SF State professor appointed to film ‘Olympic Spirit’

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(From SF State professor appointed to film ‘Olympic Spirit’, by Benedicte Lelon, staff writer for Golden Gate Express. April 10, 2008. http://xpress.sfsu.edu/archives/life/010796.html)

The flame of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games moved through London and Paris before illuminating San Francisco on April 9.

Weimin Zhang, professor of cinematography and film production at SF State was part of the crowd, looking for the perfect shot to symbolize the Olympic spirit when the torch made its only North American appearance.

Zhang was appointed by China Central Television to be the director and cinematographer of the U.S. unit for the official Beijing Olympics film. The production started on March 25 when Beijing officially received the torch from Athens, and Zhang and her team said they are ready to capture San Francisco’s moments with the torch on film.

Since the 1930s, it has been the tradition for every hosting country to produce an official documentary of the Olympics, Zhang explained. Kept in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, each film embodies the Olympic spirit and serves as an inspiration for generations, she said.

“Different from the live television broadcast of the games, it is an exploration of the stories and the spirit behind the scenes,” Zhang said. “[It is] an endorsement of the Olympic ideal, especially the principles of Olympic sportsmanship: participation, competition, friendship, excellence and fairness.”

Because she was a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Award, granted every year by SF State President Robert A. Corrigan to faculty demonstrating an active engagement with their individual field of study, Zhang was allowed to take a leave of absence for the fall semester to pursue her creative work.

Stephen Ujlaki, chair of the cinema department, said Zhang’s appointment as official director and cinematographer for the United States is a great honor.

“I’m personally very proud of [her] involvement with the Beijing Olympics,” he said. “I feel that having a faculty member of her talents participate in a world-class event can only help spread the reputation of our department.”

The pre-production phase, which ended last winter, consisted of selecting the final three athletes who would be the main focus of the U.S. part of the film: track and field runner and 2004 gold medalist Sanya Richards, Bicycle Motocross racer Kyle Bennett, and Tae Kwon Do fighter and 2000 and 2004 gold medalist Steven Lopez.

Zhang and her team have filmed the athletes as they used training facilities in San Diego, Napa and Texas, and will continue to follow them until they depart for Beijing.

The fact that Zhang is bilingual has assisted in keeping good relations with both the Chinese and American film industries, and made her “the perfect candidate,” she said.

As the team’s cinematographer, she is responsible for all the visual qualities of the film, from lighting to camera moves, and from color to composition. As the production head, she has to find the best angle to show the different perspectives of the sports that are featured in the film.

“I’m not really a sports person,” Zhang said with a laugh. “But I’ve learned so much just by doing this project.”

This year also marks the inaugural BMX Olympics competition. To help her with the motorbike sequences, which can be tricky to film, Zhang offered a position of second cameraman to an SF State cinema student who followed the crew to Texas for nine days over spring break.

Although a number of students applied for the job, Zhang could only take one. Upon seeing samples of his footage, she said that she immediately knew Marco Svizzero was her man. Realizing that he was an experienced BMX rider capable of holding a camera while riding is what sealed the deal for Zhang, she said. Svizzero will, among other things, be in charge of the BMX tracking shots.

“He had experience shooting on a bike, something that even professional directors of photography cannot do,” Zhang said.

The 22-year-old cinema major has been filming BMX freestyle professionally for two years. Svizzero said he is currently working as a film producer and editor for different Bay Area rappers, skateboarders, BMX riders and BMX companies. His dream is to become a director of photography, he said.

“I learned a lot from everyone on the crew,” Svizzero said of the shoot, where he shot the crew filming for behind the scenes material and operated as second camera when shooting the sports training.

He added that working on this project had particularly boosted his confidence as a filmmaker.

“Trying to get into the film industry isn’t an easy thing. For so long I secretly doubted myself and my abilities as a filmmaker,” he explained. “I have come to realize, the question isn’t if you have what it takes, but rather if you will work hard and do what it takes to get in.”

All filming is scheduled to wrap at the end of the 2008 Olympics on August 24, but editing and post-production will require Zhang to stay in Beijing for a couple more months after the games. The final version of the film will merge the work of all four units (Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States), and will be approximately two hours-long.

To learn more about the Beijing Olympic film check out the official Olympics Web site.