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TNC Archive 2018

FAN Chao
Director of Photography
World Premiere
Originally published during the 68th Berlinale Film Festival

Worlds really do not, and can not, do justice to the epic masterpiece An Elephant Sitting Still. The scale, scope and beauty that this film is wild, intense and perhaps should not work but it does. After the first few frames of this film director HU Bo's establishes his intentions and the audience is gripped and on for the ride. 


Ahead of the World Premiere at Berlinale we spoke with cinematographer FAN Chao about her experiences on this film.


An Elephant Sitting Still had it's World Premiere at the 2018 Berlinale, what does it mean to have this film part of the festival?


Having its premiere at Berlinale is undoubtedly an affirmation of the film. Moreover, it affirms the director’s intransigence and his insistence on this four-hour cut. For us, it’s quite encouraging. It’s the power of film.


Can you tell me a little bit about An Elephant Sitting Still, how did you get involved in the project?


The director and I had been partners since we were film school students. When he came to me saying he’s gonna film the first feature, I said yes without reading the script.


What was it about HU Bo's screenplay that interested you so much as a DOP?


HU Bo’s writing and audiovisual language in filmmaking were already very imaginative during school time. His descriptions on feelings and atmosphere were quite delicate, which provided great space and a large range of possibilities for the moving image.


"When it comes to something commercial, I’d consider more on lighting."

When you were making the film did you imagine that it would end up running at 4 hours?


What we set up was one shot per scene which did not leave much space for editing, so that the length of the film could be estimated.


How important was the collaborative process between you and HU Bo during the making of An Elephant Sitting Still?


The director and I had worked seven times together in the last six years, therefore I could quickly get what he wanted for the pace of camera movement and the control of the tone of the image.


What were some of the challenges you faced creating the look you wanted?


We wanted a gloomy and frosty tone with fog and haze, and the climate of the location was always like that. However, during our shooting, the weather turned out to be nice and shiny almost every day. We got up at 3 to 4 a.m. before dawn doing rehearsals for mise-en-scène, started shooting at around 6 a.m. and stopped before sunrise. In the afternoon we started shooting again. Very tight time of daily work.

What was the most difficult scene for you to film?


Although we used Alexa Mini, the chance of errors in camera movement was quite high due to the very tiny indoor space, especially in the scene of Ling (the high school girl character) jumping out of the window, which was shot with several times of camera relay. Also one of the last scenes at the train station was a one-take-only shot. It was a really long take and we had no more than 20 minutes shooting the scene before sunset (we don’t want magic hour light).


Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?


Not really. It depends on the script and the cooperation with the director. I was not paid for An Elephant though, still quite excited, involved and dedicated indeed.

What was the first film you made?


I’ve worked on some Chinese Netflix movies and shoot commercials more. This is the first arthouse film.


How much has your approach to filmmaking changed since your first film?


I feel like that it is the theme that determines the method. As for the realistic long takes in An Elephant, I did not attempt to show the light and shadow in a delicate way. When it comes to something commercial, I’d consider more on lighting. It differs.


Do you have any advice you would offer any up and coming cinematographers? 


I’m a young cinematographer myself and I’m trying and learning as well. For me, I try to feel with my heart and soul tenderly. The more you feel, the stronger your expression could be.


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this An Elephant Sitting Still?


The artwork is divergent. I hope it could have a different influence on people. What’s more, I hope the warmth of the little weak sparks could be left other than the depressed and painful feeling the film seems to have.

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