Q&A: Behind the Scenes with Julie Heather Liew

The NYFA alum talks working with Charlie Lim and The Sam Willows, and gives us an insider look at the local filmmaking industry.
Photo: Vivien Tan

At the age of 26, Julie Heather Liew has already built an impressive portfolio for herself as a production designer in the local film industry.

In her line of work, she brings directors’ visions to life by designing and building sets, sometimes from scratch. Her portfolio includes production on several music videos for well-known local musicians, including The Sam Willows’ ‘For Love’, Jawn’s ‘Fade to Black’ and Charlie Lim’s ‘Light Breaks In’.

The set of Charlie Lim’s music video for ‘Light Breaks In’. Photo: Vivien Tan

Her work on the film Sweet Bloom of Night Time Flowers also clinched her an award for Best in Production Design at last year’s National Youth Film Awards (NYFA), which recognises the best young film talents in Singapore. The short film chronicles a young woman’s dilemma between using her “unnatural gifts” and obeying her mother’s wishes. It was part of her Final Year project in NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media, where she graduated in 2016 with a degree in Digital Filmmaking.

For the inaugural NYFA Weekend held last week, Liew was on-site to recreate the set from Han, the film that won Best Picture the previous year. The initiative was the first instalment of an annual series to introduce lesser-known film crafts to the public.

Han follows a father’s journey to Korea to atone for his son’s crimes. Photo: Julie Heather Liew

ZYRUP got in touch with Julie to find out more about the inner workings of the world of film, as well as her experiences as a production designer in the local film industry so far.

What was it like working with local acts like The Sam Willows and Charlie Lim?
I always enjoy working with our local musicians, and the film and music industries are quite tight-knit so it’s great being surrounded by friends and familiar faces on set. Each experience is different, depending on the project’s theme or the band/musician’s genre, but it’s usually great fun.

Which set did you have the most fun creating?
Charlie Lim’s ‘Light Breaks In’ is my favourite, so far. I’ve always loved working with [director] Jonathan Choo and [director of photography] Rachel, and we worked really closely on the story and concept together with Charlie. Helping the story evolve from the script to the final set design was a pretty intense journey for me as an art director, but it challenged me creatively and emotionally, and it helped to have a really talented and supportive team to execute it well.

What are some misconceptions people have about video productions?
Some people might think that the Art Department’s goal is [merely] to increase the production value of the video (Editor’s note: in essence, making the video look more expensive or polished), but that isn’t always the case. It’s a pity that it’s often overlooked or under-appreciated, and some people pay less attention to details like colour or placement. But this is slowly changing, and sometimes a really simple but well-executed concept will look so much better than something with higher production value.

What happens to set pieces after filming ends? Any specific examples?
Most props or set pieces can be repurposed or reused, like the three movable flats I made for my Final Year Projects: they were prison visitation windows in Han, but were built-in bookcases in Sweet Bloom of Night Time Flowers.

Have there been times when you took some set pieces home after filming?
There’s so many examples because I’m quite the hoarder! I have an collection of picture frames and wall art from over the years, that I keep and reuse/repurpose. I love collecting stuff that’s harder to find or easy to repurpose and reuse, so I have to constantly remind myself that I don’t have the space to keep everything I want.

How has life changed after winning Best Production Design for NYFA last year?
I’m still freelancing as an art assistant and working on gaining experience in the industry. If anything, winning the award gave me the motivation to continue working hard and grow my creativity.

Why is it important for youths in the industry like yourself to have platforms like NYFA?
I think it’s important because as a teenager, I didn’t understand much about the local media industry. I’ve always loved making art, but I didn’t see myself being a fine artist, so when I learnt about the skills that went into scenic painting and production design, an entire world of possibilities opened up for me. I think more young people need this kind of exposure as a platform to realise and pursue their interests.

What advice do you have for people looking to join the local film industry?
Always be kind, and do your best. I know most people would say watch important films, or be well-read, but if you want to survive in the industry, it’s important to know how to be a good person and keep trying to improve. When you treat people well, they’ll be more eager to work with you again, and eventually you’ll get to make some pretty cool films with like-minded people.

The National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) is co-presented by *SCAPE and the National Youth Council (NYC).

For more information about the awards and this year’s nominees, click here.