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Dara Zhao Talks International Filmmaking and The Little Mermaid

Already in Preproduction, the live action remake of Disney’s 1989 twice Oscar-winning animated classic The Little Mermaid looks to be destined for success. The film has a deep Oscar bench. Assistant Art Director Hang “Dara” Zhao is working with Oscar Production Designer John Myhre to help manifest this modern reality visual miracle for The Little Mermaid. As a young artist who’s working on this highly anticipated film, we asked AAD Dara Zhao talked about her insight concerning working on this film and her career.

How did you end up working on this project?

Dara Zhao: The Production Designer John Myhre brought me aboard this film. I’ve always respected his work and hoped to someday work with him. I met him in the Art Director Guild and showed him my portfolio. When he crewing up he emailed me. I feel really happy and grateful can work with him and working on this project.

Describe your experience working with John Myhre on this film thus far. What have you learned while working with him .

It’s a fantastic experience working with him. John is a really great mentor to me. He loves sharing and getting people who working with him as involved as possible. He is very knowledgeable and inspiring people, he is also really open to suggestions. And always encourage his crews.

I’m learning from him everyday as a Production Designer how to approach his visual, how to communicate with director, producer, DP, and also his art department.

I also helped him with couple big presentations for Director and Producer, and also for Disney. And for each presentation I feel like took each valuable class.

You’re in preproduction at the legendary Pinewood Studios in London. What’s it like being in the history and excitement of those hallowed walls?

DZ: I’m so excited to work here at Pinewood Studios. There have been tons of famous films shot here. Probably the best part is that everyone is really talented, responsible, and efficient; but as importantly, they’re really passionate about their job. Not just the Art Department, but all of the other department crews. It’s very busy but equally enjoyable. I have to say, I LOVE LONDON! It’s one of the TOP 5 cities in my opinion!

It sounds like there is a “team spirit” on this production.

DZ: Yes. I got chance collaborating with the VFX team. This is a fantasy piece and there will be a lot of CG in the film. In my previous working experience, I mostly utilized 2D techniques to work and approach visual ideas. I did use some 3D software before I got deeper into concept illustrations, like Modo, Cinema 4D, etc.; quick and simple details to support illustrations’ shape and perspective. On this film, getting to know closely with VFX has helped me realize that there’s a lot more I can do with this in my skill set. It’s exciting to expand that.

You’ve worked on many Chinese feature films. Is there an adjustment for you when you work in other countries with a large film community and infrastructure? In other words, do you find that you’re simply doing the same work in a different location or is there more to it than this?

DZ: There are lots of differences. For example, a film industry like Hollywood has a really accomplished system with an organized history. There’s no shortage of acclaimed professionals and unions who take good care of them. The Chinese film industry is still developing while continually proving how exceptional and creative it is. When I’m working on a film in China, I might serve a number of roles on the production; ranging from Illustrator to Set Designer, and even Graphic Designer. Sometimes this is quite beneficial because you can learn a great deal but sometimes it’s not as efficient as in Hollywood.

You seem to enjoy vacillating between big studio films and Indie films. What’s the attraction for you as a professional in doing this?

DZ: For me, the biggest difference is responsibility. It’s all about a desire to learn and get better at my work. Indie films often have a limited budget which necessitates figuring out a way to make things work. I don’t avoid that challenge, I embrace it. It pushes me to find something new. Similar to my statement about the Chinese film industry, I might find myself serving a number of positions on an Indie film, which leads to exploration. When I work on a film with a large budget, I have a new appreciation for what other departments and professionals are doing as well as have the perspective with which to make suggestions. In the same way, I’m learning from John Myhre while working with him on The Little Mermaid. He’s so knowledgeable and inspiring, plus he is eager to share the wealth of his incredible career.

It’s appropriate that The Little Mermaid is being filmed at London’s iconic Pinewood Studios. From the biggest spectacle films like Marvel’s Avengers series, the recent Star Wars films, to the Downton Abbey TV series, and foreign indie sensations like Roma; Pinewood is the fertile ground which seeds compelling productions of all varieties. Zhao confirms that being in this environment is a treasured experience as she works on The Little Mermaid.

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