Mr. Thisforthat’s Chaochen Li, Master of the Film’s Frightening Visual Tone

Covid 19 threw Hollywood and the global film industry for a loop. From hundred-million-dollar blockbusters to acclaimed indie productions, all found themselves in limbo. This applies to the film Mr. Thisforthat but that’s not where the story of this production ends. Completed right as the world entered lockdown, this film’s festival run was massively curtailed. However, the response to the film was still so resounding (as evidenced at the Fantasia online film festival and others) that it is now in development for a feature film version. There’s a number of frightening twists in the storyline, all of which were maximized through the artistry of cinematographer Chaochen Li. Director Thomas Mendolia and Chaochen created an elaborate design and visual language for this frightening film which stood out prominently among so many other well-made films of the past year. The accolades which the short version of Mr. Thisforthat has received are due to its very unique tone; one which was sparked at the outset as the director and DP established a foundation that comes from an atypical point. Chaochen communicates, “Although cinematographers are often responsible for the visuals of a film, I actually like to work with directors who have specific ideas about how the film should ‘look.’ Thomas had a clear vision, and more importantly, he was very good at conveying it. Instead of giving a film reference, he told me to play Limbo, a dark themed puzzle-platform game; listen to ‘Lore’, a podcast about horror stories; and look at the photography works of Gregory Crewdson. All of these gave me a sense of what emotion he wants to provoke. It’s very important for me because it not only gave me a blueprint but also the creative freedom to explore more and find a unique look for the film.” 

  Just as eclectic as the story itself is the impressive cast starring in Mr. Thisfor that. In addition to Ivy George (of HBO’s Big Little Lies, winner of eight Primetime Emmys) in the central role as Sarah, it includes Bowie Bundlie (of Amazon’s Primetime Emmy Nominated series Homecoming), Chad Steers (of Hulu’s Primetime Emmy Nominated The Mindy Project), Lynn Downey (of CBS’s triple Primetime Emmy Nominated series SWAT), Brian Palatucci (of the Sopranos, winner of 21 Primetime Emmys), and more. In the tone of a modern dark fairytale ala the “Brothers Grimm”, this film is about greed and the cost it exacts. Sarah is a young girl who lives with her single mother and a brother. In addition to the reuniting of her father with the family, Sarah wants the material and emotional accoutrements of most girls her age. A mysterious and dark character called Mr. Thisforthat offers to deliver these desires but they will each come at a price. This seems fairly inconsequential at first but as her request become more sizable, the bartering becomes lethal. If the wage for a new game console is her pet, what will the price be for returning an absentee father?

  So much of what makes a film achieve the tone to which it aspires is the manner in which the story is told. The visual language of a film is particularly powerful in this aspect and Chaochen Li is highly regarded for his ability to wield a subtle touch as a cinematographer. Complemented by his creativity in this film, the resulting aesthetics are elevated Mr. Thisforthat to its wonderfully disturbing final form. This includes tactics such as using a 135mm lens to achieve the proper framing and spatial compression to juxtapose an oil rig and a children’s school to hint at the ominous love of money and threat to children. For one scene where we see Sarah in a classroom next to a long hallway in which an unseen figure is a proxy for the camera’s perspective, Mr. Li’s choice of an anamorphic lens creates a barrel distortion that makes this mundane setting seem bizarre, even creepy. Perhaps the most powerful scene of the film is near the end in which we see Sarah waiting for her father. The striking visual style is the product of Chaochen utilizing a “wrong makes right” strategy. He explains, “To show Sarah’s loneliness and the weirdness of this new world, we decided to go for a more extreme framing. This is probably my favorite frame of this film because it was a bold choice that ended up being very effective. I wanted to have a lot of negative space, which in this case, is the ground. Mr.Thisforthat comes from a mysterious underground world and he’s trying to drag Sarah down. I opened the aperture all the way up, which is not recommended because I will lose the sharpness. The aberration also becomes more noticeable and the bokeh a muddier look. However, all the imperfections actually helped us achieve our objective — to create a chaotic and unbalanced feel for this world.” 

  Chaochen’s work on Mr. Thisforthat was lauded by his peers as proven by the fact that the film was nominated for the ASC Heritage Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, the most esteemed organization for cinematographers around the world. Mr. Li enthusiastically relates, “It certainly reinforced my confidence that the film would be recognized by this organization. The ceremony gave me a chance to talk with many of the other DPs whose work I have admired for some time.” 

Writer: Coleman Haan

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