Tag Archives: Movies

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

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

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

Cinematographer Majd Mazin shares impactful LGBTQ story in award-winning film

As a Cinematographer, Majd Mazin is responsible for the visual side of a film. It is his responsibility to collaborate with filmmakers to achieve his or her vision and bring it to life, using camera, lighting and movement. He recognizes the challenges of his field, with a lot of responsibility and very little limelight, but he truly loves what he does. He builds relationships with those he works with, making sure a director’s vision is satisfied and an actor’s talent is the showcase of a scene. As a camera assistant, he approaches each new project with the same determination. He is truly a master behind the camera.

“Cinematography is an art form and a technical craft, and both aspects should be balanced and worked on respectively,” he said.

Mazin is a celebrated cinematographer and camera assistant. His work extends to films like The Fat One, web series such as The Millionaires, and music videos for hit bands like Fall Out Boy and Red Velvet. With every project, he aims to make a lasting impression to his audience, which to him, is what filmmaking is all about.

This is best exemplified with his film Prodigal Son. The film tells the story of a closeted gay teenager coming out to a conservative Latino family. Mazin believes it is an important story to be told for LGBTQ teens and their relationships with their families. The lead and writer of the film Juan Felipe Restrepo, had deep connection to the script, as it was his brother’s story, and Mazin took on the responsibility of telling it in the best way visually possible.

“The story of the film is significant to any LGBTQ teen trying to come out to their friends and family. I believe that teens are faced with a very hard choice and adversity. This film helps accompany many of these individuals, reassuring themand telling them that they are not alone in this. By bringing these LGBTQ issues to the forefront, as saturated as that field might be, I believe that it helps bolster the prominence of these issues and makes them feel like they are less on the fringes,” said Mazin.

The film premiered at Warner Bros Studios in Burbank earlier this year. It is still making it’s film festival rounds, but has already impressed audiences all over the world. It won Best LGBTQ film at Festigious International Film Festival, Silver Award Best Drama at the LA Shorts Awards, Best LGBTQ Film at the Los Angeles Film Awards, Best LGBTQ Film at the Top Shorts Film Festival, and was recognized at the Actors Awards. Such success could not have been possible without Mazin behind the camera.

“It is very gratifying to me to know that a project that I invested so much in and worked so hard on, something that I was a part of is getting the recognition that it is getting. In proxy it is reassuring that my work means something and I am making films for people to see, not to sit on someone’s hard drive,” said Mazin.

Mazin came on board during pre-production. He knew they had a very short period of time to shoot, edit and color and release the project, and he wanted to make the most of it. The experience was united with the director and he was given a heavy say in the choice of the visual language. He wrote the shot list with the director, scouted the locations, and hired his crew. Overall, the experience was not only meaningful for Mazin, but also very collaborative.

“I very much enjoyed working with Director Amalia Ramirez. I felt that I was working with a very competent and visionary director. She has provided a comfortable and collaborative environment for me and the rest of the cast and crew. I enjoyed my crew as we worked as efficiently as possible while coming up with innovative ways to attack problems that we faced on the day,” he said.

A cinematographer’s work is essential to the success of any film. Without Mazin’s work, the idea that the director and writer are trying to portray cannot be told in a believable and truthful way. It is his job to not only use the visual language and style, but to make an uninterrupted visual experience that keeps the audience engaged and furthermore, expand on the story and plot. Prodigal Son was no different, and Mazin’s emotional connection to the story just made him that much more determined.

So, what’s next for Mazin? He is currentlyworking on a feature film titled The Keeper. Be sure to keep an eye out for it.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

China’s Jie Meng creates award-winning visual effects for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Jie Meng is consistently fascinated by his craft. The power of visual effects, to use different algorithms and physics theories to recreate something natural, or even create something that does not exist in the real world, is enchanting to the Chinese native. With a creative imagination and a deep understanding of computer science, an FX artist can create anything, turning fantasy into reality.

“With different algorithms and techniques, FX artists can do a lot of research and develop all different kinds of effects. As an FX artist, I also enjoy coming up with my own algorithms and methods to create new effects elements when I am at home. I feel I can create anything in my mind into the CG world, which is super fun to me,” said Meng.

Meng is an internationally sought-after visual effects artist, having contributed to blockbuster films, iconic video games, and prolific commercials. Earlier this year, audiences were enchanted with his work on the record-breaking film Avengers: Infinity War and the successful TV movie Freaky Friday, just as they were previously with Captain America: Civil War and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. He is also recognized around the world for his work on video games, including Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Quake Champions.

Despite such success, Meng calls the highlight of his career his work on Marvel’s hit Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He worked on countless shots and different kinds of effects elements in several sequences, designed and final locked over a hundred shots in only a couple of months, and finally, saw recognition for his work from the Academy with an Oscar nomination. The moment he saw his name in the movie credits, he knew that all those late nights have paid off.

“This is a milestone film project for me. It was my first time designing a procedurally generated CG environment in the film production, and it was my first time working so closely with other CG departments. I was inspired by all different artists around me, from their hard work and how they think and solve problems. There were a lot of late nights in this film project, but I was fully charged every morning, and just could not wait one second to keep working with my VFX crew members,” said Meng.

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Meng’s vast contributions to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 helped bring the film to critical acclaim around the world. Not only did it take in over $860 million at the worldwide box office, but it was recognized at prestigious award ceremonies around the world. The highpoint for Meng was when the film was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.

“When the news of the Oscar nomination had spread out, all the team members that worked on this film cheered into tears. We were so proud of ourselves that we achieved a VFX masterpiece. This film motivates and encourages me to keep on going as a VFX artist and also a filmmaker in the future,” said Meng.

Meng worked on many effects shots in several different sequences in the film. His main focus was the “normal” and “angry” Ego planet sequences. Those two sequences have a huge volume of the shots, which required the artists to design and finish the effects elements in a very short amount of time. Meng was not only building effects elements, but also helping in procedural modeling, shading/look-dev, lighting, procedural layout, and digital assets sharing aspects.

He designed and finished every shot containing Ego’s environment, all thruster effects elements for Quadrant Ship and jetpack in the “angry” Ego planet sequence. This included designing and finishing every shot containing aurora effects elements in the “normal” Ego planet sequence, such as the dust and leaves blowing in the Ego ship landing sequence. He also created taser gun lightning effects in a hero shot when Rocket Racoon shoots Gamora and did some early Rocket Racoon fur tests in the Guardians squat night talk scene.

Overall, Meng contributed over 20 different kinds of effects elements and CG contents in a total of four different sequences for the film. He designed and finished over 100 shots and related to 200 shots. The technical solutions that he came up with saved a great amount of time and made sure the entire team finished every shot before the deadline. His visual effects undoubtedly brought a stronger visual impact to the film and made the film a masterpiece of sci-fi fantasy artwork.

“I had the pleasure of working with Jie on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He is absolutely exceptional at what he does and is always striving to better himself and his craft. He is hard working, detail oriented, reliable and goes above and beyond when helping out others. He is always open to collaboration and feedback. I highly think that his skill and expertise would be a great fit for any project he works on. I look forward to working with him again on future projects,” said Dennys Herman, Lighting and Look Development Artist at MPC.

Meng had always been a big Marvel fan, and above all else, creating such a timeless film meant more to him than anything. He was determined to achieve greatness with every effect he created as he knew Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was more than just a visual spectacle.

“I like the story of this film, as the core it is about family. The plot twists when Starlord (Peter) met his father Ego, and finally found out his father is an evil creature who killed his mother. The family theme is also relevant when Gamora and Nebula fight against Ego together, and Yondu sacrifices himself to save Peter. It’s a comedy sci-fi fantasy movie, but this core is very deep. The film is not some regular comedy where people laughed and forgot about it, but something that will be remembered,” he concluded.

Australia’s Mark Davis talks passion for acting and starring in ‘I Want You’

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Mark Davis

Despite having other passions, Mark Davis found himself acting from a young age. Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, his father had an old VHS camcorder, and to pass the time, Davis’ brother and his friend used to use the camera, recording small skits. Being the youngest, Davis was always made to be a bad guy who gets beaten up, or he would be dressed up in his mother’s clothes to play a woman. At the time, he was just happy to be spending time with his big brother, but little did he know he would grow to be a celebrated actor.

Throughout his esteemed career, Davis has been a part of several acclaimed projects, from award-winning movies to prolific commercials. He has starred in films like Lucy and Topdecked, which he also wrote, as well as the upcoming period drama Fallen. Australians also know his face from national commercials for Honda, Crownbet, Interflora, and more.

“I knew acting was always something I had a natural affinity for. Instinctually the acting process made sense to me and even though I was quite shy, I felt freedom when taking on a role. I feel like acting is a culmination of many art forms and for me movement and being in touch with something like your emotions and imagination as a profession just made sense. I like taking a walk in other people’s shoes and to get paid to swear, cry, fall in love and throw chairs is a privilege,” said Davis.

One of Davis’ first tastes of international success came with the 2013 romantic drama I Want You. The story follows Maya, who is deeply in love with a boy who lives in Israel. Maya struggles to maintain her faith in a relationship that unfolds largely on a computer screen after she meets another man who can provide the tangible aspects missing from her relationship. Although tempted, Maya has to ask herself, will this new relationship give her what she truly wants?

“The story really demonstrates that good people can be tempted to do things that are against their morals and who they are. In the end, however, the film is about forgiveness and that message is very strong,” said Davis.

In the film, Davis plays Ethan, a character who was very much the other man in a love story. Ethan had to seduce Maya, who was in a very healthy relationship. He was the protagonist in the film. He came into a healthy environment and had to be the perfect blend of nice and endearing whilst also being the bad guy who is going to ruin a relationship purely for his own sexual gratification. Therefore, Davis had to be extremely charming, and managed to do so in tough shooting conditions. It was extremely hot on set, as they were filming in many different locations during the Australian summer.

“I liked being cheeky and being a person with low morals dressed as a nice guy. I’m more self-deprecating and awkward in real life so I had to channel my inner Brando to pull it off. That’s the joy in acting and I definitely had fun on this film. I’ve always said that no one cares about your enlightenment, the audience will watch because they want to see your darkness. It’s more relatable,” said Davis.

MV5BMjJmNmEyZjItMGIyNS00ZjVjLThiZDctNmViYmU1YWZmOTVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzgwNjU4NzE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,707,1000_AL_I Want You also stars Australian superstar Viva Blanca, best known for her role on the television series Spartacus. The film marked the actress’ directorial debut, and she felt the pressure. Knowing she had to have the perfect casting to make her film a success, she gave Davis the role of Ethan.

With the help of Davis, the film went on to be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Newport Beach film festival and the St Kilda Film Festival, seeing great success around the globe.

“It was one of the first films I was involved with and I’m glad it was so highly regarded. Viva is a great creative mind and an amazing talent,” he concluded.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee