomb. The laboratory she created is so authentic and convincing it’s absolutely indistinguishable from a research facility one might see at a university. While the lab provides the backdrop, the “memory wall” Ding created gives the viewer a personal connection to Mira’s title character.
The character of Mira suffers from a form of epilepsy that causes intense seizures and short-term memory loss of the hours preceding each attack. Mira dedicates herself to studying a species of jellyfish which may hold a cure for her disease, but her condition poses a huge challenge and she has to find a way to overcome the amnesia. So Ding helped design a “memory wall,” which becomes Mira’s method of constantly reminding herself of what’s happened before each seizure.
“She would take a picture right before she knew she was going to have a seizure… and then she would map out all the pictures on her bedroom wall,” Ding described. “It was a very complicated visual graphic to create, and I wanted to make sure that it looked real… and for the very first time I sat down and considered myself as Mira… I started to think like Mira, which was really amazing, because I found myself digging deeper into the design than I normally do.”
Yihong Ding has what many specialists lack: a multifaceted skillset combined with extensive experience in every level of design and the ability to work within any range of budget without ever compromising the quality of the project. From envisioning the conceptual to building the practical, from dressing sets to arranging the details and minutia for the perfect shot, she is a one-woman creative army.
Living in the modern age we are bombarded by hundreds of commercials per day. As viewers when most of these ads hit the screen we often tune out in order to deal with the overwhelming overload of these messages.
So what does it take for a commercial to stand out and strike the interest of an audience in a world oversaturated with visual sales pitches?
Well, having a seasoned motion graphics designer like Vitaly Verlov behind the screen has proven to be an integral factor in the success of campaigns for global companies like Max Factor, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Nokia, Samsung and countless others.
Over the years Verlov has amassed prodigious knowledge in terms of the technical methods involved in creating everything from multi-layered motion graphics to seamless visual effects. Beyond his technical skills though, his creative vision has made him a highly sought after talent in the industry. In fact, earlier this year he handled all of the visual effects on the upcoming film Redux, a sci-fi film starring Oscar nominee Eric Roberts from the films Inherent Vice, The Dark Knight, The Cable Guy and many more. What is even more astonishing is the fact that Verlov also wrote and directed the highly anticipated film.
His prowess as a motion graphics designer and visual effects artist have allowed him to take on projects that others in the industry who are only skilled in one of these two areas could not.
While you may not know the face of Vitaly Verlov, if you’ve ever tuned into MTV, VH1, Friday! Or Russia’s RUTV, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen his work more than once over the last decade.
To find out more about Vitaly Verlov’s captivating work make sure to check out our interview below!
VV: My name is Vitaly Verlov and I was born in the city of Novosibirsk, Russia. After graduating in 2007 I moved to Moscow to work as a motion graphics designer and visual effect artist for television and film.
IFR: How and when did you first get into doing visual effects work?
VV: In high school and university I did a lot of computer programming because I was a computer geek back then, and even before that I came across an international computer art subculture called Demoscene. Essentially it’s a community where young programmers, artists and musicians get together – for fun – to make demos: computer programs that produce audio-visual presentations in real-time. The visual side of creating a demo implies that you actually program algorithms to achieve a certain artistic effects on screen. To put it short, it’s awesome. As soon as my programming skills got up to speed, I started making graphical demos with some cool looking visual effects and showcasing them on so called “demoparties.” As a matter of fact, my thesis work was focused on developing a toolset for real-time motion graphics and visual effects production.
Later on I became more interested in non real-time photorealistic imaging and switched from computer graphics programming to producing visual effects, design and animation in a more traditional industry-applicable form and started doing broadcast motion graphics for television.
IFR: What inspired you to pursue this profession?
VV: After seeing some television channels that were neatly designed from a graphical standpoint or motion pictures packed with great visual effects, I really wanted to become a part of it.
IFR: Are there any particular artists that inspire you?
VV: In my early days I was fascinated with some of the broadcast design graphics on TV and dreamed about getting to this level of quality and impression. That’s what basically inspired me to learn, more than personalities. However after moving to Moscow, I had an opportunity to meet with some of the great guys behind those outstanding designs and work with them.
IFR: What kind of training was involved in order to become a VFX artist? How important is formal education to getting a job in the industry?
VV: I personally don’t have any special VFX related training. Nor do most of the other artists I know. Basically, to become a VFX artist or motion designer, it’s important to have a natural artistic sense and a good eye plus the ability to efficiently handle technical tools and software. On the other hand, it’s also a matter of specialty in the industry, for instance: environmental concept artists or matte painters often have a background in fine arts. One thing is true for everyone working in VFX: you don’t stop learning, no matter what your specialty is.
IFR: What is that you love about being a VFX artist?
VV: The ability to create something impressive out of nothing; and the ability to impress girls at parties, of course.
IFR: What is your specialty in the field?
VV: As a VFX artist, I consider myself a generalist which means that I can pull off a wide variety of tasks myself, including modeling, texturing, animating, rendering, compositing. There are fields that I prefer more, and there are fields I’m not involved in at all – like character modeling and rigging.
As a motion/broadcast graphics designer and art director, again, I can do a lot, starting from initial creative concept to final delivery.
IFR: What is your typical workflow like in terms of collaborating with other artists on a film?
VV: It depends on a project and/or studio. Sometimes workflow is precise, broken down into stages and compartmentalized with strict deadlines, sometimes it’s a complete mess and overnight hell. The most positive experience is of course when you focus on something specific you really like and are good at. This way of collaborating is very efficient and creative at the same time.
IFR: You also work as a motion graphics designer, can you tell us a little bit about what that entails?
VV: Sure. Essentially motion graphics design is an animation-oriented subset of graphic design. Graphic design is just a single picture. Motion design is graphic design in sequence, in motion, and you see it pretty much everywhere: opening sequences for TV shows, film titles, game console menus, or photo-realistic 3D smartphone magically spinning in mid-air in a smartphone TV or Web commercial, or even user interface animation within that smartphone. In other words, any animated piece in visual medium is a subject of motion design.
That’s what I’ve been doing for various television channels including MTV, VH1, Friday!, and others. Sometimes there is client input on the initial concept of what we’re trying to achieve, sometimes there is no input. When there is no input, I also work as a copywriter where I suggest different ideas or scripts on how an end result might look and what meanings/themes it might have behind it. When the concept is approved, we move on to actual motion design.
IFR: How does being a motion graphics editor differ from working as a VFX artist?
VV: Motion graphics is a general term. It’s something that visually can be executed in different ways and styles. It can be two-dimensional, flat design-ish/illustrated looking as well as filmic three-dimensional. I think my direction is more filmic/three-dimensional oriented, that’s why it depends substantially on the visual effects techniques. For example, for a commercial spot for Peugeot the idea was to make a realistic car driving along a stylized miniature street – stuff like that directly relies on VFX techniques because it requires 3D modeling, rendering and compositing as a part of the workflow. In a sense, for such projects VFX is a way to implement the creative idea. That’s where motion graphics and VFX come together.
On the other hand, there are motion graphics projects where VFX techniques are not required for natural reasons. For instance, I have experience making on-screen graphics as a part of graphics package for several television stations where the task was to design the look and feel of info graphic elements that pop up during a broadcast. While these elements look pretty minimalistic, they should have a thought-out motion behavior and structure that keeps the integrity of the overall design. Sometimes the way these elements pop up on screen, interact with the viewer, and disappear is hard to conceptualize. That’s where “design” in the “motion graphics design” title comes to the forefront.
IFR: How has having skills as both a VFX artist and a motion graphics designer separated you from others in the industry?
VV: I think VFX and motion graphics are storytelling devices, and I always try to approach projects from the storytelling perspective. So for me the primary task is not making a neat looking animation or effect but supporting and enhancing the context it is a part of. Motion graphics is about guiding the viewer’s attention and it’s also very important for visual effects shots. What separates me is a good understanding of these aspects which, in real life, means that a client is usually happy with the timing, pace and accents I put into designs during the early stages of production, which is cool because it eliminates the need to reiterate on that so I can spend more time perfecting the visuals.
IFR: What companies have you worked with in the industry?
VV: Since I consider myself motion graphics oriented, I have more experience working on commercials and on-air broadcast design.
As a lead designer and VFX artist, I worked for the Russian branch of MTV and VH1 Networks and nation-wide entertainment television channel Friday! As an art director and motion graphics designer, I’ve done quite a few projects for a major music television channel, RUTV. Specifically, I created motion graphics and the overall design for the RUTV 2014 annual music awards ceremony, and some pieces for its 2015 installment.
As a freelance designer and VFX artist, I’ve done a bunch of commercials for international brands, including Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Max Factor, Nokia, Samsung, Eurovision, Sensation, plus a variety of Russian brands like Beeline (a major mobile operator in Russia).
As a lead VFX artist, I have several projects done for the US-based boutique postproduction company Coat of Arms. Also, I have great experience working for the international visual effects company Pixomondo (Game of Thrones) as a lead 2D effects artist.
Working for various international companies and clients gives a pretty solid understanding of how the global industry works as well as flexibility in the way you approach projects in terms of planning and workflow because the process makes the result.
IFR: Can you tell us a little bit about the television and film projects you’ve worked on; and the specific contributions you made?
VV: I’ve done a lot of TV show openers and channel idents, in a team of designers and by myself, including works for MTV Networks, nation-wide channels Friday!, and RUTV.
While working for Friday! I had a positive interaction with the broadcast design department of Les télécréateurs (Paris) who designed overall on-air look of this station. I’ve made a few show openers and extra identity pieces based on the existing visual style of the station. And for RUTV I created motion graphics and design for the RUTV 2014 annual music awards ceremony which was a pretty huge amount of work (a show opener, a set of nominees, promo spots, press materials) on a tight schedule – that’s where the ability to sit focused for 18 hours came in handy.
Also, recently I had a chance to work as a lead 2D VFX artist on a Chinese big budget sci-fi feature film called Impossible, which is scheduled to hit the market sometime this year. I came in when the postproduction was in full swing, and my job was to complete a bunch of VFX shots, mostly energy fields and portal effects.
I should mention that I’m a filmmaker myself with two sci-fi live action films already under my belt. The latest one, Redux, features the well-known Hollywood actor Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, The Expendables). It’s a short character-driven story with the ’80s/retro-futuristic vibe to it. I wrote, directed and edited this film and did visual effects.
IFR: Why is motion graphics design important to modern filmmaking?
VV: In its pure form, motion graphics design is critical for television and Internet – that’s for sure. Filmmaking also takes advantage of it, particularly big budget sci-fi & fantasy films and movie trailers, which are a marketing device. Film credits or sleek futuristic computer interfaces you see in a sci-fi flick is a product of motion graphics design. Sometimes it enhances the narrative story of a film, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s in there. Moreover, since motion design and VFX are somewhat interrelated fields, motion graphics can be essentially found in any film featuring visual effects. That’s also a good way to save some time and money during production, which is important, especially for independent narrative filmmakers like myself. Can a modern live action film be done with no VFX and motion design? Probably yes. But if it’s a mainstream (commercial) film, there should be a marketing/ad campaign involved and that’s where motion graphics comes for you again.
IFR: What has been your favorite project so far and why? What projects do you have coming up?
VV: Not sure about all-time favorites, but I can name a couple of recent ones. I was a part of a team who made a STRAFE® promotional spot for a successful Kickstarter compaign. STRAFE® is an independent old school first-person shooter video game. On this commercial, I worked as a lead VFX/motion design artist.
And of course I loved working on my second film Redux because I think it looks pretty neat, has a coherent story and stars well-known Hollywood actors.
As to the projects to come, some of my past TV clients have a brand new music channel in the works, and while there’s not much info available at this point it looks like I will be creating an onscreen design and several VFX heavy idents shot on green screen.
IFR: Do you have a passion for working on a specific kind of film or project, if so what kind of project and why?
VV: In the TV world, I would say, a show opener. When making a TV show opener, you’re actually making a focused 10-15 second piece which tells a story visually, and that’s what attracted me to the visual medium in the first place.
In film, I have a passion for working on my own films.
IFR: What would you say was your first foot in the door to the industry, and what advice would you give to aspiring artists?
VV: In 2006 I believe, I started making what I called the daily images: the goal was to make one new artistic image every day, just for fun and training, and post it on the Internet into a corresponding design community. I ended up making just a couple of images a week, but after a year of this marathon I was invited to work full-time at a prominent postproduction studio in Moscow, N3, because they liked my pictures. That’s basically how I got into this industry. So I guess my advice would be, stop being aspiring and start actually making something just for the sake of it, start the process and watch how everything unfolds.
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