Filmmaker, Brandon Li
Getty Images’ Rachel Brinton Matthews sits down with contributor and filmmaking nomad Brandon Li, who insists on getting right into the dirt of things for the perfect shot.
[Rachel Brinton Matthews]: You travel all over the world for your projects. Do you choose a country first and then film what inspires you on the journey, or is the destination dictated by your film ideas?
[Brandon Li]: I create two types of projects; commercial and personal. For commercial work the location is obviously dictated by the client, but for my personal work I pick a country I am fascinated by and then I go there and spend a bit of time getting to know the place and the people. Getting to know a new culture in this way allows me to understand more about a subject I wouldn’t learn about otherwise. My films come from this learning process; it’s a really rewarding way of creating and unexpected adventures are incorporated into the film.
[RBM]: I’m always so amazed by the sensory experiences within your films–what techniques do you use to capture these visceral moments?
[BL]: I have a theory about where I place the camera; I try to place it in the greatest position of privilege for the audience no matter what I’m shooting. I think, "If I was completely free to do whatever I wanted with the shot, with no equipment restrictions, where would the most privileged position be?" And then I try to do that but in the real world, which is obviously harder. For example, if I had a scene of someone chopping up fish, I would place the camera right where the fish was, so it would be a POV shot looking up at the fisherman.
I’m also very conscious of time of day–I always try to work within the golden hours, as light has a big impact on the senses. And I tend to film subjects that are very visceral and have natural textures. I like traditional cultures and practices, people who work with their hands, and anything with brute force and manual dexterity.
I think, "If I was completely free to do whatever I wanted with the shot, with no equipment restrictions, where would the most privileged position be?"
[RBM]: I can picture a lot of your films as you describe this process. Do you feel this "Brandon Li aesthetic" is what attracts your commercial clients?
[BL]: My commercial clients usually want the pacing, camera tricks and a little bit of the documentary authenticity but usually, they want a more sanitized version. But this is why I do my personal projects because I like getting dirt under my nails. I basically want to get sweaty when I create and my commercial projects don’t let me get sweaty enough!
[RBM]: You mentioned the camera tricks you use – any favorites? Which resonate the best with your viewers?
[BL]: I’m really into longer takes using the gimbal at the moment and then choreographing some of the action in front of the camera. For example, say I have a subject I can control (a model) and then I choreograph their movement and mine around them. The magic of this type of shot comes from the fact that it is usually done in an environment that I can’t control. I’ll do take after take and try and capture all of the "happy accidents."
[RBM]: "Happy accidents" sound great. Have there been any that have been "less than happy"?
[BL]: Oh yes, I’ve fallen down a lot. Cut myself. Broken equipment. As there’s no one spotting for me, it’s basically inevitable.
[RBM]: As someone who films solo a lot of the time, do you have any advice for photographers moving into film as it is traditionally seen as much more collaborative than photography?
[BL]: My main tip is to learn how to edit. Chances are you’re a great shooter, but normally the troubles all come in the edit. And once you learn editing, you’ll start to shoot with your edit in mind, which means you’ll have completed scenes–beginnings, middles and ends. The biggest problem photographers moving into film find is that they’ll have lovely visual shots but no complete story in order to put them together. I’d say the least important thing is equipment and settings.
[RBM]: What are your thoughts on mobile filmmaking–yay or nay?
[BL]: I think it’s got loads of potential; it’s really advanced tech wise now. But I feel you need to add "shot on iPhone" at the front of any titling to ensure viewers measure their reception. If the story is strong, it shouldn’t matter what equipment you use but I do feel our camera options are so good now, and priced so similarly to the top line mobile options, so why would you compromise on the quality just for the kitsch of using mobile?
[RBM]: It’s going to be exciting to see where it goes and how much the technology develops in the coming years.
[BL]: Definitely. The photos produced by mobiles now are easily rivaling DSLRs so who knows what’s in store for video.
[RBM]: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
[BL]: From traveling and meeting new people and asking them about their daily lives. There’s nothing more inspiring about sitting down, having a coffee with someone and hearing all about their home–what they like, what they don’t, how they think tourists perceive their country, and what they think about the rest of the world.
[RBM]: How long does your ‘get to know’ research normally take?
[BL]: About 2‑3 weeks and during that time I’ll be filming ‘easy stuff’–parks, landmarks etc. And meanwhile, I’ll be chatting with the local people, meeting them regularly to find out more about what they like and don’t. And then these people become my fixers–they help set up the different parts of my films. It becomes an organic collaborative experience because they come up with the ideas and also get me access. Most people I meet already follow my work through social so they have an idea of what I like to capture.
[RBM]: What equipment do you shoot with?
[BL]: Sony A7 RIII mainly, plus a gimbal and monopod. If I need drone footage I’ll get a local drone operator who knows the terrain. For personal projects, I don’t usually light, but occasionally I’ll use a reflector or I’ll appropriate someone’s phone or tablet. The light from the screen can be used for a subtle fill and the torch is great for complete darkness.
The biggest problem photographers moving into film find is that they’ll have lovely visual shots but no complete story in order to put them together.
[RBM]: Any shoot disasters?
[BL]: Lots! I was filming in China for a commercial job and we wanted to do a fairly complicated drone shot. We wanted to start in an apartment and then follow a person out. Once outside the drone would lift up and show the whole city. On the first take, the drone hit a pipe and fell 12 floors and shattered to pieces. I ended up shooting it on the gimbal and added SFX to create the lift and some stock footage. Our plan literally went out the window...and down the side of the building, and onto the concrete.
[RBM]: And what about pleasant surprises?
[BL]: These happen all of the time because of how I shoot. A few years ago I was filming in Bali and I went into a local convenience store where the guy behind the counter started asking me loads of questions – who I was, what I did, where I was from etc. When I returned the questions, I learned that he modified Harley motorbikes in his spare time. Fast forward a day or two and I am cruising around on the back of a bike with this crew of Balinese bikers who ride their low ride, modified bikes around the peaceful rice fields of Bali. It was a real experience and ended up making an awesome scene for my film.
[RBM]: What are you listening to at the moment?
[BL]: I’ve been listening to a lot of K‑pop since coming back from Seoul. I can’t say I love all of it – as I’m not a 17 year old girl – but I like BTS and Akmu. I like the weird mix of well‑known western genres that really shouldn’t go together, Bubble gum pop and Trap for example. And I love the videos – just so much creativity!
[RBM]: Are you an early bird or late riser?
[BL]: Definitely a late riser. If I HAVE to get up, i.e. if there’s something good to shoot, and I’m mentally excited by it, I’ll get up. But otherwise, I am supremely lazy.
[RBM]: What app can you not live without?
[BL]: AirLinc – it’s an app that lets you put a lavalier microphone on your phone and then monitor it from another phone.
[RBM]: How important is social media for you?
[BL]: It’s HUGELY important for me. It’s changed not only the way I reach an audience but also my collaborators. Everyone I’ve met with comes through social media. It’s essential to me.
[RBM]: Finally, what’s next for you?
[BL]: More travels and I have an online film school in the works.