Documenting Groundbreaking Veteran Photo Recovery Project by Ming Lai

Documenting Groundbreaking Veteran Photo Recovery Project by Ming Lai

My name is Ming Lai, and I’m a filmmaker and photographer based in Los Angeles, California. I work on a wide range of projects, from feature documentaries and short films, to commercials and corporate videos, to fine art and documentary photography. My latest project is Visions of Warriors, a feature documentary about four U.S. military veterans who participate in the groundbreaking Veteran Photo Recovery Project and use innovative photography therapy to treat their mental illness. This project combines all of my passions: documentaries, art, photography and social issues.

Name: Ming Lai.

Currently based in: Los Angeles, California.

Language(s) spoken: English, Chinese/Cantonese (native speaker), Japanese (beginner level).

Occupation: I’m a filmmaker and photographer.

How did you get started in our industry? I’ve always loved film since I was a kid. However, my journey to become a filmmaker has been a long and winding one. I explored other careers like medicine and law, and worked in advertising before I started in the film industry. All of these turns have helped shape me as a filmmaker.

I received a B.A. in English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and then an M.A. in English at the California State University, Long Beach, doing my master’s thesis on Akira Kurosawa’s use of Japanese Noh drama in Throne of Blood, his film adaptation of Macbeth.

I decided to go into advertising because it combined my diverse interests in literature, art, design, photography and film. I studied advertising at UCLA Extension, The Bookshop, and Art Center at Night. Then I started my career as an advertising copywriter. Through advertising, I learned how to make commercials on the job.

After 9/11 and my sister’s passing, I decided to concentrate on my first love of filmmaking. While I was working in advertising, I studied filmmaking at UCLA Extension and directing at Judith Weston Studio for Actors and Directors. Then I started making short films. I also became passionate about photography, inspired by my father who was a professional photographer back in China.

During one freelance copywriting assignment for a commercial, I was able to convince the ad agency to let me produce and direct it. From there, I continued working as a producer/writer/director, creating commercials and corporate videos for international clients, including Coldwell Banker, Epson, Fujitsu, Marukome, and Yakult.

Later, I started to make feature documentaries. I produced, wrote, and directed Art Recession, a feature documentary about the importance of art education. The film was inspired by my sister Mini Lai, who was an artist and alumna of Art Center College of Design (ACCD), the California Community Foundation/Mini Lai Scholarship Fund, which benefits ACCD illustration students, and The Mini Show, a group art exhibition showcasing ACCD illustration alumni that raises money for the fund.

Art Recession premiered at the prestigious Newport Beach Film Festival, won “Best Feature Documentary” at the International Family Festival, and is being digitally released by industry-leading FilmBuff.

Current Assignments: My latest project is Visions of Warriors, a feature documentary about four U.S. military veterans from the Vietnam War era to the Iraq War who participate in the groundbreaking Veteran Photo Recovery Project at the VA Menlo Park, California and use innovative photography therapy to treat their mental illness.

I was inspired to make this film after learning about Susan Quaglietti – a nurse practitioner who’s been taking care of veterans for more than 25 years – and how she created the program, combining her dedication to veterans, her nursing practice, her mental health training, and her love of art and photography.

Visions of Warriors received a generous grant from the Stanford Medicine & the Muse Program, premiered at the prestigious Vail Film Festival, and has been nominated for a SAMHSA 2017 Voice Award.

My team and I are finding that in addition to the general audience, the veteran, mental health, and academic communities are responding well to our film, seeing it as a tool to help veterans. The film has been screening at conferences, universities, and special events as well as film festivals.

Our film wouldn’t have been possible without all the extraordinary veterans and mental health providers in the film, our talented crew and post-production team, and our generous grantors, sponsors, donors, and supporters. Hopefully, our film raises awareness about the rise of veteran mental illness and the power of photography therapy to treat it.

We’ll be releasing Visions of Warriors on Veterans Day (11/11/17) to honor veterans. We’ll be self-distributing the film digitally through Amazon Video on Demand, Apple iTunes, Google Play, and more online retailers as well as on our site.

Visions of Warriors – Trevor Crist, Director Of Photography

What types of productions do you normally shoot? I produce, write, and direct narrative and documentary films. Usually, they explore the human condition, addressing subjects like war, illegal immigration, art education and mental illness.

I also produce, write and direct commercials and corporate videos. In addition, I’ve been working on a film noir short film series called the Gumshoe Files starting with Gumshoe & Stiletto. The series is produced by Brian Sheesley, Matt Steinauer and myself, directed by Matt Steinauer, and shot by Dilip Isaac. “Gumshoe” was an Official Selection of the Telluride Film Festival and Raindance Film Festival. Gumshoe & Stiletto was selected by the Seattle International Film Festival and L.A. ShortsFest and was recently a Finalist in the Cine Gear Expo Film Competition.

What is your dream assignment / job in our industry, and what are you really passionate about? I dream of directing my first feature narrative, as narrative films are what inspired me to become a director. I love how they can transport you to a different time and place. However, the best ones offer insight into the human condition. I’m currently developing a feature narrative for me to direct.

I’m passionate about documentaries. I love how they have the power to raise awareness about important social issues and even inspire positive change. I’m currently prepping for my next feature documentary.

In the work that you are presenting to us, now that it is done, what would you have done differently throughout the production? We shot Visions of Warriors over the course of a year and a half, making five trips from Los Angeles where my team and I are based, to Menlo Park, California, where the Veteran Photo Recovery Project is located. I would’ve loved to follow the veterans and their mental health providers for a much longer period of time, embedding into their lives. It would’ve provided us with even deeper insight. However, the schedules of all of our subjects were very tight, and it was cost prohibitive to do so, so we tightly planned each of our trips to maximize our shooting.

For the RED cameras that we were using, we had three standard speed 128GB REDMAGs. Because we shot in REDCODE RAW with a compression ratio of 8:1, we had a max recording time of around 46 minutes, which can be limiting for long documentary interviews. Several times we had to stop an interview to change REDMAGs. However, we used this to our advantage to give the veterans a break from the intense subject matter.

Because we had a small crew of only a director of photography, location sound mixer, production coordinator, and myself, we didn’t have a dedicated digital imaging tech to download, verify, backup, and manage the data. Sometimes, we would get backed up downloading the REDMAGs to our G-Technology G-RAID drives. I would’ve loved to have more REDMAGs to keep shooting with minimal interruption.

Because of the high cost of RED cameras, we brought only one with us for each shoot. During one of our last trips, the RED Epic Dragon started to have issues, causing it to automatically shut down. At one point, we ended up shooting with both the RED Epic Dragon and my Canon 5D Mark III as a backup. The 5D Mark III held its own, but it would’ve been great to have had a true back camera to the Dragon or at least a 4K camera to better match it. When we returned home and sent the camera to RED for repair they discovered that the logic board had problems. Ultimately, they replaced the entire camera. Needless to say, Red’s technical support is exceptional.

On location – Visions of Warriors

What current camera, lenses, and sound equipment do you use? Typically, my directors of photography, location sound mixers, and I choose our camera, lenses, and sound equipment based on the project.

On Visions of Warriors I worked with Dilip Isaac and Trevor Crist, two very talented DPs who have extensive experience from documentaries to narratives to commercials. Because we have experience with RED cameras and have been using them since the RED One, and we had access to them through my co-producer Matt Steinauer’s company, Infinite Siege, we used a RED Epic Mysterium-X (5K) and later a RED Epic Dragon (6K), both with Canon L-series lenses: a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM lens and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 II USM lens. We also had a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition for action footage and my own Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens for behind-the-scenes video and photos. I loved the small size, high resolution, rich color science, wide dynamic range, and sensitive low-light capabilities of the RED cameras as well as the sharp, contrasty, and rich look of the Canon lenses.

For sound on Visions of Warriors I worked with two main location sound mixers, Stacy Hruby and Micah Mucklow, who are highly experienced in documentaries. Stacy used Lectrosonics wireless lav mics, a Sennheiser MKH 416 short shotgun microphone, a K-Tek boompole and a Sound Devices 522 mixer/recorder. Micah was equipped with Sennheiser EW 100 G3 wireless lav mics, a Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone, a K-Tek boompole, a Sound Devices 302 mixer and a Zoom H4n recorder. I also brought my own Sennheiser EW 100 G3 wireless lav mics, a Sennheiser ME66/K6 super-cardioid microphone and a JuicedLink Riggy Micro RM-333 pre-amp.

Because of Stacy and Micah’s great work, we were able to smoothly hand off to our accomplished audio post-production team: composer Sven Faulconer, sound supervisor Jeff Hutchins of Jeff Hutchins Sound Design and Channel Islands Foley, dialogue editor/music editor/sound effects editor/re-recording mixer Bruce Greenspan of Surfrider Sound Company, sound effects editor Roy Braverman of Bravermania, foley artist Danny Tchibinda, and Monkeyland Audio.

What is your favorite light equipment and why did you choose that kit over other solutions? Like our camera and lenses, my DPs and I choose our lighting equipment based on the project. Dilip and Trevor have a strong background in grip and lighting. In fact, Dilip owns a successful grip and lighting rental company, Blue Images Films.

On Visions of Warriors Dilip, Trevor and I wanted to create a natural but cinematic look. Because the veterans use photography therapy to treat their mental illness, the cinematography was inspired by iconic photo essays in Life Magazine and National Geographic that intimately capture people’s lives. We wanted the film to look cinematic but in a photographic way. The film is thus very still with precise frames and little camera movement to emulate still photography.

There are many symmetrical shots with lots of negative space to depict the loneliness or alienation of the veterans. Conversely, there are also a lot of close-ups of them to allow the viewer enter their minds as well as many voyeuristic shots to peek into their private world. Sometimes, “Dutch” or tilted angles are used to show the disorientation of the veterans. We used natural light and shadows to further design these shots, illuminating or hiding the veterans and expressing their thoughts and feelings.

For interviews, Dilip and Trevor used a K 5600 lighting kit with two Joker-Bug 200W lights and Chimera Light Banks. Dilip says, “It’s a great small, portable, and reliable daylight source. We mostly used natural light and used the Jokers and Chimeras to help wrap the key light. With the RED camera, the main concept was just controlling the source so we added a 40-degree grid to shape the light and keep our contrast.”

For exterior shots, Dilip and Trevor planned them according to the position of the sun. They either backlit or 3/4 backlit the shot, filling in with a bounce card or muslin fabric.

Visions of Warriors – Dilip Isaac, Director of Photography

Do you use drones or gimbals in your productions? If so, what is the most effective way you’ve found to deploy them? Unfortunately, I haven’t used any drones in my productions, but I plan to use them in the future, especially as they’re becoming less expensive and easier to use.

For my next feature documentary that I’m prepping, I’m planning to use a gimbal to follow our subjects and create smooth camera movement. Specifically, I’m researching smaller, lightweight gimbals that can be used with one hand to be less obtrusive to our subjects. I also want to be able to pull the camera and attached gimbal out of a bag to immediately start shooting in run-and-gun situations.

What editing systems do you use? On Visions of Warriors I used Final Cut Pro X on a Mac Pro (late 2013) with a 3.5 GHz 6-core Intel Xeon E5 processor.

I usually work with an editor on all of my projects. On Visions of Warriors my co-producer Matt Steinauer and a professional editor were originally going to edit the film. However, he became ill and wasn’t able to work on it. Because it was too costly to hire another editor and we had a tight post-production schedule, I decided to edit the film myself. Because I had used earlier versions of Final Cut Pro and Matt used both Final Cut Pro 7 and X, I decided to edit the film on Final Cut Pro X.

It was a huge challenge learning how to use the program and edit a feature documentary. It was like learning how to run while running a marathon. However, the program was very intuitive to use. Editing in addition to producing, writing, and directing the documentary was very empowering, allowing me to constantly experiment and fully convey my own vision.

How much of your work do you shoot in Log and what is your preferred way of colour correcting? Because my DPs and I often shoot with RED cameras, we usually shoot in REDCODE RAW. I love the flexibility that shooting in RAW gives us. Because the image is not “baked in” I can easily change the color temperature, exposure, saturation, and more without altering the original image.

On Visions of Warriors Dilip and Trevor shot in REDCODE RAW. In addition to editing the film, I also color graded it, which was also a steep learning curve. I tested DaVinci Resolve and Final Cut Pro X’s Color Board, but I ultimately chose Color Finale to color grade the film. I liked how this plug-in allowed me to color grade the film within Final Cut Pro X, making the color grading process faster and more seamless. It was also more intuitive to use than Final Cut Pro X’s Color Board. Dilip, Trevor, and I wanted to create a natural but cinematic look to tell this non-fiction – but very dark and dramatic – story. Color Finale allowed me to easily achieve it with rich colors, strong contrast, controlled highlights, and deep blacks.

We also created many black-and-white motion portraits of the veterans where they gaze into the camera for extended moments. These portraits invite the viewer to look deeply at the veterans, get to know them intimately, and try to understand their challenging lives, which tend to get stereotyped or ignored by the public. With Color Finale, I was able to easily color grade them, desaturating the images, adding contrast, crushing the blacks, and giving them the richness of powerful black-and-white still portraits.

On location – Visions of Warriors

How frequently do you travel, and do you have any tips when it comes to packing your gear? For my commercial and corporate video projects, I typically don’t travel and just shoot them here in Los Angeles, where we have a lot of filmmaking resources, so packing our gear is less of a consideration.

However, on Visions of Warriors we made multiple trips from Los Angeles to Menlo Park, California. We used a spacious sport utility vehicle, so packing and hauling our gear was a little easier. We used a CineBag Production Bag to hold a fully assembled RED camera and its accessories. It allowed us to keep the camera built and immediately start shooting. We used a separate Tamrac shoulder bag to hold the additional Canon lens and assorted filters.

Generally, I like a minimalist approach to filmmaking gear, especially with documentaries. I want my kit to be small, light and powerful. I’ve always been inspired by solo shooters who have minimal gear and yet produce incredible documentaries. I think the same thinking can be applied to all types of filmmaking. Less is indeed more.

Ming Lai

Visions of Warriors creator – Ming Lai

You can follow Ming Lai and his latest creative work here and also find out more about Visions of Warriors by clicking here

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