We had the good fortune of connecting with Yuelin Zhao and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Yuelin, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I just started to professionally step into the film world as a production designer this year, and that probably has given you enough clues of how risky my career will be. But there have been a lot of back and forth before I am really comfortable taking risks. If you are from an Asian family like I do, you know how your parents would always want you to have a stable life and a steady income. Indeed, it feels nice to be “safe” – you enjoy a cup of coffee before going to work from 9 am – 5 pm, and you could always spend a nice weekend to hang out with your family. But working as a film fellow is completely different. Sometimes you are called at 5 am every day and you lost your entire weekend building a set, and of course, there are days where you overwork yourself for 19 hours for a passion project. I was afraid of taking risks for a long time after graduation. Maybe the quarantine made me feel too safe in my shelter – I thought I was fine and did not want to step out of my comfort zone. The result is just that I have learned nothing in these three months after graduation, and I was completely out of energy doing anything. There was also a moment that I thought maybe it was a huge mistake that I chose to be a filmmaker. But really, taking risks is really not as bad as I thought before, and it is in fact very satisfying. I was very lucky enough to meet some very encouraging directors and I was able to design something I could not imagine myself accomplishing. I realized that I could never learn or become better at what I am doing without taking any risks. I am also too young to be afraid of losing anything. It is ideal to do something you love without any risks, but you should always prepare to take risky tasks to polish yourself into a better human being. Taking risks, especially at this special period of time, makes me feel that I am still alive, and there is still a lot that I am not worried about losing.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I just launched my professional career as a film production designer this year in June after graduating from USC School of Cinematic Arts. For those of you who don’t know, our job is designing the world in films. We design the color palette, create or recreate the world, and make sure that everything you see on screen is visually pleasing and convincing. I am still new to the industry and consider myself far from being successful. But I have always been lucky enough to work with great directors who let me go wild with my visions. It was definitely not easy to start with my first short film – I never learned how to draw or systematically learned about colors, and I have zero knowledge about architecture. Director would hardly trust someone like me, who has no portfolio at all. I was very thankful that Elaine, the director of Where Dreams Rest, trusted my vision and let me “paint” her film freely. More people started to reach out to me and invite me to design their films after that. I have designed more than 15 films, commercials, music videos, and web series since then – I have shaped myself into a better designer in the past two years. There is honestly nothing too late to learn. Thanks to the technology of the 21st century, I don’t think there is anything I couldn’t learn from Google or YouTube. I have been collecting photobooks and learning about drafting since then. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that there is no shortcut, and there is no way of getting proficient at anything right away. A good production designer needs to learn about the world thoroughly. The architectural style of a certain period, the interior decoration of a certain culture, the pattern on fabrics, and much more – their artistic choice needs to be very precise to create a world on screen. That is why I need time to sit down, read books, travel, and take pictures of my surroundings. Every designer can be good at software, but a good designer takes his/her time to observe.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
1. Peter Lai’s Japanese Cultural Village If you are a fan of Japanese culture or interested in collecting Asian pottery or furniture, this is a place you would hate to miss in Los Angeles. It is located near Little Tokyo, hidden on the second floor of a very small building on Seaton Street. I scheduled a visit and treasure hunt with my friends, and Peter was very responsive and welcoming. I was shocked by the first glance of it – this is a heaven for interior designers and film production designers. When I stepped in there, my attention was immediately attracted to all those delicate Geisha dolls in glass boxes next to the entrance. It feels like I traveled from Los Angeles to Tokyo in one second. Here is the detailed article that I wrote about it: https://www.newsbreak.com/news/2096489098977/peter-lais-japanese-cultural-village-the-hidden-gem-you-should-not-miss-in-downtown-los-angeles 2. Warner Brother Property Warehouse This is the heaven for production designers and vintage collection lovers. There are all kinds of showrooms in their first floors for you to check out their scenic designs. You could even find the exact same prop chair from Game of Thrones. 3. LA river great place to go if you are interested in taking some pictures with post-apocalyptic feelings because the river is all dried up. Each section of the LA river looks a little different from each other – it is a great place to get some inspiration for your script.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I want to dedicate my shoutout to my partner-in-crime, Mengqing Yuan, who has been accomplishing all sorts of art department tasks with me for more than a year. We met each other on a student short film and I could not find a better, more talented, and hardworking partner than her. We have struggled together about our career after graduation and we have always brought each other onboard whenever there is a new project. We work perfectly together as a team. There is also a Japanese novel called “Run with the Wind” that really encouraged me at my downtimes. There is also an animation series of it. The story is about a bunch of strangers gathering together to win a National Marathon Competition. I was so encouraged by it after reading and realized that there is no such challenge that we cannot overcome.
Di Wei, Xizi Hua, Riley Lynch