I’ve been delving into a lot of short films on Vimeo recently, especially in the travel category. One of the first films I saw was Nomads of Mongolia
by Brandon Li. It’s an exceptional piece of work. Brandon packs a lot into a short space of time and he’s a great story teller. As much as I like his latest offering Hong Kong Strong my favourite has to be Balinese. It brought back some great memories of the times I spent there. In this interview Brandon gives advice to aspiring filmmakers and shares how he finds a story to tell.
Hi Brandon! Can you introduce yourself to the readers?
I’m a traveler and a filmmaker. I’ve been a nomad for about 3 years, meaning I don’t have a fixed address so I roam the world making films as I go. For work, I do branded content, which means I make short films and commercials for different brands.
Where are you in the world and what are you up to?
Currently I’m in LA staying by the beach and regaining a bit of sanity. I had a crazy few months before this, going from Thailand to Abu Dhabi to New York to Stockholm. I needed a break from airplane food and jetlag so I took a month off.
How do you find the stories that you tell in your films?
My films are really just collections of snapshots of daily life. I seek out extraordinary and unique things about the local everyday culture wherever I happen to be. I’m usually not looking for topical issues, or celebrities, or pro athletes, or fictional narratives. I find the beauty in the mundane. So to that end, I use my personal connections as much as possible. Before I arrive in a new place I’ll send out messages on Facebook to anyone I might already know there. I really only need one good connection to get started. From there, I also have my producer Ansley Sawyer help me out – she uses her connections, or contacts local organizations and clubs, to see who might be interested in being in one of my films. After that it’s just a lot of running around and meeting up with people or attending cultural events, using my gut feeling to tell me if I’ve found the right stories.
Are there any countries that you want to revisit to make any other films?
I’d like to go back to Hong Kong because there has been a lot of interest from people there in having me make more films. I got a very positive response from “Hong Kong Strong”, and it makes me want to dig deeper into their culture on my second visit.
Hong Kong Strong from Brandon Li on Vimeo.
Lets talk tech, what cameras do you usually shoot with?
Haha tech is always a favorite topic…I use primarily Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve used the A7sii, a7rii, a6300, and RX10ii. On occasion I’ve used a GoPro when necessary.
Brandon Filmmaking in Mongolia
Will VR or 360 videos play a role in your filmmaking?
I’d very much like to dive into 360 VR. Currently there are a few things holding me back: first and foremost is overall image quality – it’s just not high-resolution enough unless you use a hideous array of GoPros. And I don’t want to be out in the field dealing with 10 micro SD cards and 10 tiny batteries dying on me. The other restriction is that it’s very hard to move the camera while filming 360 VR without exposing the operator. I love tracking shots and dolly shots. And currently the only way to do these in VR without showing the operator is with tedious VFX.
You travel constantly is it difficult move around with all your equipment?
It’s a headache – I’m constantly shuffling gear from one bag to another to meet the baggage limit requirements of airlines. That’s why I use such light gear. Every extra pound of gear means more difficulty flying. So I don’t own a tripod (only rent one if necessary), don’t own a desktop computer, and have very few other heavy belongings.
What are your favourite conditions to film in?
I love to be immersed in a vibrant, colorful cultural event where I have prime access to the heart of the festivities. Especially an event that isn’t reported much in the media – like a tooth filing ceremony in Bali, which is a sort of coming-of-age event. I like getting right up close and personal with my subjects in these important moments.
Are there any filmmakers that you look up?
Ron Fricke (Baraka, Samsara) is an obvious choice. I also admire many of my fellow Vimeo filmmakers like Matty Brown and Vincent Urban. And then there are many photographers who influence my work, since my films are photographic in a way. I admire my friends David Alan Harvey and his son Bryan Harvey, both of whom have published prolifically in National Geographic. I also enjoy the photography and travel films of my friend and NatGeo photog Bob Krist. They are all incredibly good at capturing the candid side of world cultures.
Brandon in Bahrain
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers and people just starting out? equipment etc?
I think equipment has become a kind of fetish for filmmakers; some beginners think success is just a camera upgrade away. My advice on equipment is: if you think your camera isn’t good enough, but someone else is shooting better-looking stuff with it than you are, then the problem isn’t the camera. I would also caution beginners about getting wrapped up too deeply in other advanced stuff like 3-axis gimbals, fancy editing tricks, heavy color grading, etc. As a beginner, your challenge is to find your own voice, the same thing everyone’s been doing since the beginning of art. If you’re always learning a new camera, a new gimbal, or a new editing plug-in, you’ll be too wrapped up in tech to develop a solid foundation in storytelling.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when filming and how do you overcome these?
My biggest challenge while shooting is usually getting access: how do I get close enough to my subject to get the shots I want? The answer usually lies in leveraging personal connections; meeting more people, and sometimes hiring a “fixer” to get me into the world. In editing, my biggest challenge is usually pacing. How do I make something as abstract as a cultural travel montage have the right flow, the right climax and resolution? Where does that feeling come from? The answer is to lock myself away, trying every editing possibility until I find the one way that works. I spent almost 3 months editing my last 7-minute video and I needed every day of that to get it right.
Baraka was very formative for me.
I like the BBC nature docs, from the classic ones to the state-of-the art HD films with gorgeous slow motion that are now streaming on Netflix. Other than that I don’t watch a whole lot of documentaries because I’m not crazy about interviews. They feel too static to me.
If you look outside what do you see?
Right now I see palm trees outside my window filtering the tantalizing California sunlight. I should go hit the beach.
I recommend you check out his other films over at his Vimeo Channel.