Brandon Li is a former MTV Reality Series Producer/editor where he learned documentary style filmmaking. In 2013, he sold everything he had, and is now literally living his life out of a suitcase, editing projects on a MacBook Pro with the hard drives velcroed to the back, travelling and making award winning short films about the cultures and people he visits.
|Brandon Li. Image courtesy of Brandon Li
I'm stoked to have had the opportunity to interview Brandon about his life and the art of travel filmmaking. His short films buzz with energy and have won numerous awards. Check out what Brandon has to say and see some of his work in the blog post below.
Gateway to the Ganges from Brandon Li on Vimeo.
On the Nomadic Lifestyle, Travel and Inspiration
“I draw most of my artistic inspiration from that feeling of being in a new place. When everything is new to me, it's easy to feel inspired to shoot. It's constantly exciting and interesting, but at the same time I frequently feel uprooted or disoriented by the constant moving. I've had a lot of days where I would wake up wondering what country I was in.”
“I really don't have much other than my camera gear and about 5 days of clothes. If it doesn't fit in a suitcase and a backpack, I can't own it. Language barriers are a constant issue. I get lost a lot. I frequently have little doubts, like when I'm lost wandering the streets of a new country with all my bags… and it starts raining!”
“It is difficult to stay grounded, but what makes it worthwhile is getting to immerse myself in other cultures instead of just passing through like a tourist.”
Tokyo Roar from Brandon Li on Vimeo.
The Method, Process and Technique
“I consider the commercial work and the personal work to be practice fields for each other. I learn things doing my commercial projects that I want to apply on independent films, and then I figure out techniques on those films that I can bring back to the paid gigs. I always want to push my abilities a bit further with each film.”
“For my personal projects, I improvise based on the people and landscapes I encounter while wandering around. I look for things that can't be planned; this is what I feel gives a film energy. For instance, filming a mountain at sunrise is much more interesting to me if there are children playing a pickup game of football in the foreground.”
“My reality TV experience taught me how to spontaneously shoot scenes that feel complete. Basically I shoot "coverage" - wide, medium, close. I try to encourage people to ignore the camera, another skill from reality TV. It's a game of getting close without being intrusive, and it just takes practice (and lots of mistakes).”
“In editing, I put together this coverage like one would do with a scripted film, re-arranging shots to make the scene flow naturally. Once I have a few key scenes edited, I'll figure out the bigger storyline of the whole video. That's the main challenge. The most difficult part of editing is getting the pacing right so that the film seems to follow a natural trajectory and ends satisfyingly. This just takes many, many revisions.”
“I consider shooting to be kind of a sport, so I make sure I get out there and shoot as often as possible and improvise new techniques. I think techniques are as important as gear. Most of my camera moves are done just by moving my body in the right way, and most of my edits are simple cuts with no fancy effects or plugins. If you're not getting the shots you want, try changing your technique before acquiring more gear.”
Brandon shooting in Guam (Chamorrofilm.com). Photo by Jessica Peterson
Tools of the Trade
“I like shooting with any camera that can deliver the image and still fit in a backpack. That's my main requirement - I have to be able to travel easily with it.”
“GH2 was great for a while, but then the A7s came along with a myriad of superior features, such as low light performance, zebra stripes, peaking, slow motion, etc. Plus, the A7s is actually a pretty tiny camera provided you aren't using the larger, heavier lenses for the system. It's lighter than the Gh2 body.”
“I've just recently bought a Sony A7rii, which I used on my last personal project along with the Sony RX10ii and a few GoPros. I like shooting 4k, even if I will be outputting a 1080p final film, because it allows me to crop and re-frame my shots in post.”
"If I had to choose 3 lenses to travel with, they would be the Sony 24-240mm, Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.4, Sony 10-18mm. First requirement is covering the "normal" focal lengths. As a travel filmmaker, I rely on my zoom lens quite a bit to frame distant subjects. It's not a fast lens (f/3.5-6.3) but the Sony cameras have good low light performance so I can still use it for most circumstances. Second requirement is having shallow depth-of-field ability, which the 50mm takes care of. That Nikon lens focuses quite close, so I can use it for macro-type shots as well as normal portrait stuff. Also, because it's adapted, I can remove it from the adapter to do lens whacking (special defocus effects). If I had to lose one perspective it would be the ultra-wide one. I can almost always re-frame my shot, or just step back, to get that wide perspective."
Where to Next and Chilling Out
“I usually pick my locations to be near my potential future projects. It's kind of a tricky game planning where to be - I don't want to fly off to a remote corner of the globe and then book a shoot in London, for instance. I just use my best intuition.”
“I've been to Tokyo twice this year because it's just awesome. I love re-visiting places and catching up with friends.”
“When I chill out, I'm the laziest person on earth. Earlier this year I rented a beach shack in Goa, India and spent a week just watching the sun set every day.” "Maybe I should learn to play racquetball or something?”