This post was written by Remoy Philip.
I grew up on VHS tapes like a typical 90s latchkey kid. But atypical, because I grew up in an immigrant family—a South Asian single-parent suburban home. My mom worked a lot. So, by myself, I’d often slip a tape into the VCR and be transported.
But the VHS tapes we had, there weren’t many immigrant stories. I’d watch The Sandlot, or Back to the Future on the reg. Those brought a lot of fun energy to what I was feeling as a teenager—full of hormones, nostalgia, and excitement about the future. But nothing that really showed what that felt like filtered through my shade of melanin.
That’s something I wanted to really show with my next short. How the immigrant experience can feel through a camera lens. I wanted the audience to feel it in their body as much as they were seeing it on screen.
How cinematography creates story
I had an idea. Oners have become a popular film convention—there’s always an episode of some prestige TV show that rides a seemingly effortless oner. Or you have 1917, Birdman, or some other awards-friendly film embracing a solo-tracking shot. That’s something I wanted to try.
But I’m no film-school kid. I don’t have any technical know-how on how to pull this magic off. But I am dumb and stubborn. I rallied my production crew together. I broke down my ideas with DP Minos Papas and AD/Editor Liz Sargent. They stepped onboard with the vision. And together, we were off.
The ridiculously talented Joyce Keokham plays Grace—a first-gen-born immigrant kid. Who, because of tried-and-true assimilation issues, has become estranged from her mother. Inevitably, though, she ends up following in her footsteps. Her mom emigrated from China to California for a better future for her kids. Grace moved to New York to make her own way.
'A Distance'Credit: Courtesy of Bad Coolie
Grace is killing it in every measure. She has a beautiful apartment. She confidently runs her own company. She is fully on top of her game. Except… when she has to call her mom. The camera tries to keep up as the conversation boils over through Grace’s AirPods.
That’s the synopsis of A Distance. Now, we could’ve shot it in a more traditional way. Capturing the emotional schisms between Grace and her mom more matter-of-factly. Seeing and hearing the fault lines of assimilation through static setups.
But I wanted more. I wanted the way we captured this story to tell another facet of this experience. To really put the viewer in this particular sensation that assimilation brings. How you can be so close to your family and their history, but yet still be worlds apart.
Enter that idea of the oner.
Credit: Courtesy of Bad Coolie
The gimbal follows Grace throughout the short. But it’s never allowed close.
Every time Grace gets near the lens, or any time the camera creeps close to her personal space, she’s off. That particular schism between mom and daughter, you can feel as you watch. We never show you Grace’s mom (played by Vivan Lee) on the other line. Or cutaway to Grace’s other call with her coworker (played by Stephanie Butts).
You’re always separated from Grace. Watching from afar. As she navigates this life she’s made for herself. The future she’s trying to reconcile. And how in the end, how she and her mother just keep missing each other. No matter how close they get.
'A Distance'Credit: Courtesy of Bad CoolieThe short isn’t a full oner. We have some cut-to-wides that actually add to the hauntingness. We found those shots on our production day.
Tired and beaten up at the end of the day, I said, “Let’s grab two wides.” Like champs, the whole production team marched into position. Joyce went through her lines and choreography like it was second nature.
Stitched together in the edit, this now seamless combination of tracking and wides, there’s a real choreography to the film. A beautiful subtlety to the short that I can’t be more proud of. One that not only tells the story of how immigration and assimilation can shape a family. But one that shows you, through a relationship between the lens and the actor, between mother and daughter, how this experience can separate us.
It’s a type of movie I didn’t have growing up. But one I hope can be a tool for many.
You can see more here.