While most of us are more familiar with him as one of the judges of the 8TV Chinese reality show I Wanna Be a Model, not many people are aware that Christopher Low is in fact a well-known director of commercials.
With an impressive portfolio which include well-received commercials for instant noodles, bak gua (Chinese meat jerky), mooncakes and essence of chicken (the latter played during intermissions of 8TV’s Mandarin News), the talented Low however prefers to maintain a low profile, other than being a judge on reality TV.
Here, he sits down with Chivalrystyle to talk about his foray into photography and his transition into a commercials director.
What got you interested in photography?
I became interested in photography during my first semester at university where I was studying photography. The first time I stepped into the darkroom I was immediately fascinated, and the excitement of seeing how an image appear on a once-blank sheet of paper stayed with me to this day. The photographs printed in the darkroom were amazing and very real. Back then, you cannot see how the photographs turn out until you actually develop them. Now, things are very different.
In the era of digital cameras, you get to see how the picture turns out immediately after taking it, but come to think of it, what you’re losing out is the experience of seeing first-hand how the images gradually appear on paper. This particular experience…this is exactly why I fell in love with the camera lens in the first place.
Tell us about your early days as a photography student.
When I was a student we didn’t have a Photography Faculty and so I was enrolled in Mass Communications and took Photography as an elective. There were only 15 places available in the class, and as part of the syllabus we learned stuff like black and white photography, art photography, commercial photography and creative photography. I approached the teacher and told him that I had to be in the class, and he was very touched as he knew that I was passionate about photography. After studying photography for four years, I decided to switch directions and so I enrolled in film school.
How did you end up shooting ads?
While some people begin their careers in professional advertising agencies or production companies
I sought employment at an infomercial production company. While I was there I found myself toying with the idea of trying my hand at professional advertising. Mind you, professional information was hard to come by back in those days, unlike now when you can find everything on the Internet.
When the right opportunity came along I decided to switch career paths and went into advertising with a focus on shooting advertisements. I am grateful to the advertising company I ended up in, and in addition to being very supportive of me, they gave me a wide berth and the freedom of hiring a professional photographer and art director to join my team.
In the course of your career you’ve directed commercials ranging from business to the arts. How do you decide which project to take on?
My clients have always given me lots of business opportunities and I feel that because they think so highly of me, I shouldn’t turn them down. Others may be confident that I will be able to deliver artistic elements to the project while some may think that I can deliver the right touch to the project. There are times when research is required. If that’s the case, I will take it upon myself to read up on the subject and do my homework, as each project requires a different but unique type of skills. In my line of work each commercial has its own challenges, but if the right opportunity comes along, why not take it?
Walk us through the creative process involved in directing a commercial.
Once the production house is hired to direct a commercial, the first step is to look for ‘professionals’ that are well-suited for the job at hand. Some of these ‘professionals’ in question are in-house staff while others are freelancers. Many production houses would rather not hire in-house staff for this because they have the disadvantage of being cooped up in the studio for long periods of time with very little knowledge of seeing what is going on in the outside world. Freelancers, on the other hand, have the perfect opportunity to get involved in many different projects; in addition to interacting with other people in the field, and as a result, they often come in with lots of fresh and innovative ideas.
The next thing to do is to hire a director, and later, come up with a concept board which is later expanded into a script, and then, a manuscript which will be presented to the client. Even with the client’s preliminary approval, however, it’s not strange for further changes to occur along the way, and these changes are seen to until the final version is agreed upon by all parties. It is when the client gives us the green light that we begin with the necessary set-up.
Once the art director, photographers, makeup artists and stylists have been selected, we discuss potential shooting locations and actors that we think might be well-suited to play a particular role in the commercial. The decisions we have arrived at will have to be approved by the director, who will in turn convey the decisions to the client.
Of course, there are times when it is absolutely necessary to convince the client about the decisions made. As they are unfamiliar with the entire process, it’s our job to explain the logic of our decisions to them…to give them a better idea how we could improve on the quality of the commercial. Once this is out of the way, the real shooting process begins.
Next comes the post-production process which involves the rough cut and adjustment of the film’s colours, and finally comes picture editing, sound design and visual effects. And after the client has given his final approval, we will conduct a media review of the commercial.
What is your overall view of the Malaysian advertising industry?
While the European advertising industry is a very creative one that gives directors the opportunity to indulge in their creativity, the Asian counterpart is quite impressive too. Thailand presents a wealth of advertising space with clients who are flexible in accepting different artistic directions, for example.
In comparison, the Malaysian and Singaporean advertising industries are works in progress. After all, the advertising industry in both countries is still growing and relatively conservative. In recent years, however, both countries are gradually moving out of their safety zones and have shown that a little bit of humour goes a long way. The Malaysian advertising team shows great potential, with their only setback coming from the allocated budget, which is quite low compared to other countries’ budgets. Considering our past achievements, I would say we are doing pretty well, to say the least. cs