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Interview with DoP Alan Yap on working with Royston Tan for 12 Lotus

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Mathias Ortmann (MO): Thank you Alan, for this interview! First of all, let me give you my congratulations on this fine achievement, yours also, that is the film 12 Lotus, for which you provided the significant contribution of your diligent camera work as director of photography.

alan01.jpgTry to describe, in just a few words if you like, your character as a private and/or as a professional person. What kind of a person are you?

Alan Yap (AY): What shall I say, I’m easy-going. In my work, if my crew lives up to it, then I’m happy. Ya, I’m a simple guy.

MO: How did you get to work with Royston Tan, first on After The Rain and now 12 Lotus?

AY: Basically, I knew Royston for quite some time. Then, I was in Shanghai for a couple of years and he became a director even before I moved on to become a DP. And then, to do After The Rain, it was a producer we both know, who linked me up with Royston again for that project. And we’ve worked on a number of commercials since then, and now 12 Lotus.

MO: How would you describe the scale of the production, 12 Lotus?

AY: I think in terms of the production team and crew it is the best production we’ve ever had in Singapore. We’ve worked with the better people in every department, some of those, who’ve been pioneers in their field, who worked as gaffers and after 20 years on they still doing this, working as gaffers and in Light. And they bring the experience, so the skill level is very good in all the crew. On set everybody knows what they are doing, and I think it worked out fine. It was quite a big production, but we had to deal with huge time constraints, which put a lot of pressure on all of us.

MO: What was the highest number of takes needed? How much footage have you got in all?

AY: Well, we did 20 takes and over for some shots, the close-up shots crying would require us to do it many times and then, when we had to go back from a sad scene and crying back to happy mood, that took a lot of time too. Also, we had to take out some shots, like on landscapes and a sunset. The sponsors said it wasn’t needed and we had to keep with the time that we had, so we dropped some of that.

MO: What was the most difficult part or scene to shoot for this movie?

AY: The most difficult was the dancing scenes, all the scenes with dance in them and choreography. How to shoot and how to light them, that was tough, and also how to link them up and go back to an interior. In those scenes we often had to try our shooting with programmed lights and changing backgrounds, so that was difficult to do. The one scene when they are dancing Tango was hard to do, hard to shoot and hard to light because it was such a small space to light. But then, I think it is also difficult to dance Tango. The cast trained two weeks for that, and we also managed and I am happy with the result!

MO: How is working under the direction of Royston Tan? What was the overall atmosphere on set like?

AY: Oh, the atmosphere was fine. Royston is a really easy person to work with, he doesn’t stress his crew. It was just that every head of department had their stuff to do and to solve all their own problems. And only when something would go wrong, then he would come in to say how he wanted it. The good thing about working with Royston is that he gives you a lot of freedom. He gives you the freedom to work it out and allows you to come up with your own solutions. It is very individual. Royston is a very confident director who knows what he wants. Mostly, it is like aiming for the first take and then move on. It is not just from After The Rain, but because we are the same age that we understand each other very well. I know what he wants and we don’t really talk on set. With me it would only be that he says ‘Let’s watch this for a reference!’ and then we modify to develop our own style.

MO: Can you please describe to us the process of how the characters were established during production of the film? How was the communication going, especially between director and actors?

alan02.jpgAY: Yes, it was very intense and the actors and the director, they talk a lot. I don’t know what he would say to them, but they just sit together and talk through the scene. Even on an off day, when their part would not be up for shoot, the actors would come by and see how it goes and they would talk about that day, so they know about what is on. The actors would always hang around and they were all very close. Royston, he always wants to add on the emotions, and in a scene where the actor has to cry, then we all just wait while Royston talks to them and then, in the end, when we do the take, they cry. I guess that’s just part of the magic. Ya, that’s the touch of the director.

MO: How were the shots developed on a practical level? Can you give us some behind-the-scenes impression of the directorial/cinematographic process in framing those intriguing images? What was your involvement in scene composition?

AY: First we would go to a location and go through the scene as Royston has it in mind, to see how the actors move and where everybody would be. Then I determine where the camera dollies to and how to lay my tracks. Royston doesn’t care about movements, just so as to get the shots that he wants. In laying the tracks to move in a shot, we would go for curve tracks mostly. We take a curve track and put it together with a straight track to give us the effect that we want, to make it interesting and something new. We always try to give in something new to develop our own style.

MO: How much of it was already given and readily outlined in the actual script, i.e. the sections you would have been shown in advance, before shooting? How much was adapted on set?

AY: Royston talks it over with the AD and with me, or just the AD and later the AD gets back in touch with me, and each day he would brief us on what’s ahead and then we start the set-up. But a lot of the effort really is in the Arts Department and all the props to do the setting, which takes a lot of time.

MO: The film covers half a life span, 20 years plus, 30 years even. Can you highlight to us the specific challenges you had to face in trying to convincingly cover two/three distinctly different time sets?

AY: Yes, there’s different time sets but most of that is done by the Arts Department on location, all the era stuff, they did a lot of research on that and the 60s to make it look right. There is all the propping stuff, like wardrobe and such, and also the aging down of the house. That was done in two days. On my part, I just had to change the colour temperature for an era, to tune it, and I also twitch the colour as needed.

MO: The part in the Kampong setting is strikingly beautiful, I think. How did you go about capturing this atmosphere, in terms of lighting and angles etc.?

AY: It is a real setting. To get it, we had to choose the right time to film and before every shoot I would smoke up the whole area and we use a lot of light, backlights, the strongest that we had, and always hard light, nothing soft, to bring out more detail. I wanted the maximum of contrast that I could get and push it onto HD. So I never used toplight, but we would only shoot in morning or evening light. Then in the daytime, we would switch to do an interior. Also, I used no headlight but the very strong lights to highlight all the set, to make it look more filmic. And I overexpose a lot of things, which then gives me a lot of over-white, which the gaffer doesn’t really like; but I would correct that over TC* later. It was my idea and so I go for it. And I think the outcome really looks nice and I’m confident with it.

MO: There are some very intense moments in the film that feature physical abuse, the caning scene for one, and the fights of course. How did you shoot those?

AY: Ya, the caning, definitely. The girl, Li Bao En, she wears hardly any protection for that scene as we couldn’t give her a huge padding or something; that would have made her look like a hunchback. So it is almost like it was a real caning. It must have been a true ordeal for her. I think she is a brave girl. And the fighting scene was very intense. So, nobody on set said a word, no smiles or jokes, nothing, because we all knew that there wasn’t any room for screw-ups, that we can do only a few takes of this one.

MO: Now, to your work as DoP in general: Would you say that you have a characteristic style that you think is recognizably your own, like your cinematographic handwriting? If so, what is it?

AY: Well, I like to do handheld work, like we did in this production where we didn’t have the money for a steadicam. The framing is very individual. I do my homework when I go over the settings and I always have my reason for why I do what I do. I’m still young and new, and I still search for a way to do things. But right now, I wouldn’t say I have my own style yet. I love to try new things, make weird stuff and be open to new things. I talk to my gaffer and also would be open to take a suggestion from him if he has an idea. I always go with an open heart when I go on set. But generally, the handheld gives me freedom, it makes me feel more for the visual.

alan03.jpgMO: Can you please explain to us your own creative input in 12 Lotus? How much of the final outcome would you be comfortable with saying is original camera work as done by Alan Yap?

AY: I’m comfortable with the outcome. I only regret that I didn’t insist on more time for the shooting. We had only 22 days to shoot. Also, I wished, I had more experience with doing the TC* to have more control over the colours, and also the printing, for adjusting the colouring for the prints. You should see on the DVD, which will be rendered out straight from HD, that the colour saturation is different from some of what you have seen in the prints in cinemas. But when the DVD is out, it will give you the colour scheme in its true form, is what I wanted.

MO: What were your own ambitions/objectives for this movie? Have they been met?

AY: Not 100%, I would say, 70%. If I were given a second chance, I would use more equipment, and more money. With a bigger budget and more time, I think, we could have done it better, but I always try to do my best work. We are still improving, as an industry in Singapore, and we are still not where Hollywood is in terms of production. There are always things you want to improve on, to do better. But give us more time and we will improve. The film, 12 Lotus, I think is asking more of the audience than some of the others.

MO: So, will you continue working with Royston Tan in the future? Are there any concrete projects in the pipeline already?

AY: No projects, not really. We have been doing commercials a lot, though. But yes, I would love to work with him again.

Once again, my thanks for taking the time despite your very busy schedule; appreciate it!

* TC: telecine = transfer/colour process in postproduction, telecine allows for multiple ways of manipulating or correcting an image during film-to-data conversion

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