Max Tsui’s background in cinematography gives him an exciting edge to creating films with a professional quality. Take a look at this winning test spot which won the jury’s praise in Cannes. Here we catch up with the young director about his intricately crafted – and beautifully lit of course – commercial, Steampunk Coke.
You won First Prize in Test Commercial Europe category with your film Steampunk Coke. What were the main challenges of making the film?
Well, the main challenge in doing this sort of work is money, especially when you are still a student. If you don’t have money, you have to attract the crew and the supporters with a brilliant idea. So I tried to get the story right from the beginning. When I wrote Steampunk Coke, I asked myself what I wanted to see and say with the spot. Then I thought about how best to achieve it.
Shooting and directing the ad was amazing. Because everything was shot in front of green screen and as nobody could see inside of my head, I felt that my vision had to be clear. Getting the light right was very important in creating the world of the ad, even if that was sometimes be a bit technical and unromantic. Creating the world in post was only possible because of my many talented VFX artists and it literally involved me sitting in the back with the guys and talking about the feeling of the room, the light and the situation. I love the idea of teamwork and working together to unravel the mystery in a story.
And what was behind your decision to make a test film?
When the time came to do my graduation piece, I had already shot a lot of small commercials. Because of the past budgets or clients, I hadn’t had the opportunity to do this kind of “bigger-than-life-story” and I really wanted to do it once before graduating. And because I grew up with all those 80s trilogies like Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Back to the Future which told stories in a never-before-seen-way, I wanted to do a homage to those filmmakers. First time as a director can be terrifying and so I decided to do “small” steps with a short story. It wasn’t my intention for it to become a test commercial when the pencil hit the sheet the first time.
What impact do you feel winning at the YDA has had? Are you represented?
Winning the YDA as an underdog director means a lot to me. Of course people are asking, who am I, where do I come from. Right now I´m working as a freelance director and cinematographer. I´ve not yet been represented by any agencies, but I am definitely open and curious to the idea.
A quick potted history to how you joined forces to direct please…
I used to work as a director of photography. I studied cinematography at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Germany. I worked on numerous short films, commercials, corporate films and viral spots. The most important thing about being a DoP is to have a strong relationship with the director. I wanted to be active in my work, rather than just somebody waiting to be told what to do. But in Germany many of the young directors’ projects that I’ve worked on don’t focus on the beauty of storytelling, because most are primarily business-focused. Maybe because I always felt that I could still incorporate unusual worlds and beautiful cinematography in their stories is why I began working as a director/DoP on very small projects in 2013.
What’s the best film making lesson you’ve learnt?
The best lesson I’ve learnt is to trust the team and the story. I believe that directors must use all their possible resources to tell a story, but also remain true to the original idea. Once a professor told me that I really don’t have to know everything, but to have a clue to whom to ask or where to find the answers.
What is the wisest quote about film making?
The wisest quote about film making to me is from Robert Bresson. He once wrote in “Notes on the Cinematographer”: Prefer what intuition whispers in your ear to what you have done and redone ten times in your head. This quote reminds me as a director and as a cinematographer to always have a plan A when I start a project. Plan A can be well and perfect and maybe it works and fits to what the story should do, but to be open for moments and situations which happen. Find without Seeking.
Your worst nightmare production story was when….
… I think it was in 2008. An advertising agency asked me to realize a gold idea for Cannes and I was really excited. I decided to work on the red one camera which was brand new at that time. At the beginning they didn´t use SSD Cards much but the so called Red Drives were totally insecure and not very trustful. We started early in the morning. Just a bunch of film students and the agency. The students, me included, were all very reverent and we tried to do our best. The agency really liked the stuff we shot. We shot nearly 10 hours, full under pressure but we did everything we wanted to do. At the end of the day, we all were very impressed how much footage it’s possible to store on the hard drive, we went to backup the stuff…well… there where no footage. The drive was broken and everything we tried to rescue the files failed. That was the last time we heard from the agency…
What would be your dream directing job?
I really love to focus more on the power of storytelling. Not only the same assembly-line commercial and drive thru stuff. Of course, technology will develop further and faster, and maybe it seduces me to use it in unnecessary ways. But I’m not afraid to adapt to new tools, and use them to approach the next project in the right way. But at the end, as long as I can do a good work and be with people I love, I’m happy.
List five inspirations that have connected with you recently:
It can be everything, starting when I hear a beautiful voice or when I have really good authentic food. Maybe I want to name my brother who became a father for the second time this year. When I see how he is with his children and how he tells them stories only with his hands, his feet and his facial expressions, it makes my heart beat faster.
Anything else you’d like to share?
The main thing I want to share with other film students is not to be intimidated by other students or film schools who do great works. It’s always easy to blame the lack of availability of production values or equipment that are not available at one’s own school, but trust me…. everything starts with a great story.