…an interview with Dong On, Lead Filmmaker at RICE, the director of Episode 1, 2 and 3 of Moonlighting.
How did Moonlighting get started?
The idea came from Tuan, creative director of The Lab Saigon. It’s about Vietnamese artists who have their normal day jobs but at night they live in an alternative creative movement, creating artwork that speaks for their identity.
When we heard about the idea, we choose documentary as our approach. Since the series has a lot of experimental themes, this gave the filmmakers another set of challenges in storytelling and visual language creation.
How many people were involved in the making of this series?
We have around 6-7 main crew including producers, one composer and filmmakers.
How do you pick the character and what is your approach to create stories out of them?
We look for artists who are not only passionate but, more importantly, those who have a consistent premise for their work. We’re lucky to know Vicki, Nu, and Long, whose work reflects the consistency of core ideas despite varied methods in visualization. The third important aspect of their personalities that we featured is the amount of work they present show the discipline of real creatives: you must constantly produce work without relying on motivation.
My role as a filmmaker is to show that strength and to subtly educate others that great artists don’t develop from motivation but discipline and failure.
What did you do in the beginning before starting to shooting?
At that stage we decided not to set a specific look for the series yet but keep in mind that “this is going to look vivid”. So we set out to explore the so-called alternative life through the perspective of the chosen artists.
We start off with several conversations with Vicki, Nu, and Long so we can understand the personality, the motives, the medium they use & insights, the world they grew up from.
Basically to understand as much aspects as possible, the conversation can go on for days if the filmmaker engages the character in the right way.
What was the creative process of deciding the look for each episode?
In terms of visual language, from the filmmakers’ perspective, we researched and observed their world to come up with color choices. There is no heavy contextual meaning of the color look in Moonlighting, the chosen color palette is simply meant to elevate the mood & tone of the world the artists live in.
In the beginning we don’t quickly set an official color tone for every episode. Instead we dive in to understanding the art work they create, we listen to Vicki, Nu, and Long explaining the stories through every piece of work, we decide what pieces should be featured in the films, then set up a look for the film revolving around those work. That’s how we came up with the ‘rainy-Asheville’ kind of tone for Wii-ki, episode 1, while episode 2, Điiiiiiiiiiii, presents a monochromatic blue, Chaos’ world is more magenta driven.
At the end, the color grading process isn’t meant to build up the mood & tone from zero but to elevate the colors that are already in the shots, thus the effort to art direct during the shoot is important.
Besides live action shots & motion graphics material, how did you achieve the experimental b-roll in the series?
In episode Wii-ki, the story of the blue woman is made through online chat, we went through text conversation with Vicki and based it on the content to visualize it. We tried to find some easy-access physical objects like bubbles, crystals, kaleidoscopes, and experiment with different color fixtures and magnify by a 100mm macro lens.
When it comes to Điiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, the b-roll is a streak of light passing by, it’s simply done by having an LED wrapped in blue gel. This b-roll is meant for transitions between scenes. The more interesting shots, which we call an-island-in-the-glowing-lake, we create by putting a considerable amount of glitter in a tank of water, then we rigged a 30x30cm LED light on top shining straight down. The glitter movement was created by a drill.
How was your experience collaborating with artists as a filmmaker?
A filmmaker is much like an artist, both have creative points of view in storytelling and visual language, even personal preferences. During the process of making we often have contradictory ideas to do certain things in the edit, building the stories or making the motion graphics. My approach is to firstly understand my filmmaking craft, knowing why it should be cut or framed in this way and trying to explain it constructively, at the same time I also listen to the other’s opinions, find out why Vicki, Long & Nu need certain ideas to be translated in their ways, at the end we look at what’s best for the film to make the decision.
What else would you like to do in terms of creative collaboration?
There is a common misconception in creative collaboration particularly around discussing things, people tend to avoid collaborative discussions. I think what’s best for the work is not for one individual to decide but a team effort, I may have good ideas but the artist or producer can have better solutions, we choose to go for what’s best for the film. Thus we always try to keep egoism as low as possible. For me I prepare myself for art & design knowledge through actual studies and practices so that every filmmaking decision I make comes with technical & contextual points. I think this culture should be applied widely among Vietnamese creative individuals.
At the end, great work speaks for the creators.
What is the choice of equipment for this series?
We tried not to spend a fortune renting high-end equipment, in fact they weren’t necessary for our end goal. We used a wide range of tools we had or borrowed, from Canon to Sony cameras. Mostly Canon glasses, a few microphones. We also have support from Digipost Vietnam for the color grading in post. We believe good visuals can be told by decent tools, it is the knowledge of the filmmakers in the use of colors and compositions that tells a story.
Tools used in creating Moonlighting:
Canon 5D Mark III
Canon C100 Mark II
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4K
Canon & Samyang & Lumix glasses
Zoom H6 audio recorder