Yiting Lyu sees her job as a cinematographer similar to that of a painter. She always loved the arts, even as a young child growing up in a small coastal city in Northeast China, and entertained herself from an early age by drawing, and eventually began sketching, oil painting, chalking and more. She loved the feeling of creating a visual masterpiece, and with a passion for movies, she began to explore the idea of filmmaking as a future. She found that cinematography was very similar to the arts, but instead of using brushes and pigments, it uses cameras and lights.
Lyu considers herself to be a “director cinematographer”. She does her job as a director of photography through a director’s view, and that is why she is so sought-after in China and around the world. Her resume includes award-winning highlights such as Harmonica, as well as The Red Balloon, Conscience, and Love Behind. No matter the project, Lyu’s focus is the story, and she is a beautiful storyteller.
“In my mind, pictures should always serve for the story, not the opposite way. I know a lot of DPs who enjoy making beautiful, fancy shots, but they make no sense to the story. I never do that. When making a film, the story is the most important thing. I have to like the script first to work on a project, and I always avoid letting the picture go beyond the story. Audiences shouldn’t realize the techniques of filmmaking when watching a movie. If they think “oh the picture is too beautiful” or “the camera movement is amazing”, it means the film has failed to tell a story because the audiences were not immersed in it. With every new project, I have to think how to let the picture inspire,” she said.
Another notable project for Lyu was the 2016 drama Cartoon Book. In the film, a little boy tries to go against the school and teacher under severe rules. Afterwards it seems that the teacher gradually controls the boy by using his vulnerability and letting the rebel boy become a tool to manage other students.
“It reminds me of the book 1984. They have a lot of things in common as the kids are always under the surveillance of the Teacher (Big Brother), and they want to make a revolution to get some freedom (reading cartoon books), but in the end, they never get away from the control of the teacher,” Lyu described.
The moment the Director, Shuhe Wang, sent Lyu the script for Cartoon Book, Lyu was blown away by the story. She knew instantly that she wanted to be the cinematographer on this masterpiece of a film. She began envisioning just how to tell the story, and she and Wang made a tremendous team.
Once Lyu had a good idea of the story, she decided to incorporate a feeling of magic realism combined with retro, classic-looking shots when filming. In the opening scenes, she used dolly movements and high key lighting to better tell the story. She also wanted the film to have a mysterious and suspenseful tone, so she added film noir elements while shooting. Later in the film, Lyu had the lighting gradually change from high-key to low-key by using chiaroscuro and shadowy shots. With every shot, she wanted to give viewers the sense that the children were always under the oppressive thumb of the teacher.
“There is no denying that Yiting’s cinematography was responsible for Cartoon Book having such a dramatic feel, which really improved the film,” said Wang.
Cartoon Book premiered in May of 2016 at the prestigious and iconic Festival De Cannes. From there, it went on to win several awards, including Best Women Filmmaker at the 2017 Accolade Competition, and the Gold Remi Award at the 50th WorldFest Houston in 2017.
Lyu was pivotal to the success of Cartoon Book, as she is with any project she takes on. She encourages any and all looking to get into filmmaking to follow their dreams, and for those looking to do so, she offers the following advice:
“Keep learning, watch a lot of films. That’s the most important because creativity won’t just come out of thin air. Watching and studying films is the very basis, so is learning other forms of arts like photography, painting, music. You get to build this large database and creativity will be generated from there. It’s not a few months or three years of studying in a film school or such. It’s a lifetime of learning,” she advised.
Photo by Jiayi Liang