Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Love in Sin City – Las Vegas Wedding

Bright sights, neon lights. Strip clubs, fun clubs. Casinos, amigos. Moments of high, moments of low. They come, they go. Welcome to Las Vegas, a great place to get married.

Away from the large traditional family wedding banquet that awaits us in New York Chinatown, away from the commotions of the city of Las Vegas, here inside the tiny Elvis Chapel it is quiet and calm. Spontaneous, small, intimate, loads of laughter and fun. Our attire of strapless vintage red dress and tuxedo with red bow tie suits the 1960s theme. Before Elvis in the presence of two of our closest friends, it seems we are holding infinity in each other hands, and gazing in one another’s eyes, an eternity in those few minutes. In the true Elvis way, we made a “Love Me Tender” vow to honor and love.

Our courtship is less than a year, but the family connection is more than two decades old. Our mothers worked in the same Chinatown garment factory in the mid 1980s when our families immigrated to New York. Their friendship continued long after they ceased working together. Summer 2009 over a weekend Mahjong session, they discussed how their two single kids should meet. We met for the first time that July at a picnic event I organized in Central Park area where they had free tango. We are two different individuals who enjoy doing things together. Our six month was celebrated in South America, New Year Eve in the city of Sao Paulo and the beaches of Rio in Brazil, to the tango capital of Buenos Aires.

Love and relationships are complicated matters. Words fail to explain why it happens, how it happens, where it will go. But I gather, it is rare and precious to find that special someone silly enough I could have so much fun with, and serious enough to look in the same direction of marriage and family. And seriously, what more romantic way to start off life together than in gales of laughter :) The weekend wedding in Las Vegas, though short and tight promises a future for us that is long and bright.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

UWP Commercial in Berlin - Production Notes Commercial from MA Shumin on Vimeo.

If it takes a village to raise a child (African proverb) - then it takes a global village (virtual & local) to make a 60 second commercial.

The idea all started when I saw the Sony PlayStation spot “Double Life”, I felt something of the same style could be adapted: a well-written prose, many diverse people talking, in different settings, film in dynamic shots. I pitched to Sebastian Hesse in Berlin and Leonardo Victorazzi in Brussels about doing an Up With People (UWP) Europe commercial with this style. I thought this could work very well, as it is a program about many diverse people having the global education experience – I envisioned many faces and voices in different settings, speaking meaningful lines – something relevant and timeless.

Pre-production officially started the first week of March in New York, and production was to take place three weeks later on location in Berlin. The script is like the foundation of a house, crucial to a project - I needed to work with a writer who had the UWP experience. Andrew Lanham, an alumnus studying Master in screenwriting in Texas came in as the copywriter. We worked together over the weekend via Skype, and by Monday morning Andrew got the script done.

I have never / Felt summer and winter / In the same month
I have never / Made a brother / In Mexico / And then helped him build his home
I have never / Overcome stage fright / In front of three thousand Thai children
I have never / Had Kimchi for breakfast / Or Surstromming for lunch
I have never / Known how much / There is to find / Not written in a book
I have never / Lived for a week / With a family/ Who couldn’t speak my language / And known the meaning of the word / Zusammen (subtitled: together)
I have never / Learned so much / Laughed so hard / Felt so strong / Or seen such heights
Until Now

Soon after then, Christine Paluf based in Connecticut who had worked as a UWP staff came on board as the Art Director. We spent the following days on Skype brainstorming visual ideas for the script. Sebastian Hesse, the UWP Europe Alumni Representative had a strong vision of the program and was the Creative Director. Danni Nielsen, also a UWP alumnus has a band in Copenhagen and participated by composing original music. It was starting to come together before my flight to Berlin.

The city of Berlin turned out to be the perfect location for the UWP commercial. So much history yet so much future, it is a coming together of east and west, dynamic arts and music scene with vibrant young people. Many UWP alumni flew in from various European cities to participate for shooting day. For the rest of the casts, we were able to recruit Berlin residents, both local Germans and international people. As they tell me, they wanted to participate because it was a meaningful, a cause they believe in. I hired Dimitri Hempel, a talented local cameraman whom I knew through a program I participated in 2006 in Italy, European Social Documentary via ZeLIG School. Jasper Brandt joined as our soundman. Sam Muirhead, New Zealand native who lived in South America and now living in Berlin worked on the editing. Michael Stuber, a Swiss based in Boston did audio post, keeping the diverse voices but unifying the sound. Between the cast and crew, this project was represented by over 17 nationalities: Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, USA, Russia, China, Ghana, Senegal, Brazil, Peru, New Zealand - a true taste of what UWP could be like.

I learned a lot throughout the whole intense production, particularly on production day: I thought I was prepared enough, yet even more could have been done in terms of production coordination, schedule and cast management, the need for an Assistant Director. It was a realization of skills I lack, the art of delegation of responsibilities, leveraging resources and people that are available. It was a test of leadership, keeping my vision yet accepting other people's views. I learn with each bigger project I do - I am getting better at directing. Above all, I am humbled and grateful to all the people who contributed. The UWP commercial is something we are all very proud of, and I hope it will be relevant and timeless.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Europe, I’ve Missed You

As Delta Airlines crosses the Atlantic Ocean on a night flight from New York to Berlin, I sit at my seat with notebook out. Never a need for movies or music or sleep to preoccupy me, I am a happy camper with just a notebook and pen at hand. Such an old habit now I wonder if this is how I first traveled over ten years ago when I came to Europe for the first time.

Summer 1999 was my first study abroad experience in a small town in France. I chose Dijon, not because of its well known Kir or mustard but because of my French penpal whom I started corresponding via postal letters five years prior. That summer I studied French at Université de Bourgogne, stayed with a host family the Robbes in their castle home. I ate a lot of fresh baked bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I drank for the first time and got drunk over Kir during aperatif at the evening parties of chez Robbes. I tried the best wine from Bourgogne and Bordeaux, explored and got lost in Carrefour, felt I could live on a diet of cheese forever. I celebrated my 20th birthday with my penpal and his family in the village of Selongey. Like other Americans I backpacked through Europe. A lot of the little details are forgotten in time, but the highlights are still strong in my memory. If life is about the moments that take our breath away, I have gotten more than my share just in that summer.

The two months of studying abroad has as huge impact on my life. It developed in me the desire to live abroad, to be a local in a foreign country where I don’t speak their language well or understand their customs. It encouraged me to see beyond my own native Chinese heritage and my adopted American culture. I learned to be to be less petty and more easygoing, to try to understand other people’s circumstances. I became more outgoing, more social, more confident and thrive on wanting to see more, learn more, do more.

I am now returning to Europe in my 30s, while older and more experienced the last decade of travels did not lessen my enthusiasm or appreciation for Europe. It is like seeing an old friend who has watched me grown up – I’ve been nurtured so much that I feel a desire to give back. The morning sunlight shines bright onto the city of Berlin – I eagerly anticipate a creative and productive two weeks of work ahead.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Banjo Jim – Feel the Love

When people get sad some turn to eating or drinking or smoking, playing video games all day and night, or shopping and buying lots of shoes or gadgets … I turn to music. Music of all kinds, from instrumental to vocal, traditional to experimental, jazz to electronic, Classical to blues, rock to country – especially to be able hear music live soothes my soul and uplifts my spirit like no other.

I feel blessed to live above a place where I can always hear good music. For years in Alphabet City of East Village on the corner of Avenue C and 9th Street is a music bar. My family moved into the neighborhood back in 1992 when the neighborhood was still in transition but there was always a bar on the corner. It used to be called a different name - I always have heard the music from upstairs but never went in. In 1998 I left the neighborhood, and the city to go away to college and after graduation moved to Europe. I came back to New York City almost a decade later and settled again on Ave C & 9 St. By then that bar had been sold and since 2005 was called Banjo Jim.

Banjo Jim
is one of the rare gems in an ever-gentrified neighborhood of pricy restaurants and high-end bars and clubs. In a sea of homogeneity, there is uniqueness and distinct character to this bar. No cover, a friendly environment, one can have a beer in a wooden setting listening to music on a small stage. Whether it's bluegrass or blues or jazz, the music is guaranteed to be good. Known to be the best music venue in the East Village and the coziest dive on the East side, Banjo Jim’s slogan is “Feel the Love” – come and listen and judge for yourself.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dim Sum in Queens

Queens, because of its faraway distance is often never on the list of place to get together for a meal. But a bunch of friends who live in all corners of New York City decided to meet up in Flushing for Saturday dim sum.

The restuarant was a recommendation from a friend - we had a good appetite, our tummy was eagerly anticipating what await us. I love dim sum and always order my favorite two dishes: shrimp dumpling and chicken feet. I judge the quality of the restaurant just based on these two dishes.

10 mouths, 30 plates (5 chicken feet, 5 shrimp dumpling) ... all came out to plus tips only $9 each. It was extraordinary food - my mouth still waters long after the first bite. The chicken feet is meaty, well textured, good taste, fresh. The shrimp dumpling is soft, sweet.

A true foodie would travel 3 hours to eat 45 minutes of good food. This is the best dim sum I have had since my return to New York City.

[Article also appears in Yelp ]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Eye on the Tiger

February 14 is Chinese New Year - the Year of the Golden Tiger.

While my memory fails me of the first six years of my life in China I remember vividly the Chinese New Year celebrations growing up in New York Chinatown in the 1980s. Eating lucky candies on New Year’s day. My mother’s cooking and table full of dishes all with names that sound like auspicious Chinese sayings. Fortune, happiness, longevity, prosperity. The hair seaweed (fat choy) with dried oysters (ho see) is “wealth and good business”. Lotus roots (lin ngau) is “abundance year after year”. Lettuce is “growing wealth". I would go around Chinatown, holding tightly to mom’s hands visiting many relatives and collecting lots of red envelopes. The sound and smell of firecrackers, dragon dancing on Mott Street made the holiday a real festive occasion.

Chinese New Year is so important in my family that even after my brother and I finished college and moved abroad, him to Shanghai, me to Paris - we would make the annual trek back to New York for the family reunion. The Americans have Christmas; we have Chinese New Year.

What future lies in upholding this ancient Chinese tradition? Growing up we embraced assimilation into American culture; our English is near perfect, our Chinese near illiterate. But other than the language, our whole attitude has changed. The more we work and travel abroad we acquire a global mentality. Many childhood friends and cousins who are married with kids have already decided to abandon this tradition. Some said money is an issue, there is mortgage to pay. There is no time; it’s too cumbersome. They live too far away from Chinatown. The list of reasons of choosing to not practice the tradition is long and various. As another Chinese New Year approaches, I am reminded of the fragility of preserving one’s heritage. The most important tradition in Chinese culture, it is hard to imagine my childhood without the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Art of Commercials

On Christmas Eve of 2008 I came across a public service advertisement, Polar Bears produced by the big advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather for Environmental Defense Fund. Simple. Visually engaging. Effective. The PSA triggered new thoughts in my short filmmaking career, awakening a different perspective on the role of advertising.

I entered Syracuse University in 1998 studying TV-Film production, concentrating on documentary filmmaking. At 19 years old I was adamant that documentary was the best way to tell stories that matter. In the seven years after graduation I worked in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Paris - video documenting diverse subjects and places. I came back to New York to work for NPR Science Friday, producing environmental films on the endangered natural environment. Later I was commissioned by a non-profit to direct a documentary on an endangered urban environment: New York’s Lower East Side. After the project ended I took a pause to reflect on the direction of my career - I needed new challenges.

Nine months later saw the birth of RED LIGHT : Biking Rules PSA.

RED LIGHT : Biking Rules PSA from MA Shumin on Vimeo.

In September 2009 Transportation Alternatives came out with Biking Rules, a new campaign to encourage cycling in New York City. It was a perfect opportunity to create a PSA, and I started looking for a team. I first met Sean Kenney, a sculpture artist who uses LEGO while working on the series of environmental films. We recruited David Pagano, a young talented LEGO animator. Sean’s brother, Brian joined the team as the sound designer and composer. I took the role of envisioning the overall image. Sean created the set and the whole LEGO world. David brought the LEGO character and objects to life with movement and humour. Brian brought the final film to life with sound and music. Different talents and capabilities, together we joined forces to create something bigger than ourselves.

This first collaborative advertising effort made me realized how vital it is to expand and acquire new storytelling skills and techniques. The successful outcome inspires in me confidence - I feel invigorated, eager to tackle bigger challenges.