Tian Liu is an acclaimed cinematographer and photographer
Tian Liu was born in China, where she studied sports journalism. She has worked as a reporter and free composer in CCTV, China Net, and in the young press corps. While teaching orphans math as a volunteer in Kenya, Liu felt inspired to photograph their lives. This experience makes her realized she wanted to become a professional filmmaker. Following her dream, Tian Liu earned her MFA in Cinematography at New York Film Academy. At 25, the Cannes Film Festival has already selected one of her films. She works on narrative films, fashion films, reality TV, and documentaries. Tian has contributed to numerous and various film projects captured on 35 and 16 mm film. She is one of the few female cinematographers of her generation versed and loyal to the original medium of motion pictures. She found success as a photographer publishing her works in high-profile magazines and newspapers, including China Daily, and her photos have been featured in Vogue Italia. She is also one of the top Chinese fashion photographers in America. Tian Liu opened her own company specialize in film and photography. She is also known as Fendou Liu. Tian Lu is the founder/CEO of Tigertail Pictures.
What motivated you to become a cinematographer and photographer? Why did you decide to become a visual artist?
When I was 20 years old, I went to Kenya to be an international volunteer. That experience made me decide to be a visual artist. I lived in a slum for 2 months and taught math in an orphanage. The youngest child there was only 6 years old. These children don’t have shoes to wear, can only eat corn and rice every day, and they are still so optimistic and happy about life. I wanted to help them, so I used the camera to record the time with them, I was a photojournalist for China Newsagency at that time. I wrote their stories as special topics, and the results were reprinted and published on major portal websites like China News Service, China Daily, Phoenix.com, etc. have all published their stories. The future It would be very gratifying for someone to help them. This is my original intention to be a visual artist. I want to use the language in my lens to help them and make their lives better.
As a student majoring in journalism, years of professional study merely formed the cradle of my photographing passion. As an undergraduate, I worked both as a reporter as well as a free “composer” at CCTV, China Net, and Young Press Corps, respectively. These stints gave me the opportunity to visit Africa, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; all in the pursuit of further “perfecting” my photographic composition. Subsequently, my individual memories consist of the time and objectives simmering behind my photos, filtered by my own growing life experience and reading scale. I believe this is the charm of photography. Deeply moved by the pleasures both from my past work and journeys, I always consider photography a magically mysterious science that can take my body — as the carrier of my soul — into the unknown realms of time and space, realms in which I will never cease to look for new breakthroughs in my self-consciousness.
My individual memories consist of the time and objectives simmering behind the shots, filtered by my growing life experience and reading scale.” – Tian Liu
Tian has built an incredible network of US and Chinese celebrity clients
Who has been your biggest influence or source of inspiration as a person and as a creative?
The childhood memory of one waving ray of red light tearing through the deep darkness of the room sparked an interest in the field of photography — one that would determine Liu’s adulthood and the course of life overall. Seduced by the “particular” smell of developing solution — a mixture of thioic acid and acid salt — Liu’s hands held her very first Ricoh film camera when she was only seven years old. From darkroom fumes, a burning enthusiasm was born, and photography gradually became the absolute way to record her growing footprint on this Earth.
“My memories consist of the time and objectives simmering behind the shots, filtered by my growing life experience and reading scale.” – Tian Liu
“Before a shoot, I like to visit museums or galleries; or book stores. I’ll always be inspired by other people’s art.” – Tian Liu
Paolo Roversi is of great inspiration to me. He taught me to broaden my horizons and study my subject matter of interest. “For me, light is life – and the first light that I see, is the sun”, and I hereby quote Roversi, “So when I think about light, I think about the sun and nothing else. Window light is the most important light for me. When I take a picture using window light, I always think about what a long trip the light is making to reach my subject.” His works, with their staple refinement and sensitivity, romanticism, fragility, depict the supernatural, magical, and light-full beauty of women. I also feel his pictures show really strong emotion which makes them even more beautiful and touching. The No.1 emotion that I can feel coming from his photography is love. The love between women and men, the love between men and men, the love between two women… That has influenced me to great extent.
If I have to pick one director I really like I will say, Tim Burton. Tim Burton is one of the most influential American directors of absurd metaphysics. He is known as a ghost in the film industry. Most of his films have a good box office. They not only show a weird dark style but are also popular with the public. Welcome! Tim Burton’s works are weird and unruly, but they have fascinating magic. Luxurious and decadent melancholic dark style is one of the most praised characteristics of this ghost. When people mention his movies, they will say “goth”, “dark” and “weird”. Relying on exaggerated colors, quirky characters, different styles of costumes, and a breathtaking soundtrack, Burton’s works impress the audience time and time again. These dark scenes, which should have been creepy when I think of it, are as colorful as a prank toy store in Burton’s movies and are full of jokes. On the contrary, they are the “adults” who yelled and fled away. “Normal people” have become an alien. In Tim Burton’s film art, black and white, horror and friendly, cruel and gentle are not mutually exclusive words. People and monsters with strange looks can be fearless and noble, and the terrifying pictures are full of warmth and tranquility. “He is an artist, a genius, a freak, a crazy, outstanding, brave, super funny, deviant, and most loyal friend. I have never seen anyone so clearly incompatible with this world, but at the same time harmonious. This is Tim Burton.”
What do you love most about your job? What are the greatest rewards?
What I love most about work is the sense of accomplishment. I am very pleased with the satisfaction of the customer after completing the project. The biggest gain for me from work is to keep learning, and there are a lot of things to learn, such as the need to continuously improve myself. Of course, the biggest gain is the team members that are worth relying on and a good team.
Where do you find your inspiration? What is the creative process behind your work? What do you want to communicate?
Museums, movies, poetry, and life all give us a lot of inspiration. The creative process is actually a lot of learning, watching more movies, reading more books, and going to more places. Everything I want to express is possible, whoever I want to be and what I want to achieve, as long as I concentrate and work hard, it will be achieved.
As I have shot quite a few documentaries and news items in the past, I now want to shift my focus to “the female portrait”, i.e. showcasing the feminine side of powerful women. They are beautiful, powerful and sexy.” – Tian Liu
You have vast work experience, you shot documentaries, and you focused on female portraits showing the power of women. Is there any of your work that you are particularly connected to or that marked a significant moment or change in your personal life?
In meshing pieces of the past with predictions of the future, I — as a photographer — experience rebirth on a continuous loop. In other words, “photography” equals “rebirth”, even more so given one photo never puts a lock on the past tense, but rather redefines time in itself. For example, the weak interpersonal communication among urban people in my opinion stems from a sense of feeling empty because none of us can escape from the worries of an unchangeable past, an anxious present, or the enigma that is the future. However, photography can provide us with the ultimate means to immerse ourselves in our memories and from thereon out reconfigure time, i.e. use the present to predict our future. Hence, I love photography. She is the love of my life. I like to pursue the “beauty” of the person being photographed. When portrait photos are stripped of culture and civilization, what remains is people’s understanding of beauty. Beauty is everywhere in my memory: faces, landscapes, gestures, everyday objects, all of which I like to photograph very much.
The most influential work for me is the children in the Kenyan orphanage.
I realized that images have power, they can tell others a story, and also can help people and give people a better life. I love telling stories and I want to be a visual artist.” – Tian Liu
From China to the States. You have studied in New York, and now you have a studio in Los Angeles. Which were the biggest advantages? Which main differences did you notice that helped you to grow as a person and as a professional?
The biggest advantage is to be serious about things, not to stop doing things well, and to be firm in will and unstoppable. My experience has made me more professional. I have been shooting for 10 years. I have shot 7 feature films, 50 short films, and 40 commercials. More shooting experience makes me more professional.
What does it mean to be a woman working in cinematography nowadays? What were the biggest challenges you encounter as a female professional? Does gender still matter?
It means freedom and hope. The biggest challenge is that people are underestimated because of gender and age, but it will let the strength prove the wrong understanding of the other party. Gender is no longer as important as it used to be. As long as the work is good, it will be recognized by the client.
I always believe that my burning passion in pictures from my childhood and my painstaking efforts with strong wills must support me to achieve my initial dream.” – Tian Liu
What has been achieved and what is still to be done in the field of rights for women?
Two of my works were shortlisted at the Cannes Film Festival, and my works were shortlisted for nearly 200 film festivals and won nearly 100 film festival awards. I was also fortunate to participate in Forbes 30under30.
Can you share with us any meaningful story from the backstage of your projects?
Can’t say, secrets..
Do you think the pandemic is also affecting gender inequality? What advice do you want to give to women up-and-coming cinematography and photography? How to keep motivated and determined? How can women find the balance for changes?
I never worry about inequality. As long as I have the strength, I will always be seen. My suggestion is to prove it with action and enjoy the process if I really love it. Fitness will make people happier and more motivated. I never worry about women. Many female filmmakers have succeeded. Nothing is impossible. Also for the female cinematographer photographers, I wish you are positive, dedicated and follow-through, and passionate for female empowerment.
Photo courtesy of Tian Liu
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