Creative Analysis: Part 8 - Making A Name By Cinematographer Li Qihang

With the population of China approaching 1.4 billion, it’s perhaps no surprise that it is fast becoming the biggest market in the world for theatrical film exhibition, with the largest number of cinema screens of any single country. Directors such as Wong Kar-Wai and the stars of Chinese cinema – names like Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi – have long been enjoying international attention, but the grass roots of Chinese film and (particularly) TV production are less often encountered outside the country.

Still images accompanying this article are from a commercial for the Li-Ning sports clothing brand, photographed in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province of western China, in 2019. Based in large part on a careful selection of locations around the city, as well as leveraging mainly available light, the commercial was photographed by Beijing-based cinematographer Li Qihang. Qihang modestly describes himself as “just a young cinematographer” having graduated from a masters’ degree in 2018. The undergraduate course that preceded it, though, came from the Beijing Film Academy, probably the largest and most respected in Asia, and a promising place to begin a career in camera.

The route from ambition to set is much the same everywhere. “Before I went to film school,” Qihang remembers, “I had been dreaming about being an independent documentary photographer or something. I was into capturing real life… I often studied some documentary style masterpieces made by great photographers – Paul Strand, Paolo Pellegrin, Josef Koudelka. I also enjoyed watching films, but I didn't put much focus on their cinematography.” It’s not often that a change of outlook can be pinpointed to a single film, but for Qihang, that film was Memoirs of a Geisha, photographed by Dion Beebe, ACS, ASC.

“I was amazed by the dramatic mixing of light and shadow as well as the wonderful use of color,” Qihang enthuses. “It’s not just beautiful but incredibly vivid and touching. From then, I realized I wanted to be a cinematographer and I decided to enrol at the department of cinematography of Beijing Film Academy.” The Academy itself has an intimidating 80% rejection rate, receiving over 40,000 applications for, at most, 500 places. Qihang recalls “just three exams, including a paper test, painting test and interview. Teachers mainly focused on if we have talent for cinematography and even for film.”

Studying, Qihang found himself influenced by Christopher Doyle, HKSC, “who is well known for his handheld style in Wong Kar-Wai's films from Fallen Angels to 2046. And I often imitated his style and handheld camera in my student works. Then I wanted to explore any other possibilities of cinematography… I watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, and Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life, a masterpiece shot by Emmanuel Lubezki.” Like so many film students, Qihang’s formative experiences at film school involved the Canon 5D Mk. II and ubiquitous EF 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. “I just shot it with my intuition and basic techniques about filmmaking. I should say thanks for the guy's belief and bet on me!”

Post education, Qihang says, the traditional route beckoned. “Rent a house in Beijing, be an independent cinematographer, find some projects no matter what those are, earn money continuously, and life goes on and on. But then, I chose to go to Hong Kong to expand my horizons, after which I got an MFA in ‘fine art of film, television and digital media.’” Qihang lived in Hong Kong for three years, and "used the precious time to think about film in a totally different way from my former school focusing on only one expertise. I found that Hong Kong is a special place mixing diverse people and cultures. Above all, I had been making many new friends who are really passionate about film art and whose former majors are not related to filmmaking but brought me some new views…. those three years were the best experience I have ever had.”

The call to shoot for Li-Ning came unexpectedly. As Qihang recalls, director Di Chen, known to the English-speaking world as Stan, “just called me when I was on subway then and told me that he had checked some other guys' resumes and showreels, and appreciated my shooting style.” This straightforward introduction led to a prep period involving a period of creative negotiation that will be familiar to crews worldwide. “At the very beginning, the client wanted to get things absolutely clean, natural and beautiful, like many other traditional commercials. But Stan and I preferred a style that was more cool and stylish, like Nike's some commercials with fast cut, low-key lighting and diverse camera movements. Both of us wanted to get some something that is very cool but natural like Nike's or Adidas'.”

The matter was resolved by example. “We gave them some great sport commercials as visual references,” Qihang says, citing the commercials Don’t Run. Race. directed by Maik Schuster and Max Paschke, and Run it directed by Anderson Wright, Todd Martin and Evan Metzold. “We said that we’d make it look more natural during shooting as well as postproduction, and the clients approved our proposal.” There is, Qihang feels, sometimes a leaning toward the traditional in China. “Maybe you can call it compromising, but in China many clients' aesthetic are still so traditional and conservative. Fortunately, Li-Ning was very good.”

Qihang likes to keep an open mind about cameras: “When it comes to shooting films, especially indie films, I'm usually more open to diverse cameras. Maybe that has been often been due to the budget, but I would rather try different styles... in the digital age, choosing a camera is like choosing a type of film stock. Venice is the one I most want to try, I think it has all of best features and functions which a great digital camera must have and it's image style is special and so different from Alexa.” In the end, though, the commercial was shot on Alexa Mini with Zeiss Supreme Primes, a lightweight choice that would later prove useful. “I was so familiar with the camera after using it frequently in most of my previous commercial jobs… one of my favorite things on the Mini is the internal ND filter function, which is very convenient.”

The choice of Chengdu, Qihang recalls, turned out to be a good one. “We didn't find any location we were not favorable toward. The director, producer and production designer chose some best locations based on Stan's references before I arrived at the city. They took pictures and I kept in touch online, and that was how we finished the first round of scouting. So our task then was just choosing the best one of each selected scenes when I assembled with guys, which was the second round. The final round is the day before shooting. Stan and I checked again, made our decision, passed it to the producer, and everything was ready to run.”

Having made the decision to rely so very much on locations, director and cinematographer liaised closely. “We’d kept in touch through phone calls frequently to discuss the overall style, lighting, camera movement and color tone of the video. And we wanted to make it more dynamic, hence during shot list stage as well as storyboard, we designed diverse camera movements mixing handheld camera, Ronin2 gimbal and dolly. When we were scouting location in August, we met the hottest days in Chengdu. It was torturing us, but we felt sunshine was the right thing for the work.”

Chengdu’s climate, though, averages more than ten days of rain every month in the summer, and the clear skies wouldn’t last. “Perhaps you can’t feel the tension in our pre-production through what I’m saying now. But we were like ants on a hotpot, a Chinese old saying. It constantly changed between sunny and cloudy in the shooting days, so we had to be completely ruled by weather.” Given the need to shoot all a number of locations quickly, the production needed to travel light. “For Li-Ning, most of it were outdoor scenes since running was the main point of the video and happened in daylight. We had almost shot every time of day as you could see in the video, from dawn to night.”

“Although we had to be ruled by weather and daylight, I used some HMIs, the Arri M90 and M40 to add more key light to characters. I used polystyrene bounces, muslin and black flags to give some fill light and create contrast. In the evening rooftop scene, which was our wrap scene, I used two led lights to light the actress, one for key light to light the actress's face, and the another reflected for fill light to control contrast. Just because they are small set-ups compared to my other commercials doesn't mean I should or could ease my nerve.”

The commercial was edited in Chengdu then graded in Beijing by colorist Mo Zhou, a film school classmate of Qihang’s, in Resolve. “We worked together all along, although in different cities, making our ideas come true. When Stan eventually said he’d achieved a fantastic result, I thought all our efforts were worthwhile.” Perhaps the greatest vote of confidence in any creative freelancer, however, is to be hired again, which is exactly what happened when director and DP later collaborated on a commercial titled – in rough translation – Life is the Sports Ground for client TMall.

Keen observers will note that practically none of the setups in either commercial are on tripod or dolly, and Qihang is keen to credit the work of his two camera operators. “Chen Jingge and Enkdureng worked with me on the Li-Ning and TMall productions respectively. They are really excellent operators and good partners. In these two pieces we barely had any stable shots on tripod. They had to hold the heavy gimbal and handhold the camera almost all the time and stay on stand-by for the whole exhausting working day. Without their help, I could not have finished.”

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