Cinematographer, Director, and Photographer Rain Li talks filmmaking and gives expert advice every Creative must hear
Stunning, sexy, smart, talented and successful are just a few of the words we can associate with cinematographer Rain Li. Her work in the film industry is critically acclaimed; she has collaborated with legendary Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle on numerous films and has worked with renowned directors such as movie Hipster King Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant (on Paranoid Park which received a Special 60th Anniversary Prize at the Cannes Film Festival).
Rain was born and raised in Beijing and it was her love of films as a teenager that led to her first job working as a light technician on film sets. Just a few months later at 16, she moved to the camera department and by 26, Rain had already shot twenty five short films, ten feature films, numerous commercials, music videos, in addition to art, fashion and installation projects.
In addition to being a cinematographer, Rain is also a director, photographer and installation artist with projects that bridge the gap between her mediums. Living mainly between Beijing and London, overall she boasts a lifestyle that can only be described as ‘jet set,’ rarely in one city more than a few days.
Rain was voted one of the 10 Best Cinematographers of The Year in 2007 by Variety Magazine and received a ‘Best Cinematography’ award from”Boston Film Critics in 2009.
The Hollywood Reporter also featured her as one of the most talented cinematographers of the next generation.
From music videos and features films to commercials and fashion films, Rain with her “reality vs surrealism” style, has made a name for herself with her unique and visionary approach.
In part 1 of Creative Mapping’s interview with Rain, she shares her experiences of working with designers Dries Van Noten and Phillip Lim and Dove, tells us how she approaches her work, and gives expert advice that every Creative both within and outside of the film industry should hear.
Photography copyright: © Rain Li, © Phillip Lim, © Lane Crawfords, © After Dark, © Dries Van Noten, © Chiling Lin. All rights reserved 2014.
Dries Van Noten Fashion Installation – Rain Li
“I went to [film school] because I didn’t know how else to get into film making. I think that filmmaking is about making the film and not going to university. I don’t regret it but I think I would advise people not to do it.”– Rain Li
CM: Where did your passion for cinematography and photography come from?
Rain: A few other people have asked me that before, and it almost sounds cliché but it feels like it comes from the life I’ve been leading ever since I was a kid, I feel the experience I’ve had leaving China and the period I had in my life living in England, and being a kid and everything to do with that, and of course it has to do with my love and my interest in lighting, I think it all started from there.
CM: Did you study at film school?
R: I studied at the film school called Falmouth University. I think I went there because I didn’t know how else to get into film making. I think that filmmaking is about making the film and not going to university. I don’t regret it but I think I would advise people not to do it.
CM: Describe your creative processes for your work with Dries Van Noten, Phillip Lim and Dove?
R: I did the Dries van Noten project in 2005 or 2006, and I did Phillip Lim in 2010 and Dove in 2011 so it has extended through a very long period of time. With Dries, it was very early on, with fashion film only starting to be thought about by fashion designers, and I think with Dries being such an amazing visual artist, he just didn’t have a brief, I think the whole brief was just “I want to do something beautiful.” That was the brief from the beginning to the end, and I was just lucky enough to be on board, and he just said to do whatever you want to do. You have to understand the final product, and whether the product will be screened as in a theatre or tv or will be made for the internet, you have to make a very different product for different audiences.
With Phillip Lim, I was very very lucky to be chosen as one of the artists to promote the brand in China, as his first master branding was a collaboration with artists and with Lane Crawford. It was fun because, once again the only brief I had was that they have to wear this one particular outfit, that was it, and the second part of the brief was along the lines of what defines the Phillip Lim girl, so I had to research what kind of woman he designs for.
As for Dove, it was the first project I directed that had an advertising agency involved. It was a very big advertizing agency so the work process was a little bit different, but they just gave me a brief treatment. I got their point [of view], but I didn’t like it. I could choose to either take that point [of view] and use it, or change it entirely. Basically I just ditched the whole thing… I trashed it, and created a whole new treatment and script and fingers crossed.
“In term of creative blocks, I have those all the time. I think it is a very important part of the creative process. You never know what you want and you’re always stuck” – Rain Li
CM: Is there a minimum budget required for you to become involved with a project?
R: There is definitely a minimum budget. It doesn’t have anything to do with my fee or anyone else’s fee, it has to do with guaranteeing the quality of the art work. Because you could have amazing ideas, but no money to deliver it, or you compromise it because you don’t have enough money and that is not a great or ideal situation.
CM: What equipment do you prefer to work with?
R: I shoot for films and for films cameras, every camera is exactly the same, it almost does the job for you. I am not a big fan of digital filmaking, but I have been doing a lot of them in the past three years. My favorite camera is the new ARRI HD camera called Alexa, it’s just so good, so beautiful, but more importantly it has to do with the lenses, which is why for the first time in my life I invested in a bunch of cooke lenses that are my favorite lenses on the planet, and I just want to travel with them all the time.
CM: What is your philosophy towards lighting?
R: I’m interested in lighting because it sets the whole mood for a story, and I think that is the most important thing, and as a cinematographer, that’s what you do, and as a director you set your mood by lighting as well. Sometimes the camera doesn’t have to move, and of course I love movement, but if I had to choose between light and camera, I think lighting is definitely more important. I think my ideal type of lighting is minimal lighting, using as much natural light as possible, and set a simple mood where you can add more in later.
CM: Do you encounter creative blocks?
R: In term of creative blocks, I have those all the time. I think it is a very important part of the creative process. You never know what you want and you’re always stuck. For example, I am experiencing a terrible one right now about a feature film. I had it all in my head and when the time came to put it down on paper… it has taken four years to get it down on paper, and I think each block you have, you ultimately go past that block and you continue writing it, but a lot of it had to do with what the film was about; it was about something I had experienced when I was a child, and a part of a memory was lost and a part of the memory was so vivid I didn’t want to face it.
I think filmmaking has to do with very personal projects, even if it isn’t a personal project like the Dove project; they’re not personal, but they definitely have my personal signature in them and when it gets personal, you’re always going to get blocks.
CM: What is your vision for the future of film?
R: I believe that with all forms of art whether you call it feature film or fashion film or art or documentary film, they are all going to come together. Documentary film now is more and more like a drama type documentary, film now is trying to replicate reality and fashion wants to do film and narratives and everybody wants to create stories, and I think that’s sort of where it connects with the art format. And I think that art house films don’t exist anymore, I think commercial film–proper commercial films–are trying to incorporate art house films. Everybody is trying to collaborate with each other or people who come from different fields and are trying to be experimental with their formats and genres they’re not really familiar with, and I think it’s a good thing, very exciting.