PODCAST INTERVIEW: Cinematographer Khairulhakim and the Power of Being Nice

Recently I sat down with Khairulhakim, a good friend of mine and a cinematographer in Singapore, on my podcast Write.Live.Talk. 

Khairul and I first met in an editing class in 2005, where we were both studying in Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Diploma in Film, Sound and Video. As we slowly worked together over three years, I realised that Khairul was one of the most driven people I'd ever met. And I've always admired him for his artistic eye, technical adeptness and his warm personality.

So, as a part of my ongoing quest to gain insights into different creative minds, Khairul was the perfect subject for my first podcast interview.

Khairulhakim shooting and directing his directorial debut short film, KARA, in Malaysia.

Khairulhakim shooting and directing his directorial debut short film, KARA, in Malaysia.

In the podcast, Khai - as he is known in the industry - talks about how began his career as a production assistant to learn the ropes, before crewing in various lighting departments, and working his way up to a Director of Photography. For more than a decade, Khai has worked alongside directors and producers all over the world. As a cinematographer or Director of Photography, Khai's job is to craft the overall visuals of a film, utilising an assortment of practical, technical and psychological tools to create a specific atmosphere. And as Khai explains, in the world of cinema, all it takes is a single frame to convey what a character feeling through lighting, camera movement and colours.

You can see some of his works below in his showreel:

Later in the podcast, Khairul delves into his personal journey to a full-fledged career, why Singapore's media industry is difficult to work in because of shrinking budgets, and how video demands are getting more complex. But despite the rapid challenges -- we used to shoot films on digital video (DV) tape and on a PD170, guys -- Khai has crafted out a stellar career that spans feature films, TV shows, online media and corporate videos. Essentially, he's done it all. But I have to say, one of the more profound discoveries comes at the end where Khai shares his personal philosophy on working and learning.

Be Nice

I won't say too much but Khai believes that being nice can change the course of your life. It's worth listening to the podcast to the end just for his passionate explanation. Lastly, Khai talks about his directorial debut KARA, a sci-fi short film, which he wrote, shot and directed in Malaysia. 

KARA synopsis: Trying to move on from a troubled past, June attempts to escape her current life with her virtual phone assistant, Kara. The device brings June through a literal journey of recovery, until she discovers that Kara's intentions are not what it seems.

KARA synopsis: Trying to move on from a troubled past, June attempts to escape her current life with her virtual phone assistant, Kara. The device brings June through a literal journey of recovery, until she discovers that Kara's intentions are not what it seems.

You can listen to the podcast on Anchor (above) or subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts to listen to the full interview! Thank you once again to Khairulhakim for taking the time to speak with me.

Khairulhakim's bio

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Khairulhakim is a Director of Photography based in Singapore. Over the course of over ten years, Khairul has worked on various projects in documentaries, television, commercials, music videos and narrative short films. Some of his works include: Charlie Lim’s Conspiracy Music Video (VEVO), Matilda (Short Film), Redbull Campus Cricket (Online documentary), Make Me A Super (Medicorp Okto), Growing Roots (Discovery Channel), Bootcamp Champs (Starhub TV [Online]), Grandma In July (Short Film), Hiccup and Sneeze Season 3 (Okto), Alba Botanica TVC (Online), and Forgotten Youths (Mediacorp Channel U).

In 2009, Khairul clinched the Student Kodak Cinematography Award under his film school in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Then in 2016, he was a selected filmmaker for the prestigious Asian Film Academy (AFA) intake of 2016. Khairul was only one of three Asian Cinematographers chosen from the region, along with four Asian Directors. Together, they shot and directed a short film with a team of young filmmakers in Busan, Korea. The film titled “Hello Uncle” was the graduating film of AFA during the Busan International Film Festival. Khairulhakim continues to work in the industry, and recently wrote, shot and directed “Kara”, his debut directorial short film.

My Best, Best, Worse of 2017

So we've come to the end of the 2017 -- and what a year it’s been!

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I don't know about you, but for me, 2017 was filled with a few achievements, plenty of failures, and personal discoveries that I'm still wracking my brain over. Insert gif that sums up my feelings above.

At the same time, there have been more than a few welcome additions in my life — my first child on the way in January, new books, new TV shows in the works — and things I've embarked on that are leading to exciting places.

It's been a great year, and I hope that whatever you set out to do this year, you're at least one step closer to your goals. 

Because that’s all you need — one step in the right direction. 

So with that in mind, here are some of my personal 'Best Of’s’ this year. But I’ll put a twist on it. Here I'll be exploring the best book I read, the best movie I watched, and the worse failure I experienced this year — or BBW.

Let’s see where we end up...

1. Best Book:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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What can I really say about this book? I discovered the book online and read that it was one of Barack Obama's and Bill Gates' favourite books last year. Yes - I’m totally influenced by those clickbait articles that sites like the Business Insider posts. And so, compelled by only a few clues, I decided to pick it up, and read the entire book on bus rides to work.

When I began, I was hoping it would illuminate me about the origins of the human species, and frame my life in a whole new way. No biggie, right?

But it really really did.

Yuval Noah Harari puts the evolution of man and mankind into such eloquent, nuanced, and easy to understand terms that I was hooked. He delves deep the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age, up to the twenty-first centuryHe then divides the history of Sapiens into four major parts:

The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination);

The Agricultural Revolution (c. 12,000 BCE, the development of farming);

The Unification of Humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire);

and The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science).

Every chapter is thrilling, reading like a pulse-pounding, entirely 2D, global conspiracy tale. He then goes into detail about the physical and cognitive development of our biology, societies, communication, the invention of law, governments, Capitalism, and our drive to concoct industries that empower the world's thirst for food, comfort, and technological advancement.

Some of these industries bode well for us. Others continue to contribute to the destruction of our environment -- the act of maintaining rising populations is unsustainable, right now -- and warp the lines between right, wrong, and where humans rank on the evolutionary ladder.

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One particularly memorable exploration is Harari’s breakdown of the early stages of agriculture, and its transition into a global mega-industry that subjugates and tortures livestock, creating the most successful animals on the planet: the chicken, cow and sheep. For mankind altered the destiny of these animals and forced them to prosper.

He later goes on to call our current food industry a prison for these animals, a deep suffering that most human beings don’t think twice about. And I understand why. A picture depicting a chicken farmer tossing defective chicks into a grater, simply for having minor deformities, is now seared into my memory.

While I don't think I could turn vegetarian, it has made me think more deeply about animal treatment, food industry practices, and how not to give in to the demands of industries that promote awful animal welfare. There are fairer, more humane alternatives out there, and it is our responsibility to find them.

Now all of this may sound overly complicated. But trust me it isn’t. Yuval Noah Harari has a brilliant way of conveying complicated ideas into simple, short and relatable metaphors. 

Yuval Noah Harari himself. His TED talks are very insightful too - go check them out

Yuval Noah Harari himself. His TED talks are very insightful too - go check them out

The last chapter centres on his speculation about future of Homo Sapiens, and how we are now transcending our limits, replacing them with intelligent design using Bio-engineering (growing artificial organs etc), Bionic Life (retina implants, cyborg insects, bionic arms) and Inorganic Engineering (computer viruses that can undergo independent evolution replicating human brains).

Questions still linger. But what I learnt is that mankind's ingenuity is our greatest asset. 

As we evolved, Harari points out our ability to work in large numbers, use our imaginations - creating things like Gods, nations, money, and human rights - and how we used all of them as key stepping stones to create civilisation. Sadly, this has also meant that other civilisations couldn't keep up. Rapid urbanisation now means we must fuel countless industries to keep our growing populations afloat. What started as simply  agriculture to feed small communities have become multi-billion dollar structures that have imprisoned us.

The biggest compliment I can give is that after finishing the book, I felt like I had grown as a person. My life seemed nestled into a larger, more cosmic perspective. In today's hectic world, we often feel lost by the complexities of living, consumed by technology and social-media, and griping over the little things. It's important to understand that we were animals first — and most things we worry about are completely imaginary to instil a sense of order in our everyday lives. 

At the same time, subconsciously, we are still paying for our enlarged brains and superior intellects. While we like to think of ourselves as smart, humans are bogged down by our innate flight or fight mode, as well as fears of hunting predators, whether individually or on a country-wide scale. These are all vestigial characteristics of our animal origins.

For me, I learnt that our true purpose lies beyond how much money we earn, what our jobs are, or even where we come from. We are all humans. We are all mankind. And we all need to protect each other and this Earth. Read SAPIENS if you want to reflect and explore your unique place in the world like never before. You won’t soon forget it.

2. Best Movie:

The Room - Directed by Tommy Wiseau

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What can I say about this film? I actually bought tickets to watch this at The Projector, but for some reason, I forgot to go for the screening. I was bummed. So, instead, I managed to get a digital copy and watched the film at home.

It was an eye-opening experience - to say the least. But why was this the best film I watched this year, despite being one of the worse movies ever made? (yes, even better than Star Wars: The Last Jedi).

Simply put: There is no other film like it. 

Was the dialogue bad? Yes. Was the plot nonsensical? Hell yeah. Was the film just...weird? Definitely! But there is a certain charm in The Room's conviction to make an Oscar winning drama, as well as Tommy Wiseau's strangulated, glottal-stopped voice. 

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But I found myself transported: hanging on every word, waiting for beats to hit, and guffawing at seemingly inane moments. And when I thought about it, I realised it was an oddly cinematic experience that could not have existed without the determination, passion, stubbornness to execute such things in the first place. A childlike place, in fact, where anything could happen.

That's right - Tommy Wiseau made the film he wanted to, on his money, his way. He's not perfect. I think he knows that. Hell, we all know it. But if more of us simply followed our creative instincts and just MADE THINGS HAPPEN, I believe we'd be happier and more content. 

And Tommy Wiseau achieved his goal! The Room is now a cult classic that is still being watched, discussed, and sold at screenings today! It taught me that the things we create don't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be like anything else. It just has to be YOU. That in itself will make it unique enough to stand out and generate a community around it. For me, it is one of the best examples of the Youtube strategy - build small avid fans, not viral-centric, casual audiences. 

Cinema goers commonly throw spoons at the screen when they see them in The Room

Cinema goers commonly throw spoons at the screen when they see them in The Room

And then there's the fact that it actually exists. After researching the film -- with all of its spoon-imagery, "Don't worry about it", and "You're tearing me apart Lisa!" -- I couldn't help but fall in love with Tommy Wiseau's mission to get this film made. The film may not be what is considered “good" in the traditional sense. But it breathes with creativity, originality, and an off-beat sense of "who cares" that I you have to respect the vision. 

It cost $5 million apparently — Wiseau is terribly mysterious about it — and it's still doing festival rounds and getting viewed in cinemas. I also read that after the success of James Franco's 'The Disaster Artist', that explores the making of the film, there might even be another tour of The Room around the United States. 

So what did I learn from The Room? How not to do certain things, and how not to take no for an answer. 

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So this was a tough one.

After winning a few competitions here and there with an unpublished manuscript, I attempted to crowdfund a book. It was my first attempt. I hoped it was a way of not only marketing the book but also creating a small community around a project.

In this case, the story was a YA sci-fi novel called MAXINE STARR: LAST VANGUARD OF THE ZODIAC! It has taken me around 5 years to write, and has been met with various minor successes over the years ie. Winner of Cartoon Networks SNAPTOONS competition in 2012, and a winner of Launchpad’s Manuscript Competition 2016 organized by Inkshares, Tracking Board and Scott Free Studios (under Ridley Scott).

You can preorder your copy and find the details here.

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For the crowdfund site Inkshares to publish the book, I needed to generate 750 preorders in 3 months. But after contacting and exhausting my friends lists, posting on all social media feeds, and contacting some independent news outlets, I only managed to get a total of 50 orders out of 250 (my goal).

While this is not a complete failure, I learnt a lot. I consider this a soft failure — that’s a failure that I would actually attempt again now that I know the rules. 

And hey, you know what? That's 50 books. That's 50 more books than I have ever sold before! So I’m not too dissapointed.

But what did I learn? Well, firstly, you need a detailed plan.

I had a rough plan: I prepared catered posts on various social media feeds and prepared myself to keep contacting people I knew. But I think there were better ways to do it. These include:

  • Contacting more outlets (online and offline) that targeted the same demographic I was looking at.
  • Exploring creative ways to market the book through short videos, memes, articles.
  • Contacting social media influencers way beforehand that have the same demographic as the book.
  • More targeted advertising.
  • Simply waiting until I had enough "fans" or people in my contact list to soft sell the book to.

All of these takes time — something I was unprepared for. However, despite this, the project did better than I thought. There were people that bought the book that I didn’t  expect, and other readers from Singapore, the U.S, and the world. I’ll take it. 

So a massive thank you if you liked, commented, shared, or even preordered the book! 

Although the campaign ends on January 14, I'm content that I tried it. As I said, I don’t consider it a complete failure — because I learnt so much from the experience. And the feedback I got about the book, the story, the writing, and the cover was all fantastic. It has made me even more driven to bring the novel to readers' hands in 2018.

So this is not the end. Just a learning stop. Next year, I will be going full steam ahead to edit it further, send it to a few more publishers, and most likely self-publish it on Amazon.

Stay tuned and let me know what you think! 

The end?

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading! I wish you only the best in 2018, and I hope it's filled with love, happiness and your own personal achievements. As for this website and blog, I'll be coming back even stronger next year with new additions:

  • More video content: short motivational videos told by me, and my day-to-day life as a writer.
  • More articles about my new life as a DAD! Yes, my baby will be born in late January, and I hope to run a small series about my incredible (aka messy) experiences. 
  • More fun, indepth articles into storytelling, theories and inspiration starters for your own stories. This includes topics such as: Time Travel and Ghosts, Medieval History, Folktales from Singapore's past that have been forgotten, and explorations into UFOS, magic, and the supernatural.
  • Better podcasts, reviews and interviews on Write. Live. Talk with Kane. This includes talks with leading artists, writers, producers, and interesting people. You can also check subscribe to me on Anchor.
This was an experiment but I've developed a deep affection for the audio format.

This was an experiment but I've developed a deep affection for the audio format.

If 2017 wasn't your year, that's all right. We're all trying to navigate this crazy world in our own way, and if the current news is anything to go by, it's only getting crazier. 

Sometimes we try and don't always land on our feet. But the best thing you can do is reflect where you've been, where you are, and where you're are headed. And realise that things will change.

But as I've learnt more so this year: Things do turn out for the best in the end.

So go for what you want. Trust the process. Try, fail, recalibrate. And don’t give up. The universe listens to those that dare to manifest new possibilities.

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Have a stupendous Happy New Year!

Kane W. Holder