Frame your world with award-winning cinematographer Jo Jo Lam
Cinematography is like the language of film, and a good cinematographer can make or break a movie. Rising star Jo Jo Lam, born in Hong Kong, is quickly becoming known as a cinematographer who can raise the bar on any project. Lam holds an MFA in cinematography from the AFI Conservatory and recently won the Kodak Vision Award for Excellence in Cinematography.
Currently, Lam is working on the film The Hideaway with director Jane Stephens Rosenthal. The film tells a coming-of-age story for fourteen-year-old Nika, who learns that her mother might be a stripper and becomes determined to discover the truth. We were thrilled to speak with Jo Jo Lam about the project and what it takes to be a great cinematographer.
Tell us what first made you fall in love with film.
I fell in love with film at an early age. I still remember the first two films I saw at the cinema: a Hong Kong martial arts film, and none other than TITANIC. I was amazed by how engrossing these films were and how they transported me to another universe. I remember forcing my dad to go back to the theatres with me over and over! From then on, I developed a pretty big appetite for films. My mum is also a big foreign film lover so I’d come across amazing titles at home on DVDs.
I started fervently seeking foreign films out. Luckily, in Hong Kong, the lesser-known art house foreign films would always be on sale because they were not so popular. I built a pretty healthy collection of films by cinéastes like Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodovar, Jane Campion, and too many more to list. I was pretty hooked and these films provided a window to the world beyond the small city of Hong Kong where I also discovered my love of travel.
This propelled me to go out into the world and explore the many different cultures I was exposed to on-screen. Suffice to say, I owe a lot to cinema and how it shaped the trajectory of my life so far!
How did you decide to go into cinematography specifically?
I never knew cinematography could be a job, especially coming from Hong Kong where becoming an artist wasn’t really an option or much talked about as a profession. I was always interested in photography and filmmaking and studied it from when I was 17 in Australia. I signed up for foundation courses at the Victorian College of the Arts (University of Melbourne now) at night while I went to high school during the day. The course was extremely hands-on and I’d crew on the weekends.
I then moved to London to study filmmaking properly for my bachelor’s degree but had to drop out because of financial troubles at home. I fell into camera assisting by chance and started professionally working as a 2nd AC for 5 years. Throughout this time I was able to study and work for a lot of fantastic DPs and made the connection that cinematography excited me the most. I love collaborating with other people and helping them achieve their vision. I transitioned into being a cinematographer slowly, first via shooting my friend’s short film, IF YOU SEE MARIA (d.Ivana Anastasovska) in Serbia.
It was an eye-opening experience to shoot in Eastern Europe and work with local crews. This film actually went on to travel to some incredible film festivals, including Kustendorf Film and Music Festival, curated by the legendary director Emir Kusturica. I realized this job combines all my love of traveling, discovering new cultures, and collaborating with others.
What do you think makes images so powerful?
I can go on and on about this for hours. What makes images (stills and moving) so powerful for me personally is that it’s up for interpretation. Depending on where you are from, what language you speak, what religion you do or do not believe in, the way you understand an image would be entirely different from someone else’s–but it can invoke feelings or memories which are unique to you.
A good image can tell you everything you need to know in one frame. I’m also a big fan of documentary photography and think they have a much tougher job than us as cinematographers where they have to capture a really specific spontaneous moment in time. We try to do that in cinema, of course, but with way more tools and people–which is also why I love it, since it’s a collaboration.
What do most people not involved in film misunderstand about the role of a cinematographer?
People who aren’t involved in filmmaking usually mistake us as camera operators or as people who only handle the camera on a technical level. A cinematographer actually is in charge of the camera and lighting department, and they are an artist, technician, and a leader. They come up with visual design ideas to tell a story to put it simply. They’re involved pretty early on in a project and have a hand in anything that ends up in front of the camera.
They’re heavily involved in decisions and collaborations with other departments such as the production design, makeup, and costume. Every cinematographer works differently, but I am a big believer in being involved as early as possible. Scouting, attending rehearsals, and spending time with the director to understand the world of the film and the characters are a big part of the work. In the end, we are storytellers who are also technicians who have a high understanding of the craft and are there to assist the director to tell their story.
You’ve got an MFA in Cinematography from the AFI Conservatory. How did studying at an academic level affect your work?
AFI was a unique experience. it was the right place and time for where I was in my life and career. Since I had already worked in the industry for more than 5 years, I knew exactly what I was looking for in an academic environment. My main focus was to try, learn, and absorb as many techniques and styles of photographing a narrative film as possible. In the time I’ve been there I’ve had the incredible opportunity to solely focus on my passion and meet the most creative and talented collaborators.
Being in an environment where I can freely fail freed me up creatively. As a result, some of my work and growth has already been recognized. For example, a short film I shot on 35mm film called CEREMONY won the Kodak Vision Award for Excellence in Cinematography.
Would you recommend that other people interested in cinematography go down the academic route?
There are many different ways to become a cinematographer — there’s no one right way. A lot of folks work their way up to become amazing DPs starting from PA, camera assisting, or the lighting route and gain a lot of practical experience on the field. Not everyone can afford to go to school either (especially not in the US!). I did a mix and reckon you need to ask yourself whether you really need a school to help you to step up or step over so to speak. Since I started working really young and was financially independent early on, I wasn’t able to enjoy an environment where I can learn and fail freely.
AFI made sense for me since it was a very focused program of 2 years where you constantly shoot and collaborate with other directors, which was exactly what I needed after years of freelancing in the industry. I’d say everyone can benefit from going to school, you just have to figure out precisely what your goals are. Going to AFI at a later age definitely suited me as well since I knew exactly what kind of stories I wanted to tell.
What attracts you to one particular project over another?
Complex characters and stories for me are always more interesting over any specific style or genre of filmmaking. Though the director and the creative team also matter a whole lot, since a visionary can tell any old story in a completely unique way.
Your current project is the film The Hideaway. Can you tell us how you got involved in the production?
Jane Stephens Rosenthal, a director friend whom I have also worked with on two previous short films, asked me to join and photograph this project. I was extremely humbled and excited. Jane and I have a unique collaborative relationship in how we see cinema and filmmaking in general. We share a similar vocabulary in terms of references ranging from films to documentaries, art, and photography. I knew she would have a unique perspective in telling the story. We both have the belief that no tales are ordinary and it all depends on the way you tell it. I knew Jane was going to tell this story of a girl turning into a woman and her growing pains in a very specific way.
What did you most enjoy about working on the film?
I really enjoyed the early stages of prepping with Jane and other heads of departments, dreaming up ways of telling this story. Shooting is of course immensely enjoyable, but there are so many logistics and planning involved that I’d say it’s more about execution on set, especially on low-budget short film schedules. I love to prep and look at reference films or photo books together. The way Jane and I look at filmmaking is very lyrical and we took a deep dive into how to tell this story in the most poetic and personal way.
The film has gone on to play at multiple festivals worldwide, namely AFI Fest, Hollyshorts Film Festival, LA Shorts, the Cinegear film series, Evolution Mallorca Film Festival, and Bolton Film Festival. It has also been recognized and won Best Cinematography at the Monza Film Festival, Beyond the Curve Film Festival, and the Platinum Remi Award at the Houston International Film Festival. Seeing the film’s continuous success on the festival circuit has been so encouraging as everyone’s work continuously gets acknowledged and seen!
What was your biggest challenge while working on it?
One of the most challenging aspects of this film was working around a child actor’s schedule, as they have extremely limited hours on set with strict guidelines and multiple breaks. This posed a lot of issues for the schedule as we were not able to schedule scenes logically and also had a fair few night scenes. Luckily, I have worked with children and teenagers before both on fiction and documentary projects where I understood their energy as well as the limitation to scheduling.
We took these factors into consideration when preparing and shot listing, and gave ourselves very strict rules on how to break down a scene. This was ultimately very beneficial as it forced us to be extremely prepared beforehand. I also did extensive scouting with my gaffer and key grip so we understood the limitations and challenges of a location early on. We wanted our director to have the freedom and time to block and rehearse scenes with the actors to get the best performance, which I believe is one of the most important elements in a film.
Do you hope audiences take away anything in particular from viewing The Hideaway?
I hope they feel seen in a certain way, whether that be through Nika’s perspective or Chrissy’s (the main characters). I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I’m always the most interested in seeing a fully developed character with flaws. I think cinema is a very powerful medium that can connect us and if misused can also set up unrealistic expectations of how the world seems to be.
Can you tell us anything about what’s next for you?
I finished my feature film debut, shooting in Boston in Early September this year with the Student Academy awards winner, Georden West. PLAYLAND features a cast and creative team entirely made up of LGBTQIA2+ talent. I’m also in prep as DP on a short film in Guadeloupe. I also have a documentary project in development in the US.
You’ve lived all over the world. Do you have a favorite place?
It’s hard to name a favorite! The more countries I luckily get to travel to and live in, the more I realize it’s one and the same. There are pros and cons to every country, it depends on what you’re looking for and your perspective on things. Paris is an amazing city for culture, food, and in general very beautiful and inspiring. Los Angeles has amazing weather, nature, and music.
Melbourne is pretty special and has also a ton of culture–London is the same but the weather can be a challenge. I can go on! I’ll say Hong Kong is still my favorite place as it’s where home is. And it’s a tiny island that can host tons of different cultures and people, and Hong Kongers are a special bunch! You should be so lucky to get to go there!
What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting started in the world of filmmaking?
Get started and don’t be afraid. You have no idea where this path will lead you. But make sure you’re truly passionate about it because it’ll take up a lot of space in your life. Otherwise, there are many other professions out there that allow you to strike a better work/life balance.
Who are some of your biggest influences currently?
I’m influenced by a lot of different sources of art. Documentary photography, paintings, music, and literature all inspire me greatly. The one exhibition I visited during the pandemic was also probably one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a long time. It was at the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art in Paris. There was a retrospective of the work by photographer Claudia Andujar who lived in and documented the lives of the largest indigenous tribe in Brazil (he Yanomami Tribe) over five decades.
It was extremely well-curated and her inventive ways of documenting their lives on celluloid film with creative lighting and camera techniques in the jungle have been on my mind ever since.
What are your five favorite films?
This question is always so hard to answer! I can only answer five favorite films that come to my mind right now at this moment. I’ve continued to revisit these films over and over again so perhaps that qualifies as favorites?!
- Happy Together by Wong Kar Wai
- Persona by Ingma Bergman
- Three Colors: Blue by Krzysztof Kieślowski
- Fish Tank & Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold
- There will be Blood by Paul Tomas Anderson
Are there any indie filmmakers we should be paying more attention to?
There are plenty out there but I’ll let everyone in on a secret: Marie Monge, a dear friend, and collaborator of mine. She’s a French director and we worked together on her feature TREAT ME LIKE FIRE with Tahar Rahim and Stacey Martin. This was her feature debut and it went on to premiere in the Cannes Film Festival in the Director’s Fortnight section. Need I say more? She’s working on her second film right now and I’d say keep your eyes peeled for her new work!
What’s your five-year plan?
It’s a little early for a five-year plan but I’d love to grow my career internationally with a base in the US. I want to shoot more narrative feature films in between interesting artistic projects including artist films, music videos, and commercials. I’ve also become more aware and engaged in having more representations in our industry.
Accessibility, diversity, and representation have become very important to me, specifically in the way we work and create cinema both behind and in front of the camera. I feel strongly about changing that and am very cognizant of how I put my team together and what kind of projects I choose to tell.