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Using color to enhance a film: Production Designer Xiwen Zhang weighs in

As a production designer, Xiwen Zhang sees herself as a constructor of worlds. She can express her creativity through her work, with every choice contributing to the artistry of a film. What color suits a character? What backdrop can express their feelings in a single frame? These are an artist’s questions, and ones Zhang asks herself every day. Her canvas is a studio or shooting location, her brush is the props.

“I use my imagination to create an entirely new space. It is really wonderful,” she said.

Zhang is an internationally sought-after production designer in both China and abroad, with a broad range of talent that can apply to any genre of film or television. Her extraordinary abilities are evident in all her works, such as the films I See You, With You, and Stay.

Zhang’s first true taste of international success came with her film Affectionate Heart. The movie tells the story of three prostitutes, who share with the audience details of their past and why they do this job. Each of the three have a very different background, coming from different countries with their own unique tales to tell.

“I was very interested in this project because of its unique story. Prostitutes are marginalized by society, and I think showing them as real people makes for a special film. I’ve never been to the home of a sex worker before, but I know they are normal women. This film really shows the strength of special qualities women possess,” said Zhang.

Before officially beginning work on Affectionate Heart, Zhang conducted extensive research regarding the lives of sex workers and their backgrounds from other films, documentaries, and books. She found their lives are very similar to other professions, and they are very normal outside of their work. Sex, for them, was just a job, and Zhang wanted this reflected in the production design. When she designed their bedrooms, she made them as normal as possible, with each character having a different color she thought suited their personalities. Nana is red, because she killed her father, and red means blood, violence and breakthrough taboos. Alisa is green, meaning relaxed, confident, and grown up. Xiao Yan is blue, which means deep, sad, and silent. Zhang used these color elements in the details, like the walls, sheets and clothes.

“It was a very interesting experience, choosing the different color props for the characters. I even made some of props by myself. I think all this made the film better. The visual style is so special. Staying creative is an important thing for me and I really want to do something special for every movie I work on,” she said.

Zhang took home several awards for her outstanding work on Affectionate Heart, and was nominated for many others. The film was shown at festivals all over the world, and allowed Zhang to showcase her talents far beyond China. Now, when she looks back at the experience, she is thrilled to have been a part of telling such an important story.

“People really stereotype sex workers, but they are really just the same as you and me. I’m not going to judge whether they’ve made the right choices. Instead, I am going to focus on why they do their job and are they happy with their life. If they are happy, that’s enough,” she said.

Since working on Affectionate Heart, Zhang has risen to great international success with many award-winning films decorating her impressive resume. She is currently hard at work on the feature Ocean Eyes, which will begin shooting next year.

Zhang is thrilled to be doing what she loves every day, but she has worked tirelessly to get to where she is. For those looking to follow in her footsteps, she offers the following wise words:

“You need to enrich your self-awareness to be a production designer, or a filmmaker of any kind for that matter. Go to the museum often, know more about art history and contemporary art, and showcase that in your work. Watch classic films and big blockbusters to know different styles of production design. Work with professional people, and always be willing to learn,” she advised.

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