Kevin Chiu ’17 may be a Civil Engineering student at SEAS, but with 510 YouTube subscribers, viral video fame to his name, and hundreds of freelance jobs under his belt, he is also, very decidedly, a cinematographer extraordinaire. He sat down with daily editor Sarah Dahl to discuss his passion for film and photos, which he plans to pursue after graduation.
Sarah Dahl: How did you get started in photography and film?
Kevin Chiu: Video actually came first. Everyone in my 7th grade class will remember this–the very first time I picked up a camera was to create this crazy parody trailer of the movie 300, with light sabers. It’s still on my YouTube. It went viral across the grade, to the point that they watched it for four months straight, talking about it, sharing it. That’s when you realize you’ve done something great, something important–you were able to move people to react in a way that hell, a TV show sometimes won’t even do. You made something that made people want to watch it again. That’s what I really wanted to keep doing.
Photography comes in in tricklets and bits. I used to work alongside the theatre department in high school. Every single performance I would sit in the audience and take 100 or so photos and post the best ones.
A lot of why I started doing this was because I wanted to get to know people that I don’t usually ever get a chance to talk to or interact with. Photos bring everyone together, and it’s something that on the marketable scale, you can enter so many different fields with and of all sorts of work with. Just on a personal level, it’s allowed me to meet some of the most incredible people in all facets of life, in all sorts of fields of interests, and it’s one of the most rewarding hobbies-turned-professional-work.
SD: Can you speak a bit about the evolution and trajectory of your career?
KC: Senior year in high school was when this media thing became a reality, when I went viral with a stop-motion video I did as a graduation project. I spent two or three months taking 1900 photos, put it together in an animation involving 120 people. It got posted on the net, went viral on Buzzfeed, went viral across Reddit, Youtube, whatever. That went on for several months. We got the band whose music was in it to come by because it got so many views. But that was when it really started taking off that I wanted to do this as a professional career. I came into Columbia with that as the last thing I did in high school.
From there on it was really consolidating and improving my skills and upgrading. At this point I’m a fully functioning freelance filmmaker with all the gear you need to pull together a semi-high quality production. I’ve reached this point where I’m able to independently create quality standard work for TV. It’s just a matter of finding the opportunities and people to work with to take it to the next level, which, hopefully, within the next year, or after graduation, it will.
Everything I’ve amassed is self-funded. It took the initial $800 investment from my dad for that very first starter camera–a Canon 60D. That was what it took to just amass everything that I’ve gotten now. From job after job after job, I’ve upgraded to new cameras, gotten the highest quality lens I could find, stabilizers, backpacks, even bought an editing computer, been able to pay off student loans, granted I am here on a full Questbridge scholarship. Enough to not have my dad go paying for anything.
A lot of people ask me how do you start out? You can do amazing things with just the most basic camera starter equipment, because that’s what I started out with. You can still see some of my early films towards the back end of my vimeo page. You can do a lot with like your standard Canon T3 Rebels or 60D’s. It’s just a matter of having the drive and the desire to want to create. Thankfully, since film and photo involve people, those go hand in hand. Great people skills, great love of people, and film, you’re gonna go really far places.
SD: Why do you create films and photos? What do you love about it?
KC: The spirit behind it is being able to make people feel things, be it from a memory of a really great moment, a major event, or a quiet moment in time; which is what I do in my portraits, my one-on-one sessions with people. The core glue that ties all this work together is always a focus on people: representing, expressing, just being able to capture something about someone that people either don’t usually see. There are these really minute things that I find really beautiful, that if you were able to put that to an image, be it moving imagery, or a photo, you can get something really spectacular. I feel like this is something you can really do with any person, any object too, anything. Bring out something extraordinary from what would appear ordinary. You do this kind of work with the love of what you’re trying to capture.
SD: Have you taken classes in film and photography at Columbia?
KC: I’ve taken a few classes. There was a point in my life where I was trying to see if I could do a film minor but, unfortunately, SEAS doesn’t register film as an appropriate minor, so that kind of flew out the window. What I’ve tended to notice is that it’s no loss to me, besides a few extra classes of theory under my belt. Columbia film, from what I’ve gathered, is a lot more theory than practice-based. And you might end up actually learning all the practice by yourself, thankfully because the internet exists, and you can feasibly, affordably get all the gear you need from enough jobs, proper smart investments.
SD: Have you found a community of photographers on campus or in New York?
KC: For the most part I work alone, but I would say I’ve found a community of people that’s become a part of the work I put together. And I’m always hoping to expand and create more opportunities for people to get involved in different ways. In terms of meeting other artists I have found ways to collaborate but it seems I’ve really found my best work as an individual. A lot of people you ask will attest to that–their best work is found through self-discovery.
SD: What are some of the amazing people you mentioned you’ve met?
KC: It’s a whole range of people. It could be people who aren’t trained models–people who are the most wonderful, energetic, kind people that exuberate a personality you want to capture. Other times, some really fantastic people who work in fashion and aesthetics and such.
SD: What are some of the projects you’re working on?
KC: Mostly on campus because it’s convenient to walk outside and find people that are willing. Thankfully there are enough people I know around here either through reference or a network of people, it’s one of the blessings of having a social network, being able to branch out and introduce people to this work.
I’m working out of state next month shooting a major music video for the Penn a cappella group. In addition, this summer I’ll be working with NPR as their music video intern. I worked with NSOP as their social media intern.
Next year, there might be a major project, a graduation-type thing, very similar to the one I did at my high school. I’m thinking of possibly employing the same techniques, which involves recruiting as many people as I can on campus to get involved with this sort of mega-project. I am looking for collaborators on that. Assistant directors, possible original music. I did that project in high school with the shittiest camera, so I want to see what it would look like as a full-fledged production. The biggest roadblock right now is what music to use, because it has to be either original music or something with appropriate lyrics that make sense for a Columbia-wide thing. Once I know that there are collaborators, then it’s go-mission.
SD: How do you manage to balance all your work with school?
KC: You know the triangle–work, life, and play or whatever it is–I’m definitely finding myself, especially in the last semester, giving a bit more towards my photo and video work and away from my academic work. A large part of that is because of a change I found myself going through sophomore spring, and I know a lot of people who are in the same situation as me, expressing the same sort of sentiments, where they’ve discovered that what they want to do is not what they majored in, even though they continue with that major.
Photo and video is something I will be doing post-graduation, it’s something I will be doing professionally. I’ll be hopefully working in New York City, for whatever media company is hiring, but I will be freelancing all the same. I already have consistent gigs throughout the year, they will most likely continue post-graduation. They involve Columbia Dining, student group work, incoming grades–will likely keep me afloat for the first few years past graduation. My end goal will be to end up in a film production company of some sorts. It might require some additional schooling. Camera work, film, short commercials, fashion videography–everything’s open in the air. It’s exciting.