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Calvin Khurniawan talks his award-winning film "Alchemist"

Calvin Khurniawan knows there is much more to cinematography than simply picking up a camera and filming something. It is an art form, and takes years of study and practice to master it. He knows the responsibility that comes from his job, as he is more than just a filmmaker, he is a storyteller. He engages audiences and allows them to unwind, or connect with emotions that they push down until seeing his work. There is an obligation for the cinematographer to be the best he can possibly be, and as one of Indonesia’s best, he is doing just that.

With a series of successful projects under his belt, Khurniawan is now internationally sought-after. His versatility is evident, and whether he is working on music videos such as “Down” with Andrew Belle, or films like Antifilm, the impressive cinematography captivates audiences. It was a fateful day when Khurniawan decided to make filmmaking his career, and his passion for what he does carries into each one of his projects.

“People who’ve viewed my works often call them subtly dark, loud, and often uncomfortable. However, I’ve also been told the total opposite. Instead of the story, I like to frame for the talent’s unconsciousness – how they’re feeling internally. I believe it’s more important just to get beautifully shot coverage. It’s what I think captures the audience attention the most - how the actors on screen really feel. Since everyone’s job on set is to tell stories, I like to go to an actor’s mental state and amplify them,” he said.

Just this year, Khurniawan added to his esteemed resume with his most decorated film to date, Alchemist. It is a journey showing life’s rarest moments, but moments audiences can relate to all the same. In further detail, it shows the story of an avant-garde perfumer and his apprentice rebel, who go against the expectation of the luxurious, but are lacking in passion and identifying the niche market they cater to. Together they hope to change the perceptions of what perfume should smell like. The core message is about an artist’s struggle to be relevant. It’s a universal story about making a statement – whether people like it or not.

“We’re often told by people there is only a certain way to do things, so we’re afraid to explore other options. In this film, we see a perfumer who is tired and bored of crafting a scent that is made for a mere accessory. He goes against the norm by crafting a scent that is considered ‘bad’ by most people. In the end, he doesn’t make a scent, rather he makes a chemical compound that enhances people’s natural scent. It’s basically amplifying a person’s own scent. As weird as it sounds, there are multiple studies that we are attracted by the weirdest things,” Khurniawan described. “The moral of the story fundamentally says, ‘be yourself’.”

Alchemist won over the hearts of critics and audiences all around the world. Not only did it win awards at the Around International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, and the New York Los Angeles Film Festival, it was also an Official Selection at the Stockholm Independent Film Festival, the Blow-Up International Arthouse Film Festival, and the Silicon Beach Film Festival where it made its world premiere. It is now distributed by Silicon Beach Distribution. Such success could not have happened without Khurniawan’s cinematography talents, and these thoughts were echoed by all those he worked with on the film.

"When I first discussed a film idea surrounding the subject of perfume to Calvin, he immediately got excited. The first thing he said is he would need to extensively redesign the environment. We both agree to avoid the LA look as we’d shoot the film there. He got involved heavily in re-writing and designing the look with Walter Diaz, the second cinematographer. They both pitched to me the look and ideas on how they would frame the infusion scenes. Calvin is an enthusiastic visual artist – the micro shots alone took 12 hours to shoot because he would try different approaches when he shoots. Working with Calvin helps you to visualize the things you write. As a writer, I had to picture the world in great detail, but Calvin made everything poetic and vivid – which made working with him incredibly exciting. The visuals that he contributed from the writing to the screen has been eye opening,” said Silviana Khurniawan, co-writer of Alchemist.

Once Khurniawan read the script, he immediately wanted to work on the film. He knew exactly how he would film each shot, wanting to shoot many shots macro style. He had a lot of experience shooting macro photography, and knew how to film it meticulously. He spent long hours getting detailed shots of water and ink drops. He also experimented with different kinds of devices to produce different kinds of smoke, and with his crew he would shoot 30 takes just for a water drop. Although the work was tedious, the cinematographer says it was in no way frustrating, as he knew he was making the best film possible.

In addition to his role as cinematographer, Khurniawan also directed the film, immersing himself in it completely. He did extensive research before shooting even began, and talked to a scent artist who helped him understand the science behind perfumes. He spoke with a neurologist to study how humans react to scents and the philosophy of perfumery. He wanted the script and the filming to be as authentic as possible.

“The research was probably my favorite thing about working on this project. Since the perfume ingredients were the most important part of the film, I kept re-designing the shots for the macro shots until production,” Khurniawan described.

As a filmmaker, however, Khurniawan knows a film can be as artistic as possible, but it still all goes back to storytelling. He frames every shot based on the character’s emotional point of view, allowing audiences to connect with the story he is conveying. His goal is to inspire, and he did just that with Alchemist.

“The core story is about an artist who caters for what people want instead of the artist providing what he believes to be true. I hope it’s a story every aspiring artist or designer can relate to,” he concluded.

Photo - Calvin Khurniawan on the set of "Alchemist", by Akerke Shatekova

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