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Cinematographer Jon Keng talks award-winning film “Fata Morgana”

Jon Keng

Jon Keng has a lot to be thankful for. Originally from Singapore, he spent his childhood and teenage years looking through the lens of a camera. Taking photos turned from a hobby to a passion, and eventually photography turned into filmmaking, and filmmaking turned into a career. Now, he is internationally recognized and a sought-after cinematographer, working on award-winning project after award-winning project.

Even though Keng has worked on many successful films, working on the film Fata Morgana is one of the highlights of his career. As a cinematographer, he is often inspired by the actors he is filming, and he was definitely inspired when working on this film.

“Watching a great performance while looking through the camera, you feel like you are living in the scene’s reality and it really takes you away. Liu Peiqi in almost every scene in Fata Morgana was a great example of this,” said Keng.

Fata Morgana is about a middle-aged couple from China who arrive in the United States for the first time to organize the funeral rites of their only child. In the midst of dealing with the logistics of the funeral and their overwhelming grief, they begin to unravel the escalating fractures in their relationship and the uncertain futures that lie ahead of them.

“Jon is very accommodating to the production side, without compromising on the film itself. He understands that nothing is perfect in filmmaking, instead he reacts and makes the best out of every situation he is put into,” said the producer of the film, David Su. “Being a writer himself, Jon has a good idea of the narrative side of the film. He always thinks about the story first, before thinking about making beautiful images. This allows him to get to the core of each script.”

For this film, Keng doubled as a writer, which he says provided a great learning experience as a cinematographer. He was fighting the urge to write scenes for its cinematic value, and tried his best to think about what would best tell the story.

“It was a very interesting experience to be both a writer and cinematographer on a film. It gave me a greater perspective about the entire filmmaking process,” said Keng. “We made it a point not to repeat shots in the film, unlike in typical film coverage where filmmakers cut back and forth between a few shots. We wanted each shot to move the story forward and almost feel like a documentary, where we couldn’t anticipate what we were going to be seeing next.”

Keng’s delicate eye on the project proved fruitful, as the film went on to be one of the most decorated of his career. Fata Morgana premiered at Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival 2016 in France, widely considered to be the best short film festival in the world, and then went on to be screened at 50 film festivals across seven continents. It won ten awards, including the First Prize in the Short Narrative Category at the Golden Rooster Awards last year, the Chinese equivalent to the Academy Awards.

“I’m happy the film has did well across so many festivals around the world. It was always a challenge to make a Chinese film in Los Angeles but I think we managed to create a realistic setting that resonates with audiences,” said Keng.

The film was inspired by the director’s personal experience of her friend’s recent passing. She spent the last few days of her friend’s life in Chicago with her friend’s family and friends. The film was directed by Amelie Wen, and Keng also worked with Marie Cantin (Collateral, Save the Last Dance) as a mentor for the film. Everyone that worked with Keng agreed that he is one-of-a-kind.

“Editing Jon’s dailies footage is always a pleasure because it’s clear that he has an understanding of how shots work in a coherent structure. He does not just seek out to create one or two beautiful shots but he always keeps the overall flow of the edit in mind. Jon is a great collaborator who is always keen to listen to the opinions of others first without bringing any ego to the table. He balances this brilliantly with his artistic vision, and this always leads to images that capture the heart of each story,” said James Steigelbauer, the editor of Fata Morgana.

After a year of success in thanks for Fata Morgana, Keng has no plans on slowing down. He has multiple projects in post-production, with three more projects in the pipeline. He knows to be successful, you have to look at each project differently, and he plans on continuing this mentality.

“No script is identical, so the same applies to cinematography,” he concluded.

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