Cinematographer Zhihan Zhang sheds light on important issues with his work

Growing up in China, Zhihan Zhang was always enthralled by the arts. In his youth, he wanted to be a painter, loving the idea of creating beautiful images for the masses. However, as he grew and explored the arts, he found his interest in painting shift to photography. Once he began understanding the craft, he knew that he was destined to become a cinematographer, combining those innate artistic skills with filmmaking to achieve what he always wanted: creating beautiful images for the world.

Being a cinematographer, for Zhang, is similar to being a painter, but instead of using watercolors and acrylics, he uses lights and shadows to create a stunning picture. His beautiful work can be seen in a variety of successful projects, from fashion films D-Express and The Lady In White for NOWNESS to the popular television series Behind the Spotlight, and many more.

Zhang also is aware of the importance of using film to shed light on pressing issues and to educate his audience rather than simply entertain, taking on projects that he believes are meaningful. Such a project is the film Them, a documentary from a mother’s perspective, featuring a story of her child diagnosed with Autism and how she takes care of her. In the film, Zhang and his team also follow the organization, Professional Child Development Association, which is a program that provides therapy services to children diagnosed with Autism, to help the program to get more attention from society and let more families who have the same situation get help from the program.

Them was entered into the 2017 Big Heart Small Film competition arranged by Alibaba Pictures Group Limited and the Pasadena Community Foundation. There were nine finalists that created films to raise awareness of local non-profit organizations in the Pasadena community and the Greater Los Angeles area. It was announced that each of the nine non-profits received a $2,500 grant from the Pasadena Community Foundation. The event raised $200,000, which will be used to support the Pasadena Community Foundation’s grant-making programs for Pasadena and Los Angeles area non-profit organizations.

The competition was judged by a group of prominent entertainment industry leaders including directors, Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Jurassic Park); John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder); and D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye); producer, Don Hahn (Beauty & the Beast); actor and entrepreneur, Billy Zane (Titanic); President, Alibaba Pictures Group Limited, Wei Zhang; Head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program, Denise Mann; Chairman and CEO of East West Bank, Dominic Ng. They announced the four winners of the competition, with Them taking home the Bronze Prize.

“It’s good to let the public understand the situation of those children suffering from the condition. The family got attention and assistance. Also, the film let the other families suffering know that there is a program like PCDA that can help their children with the same condition,” said Zhang.

As Them is a documentary, cinematography is the very important part of the entire production. Zhang had to capture authentic and heartfelt moments as they happened, as there is no opportunity to simply say “cut” and try again. He had to use his expertise to decide what moments would touch audiences. To do this, he heavily researched the family and the organization to truly understand the story and messages they wanted to convey. He interacted with the family for a long time before production actually began, pre-visualizing shots with the director and improvising shots during shooting to capture the best moments.

“The shooting experience of this project is like communicating with the children. I found they are not the ones with conditions, they are just unique and talented individuals. The more I could get into their inner world, I understood that they can see the world differently,” Zhang concluded. “Film is the only media that really unfolds the status and moments of these children. I poured all my craft and skills into this film to create a moody and realistic look, which draws the audience's attention to those children diagnosed with autism. During the screening, I could feel that the audience really had a connection with the film. I am so happy with all our work on this project.”

By Annabelle Lee
July 23rd, 2019

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