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Cinematography 101: In the classroom with Cinematographer Shyan Tan

SUSS students taking the Introduction to Film Studies course had an exciting session with award-winning cinematographer Shyan Tan, who has worked on narrative films, commercials, and music videos for over ten years. Shyan was also the cinematographer for the short film Strawberry Cheesecake, which was selected for the 74th Locarno Film Festival.

Shyan explained that the cinematographer (also known as Director of Photography) works closely with the director to help turn the director’s vision into moving images. The cinematographer must thoroughly understand the technicalities of lighting and cameras. At the same time, the role of a cinematographer is also very artistic, as they must be able to creatively express what the film is about.

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Shyan went through some technical aspects of cinematography, such as contrast ratio, which is the difference between the bright and dark areas of a scene. Here is an example from the docu-film From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio (2019), for which Shyan was the director of photography.

Mood refers to what the audience feels when watching the film. The cinematographer creates mood through colour, lighting, and camera movement. “Mood has a more lasting impression than a beautiful shot,” Shyan said.

Shyan emphasised that “Cinematography should be felt and not seen.” It is not about cool shots or fantastic lighting, but the story. “Be a slave to the story. Every decision made must stem from story and character motivation.” To illustrate, Shyan used a scene from a film to point out how the camera framing and movement convey the power dynamics among the characters.

Shyan also shared some of his experiences working on sets with different directors and crews. When students asked how to get into the business, Shyan advised them to volunteer on a film set and be willing to start from the bottom. They should work hard, observe people, and learn as much as they can.

Having worked with a media company before, Joey Chue, English with Film Studies student, appreciated Shyan’s frank sharing. Joey said, “I enjoyed listening to Shyan's broad range of experiences and I learned so much more about cinematography and blocking and staging. I learned to tell a story first, and make a picturesque shot later. Really enjoyed this talk!”

Ashleey David, a Communication with Film Studies student, sums up the session: “As a student who has an interest in the film industry, I found the talk by Shyan incredibly insightful. His breakdown of how he operates as a director of photography was truly eye-opening. Shyan’s explanation of his creative process aligned with what I have been learning in my film modules, leading me to appreciate film as an art form on a deeper level. His talk also gave me a different perspective on how the industry actually operates, as opposed to what I had perceived it to be.”

Cinematographer Shyan Tan (standing in the centre, in black) with the Introduction to Film Studies class

This is the fourth Film Studies industry talk for 2023, and the upcoming talk of this series will be with a Hong Kong film director, so stay tuned!

Learn about cinematic language, the film business, scriptwriting, smartphone filmmaking, streaming and more with Film Studies at SUSS. 

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