Jason Zhao Goes to USC

I had a talk with Jason about his off-and-on relationship with USC, right after he decided to suspend his 3-year MFA program for the second time to work once again in the film industry. Jason’s short film Illusion made in the 48 Independent Short Film Festival, Glendale International Film Festival, Burbank International Film Festival selection, The Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Festival and won the Best Student Sci-fi Short at the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival. He is now working for a director’s huge-budget film in China as the on-set VFX supervisor. 

Jia: You did not study film in college, right? How did you move to moviemaking?

Jason: I studied economics in Peking University, and switched into VFX right after graduation. I saw at a random occasion on BIRTV a show about the 2008 Beijing Olympic visual effects of the “Big Steps” presented by Crystal Stone – I realized “Everything is staged.” They created 3 versions in 3D to prepare for any weather condition. I think it made sense. You had one chance after all – if the drone was slightly off, then you’d miss the shot. That motivated me to work in VFX. I enrolled in a training program.

Jia: And you were recruited in BaseFX – the leading company in China!

Jason: We often say Base is like a college, since you have different levels of work. Base worked for ILM in Pacific Rim, Captain America, Transformers, Star Wars, you name it. That is the only chance you could be a part of that kind of films in China. There was no other way that you could put your name on the stars. So it was important for us.

Jia: Could you talk about one of your special memories working in Base?

Jason: Yeah, I could talk about Transformers 4. The movie really had high quality standard. It was the first time they gave us a shot that actually had transformers in it, so we took it very seriously. It was Mega Tron drawing energy from a steel rack. They briefed us about it – we like electric arches on his arms, we were pretty sure where were we gonna go. I was in charge of the electric arches. We did a few tests, and the director Michael Bay said it looks great. It was 2 weeks from the delivery and 4 weeks before its premiere. We almost finalized the shot and then we got an email from the director – “You know what, I want to change it, or the story would be confusing: the audience might think he is suffering rather than drawing energy.” But we only got 3 days to fix it and I was really panicked. My supervisor talked to me: Do you have a plan? And I said: Not really. He: “How about we do some particles to see if it looks good?” We did a very fast test to make it more magical, and they approved the look, so we applied that effects for the rest of the shots. And we didn’t delay the film.

Jia: Did you feel like a Maker?

Jason: Yeah. I think. Often times, I am proud of my work, and that is the reason why I take it as my career. You can create something cool and meaningful, not just as an artist, but being creative as a filmmaker in general.

Jia: So after 3 years, were you bored or did you feel so accomplished that you decided to do something bigger?

Jason: I think the reason was I felt I hated the ceiling. Because at the time I only knew VFX, but sometimes you just don’t know what’s on the director’s mind. I wanted to develop my career as a VFX supervisor, so I needed to know how the director thinks. Right now, I take both gigs: directing and VFX. At the time, I guess I’d give it a try – if I am good at directing, then I’ll be a director. I figured even if it’s not my thing, I’d still learn a lot to become a VFX supervisor eventually. I’d know how the DP thinks, how the screenwriter thinks. I could communicate with them better to help them tell the story.

Jia: And you got into USC – your folks must be really proud!

Jason: Actually, USC rejected my application at the first time. I think I applied 2015 Spring, and they told me I was on the waiting list. And I decided: OK, I’ll apply again. ’cause I was on the waiting list. Pretty close. So I applied the fall semester again, and they put me on the waiting list again, but this time, I got in. In retrospect, I was lucky to have met a few USC professors in a Master Class program jointly held by USC and Beijing Film Academy.

Jia: Talking about the classmates, how is the vibe?

Jason: Each year, there are 120 in the production track, so 60 for each semester. We are from all corners of the world. USC deliberately recruit students from different backgrounds. We got people from Egypt, Nepal, Turkey, Argentina, Japan, etc. There are very few with VFX background though. 1 out of 100, I guess. In our cohort, there are 15 from Mainland China: some are newly graduated, from China or US; there’s also an actor from Central Academy of Drama.

Jia: Is it competitive?

Jason: I wouldn’t say we compete. I’d say we survive together. It’s more important to make friends at USC, than to make enemies. You don’t want to make enemies. Your reputation is the most important thing is USC and one of the most important part of your reputation is: “Can you work with all kinds of people?” So if rumor says Jason can’t get along with others, then a lot of people will not want to work with me anymore.

Jia: How do you stand out and remain friendly?

Jason: You just need to be proactive. For instance, in the 2nd year, I wanted to learn more cinematography, so I would go to friends and say: “Do you need a DP for your next movie? See, this is my reel. I’m a nice person. I worked with whom and whom before. We’ll have a great time working together. I’ll be responsible. Are you interested?” If they say yes, you just pull your efforts 120%. Be responsible. Be on time. Prepare. Don’t complain. Just do your best.If you’ve done all that, it’s pretty guaranteed they’ll say good words about you.

crew picture

Jason and his crew for Robot Vacuum’s Escape, his latest short film 

Jia: So in the two years of your USC education, what has been the most helpful course?

Jason: I would say writing and directing classes. A big part of the Chinese films don’t have good stories, so learning how to tell a compelling story is necessary. I learned a lot about the Hollywood way of telling stories. It’s not necessarily the only way to tell stories, but now I can see why some of the movies don’t work. What’s the way to change that. “It’s a form. Not a formula”, as my writing professor Irving Belateche would say.

Jia: What is your latest production?

Jason: It’s called Robot Vacuum’s Escape – a robot vacuum and his appliances friend trick their human owner and a pet cat in order to escape from the house. We know from the very beginning that it is going to be a very different film. We need to come up with creative ways to make it, since the main characters are a robot vacuum, which can only move forward, backward and turn and a cat, which never does what you want.

As a proof of concept, we did a test shoot early on, with a toy cat and a friend’s cat. But while shooting we realized that it would be impossible to pull this off without using a professional acting cat, so we hired a team of 5 similar-looking cats and 2 trainers. Each cat was good at certain type of action. The trainer gave us script notes on whether the cat can do certain actions and we would revise the script accordingly. We kept the camera rolling whenever the cat was present, to make sure we get every bit of action. For the robot vacuum, I operated it myself by remote control, by hand control and fish wire. We did a detailed plan for 2 shooting days, because we needed to do over 150 setups in total. That was a crazy number, but still achievable, due to the nature of our story. We did story board for every shot, blocked the action at the location so that we could move very fast on set.

Jia: Who are your favorite directors?

Jason: Oh, I can pick some of my favorite movies: Life of PiAvatarInceptionInterstellarGravityBatman: The Dark Knight, yeah, I can keep going. Good Sci-Fi, Fantasy movies.

Jia: Is it your plan to work with these directors?

Jason: Well, right now I want to be one of them. By starting working with them.

Jia: Let’s talk about the short films you made.

Jason: Yeah. In USC, I made 4 or 5 short films and got in a few short film festivals. In a 2nd semester class, we were assigned into random groups of three. You can’t imagine how much drama those groups had. There were maybe 1 out of 13 groups that got along pretty well, but other than that, each had its own problems. But I think it was a great learning experience. The class lasted for one semester, so you were basically married to these 2 people for 3 and half months. We needed to make 3 movies, and there were 3 roles to rotate: DP, director and producer.

Jia: What do you think of the Chinese film market? Do you care, or do you have time to follow the situation back home?

Jason: Yeah, I care about it a lot. I’m from this market and I have to. There are a lot of opportunities. Most of my classmates decide to come back after graduation. It’s just easy for us to be a director, a DP or a screenwriter here. We are making a lot of films. We need better and more movies. That’s where the opportunities lie. About the recent “crisis”, in the short term, people will make less films; but in the long run, filmmakers will make better use of the resources. Right now, more than ever, you need to have good movies to make it work. It’s not a bad thing.

Jia: You studied one year in USC and took a year off to work and then went back to study for another year. This is your second gap year before you continue in USC. I think this is so much better than just graduating within one shot!

Jason: Right. I have this great opportunity for me to be on set this time. The film has not been announced yet, so I can’t tell you which one it is. But it’s a pretty big production. I saw Dying to Surive the other day. I really enjoyed it. The story is really compelling. It’s a movie that has such a huge social impact that it goes beyond the scope of movie. I really respect that. It has the ability and braveness to tell such a story.

Jia: Do you worry about the censorship?

Jason: You are in a certain environment that you need to respect a certain rules, right? After all, I still love to live in China: the food, WeChat pay, Taobao… Since you have an environment you are going to work in, you need to make the best you can under such circumstances. If you can change it, it’s great. If not, I don’t it should stop you from making good movies. Instead of complaining about everything, how about do what you can? A lot of people would say they could make great movies if there’s no censorship. I’d say: Really? Make a good movie first! It’s always hard to make great movies.



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