There are literally hundreds of labels used to describe the varied talented professionals involved in the film industry: writer, director, cinematographer, actor, VFX editor, etc. While she most often falls under the moniker “Production Designer”, Dara Zhao has held a few different titles but the one she embraces most warmly is that of storyteller. Her involvement in highly anticipated feature films like The Little Mermaid (live action version of the Oscar-winning Disney animated classic) receives as much toil and passion as the Indie film Animals. Inquire to those whom she collaborates with on these productions and they’ll tell you that Zhao simply doesn’t know how to pursue her work with anything less than complete passion. A native of China who has worked in many countries across the world, Dara is continually recognized among her peers in the ever-expanding international film community as standing out amidst the competition. Versatility and commitment have allowed Dara to work across borders and across budgets to create compelling and award-winning films.
Zhao is no stranger to mammoth feature films, as proven with her work on the recent Walt Disney Production The Little Mermaid. Dara has been collaborating with Production Designer John Myhre on this film which contains cutting edge visuals and stars some of the most awarded actors in the world including: Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Awkwafina, and Jacob Tremblay. Filmed at the historic Pinewood Studios in London with director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Mary Poppins) at the helm, this new updated version of the story has taken on the daring task of presenting a film whose original version received awards from the Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes. Dara states, “Working on a film like this is everything you’d imagine. It’s challenging and inspiring at the same time. Utilizing the most progressive film techniques requires imaginative professionals at the top of their field. Being included in this group is something I’m definitely proud of. I’ll find myself walking through the halls at Pinewood and thinking about the multitude of beloved films created there and find myself grateful to be a part of this lineage.”
In her native China, Zhao was an essential part of the hit film Mojin - The Lost Legend. As Assistant Art Director and Illustrator, she was key in realizing the look of this film which received the Lumiere Award for Best International 3D Feature-Live Action, won Best Visual Effects at the Golden Horse Awards (China’s version of the Oscars), as well as a slew of others. The experience was true “world creating” for Dara as she describes, “The biggest challenge of this film was also the aspect which I enjoyed the most; a great place to find yourself in when working on a feature film. Most of the action takes place in an ancient Chinese underground tomb. There’s a lot of folklore about such places but not much real information about them. There have been movies since Mojin that presented such a setting but ours was the first. The story was adapted from a famous novel so we had some parameters but it was visually a very open canvas. I was excited to throw myself into this project and be a part of setting the precedent for films that would follow.”
Smaller budget films have grown immensely in popularity within the past decade but that’s not why filmmakers undertake these projects. The smaller budget of these productions is often offset by the “hands off” approach of those who control the purse strings. Dara was the Production Designer (and Costume Designer) for Shop of Eternal Life which received awards from the Bali International Film Festival, won the Jury Award from the Directors Guild of America, selected for the 70th Cannes Film Festival, and numerous other accolades. This Faustian tale of a man who desperately needs money to save his ailing wife takes place within a thirty-year span. Zhao’s ability to enable the production to manifest different eras while possessing a cohesive and menacing undertone is remarkable. Her contributions as PD to Director/Writer/Producer Chen-wen Lo’s Animals is similarly astounding. This agonizing tale of child soldiers in war-torn Burma gives no hint to its actual urban filming locations. In an industry that exists upon suspending reality for the audience, Dara continues to prove her mastery of this.
What does this accomplished professional think is the most vital attribute she possesses? Surprisingly, it’s flexibility. Zhao confesses, “You have to have talent and dedication; that’s without question. If I dissect what’s kept me working in productions big and small, foreign and domestic…I’d have to say it’s largely due to a commitment to making ‘it happen.’ By that I mean, you must be highly accomplished but also eager to move out of your comfort zone. Hollywood has such a high level of professionalism and infrastructure; it’s inspirational to be among that. At the same time, the developing film industry of China requires one to work in different areas and sometimes multi-task. That might be uncomfortable at times but I feel it offers a huge chance to grow. If you want to have a long career, you must embrace constant growth. The same template applies to big films and small films. I love to make films and that means always looking for a way to improve my skills.”