Monsters. There’s an image, a memory that instantly comes to mind when we hear the word. Metal bolts protruding from the neck, enlarged and protruding fangs, possibly a glove with metal blades or shears is what we envision. This potential danger is easy to visibly spot in many movies. In the often hyperbolic world of cinema, monsters are supernatural creatures whose outer visage portrays the content of their heart. In the real world this is not so clear. Edwin Soto’s “Imaginary Boys” is a frightening tale of what very “normal” people are capable of doing. It proves that some of the most terrifying characters in life are the next door neighbors we think we know. Society has become so accustomed to CGI and otherworldly fantasy creatures that the all too common danger that truly exists has become camouflaged. To heighten his story’s impact, Soto contacted cinematographer Xing-Mai Deng to create a vibe that was subtle and at times subliminal but delivered a visual intensity for the film. The film is often shown from the perspective of the two youthful main characters and helps communicate the sense that the real monsters of the world are as close and unsuspected as possible.
It was the intention of both director/writer Edwin Soto and DOP Xing-Mai that “Imaginary Boys” be a non-scary horror film. That may sound initially self-defeating but while a horror film has the intention of scaring the audience with the unexpected, these filmmakers wanted the viewer to focus on what the main characters felt and their relationships. As a testament to their break from the normal horror production, the status quo of dark and concealing lighting was shunned for well-lit scenery which reveals all surroundings.
“Imaginary Boys” is a drama about two children who are misunderstood by their own parents. It tells the story about an imaginative boy, Fabian, who makes a mysterious new friend, Alex, while visiting the home of a preacher and must convince his parents that his new friend is real despite the preacher's objections. Fabian’s parents know that he likes to make things up and discount the story of his new friend as yet another instance of this. Alex’s parents, the preacher and his wife, do not approve of Alex’s homosexuality and because of this, they lock him away refusing to acknowledge Alex’s existence to their visitors. Unable to convince his parents of Alex’s existence, Fabian helps him plan an escape. Tragically, this results in Alex’s fatal fall from a balcony.
Because the film is Alex and Fabian’s story, the filmmakers wanted the audience to view the film as if they are viewing it through the eyes of these two young boys. Deng approached the film by setting up the perspective. The shots were framed from the children’s perspective as throughout the whole film they were never approved by their parents. The loneliness and disconnection that Fabian and Alex feel is communicated through awkward framing rather than camera movements which show that they were locked in a prison built by the adults’ opinions and restrictions. The lower positioning of the camera (from the shorter stature of the boys) is tilted up and quietly communicates that the children and their parents never quite see things the same way.
Deng uses lighting with subtle tones but to immense effect. Alex’s father, the preacher, has aggressive lighting with particular focus on his eyes which communicates both his propensity for discernment and judgement. Lighting the preacher differently from the other characters implied an ominous look to show the suppression of his religious view. The lighting was all motivated by the practical light sources set up to achieve the naturalistic look in order to make the film feel real. Alex’s mother has contrasting lighting which helps us feel that she is conflicted yet never “illuminated” enough to assert herself. This also hints at the affair that she had with Fabian’s father, an undertone of great discomfort during a meeting over coffee.
Edwin Soto was particularly pleased with this facet of the film. He communicates, “Xing-Mai already has an immense reputation which precedes him. When you work with Xing-Mai you also get the benefit of his loyal camera team; people which he already has a rapport with and who exhibit the same level of advanced skill that Xing-Mai possesses. I instantly had great confidence because of this and the experience of working with him grew exponentially. While many DOP’s try to find ways to display their knowledge and skill on a film, what is so enjoyable about working with him is his ability to let the story inform lighting. A director spends such a great amount of energy trying to make sure that his cinematographer sees things the way you want them to but I instantly felt that Xing-Mai both understood and saw the film the same way I did. You can’t imagine my relief when we discussed this in preproduction and we were instantly on the same page. Of course, he had ideas which helped me see things more clearly as well…which was such a welcome surprise.”
Deng was singled out for his work on “Imaginary Boys” as a 2017 American Society of Cinematographer ASC Heritage Award selected contender. In an expected humble fashion, he notes, “Imaginary Boys was one of my best works. Having been the selected contender was definitely a good validation for the team’s hard work. I felt that I successfully created a visual tone that was not a standard thriller or horror or drama yet it was very emotional and effective. It was very fortunate that I got to work on this material with Edwin. This film was shot almost 2 years ago. Now in retrospect, I wish we had more time during the production. I wish I had more time on the lighting and we had provided more coverages and more takes for our editors Alex and Sara Joe to cut with. But isn’t that the case for every film? All DP’s wish they had more time to make the lighting even better and had more shot choices for the editor. We did the best we could and we were proud of it.” While he may have hoped for more light on set, Xing-Mai Deng performed an exceptional job of casting light on a very real and concerning part of society in “Imaginary Boys.”