Los Angeles, CA

Interview with Chinese Production Designer Mengqing Yuan

In the Realm of the Lenses

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Mengqing Yuan (www.mengqingartdept.com, IG: @mochii_art_dept) is a Chinese production designer currently based in Los Angeles, California. She has worked on numerous award-winning feature films, short films, and music videos. As a production designer she is responsible for the visuals in front of the camera and oversees the art department. I spoke with Mengqing in November 2020 about her work and experience.

Interviewer: Tell me about yourself and how you got into production design.

Mengqing Yuan: I grew up in Tianjin and I’ve liked to draw and paint ever since I was young, probably around eight years old. I’ve always loved picking up random objects and putting things together, like creating sculptures or costumes for my dolls. I’ve always been interested in playing with different textures and paying attention to the different shapes and colors of my surroundings. I think in order to be a production designer, you need to be sensitive and observant of everything around you in order to be able to recreate the everyday for the camera.

I went down several paths before I decided to become a production designer. I first thought I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was in high school. When I applied for college, I applied for multiple programs including animation, film, fashion design, visual arts, and architecture. I was accepted into an animation program but after two years of studying animation, I realized I was actually more interested in live action film.

In college I watched many American films. I really loved the films by Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. This led me to decide to come to America to begin my film career. I studied and worked as a set designer for two years in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to LA to study scenic design at CalArts. While at CalArts I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with filmmakers from USC. In 2019, I worked on four or five narrative shorts as a production designer or art director. I realized that I truly liked working in this field and decided to commit to a career in production design.

Interviewer: What has been your most satisfying and/or challenging project so far?

Mengqing Yuan: Earlier this year I worked on a project with Curry Tian, an experimental animator. The film, Simulacra, is a multi-immersion experience that incorporates live action shooting, motion capture, 3D scanning, and 3D motion digital art. As production designer, I worked with director Curry to develop the scenic design, color, and props.

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The film depicts an elderly Buddhist nun’s journey through her memory to a moment in her past where she and several of her identities enacted a sacred ritual to transform a dark entity into a malevolent spirit. The film explores various topics such as birth, multiple personalities, struggling with self-awareness, and ultimately using the power of one’s will to turn obstacles into complementary forces.

I was involved from the very early stages of the project. Curry and I had many discussions about the storyline, meaning, and set design. After I first heard Curry’s ideas I began my research by watching Japanese butoh dance shows. I was struck by the silent shouting, powerful human body movements, and minimal yet powerful sets.

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We decided to stick with one main color in the film, which ended up being red. The main shape of the film is a circle. Curry and I both think a perfect circle is beautiful and balanced, just like the Buddhist philosophy of the circle of life, death, and rebirth. This led to our decision to use a circular stage as the main dance stage for the actors’ performance.

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One of the most difficult challenges was figuring out how to build a perfectly smooth circular stage. My team and I tested many different materials. Many times we would eventually realize we didn’t have the budget for a certain material, it wouldn’t look as perfect as we imagined, or other unforeseen problems would arise, and we would have to start the search again.

It was a long journey for us with the pressures of time and budget, but I really appreciate the experience and how we eventually solved the problems. I think that is the beauty of collaboration and what I love about filmmaking.

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Curry is a very talented artist who is always coming up with new ideas. I remember one time she visited my home and saw a dead tree in the living room that my roommate had brought in from outside. She really liked the tree’s shape so we decided to incorporate this dead tree into one of the scenes in the film. I set up the tree in the center of the circular stage and surrounded it with stones. It looked just like an ancient painting and matched the costumes and lighting.

I was really happy to find out this past month that Simulacra won multiple festival awards, including the Alternative/Experimental Student Academy Award (Gold). I’m looking forward to collaborating with Curry again this December on a music video with the performance artist Jas Lin.

Interviewer: What are your current plans for yourself and your career?

Mengqing Yuan: Right now I’m just trying to keep myself as busy as possible and work on different projects. Currently I’m working on a music video, sci-fi film, experimental video, and collage stop-motion animation. Every project teaches me something different and new. The same goes for all of the different people I meet and team members I work with. They can all be sources of inspiration.

I love collaborating with artists in America, especially in Los Angeles, because there are artists from all different backgrounds. I embrace the opportunity to learn about other people’s cultures while simultaneously presenting my Chinese background and culture through my artwork. Production design and film in general are collaborative art forms. Film can be a means for talented artists to come together and share their culture and ideas with each other.

I hope to work on as many influential and wide-reaching projects as possible. I want my art and Chinese culture to be seen and appreciated by a broad audience, not only by those in the art or Chinese communities.

Artist photo and screencaps from Simulacra provided by Mengqing Yuan

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