Keep exploring, keep filming: an exclusive interview with advertisement director Cheok Lei

02 2020 | Issue 37

Text/Ariel Law

He was the director of famous c-pop artist Hua Yuchen’s music video. When filming in Singapore, he experienced the toing and froing between 80 different locations within six days. He had also suffered from extremely bad luck in China’s southwestern province Sichuan where he waited for snow and sunlight that never came. He had also had the moment when he had to fly to Turkey the next day after an interview… 

The person we are looking at here is Cheok Lei, a Macao-born advertisement director currently living in Shanghai. Lei has worked with a number of famous brands like Adidas. His work is always busy and full of excitement and the bustling life in Shanghai continues to bring him new surprises and encourage him to grow. He has been thinking about a further study recently. “Maybe one day I would stop making advertisements and start to do immersive art.”

Going overseas for growth

Lei started to get the attention of Chinese media around 2015. At that time, Lei was studying in the United States, during which he made a series of outstanding achievements. His works won the Commercial 3rd Place at the 36th College Television Awards (Emmy Awards), Bronze Award in Los Angles and Silver Award in California in the ADDY Awards—Student Group. However, Lei frankly admitted that his academic performance was not ideal when he was a kid studying in Macao. He started filming simply because his school allowed him to shoot a video to make up for the exam one year. “I made the films purely to pass the exam. I did not have to be anxious for film shooting considering scripts will be given,” he said.

Lei then gradually fell in love with film art. But he still encountered frustration before becoming an award-winning director. Lei had participated in a film competition held by the Macao Cultural Centre. However, his work was mocked by the audience and it broke his heart. The video was about a love story. The male lead was Lei’s friend, who is very fat and not very handsome. This creates a big contrast because somehow the story is about a cute girl falling in love with a fat boy. “At that time, I didn’t pay much attention to the details of film production. But after the incident, I realised that there were still many things for me to learn,” Lei said.

Lei then began to improve himself. He studied filming techniques at the Macao i-Centre and accumulated experience through helping local veteran filmmakers. He once worked for the film Macao Stories as a grip. In addition, he had been participating in competitions and won a number of awards. When he was doing an advanced degree in Taiwan, a co-production from him and his classmates won the Fubon Young Voice Awards, which was a big encouragement for Lei.

Even though Lei has made some achievements, still, he was not complacent and hoped to learn more. He was eventually enrolled by prestigious California’s ArtCentre College of Design, receiving funding from the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau. He described the Arts Centre as a school of pragmatism, with a focus on getting students’ hands dirty. During his study, he also provided his assistance for small brands in making promotional films so that he could earn some extra cash while getting more experience in filmmaking. Besides, the alumni network offered by the school got him the opportunity to get involved in the production of several music videos. In 2013, Lei won an award in a music video competition about American hip-hop singers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ song BomBom.

Breaking a leg in metropolitans

After graduation, Lei worked in the U.S. for two years before returning home. “I went to Beijing and Shanghai. And I found a lot of people who make films in mainland China through many online sources like Vimeo and I tried to make contact with them. Finally, there was a creative agency in Shanghai that gave me a full-time job offer. Shanghai then became the second home for me,” Lei said.

Now Lei lives a life of “Shanghai drifter” and works as a freelancer. Many people would think that the income of film production is unstable. But Lei disagrees. “Shanghai has a large market with numerous opportunities, but it also means fierce competition,” he said. When speaking of his key to success, Lei believes that building a relationship with clients is the most important way to get opportunities. “For example, the company I worked with when filming Hua Yuchen’s musical video also provided me with an opportunity to film in Turkey the next day. I believe my working style is valued by my clients. As long as I made a promise, I will try my best with 100% effort regardless of the budget,” Lei said.

Up till now, Lei has built up a good reputation and enjoys a stable income. But he is still exploring in this sector. He expressed his interests in combining various elements in filmmaking, like tech and arts, to create interactive works. “For example, we have VR technology now. I have tried it and it was a very immersive experience,” Lei explained. “The world is evolving rapidly. Now, 5G is rising and 10G is expected to be developed by 2040. The speed of technological development is unimaginable. But as a user, I have a high expectation of technological innovation.” He concluded: “I will continue to learn. It is a good chance to learn new things and explore new areas. Maybe one day I would stop making advertisements and music videos to start doing immersive art!”

Part of Cheok Lei's works: