Cinematographer Nan Li: Wielding the Lens for Social Perspective

Nan assessing a shot
Nan assessing a shot

As powerful as words can be, they pale in comparison to what images can convey. Regardless of our language, our history, our social standing, we can be deeply moved by the experiences of others through the vehicle of film. Cinematographer Nan Li is a master of this but just as importantly, he understands that filmmakers themselves have more than profound technical skill to enable them to create such art; they have their own personal connection to a story that can amplify their work. More often than not, the success of a film lies upon who is telling the story rather than simply the story itself. While it takes an army of professionals to create the productions that entertain the public, Mr. Li’s work as a DP on projects such as Boogie Rage and the upcoming We Pray Too testify to both the technical prowess and unique vantage that continues to make him one of the most valued filmmakers in present day Hollywood.

DP Nan Li on location

Director Luc Ke Lu envisioned Boogie Rage as a dark and gritty story about friendship, dance, and a test of the human spirit. To manifest this, Luc knew for certain that the cinematographer who would be able to manifest this vision on screen would need to have a deep and instinctual understanding of rhythm and music in addition to immense creativity behind the camera. The rhythm of the characters and the rhythm of the story would move in tandem as one. The rhythm of the camera movement had to follow the characters and the rhythm of the characters had to match the story. Trained in piano and guitar until he altered his path towards expression as a DP, Nan Li was the ideal match for Boogie Rage. In addition to his skill behind the camera, Mr. Li brought important insight that altered the visual tone of this film. Describing the influence he brought to this film, Nan divulges, “Luc initially was trying to approach a dark, dirty, and underground look since dancing is an underground culture like graffiti and hip-hop. However, I had a different opinion. This story is about a dancer growing up. We have the music and dancing element because it is a story about a dancer but this is his story. This is not a story about music. His life is full of hope, happiness, and love. Why shouldn’t we make it clean, bright, and full of color? We should present the character’s world, not what we see. No matter how dark the culture is, as long as the protagonist sees a colorful and hopeful world, we should present and establish the same world as he sees it to the audience. I convinced Luc and we locked on this visual approach.” Boogie Rage is an epic story, vibrant and celebratory while still maintaining a sense of struggle that the director intended. Perhaps more profound than in any other scene is the influence of the film’s DP during the dance competition near the end of the film. In what might seem like a counterintuitive approach, Nan created a design that focused less on dance aerobatics and more on the emotional turmoil of Eddie Eskridge (of the Oscar Nominated Eddie Murphy film Coming to America and Primetime Emmy Nominated Series Kenan) when competing against his friend Trestin George (of Cannes Film Festival/Image Award/ and AFI Award Winning film Fuitville Station starring Michael B. Jordan and Ocatavia Spencer). Mr. Li describes, “The most important message we were delivering to the audience was that he was not following the music to dance but that he was pursuing his heart. He is not battling for the trophy. He is fighting for himself. So I designed a camera movement which was a circle. The camera moved around him, circle after circle, closer and closer. I wanted the audience to see his face during the battle, not his fancy dancing. We were trying to make the audience disappear.” Nan’s work was heralded by the film community for its excellence with a Best Cinematography Awards from WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival. 

Known for his constant pursuit of new projects that challenge his abilities, Nan Li has accepted the DP position for the upcoming documentary film We Pray Too by director Yonghong Liu (of the Huabiao Film Award Winning, Berlin International Film Festival and Tokyo International Film Festival Nominated River Road). These two filmmakers will explore the volatile and sometimes dangerous lifestyle of Chinese Christians who are unable to practice their faith in their homeland and have decided to pursue it in America. The cinematographer communicates, “Realism is the only goal. We want to reflect on the actual situation of the Chinese Christian community. What have they gone through? Why did they come to the United States? How did they develop? What are their inner beliefs? What are they pursuing? Language cannot answer these questions. This is not an interview. I must use visual language to answer these questions. A documentary is different from a Narrative. Making flattering images is encouraged, but it is not the point.”

Writer: Arlen Gann

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