Filmmaker Rosanna Peng Wants Us to Reflect and Reset
Issue 6 | Experimentation
This profile is part of a series to mark the launch of Somewherelse’s latest project, HUH. It’s a virtual bridge between international cities and artists that otherwise wouldn’t be able to work together. Thanks to the Internet we live in a globally connected world. We come together to mourn, to celebrate, to protest and to create. HUH fosters collaborations between different kinds of artists from different cities and helps them create new innovative and fulfilling projects. The first iteration connected Canadian-born, L.A.-based filmmaker Rosanna Peng with Toronto-based singer-songwriter Luna Li.
Not many people figure out what they want to do by the time they finish high school. Director Rosanna Peng is one of the lucky ones.
She took a video editing course at her Vancouver high school and fell in love. She says she was a super shy kid and she became enamored with editing. “I felt like I could speak, I felt like I found my voice and my medium to create in. That’s how I knew I found my calling. I felt so liberated and empowered being able to express how I really felt inside through my work.”
Now Peng directs commercials, short films and music videos for brands like Nike, Urban Decay, Hypebeast and Canon. When she was first getting into filmmaking, she was on documentary sets and credits that experience for her fly-on-the-wall take on shooting subjects.
“That’s become my aesthetic, shots that feel like the camera’s not really there. The viewer is getting a glimpse inside someone’s mental state or internal processes.”
Still, maintaining a layer of mystery and not divulging too much is tantamount to her vision. Her fashion, beauty and lifestyle films are teeming with hazy, dreamy shots. She considers capturing people on film a “sacred process,” one that she believes carries a lot of responsibility to portray her subjects in their best and most powerful light.
“Usually my work is in branded content and I love to contribute my artistic vision and inspire the viewer rather than shoving product in their faces, when we’re already overexposed to all of that.”
Before filmmaking, Peng studied design at university. She’s always had an artistic inclination and has returned to making art throughout the pandemic lockdown. Painting and figure drawing are her penchants of late. With the slow down of commercial shoots between the spring and summer she wasn’t getting a lot of work, and she felt like her career wasn’t progressing in the way she wanted.
The HUH collaboration with Hannah Bussiere, known more widely under her stage name Luna Li, re-inspired her to make films. It revived the love she had for filmmaking after such a long period of isolation.
When considering the themes of the song, “Afterglow,” she came up with a treatment that would be both COVID-safe and allow her to incorporate painting into the music video. “I love working with artists and getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what the song was actually intended to mean. Luna mentioned ‘Afterglow’ is about cutting toxic relationships out of your life, either romantic or platonic. I found that really inspiring because I think that’s a common experience most women have to go through where they have to realize and prioritize themselves over other people and their energies.”
When Somewherelse reached out to Peng about the HUH project, she already had Luna Li in the back of her mind. She chose the mood “ethereal” to guide the conception of the video and to tie everything together thematically. “I think that’s the crossover between Luna’s work and my work. You can hear it in her sound. It’s definitely otherworldly and dream-like. And in my films, that’s what I strive to do.”
In the video, Luna’s bandmates paint self-portraits (actually painted by Peng) that come to life and voice all their worst self doubts. Luna comes in and uses some fairy dust to dispel the imposter syndrome. Set in forest, it feels like it’s all happening in a fantasy realm.
For part of the virtual video release, Peng is teaching a Zoom figure drawing class, something she has been doing over the course of the pandemic to challenge herself and become more comfortable with public speaking.
Peng’s favourite projects, understandably, are those that work out serendipitously and that’s how it felt working on the video with Bussiere. She happened to be in Toronto during COVID lockdown and they met early in the summer on another shoot. They had one distanced meet-up at High Park and other than that conceived the whole video virtually, until it came time to shoot in late August.
“I think creative collaboration keeps the creative soul fed,” she says. “And it reminds us of the reasons we’re in the creative fields at all—to build each other and to build concepts together to make us stronger. I think now is a great time to reset.”
She posits that the hustle and grind culture that has become commonplace amongst creatives needs to be reconsidered. “We need to remind ourselves it doesn’t have to be that way, that creating art can be very fulfilling and very empowering, it can start conversations and be a creative force for change.”
It’s becoming abundantly clear that the way the world runs is unsustainable. The systems in place, economically, socially, environmentally, weren’t designed with the collective good in mind. But they can be altered. Peng believes fresh ideas need to be discussed and tried out so that things can evolve.
One step that can be taken is turning the inclusion of marginalized folks in campaigns from an act of tokenization to one of reclamation. Peng directed a BTS video for a Nike N7 campaign released in December 2019, featuring seven Indigenous women wearing beaded earrings, necklaces, athletic gear and running shoes. The women have control of shutter remotes, symbolizing their full control over their own narratives and the perception of their image.
“They actually thought about the ethos behind it. It wouldn’t be enough to just capture their image and parade them around like a medal. It’s a shift in thinking about how you’re capturing and styling the subjects. Is it respectful to their tribes, their nations and their cultures? It’s a great start towards a bigger change.”
That Nike shoot is one of Peng’s top five favourite projects, a list that also includes the “Afterglow” video. She called the entire process a labour of love. Everything came together in a little over a month before Peng went back to L.A. Despite the time crunch, a beautiful work was created.
“Projects like this really get me excited about filmmaking. I really love creating with like-minded people,” she says. “All the puzzles pieces just fit together seamlessly and it really made me fall in love with filmmaking again.”
Written by Kelsey Adams
Lead Photo Illustration by Marta Ryczko
Photos courtesy of Rosanna Peng