17 Jun 2020

Shooting into International Success

Breaking into the International Film Scene, Alumni James Cui proves his skill as a Cinematographer with a win at the New York Cinematography Awards for 'Whack'


We couldn't think of a better way to break into the international film scene! We caught up with James to talk about how he was inspired to be a part of 'Whack', what his first award means to him and how AFTT shaped his skillset.

Tell us a little bit about 'Whack'? 

Whack is a film which about an old Chinese MMA fighter who lost everything after his retirement. His neighbours used to always call him ‘wacko’ because of his strange attitudes and behaviours. He constantly questions himself about the fact that only 1% of his life is spent in the fight ring, but the remaining 99% of his life is ordinary, the question is which one is more important to him? In the end he decides to go back to the ring one last time because that 1% is all he has. 

What inspired you to be apart of this film?

It was definitely the director (Zhang Taihai) who inspired me the most. He used to work in the MMA industry and heard a lot of personal experiences from other fighters. It was a fresh interesting story for me to create as cinematographer. 

A win at the New York Cinematography Awards is such an achievement, has this win challenged you to expand on your creativity? 

The award is an encouragement for me to keep shooting good films. I have always watched behind the scenes documentaries to learn and ‘steal’ some new techniques, even some YouTubers have interesting shooting techniques that have been useful to put in a professional shoot. There is a never-ending chance to gain creativity, learning and practice.  

What has been the most important part of your journey in releasing a feature film? 

Being a part of the feature film journey can sometimes mean being a part of a long waiting period. Even as a cinematographer, it is not just about shooting, you need to be fully committed to the project which also includes pre-production and post-production to create the ‘world’ for the film. In that process, the most important part is that I need to be attached to the story and experience what the characters were experiencing to create the desired ‘world’ with the director.  

What’s next for you in your film career?  

I wish to continue work as a cinematographer and shoot good films. I also have an idea for a documentary I wish to shoot as a director, but it is still in the process of construction. 

How has studying Film at AFTT helped you become a great filmmaker? 

I wouldn’t say I’m a great filmmaker yet (I wish), there is definitely more room for learning and practicing. The lectures were always well prepared and had tons of industry experiences. The equipment we were learning with were all at industry standards and the teaching covered every aspect of filmmaking, so by the time I first started working in the industry I was using those skills straight away. I had friends who studied film at those major universities, but when we worked together, I found my knowledge built at AFTT was far more advanced than what they been taught. I really benefited from the 5 days a week full time learning from AFTT. 

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about taking their career to the next level at AFTT? 

Don’t skip any of the classes at AFTT. Doesn’t matter which specialty you wish to work in the future, when you got into the industry, you must collaborate with all other departments. It is important to understand some knowledge from those other departments so you can communicate well and have more time to focus on your crafts. 

Also, don’t treat the school project only as an assessment, it is better to be fully committed into the school project so then you can use it to enter some film festivals and may even meet someone you might work with in the future. That same scenario was how I got the chance to work on the film “Whack”.

Check out the trailer for 'Whack' below!

To learn more about studying film at AFTT, click here