ONFILM Interview: Arthur Wong HKSC

Published on website: September 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Arthur Wong, HKSC. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

“I have watched movies since I was 7 or 8 years old. I saw re-runs of Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane which made an especially deep impression on me. It was like being in another world. … I have collaborated with directors from countries around the world. The language of cinematography is the same everywhere. We use light like artists control brushes when they are creating paintings. There are always new things happening that we can experiment with and use in different ways. Movies are entertainment, but they are also how we learn about other people in different times and places around the world.”

Arthur Wong, HKSC has earned 110 narrative film credits in collaboration with directors from around the world, including The Warlords, Silk, The Floating Landscape, The Medallion, Double Vision, Ultraviolet, Sleepless Town and the first two installments of Once Upon a Time in China. He has received 20-plus awards and nominations for artful cinematography, and is a founder and honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Society of Cinematographers.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.] 

A Conversation with Arthur Wong, HKSC


QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

WONG: I was born and brought up in Hong Kong. It’s an extremely busy city. I imagine it would be the same experience as growing up in a city like New York or Tokyo.

QUESTION: Was your family in the film industry?

WONG: My father, Chit Wong, was an outstanding cinematographer in Hong Kong back in the 1950s.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan when you were a child?

WONG: Yes. I’ve loved seeing movies on big screens since I was 7 or 8 years old. I didn’t have enough pocket money to see first-run movies, but for 20 cents I could see old foreign movies re-run in theaters. I was too young to understand the dialogue as well as the Chinese subtitles, but I was totally hooked by the fantasy trip in a dark enclosure. It has indulged me since then.

QUESTION: Can you name some of the films that impressed you?

WONG: I remember seeing re-runs of Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and Citizen Kane. Last Tango in Paris also impressed me profoundly.

QUESTION: How did you get into the business?

WONG: My father was working at the largest, local studio, Shaw Brothers, when I was a kid. He often took me to his work place, showing me all types of cameras and teaching me how to load films in different magazines. Occasionally he put me on the crew to work as a clapper/loader so that I could earn extra pocket money. I took all these casually and giddily. That was until after Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong and debuted The Big Boss, which shocked the world and attracted overseas production companies. I was entirely numb struck by their enthusiasm and systematic proceeding of all departments.

QUESTION: What did you learn by watching them work?

WONG: A lot — team spirit, knowledge, professionalism. I remember when they shot with sync sound; every soul on the set was working swiftly and quietly almost like tiptoeing. When a good take was done, everybody cheered and applauded wholeheartedly. I also learned how to light. It was a totally different system. Lighting in Hong Kong in that era was influenced by the Japanese system where the camera and lighting departments were totally separate. When I first became a cinematographer, I could only manage all aspects of camera-related work. Lighting was handled entirely by the gaffer. In order to get better results, I had to buy my gaffers dinner with good Cognac and discuss with them what I thought the lighting should be like in different scenes. Occasionally they would follow my advice. I believed that as a cinematographer, I should control lighting like a painter controls his paint brush. Once I had read an article quoting a cinematographer describing that his work was to paint with light; I entirely agree.

QUESTION: How old were you when you began working as a cinematographer?

WONG: I became a cinematographer when I was 20 years old.           

QUESTION: How did you become a cinematographer so early in your career?

WONG: I first started working as a focus puller for a year and did 13 productions. At that time, there was a group of young professionals who had studied abroad and returned to work back home. One of them had made a movie, Jumping Ash, which became a blockbuster. One day while I was having lunch in the canteen, a director approached me and asked what I thought made that movie a big hit. I told him that I liked the way the director manipulated the light; he used soft lighting which built a natural and realistic look instead of a staged drama. A week later, someone came and told me that the newly acquainted director wanted me to be his cameraman on his upcoming project. I went to him and explained that I have never learned to be one, but he insisted that since he was a cameraman himself, he could help to train me. I still remember vividly my first day of shooting; I had to manage a triple exposure in a scene with the same actor playing three different roles. We covered part of the lens, and exposed part of the frame. Then, we rewound the film and did it again two more times.

QUESTION: You also directed some films early on.

WONG: I directed my first film when I was only 23 years old. An older director encouraged me. He told me that he was only 23 when he directed his first film. I also wrote the screenplay. It was a comedy-action film. That was an interesting experience, but I remember thinking that I felt better about being a cameraman.

QUESTION: Looking back on that experience, did it help you as a cinematographer?

WONG: Yes. My early experiences as a director gave me a better understanding of the difference of the visual momentum between martial art movies and drama. When working on a drama, I have to decide whether the camera movement is telling the story or to emphasize the actors’ emotional transformation. Fortunately, I was an addicted filmgoer from a young age, and seeing films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca has helped. There is a long list of films that influenced me.

QUESTION: What was the next step in your career?

WONG: During the late 1970s, a group of young directors emerged who had studied abroad. We called them the New Wave. They collaborated much closer with cinematographers, production designers and heads of different departments. They discussed everything from the use of colors on sets, costumes to the style of make up, and how that worked with lighting.

QUESTION: Weren’t Kung Fu movies in vogue in Hong Kong during that period?

WONG: Yes, Kung Fu movies were very popular in Hong Kong back in the 1980s. I was the cinematographer on various Kung Fu movies, including four with Jackie Chan during that period.

QUESTION: Was shooting all of the action in those films challenging?

WONG: In action movies, there are in fact three types of action. First is the Kung Fu action; the camera captures every physical movement of the actor and his rival. Second is the stunt action, including physical and car stunts. Third is the wire work, which was used frequently in periodic stories. Sometimes we did 30 takes or more in fight sequences until the action felt perfect.

QUESTION: We understand that you are one of the founders of the Hong Kong Society of Cinematographers (HKSC). Why and how was that organization founded?

WONG: Yes, I was one of the founders. The society was founded in 1988 after two years of research about what our mission should be. A member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) who was working in Hong Kong gave us advice and guidance. There were no film schools teaching cinematography in Hong Kong. We organized seminars and workshops, and arranged for famous cinematographers to come to Hong Kong and share their knowledge and insights with our members.

QUESTION: We notice that you have shot films in many different countries.

WONG: I have shot films in at least 30 cities and other locations in different countries. I learned that no matter what language is being spoken, the cinematography terms are very much the same. All I have to do on arrival is learn to speak these terms — up, down, left, right, far, close, high, low, fast, slow, spot and flood — in their dialect and that’s it. We can work together like fishes in the pond.

QUESTION: You have shot around 110 movie credits and have earned 18 best cinematography awards and many other nominations from your peers in the HKSC and at various festivals. You have also produced, written and directed films, however cinematography seems to be your main passion. Can you tell us about one of your recent cinematography ventures in 2007, The Warlords?

WONG: The Warlords was directed by Peter Chan. It is a true story about what happened in China during a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty during the mid-1860s to ‘70s. The story revolves around three brothers who turned against one another. The film was produced at different locations in mainland China. We shot scenes with as many as 8,000 extras in costumes and 500 to 600 horses.

QUESTION: How did you prepare for an epic film like that?

WONG: Peter is a man in very high demand. He requested that the movie should have a reminiscing tone with one condition — we must not repeat whatever has already been tried and used. One day I was wandering around the Hollywood Road, a renowned antique selling district. I realized that the whole street consists of one common tone, copper. I then went to the post house and asked the technician there to help mix different shades of copper tone, and applied them onto the footage that I shot while scouting. Upon presentation, Peter chose the medium level, which is very close to monochrome.

QUESTION: What format was The Warlords produced in and why?

WONG: The Warlords was produced in Super 35 format, because the scope of the story called for a widescreen aspect ratio. I knew that we would be covering many scenes with multiple camera operators from both Hong Kong and mainland China. I anticipated that I would be re-cropping composition in D.I., matching shots from different cameras for continuity and fine tuning colors, darkness, light and contrast

QUESTION: What was the color palette for this period film?

WONG: Throughout the first half of the movie, which described the uprising of the three brothers, we used entirely medium copper tones with a very slight enhancement of the skin tone on each actor to emphasize their struggling. Gradually more color was added until the full-blown, deep red representing blood and lust was achieved.

QUESTION: One of the interesting things about cinematography is that audiences innately understand that things like colors, light and darkness are like the words they hear. Do you agree?

WONG: Yes, naturally audiences do understand, and at the very least nobody would recall dirt when seeing white, but it has to be subtle and not distinctive. Our use of colors reflected moods and what was happening in the story, but it wasn’t obvious.

QUESTION: We understand that was your first use of KODAK VISION3 5219 film. What were your impressions of how that advance in technology affects cinematography?

WONG: I saw improvements in resolution, contrast, sharpness and black tones. Those types of developments give you more freedom to express your ideas and feelings.

QUESTION: You are shooting films around the world and with filmmakers who are coming to Hong Kong from other countries. Do you believe filmmaking is a global art form and industry?

WONG: Definitely. When one travels to a new place, sees the unfamiliar scenery, experiences the different environments, it broadens one’s perspective of being. My experience tells me that when I work overseas, the freshness of the different environments changes my composition.

QUESTION: Are people born to be cinematographers or is it something you can learn?

WONG: I believe some people are gifted with an instinct in telling stories graphically, but being a cinematographer is a constant learning process. I often read article about other cinematographers and watch their films. Moviemaking has only been around for about 100 years. There are always new things happening that we can experiment with and use in different ways.

QUESTION: Do you think movies play a role in our society beyond entertainment?

WONG: The magical power of movies besides entertainment is that it inspires the viewers’ sense of emotion, love and value. It also helps to reinforce viewers’ scope of living and, at times, it helps to mentally fulfill viewers’ inconceivable fantasies.

QUESTION: Are you optimistic about the future of the motion picture industry?

WONG: I am optimistic. With more and more major overseas studios setting up production in China because of its big market and countless, untouched magnificent scenery, the movie industry should be rather prosperous in the foreseeable future.

QUESTION: Do young people who want to be cinematographers ask you for advice?

WONG: Yes, and I advise them to challenge themselves, because cinematography is hard work and you always have to keep learning. You have to use your imagination and keep dreaming and learning what we can do to tell more engaging stories. I tell them that they ought to reach out to their peers around the world and learn from each other.

 Oscar and Academy Award are trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.