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Art Etc...
3 years ago
3 years ago
Portrait of a nomad film maker – Brandon Li
Portrait of a nomad film maker – Brandon Li


Brandon is a gifted US film maker, previously featured at TravelnRavel with his impressive short `Tokyo Roar'.

Past projects include the successful capture of an atmospheric India, the frenetic energy of Japan and the haunting neglect of a factory ruin.

A 30-something former MTV producer, Brandon is – by his own definition – a shooter, editor, elephant enthusiast and nomad. He lived in Missouri until aged 18, making short films with friends and dreaming of being a filmmaker.

Accepted at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, there he learned traditional filmmaking. Upon graduating, he worked for MTV on `True Life’; a TV window into the lives, hopes and dreams of young Americans.

According to Brandon, this is where he learned the art of documentary-style film making, becoming more drawn to the “real stuff”, traveling to a different city every 2-weeks for 8-years straight.


***INTERVIEW with TravelnRavel’s Ian Cochrane.

TnR – Welcome Brandon, and thanks for the opportunity to have a chat.

BL – Thanks! Glad to be talking to you.

TnR – Firstly I guess, about your CV:  Tell us about the elephants.

BL – Well, calling myself an "elephant enthusiast" was kind of tongue-in-cheek.  One of my favorite aspects of traveling is seeing different kinds of fauna and flora, and elephants are pretty much the coolest fauna there is.

TnR – You have found a way to combine a travelling lifestyle, with creating something people actually want to watch. Where does your travel `bug’ come from, and when did you decide this could be a viable lifestyle?

BL – I spent many years traveling as a producer for the show True Life on MTV, so I got used to a somewhat nomadic existence shooting in small towns across the USA.  Then a couple years ago I decided to move my career into international work, so I went fully nomadic.  Got rid of most of my belongings and did some jobs in Dubai.  Then I started getting offers from Greece, Australia, India...and I realized being nomadic could be a great way to live and work.

TnR – You seem to be a film maker with a conscience Brandon? I mean, your films show a concern for the environment, for example.

BL – I'm not really an activist per se, it's just kind of impossible to ignore the evidence of overpopulation and poor waste management around the world.  When I was in India I saw fields literally covered in trash for miles.  People told me those places used to be pristine only 40 years ago.  It was one of those things that you can't un-see.

TnR – You’ve mentioned how affected you were personally in India; by the overwhelming struggle, suffering, the poverty and trash. There’s also your obvious dislike of some Western tourists interpreting – for example – the act of African kids smiling and chasing the camera, as those kids having some sort of idyllic, happy lifestyle; whereas you see the same kids as abysmally poor with a low life expectancy. How do you deal with that?

BL – I don't see those kids as necessarily miserable, it's just bad form to be satisfied with such a superficial portrayal.  Of course the kids are gonna smile and run after the camera; that's just what kids do.  But if you stick around for a few hours until they forget about you, you'll see what their daily life is really like and gain some cultural understanding.  Same goes with any subject - there's the initial impression that most tourists record, and then there's a deeper level that comes with intimacy.

TnR – As your films are “real”, I assume you’d prefer your human subjects to be unaware of the camera, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. How do you decide which scenes to keep?

BL – I do prefer the subjects to appear unaware of the camera if they're engaged in any kind of meaningful activity.  But then I'll have them acknowledge the camera for portraits.  It's like photographs - you shoot candids and portraits, sometimes within the same session.

TnR – And that leads me to the process of editing generally; condensing all your hard work to something like 3min. Is that a solo effort?

BL – Yes, I work alone for my personal films.  For my commercial jobs I have a crew during production, and I take notes from agencies and clients in post, but I usually do most of the actual editing myself in either case.

TnR – With music such an integral part of the film making process, at what stage do you consider the soundtrack?

BL – Usually, I go through dozens of temp track songs as I edit.  It's a back-and-forth effort of choosing music that fits the edit, then changing the edit to fix the music.  Music inspires me, so I like to keep some kind of soundtrack in place at all times while I work.

TnR – What’s different in your approach to a scene at the source of the river Ganges as opposed to filming the busiest intersection on Tokyo?

BL – I'm always trying to communicate some specific idea about a place - some simple emotional thing.  In Ganges, the river was powerful, so I shot in slow motion to enhance that feeling of grandeur.  In Shibuya, the intersection is frenetic and sensory-overloading.  So I used a slow shutter and shot everything in fast-forward. 

TnR – As an artist, I see you have your own labours of love but that much of your work is by commission. Where does that commissioned work come from?

BL – Much of my commissioned work so far has come from an agency called LMTD in Dubai, which is a full-service creative agency owned by a friend of mine.  I also get a lot of work from international clients who find me through Vimeo.

TnR – How much influence do you have with commissioned projects, and do you ever say “no”?

BL – I have a lot of influence on some projects, and relatively little influence on others.  At the end of the day it's the client's project, so I do my best to please them while retaining my vision.  I do sometimes refuse work if it doesn't fit my overall career goals, or if they're offering an unrealistically low rate.

TnR – Your films have an obvious beginning and ending, like a book; factors equally important to the reader and observer. I know you also think about conflict and spontaneity, while considering spontaneity one of the most important factors. But I assume you have a plan. With all this to consider, what methodology do you use to structure your films, and is there a single method?

BL – I usually have a general idea of arc in my head when I'm shooting.  I need a beginning, climax, an ending.  I need intimate human portraits and grand vistas.  I need scenes with lots of action that highlight parts of the culture that make it unique.  These are the nebulous ideas floating in my head while I shoot.  I also edit at the end of every day, putting the pieces of the puzzle together and asking myself what is missing.  For Tokyo Roar, that missing piece was the cherry blossoms scene at the end: I had too much dark and dreary footage and needed something that showed how beautiful Tokyo can be in the springtime.  So on my last day in Tokyo, a friend took me to Yoyogi park to see the trees in full bloom, and I happened to catch a marriage proposal out of sheer luck.

TnR – I’ve read that you believe it’s important to always have a point of view. Did that ability come naturally?

BL – When I first started shooting, my POV was basically a copy of my favorite artists.  Photographers like David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry; film directors like Ron Fricke and Cary Fukunaga; Vimeo stars like Matty Brown and Vincent Urban.  But eventually that got replaced by my own specific perspective as I worked more, traveled more, and became my own thing.  I think POV is inevitable when you gain experience.  You don't want to be your heroes anymore because you have your own voice.

TnR – You strike me as a guy that would have goals. Where is your filmmaking destined to lead you?

BL – I want to keep traveling while raising awareness and understanding of different cultures, building my name as an artist, eating really good food, and seeing the most beautiful places in the world before they are changed forever by mankind.

TnR – So Brandon, what’s on your plate at the moment?

BL – At the moment I’m in different phases of a few different commercial projects, and I’m editing a massive chunk of footage I shot in Bali. The Bali film might be quite a bit longer than Tokyo Roar, and has lots of intimate footage of the Balinese culture captured over a rather intense month of shooting.  I’m looking forward to making it my most emotionally engaging film yet.

TnR – Well, thanks so much Brendon; you're a busy guy. I very much appreciate your time, and we all look forward to `Bali'.

Brandon Li’s work can be found here – `unscripted.com'

  1. mads2cents 

    Great interview and excellent questions, Ian. Very interesting how a nomadic lifestyle has enhanced Brandon Li’s filmmaking. I really like his POV as well as his concern for the environment and elephants. His dedication of and love for making films clearly comes across in this interview. I look forward to seeing more of Brandon’s awesome work.


    1. lostboys 

      Much appreciated Madilyn. An easy guy to interview, Brandon being so open.
      & I do enjoy his films.