FEATURE: CLARE CHONG
We're with Clare Chong (Film 2014), currently in her second year at Lasalle studying film. She is the founder and creative director of Hei Studios, a team of creatives who create short films, documentaries, music videos, commercials, and so on. In the interview, we talk about her passion for the film medium, how her time in the local creative scene has been, and her upcoming film that will be shot in March.
Freshly Pressed: Hi Clare! Who are you and what do you do?
Clare Chong: I would like to call myself a filmmaker, but I don’t think I’m that good at my craft to call myself that yet! I guess I can say that I am a creative, and my medium is video. I make narrative films, music videos, experimental films and video art, and sometimes I also make stupid gifs to amuse myself.
FP: You started out as a music major in SOTA– were you always interested in film or was it a newly discovered passion then?
CC: It actually wasn’t an informed decision to audition for music in the beginning. It was a choice made simply because my mom was teaching piano and I could play several instruments. However, when my time at SOTA began, I started to really understand and appreciate the arts a lot more. I saw many of my friends putting in a tremendous amount of effort in their art forms, which made me question myself and if music was my path. I have always loved music, and will always love music, but I realized that I care more about the community than the craft itself, and wanted to be more involved in bringing people together rather than trying to better my own techniques. That was when I started to organize events, gigs and so on. I wanted to play a part in helping the music scene in Singapore grow, and that the best way to go about that was to support from a production stand point and not a creator.
At the same time, media education was implemented in our school. I didn’t know how to appreciate films then, but those classes really opened my eyes, and I fell in love with the process of filmmaking. At the age of 16, it was the first time I had the agency to stand up for what I truly wanted to do, and picked up the courage to switch from music to film. It was really scary, but my parents were tremendously supportive, and I’m really thankful for that.
What I love about filmmaking is that it is a cohesive process that needs a massive amount of teamwork. It isn’t an individual craft. It’s one that involves so many different art forms which always allows me to learn from someone else. Filmmaking is about forming communities and sustaining all these friendships, because the stronger the bonds are between each creative, the better the working process will be. Film to me is not about showcasing myself as a performer on stage, but is rather a very quiet form of creation. It’s different from singing classical music on stage, and I realised that I prefer the back end of things and would rather leave the performing to other people. I didn’t fall in love with film because of a film or a director; but really that process of creating a film– and because the process is so much more important to me, I always try to find ways to change up that process and experiment with filmmaking conventions.
FP: And then took some time to make work and take jobs in production houses before heading to Lasalle. How did you come to the decision to take the gap year?
CC: I took a gap year because I wanted to make a film that was truly mine. My first film in SOTA was a bunch of inspirations from silent films, to German expressionism films and films by Jim Jarmusch. But it wasn’t me. I wanted to find my own voice, which I did in the one and a half years of my gap year by making a film called Toogie’s Trip To Bukuokuka. It was a really weird film that didn’t really get any recognition, but it was one of my favourite projects because it took so much effort over two years, where I gained important knowledge, friendships and means of experimentation.
Another reason I took a gap year was because I wanted to understand the media industry a little more. I wasn’t satisfied in my own little bubble of creation. I wanted to see what the practical aspects of filmmaking was, and how I could make a living out of it. I also wanted to know more people in the industry and learn from them. I started with an internship, then a gig as a scriptwriter, then as an assistant producer. I wasn’t as fond of the jobs though. The money was there to be made, but I didn’t feel like it was an motivating environment that encouraged the betterment of the craft. After finishing that work, I started to freelance, and I vowed never to work under a company ever again.
I also took that gap year to apply for schools and scholarships overseas. I was accepted into my dream school, CalArts, for experimental film, but ultimately didn't go because I didn’t manage to get a IMDA scholarship. I was really disappointed then, but in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise. If I had left the country, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was really a blessing that I stayed in Singapore, especially because I want to make films in Singapore and because I want to be part of the Singapore film community. I don’t think I would have the same amount of opportunities if I went overseas to achieve what I have up till today.
FP: When did you start Hei Studios and what is the range of work you undertake as the creative director?
CC: I started Hei because I was consistently getting a lot of freelance work, and I was finding it harder to manage it by myself. All the contracts, paperwork, finance stuff is beyond me. I did have a company before Hei that didn’t work out. When I got into Lasalle and met my current co-founder Aaron, we found out that we have the same goals in our professional and personal lives, and decided to work together. It has been great managing the company with Aaron as we split our work very clearly since day one. Firstly, we told ourselves we will try to stay away from wedding and event videos because we were both not interested in the already saturated market. Aaron is way more technical than I am, so he handles a lot of the contracts, paperwork, invoicing, and managing of finance. He also handles most of the cinematography and technical requirements involved in filmmaking. For me, I handle Hei’s clients, conduct the meetings and oversee the projects in terms of expectations and timeline. I also do all the creative concepts, direct the projects, and sometimes edit them as well. I also handle Hei’s marketing and online presence.
We also decided that we didn’t want to hire full time staff as I remembered feeling limited when I worked under a company, which I didn’t want wish upon anyone that works for and with me. We decided to work purely on a freelance basis, so that our collaborators always have the freedom to work with other people. I think that it’s very important to let someone have freedom and not restrict them to working with only one company, because by collaborating with a variety of people, that’s truly how you learn and become a better creative. Our company bases a lot of our work on the trust we built with our team.
FP: You juggle between work, school, and your personal artmaking, where on earth do you find the time?
CC: Right now I’m balancing quite a lot, and it’s very tough to give 100% for everything. Having to do school work, run a company, work freelance, create my own personal art pieces and spend time with loved ones really takes up all my time. What really helped was finding the fun, passion, and creativity in every project. In commercials, I enjoy coming up with the concept, and I enjoy making new connections and friendships with my clients. Even for a small project, I’m always reminded that a simple video I do for them can be extremely beneficial. I made a video for a small company, and that client told me that because of the video and photographs, he has been getting way more jobs and is even opening his own retail shop! That’s really satisfying to me.
For short films, I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to create narrative films on a yearly basis. Be it school work, or commissioned films, It really helps to keep my sanity because short films are an outlet for me to truly express myself. Every film must serve a purpose, and it must serve a greater meaning than purely a selfish need to create art. At least, that is what I stand for now. I used to create art just because I wanted to; but because my perspective on the power of media has changed drastically over the years, I find even more purpose in my films now. In art, I have always found the need to collaborate. I almost never make art by myself, and it is always some sort of collaboration. This satisfies my need to collaborate and share ideas with others, and also the intent of making art to serve someone else other than myself.
FP: You’ve also worked on music videos with other alumni, and on your website you mention that inter-arts collaboration is something you're interested in. Can you tell us about the projects you’ve done like that or are hoping to do?
CC: I first started working on music videos with subsoniceye, a Singaporean band. I wound up funding that video myself because I really wanted to make a music video. Every time I hear music, there is a burst of visuals. I literally create music videos in my head on a daily basis. I was really elated when I was asked to collaborate with Sam Rui and Bennett Bay. Both artists are extremely different, and their ways of working is also worlds apart. Sam is very particular about the narrative and visuals, whereas Bennett just left it entirely up to me. Both means were great ways of working and I enjoyed both processes.
I’m working on a few more music videos that I’m not really allowed to disclose but you can ask me personally if you want! This year I’m set to release about four more music videos, so that’s gonna keep me really busy. I’m also always looking for new collaborators be it actors, musicians, filmmakers, crew or anything. I’ll even work with a scientist, so just talk to me if you want to work together!
FP: Can you share with us something you’re working on now?
CC: I’m shooting a narrative short film in March for Temasek and MM2 entertainment’s Beyond 20/20 project, which is a yearly initiative that gives twenty films $20,000 funding to make a film based on a given theme. The film is going to be a little more experimental, and not so much realist, but it comes from a personal place.
My grandmother suffered with dementia for a long while, and my family witnessed a slow death that lasted ten years. I never felt sad about her condition then, but it was only after her passing that I realised how torturous this disease is and traumatic it was to the family. The more I thought about it, the sadder I became because there is are many other people and families who endure this suffering. I also worked in a company for six months before where I was an assistant producer on a documentary about dementia, giving me the opportunity to interact with dementia patients, caregivers, nurses and doctors on a daily basis. I did further research through books, and videos where caregivers documented their journey with their parents who had dementia. I learnt about the different types of dementia, the different ways one can get dementia, and its aftermath.
One recurring trait of dementia patients which I found intriguing, was that they would be brought back into their happiest times or saddest times many years ago and believe that they are living in that particular era. This made me question, “What if we were able to erase all these sad memories and replaced them with happy memories, will these dementia patients have better end of life care?” My own answer to that is no, because without truly understanding pain and sadness, how can you understand happiness? This became the main question that my film addresses. The film has an added layer of spice because I wrote it when my ex-boyfriend broke up with me, and that betrayal was extremely painful. This entire experience of love, heartbreak and healing also formed a crucial layer of the film. I’m no Taylor Swift, but heartbreak and sadness really does force you to become more creative. It is a year and a half of ongoing research, musings, questionings and observations of real life experiences that are informing the film.
On set of Bennett Bay's music video for Bonds; still from music video. Images courtesy of Hei Studios.
FP: Who are some filmmakers or artists you look up to?
CC: I have a list saved in my iPhone called ‘clare’s pretentious list of really really REALLY good films’ so if you look at that you can tell what my key influences are. Just to name a few: Jim Jarmusch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Tsai Ming Liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lars von trier, Kenneth Anger, Matthew Barney, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Aki Kaurismaki.
FP: What advice would you give to juniors starting a career in film?
CC: I would say really think clearly about where you want to get your degree. If your end goal is to work internationally, by all means go ahead and study abroad. If you can do it with your parents money, go ahead. If you are going to apply for the IMDA scholarship, it’s tough to get it with film as you’re not only competing with filmmakers but designers, animators, game designers and so on, and the other scholarships available don’t really put film in such a high regard. However, even if you do get a scholarship, chances are you’re going to be bonded, which means that you abandon everything that you’ve built overseas for a few years. Will the contacts you have made when you were overseas still be strong and relevant after your bond? I think one really has to take the future, say five to eight years down the road into consideration and not just go and say “Yes I want to experience life overseas on my own and be independent!” and dive straight into it.
If your end goal is to work as a film practitioner in Singapore, I’d highly suggest staying here. To freelance in Singapore’s film industry, nobody cares about your degree. Seriously. No one. It would be wise to just dive straight in and freelance starting as a production assistant and working your way up to where you want to be. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and super tough, but if your skin is thick and you persevere, you can do it. Everyone here doesn’t look at a piece of paper. They look at your portfolio, your experience, and you as a person. How you present yourself, your work ethics and your means of communication is the most important thing when working in film because you have to work with so many different types of people on a daily basis. But then again, different film specialisations do require different methods of getting to success, so if you want more advice you can ask me personally and I’ll be more than happy to help.
FP: Thanks for spending time with us Clare! Any closing comments?
CC: I would just like to say SOTA has been one of the best accidents in my life, and if I never studied film or anthropology in SOTA (thank you Ms Wang, Ms Ong, Mr David Cheng, Mr Wang Jiunn, Mr Liao Jiekai and Mr Michael), I would probably be slaving my ass off in some boring job. I’m very glad I found my passion in film, and I really can’t think of anyone except the teachers in SOTA to thank for that.