Calvin Khurniawan spent the earlier years of his life fascinated by photography. As a child, growing up in Surabaya, Indonesia, he would spend his time playing with his father’s camera. Even at a young age, he understood the capability photos have to engage with human emotions. Such a realization led Khurniawan to take on the responsibility of communicating with audiences through imagery. He decided from a young age that his future lay in storytelling, and now, as one of Indonesia’s best cinematographers, he is doing just that.
At only 23, Khurniawan has made himself a leader in his industry. This year alone, he has made waves with his work on several films and music videos. One of these was for singer Andrew Belle and his hit song “Down”. The video features the popular dancer Dassy Lee from So You Think You Can Dance, and received critical acclaim, as it was featured in Paper Magazine, and was a Nowness Staff Pick and Vimeo Staff Pick. It also has over 117,000 views on YouTube alone, and the cinematography is a large part of what makes it so outstanding. Such a trend occurs with almost everything this award-winning cinematographer embarks on, including the new film Kudeta, a film about a change in modern fashion for female wear. The fashion film, showing female warriors in dresses and presenting them like never before, has been making its way across many prestigious international film festivals, including Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Awards, and Short to the Point 2017.
Last year, another one of Khurniawan’s films went on to critical acclaim. The Alchemist tells the story of an avant-garde perfumer and his apprentice who rebel against the expectations of the luxurious, yet lacking in passion and identity, niche market they cater to. Together they hope to change the perceptions of how perfume should smell likey. Khurniawan’s versatility as a filmmaker is evident through the film, which he also directed, and has won awards and made its way once again to several important festivals, with audiences and critics alike appreciating his work.
“Film has always been an immersive orchestra of photography, theatre, design and sound. I’m fond of the different mediums and collaborative efforts to tell the bigger picture. However, what I love most about film is its emotional influence. Whether it’s a 30-second commercial, 3-minute music video, or a 3-hour movie, I think film is a powerful communicational bridge that offers multiple perspectives of the world. I truly believe stories, fiction or non-fiction, enrich our understanding of the world and the complex life questions by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes,” said Khurniawan.
Khurniawan’s first true taste of international success came in 2014 with his project Antifilm. Not only was he the cinematographer on the film, but he also directed and produced it, being solely responsible for its success. The film consists of 3 episodic series, each examining a person’s deranged fantasy. The title is inspired by Mihovil Pansini’s filmmaking technique of unconventional storytelling. Despite its heavy experimentation, it is still a narrative, but told in puzzles.
“The story and the technique are important because I think people view deranged behaviours in a stereotypical way. People who are often called crazy are just people who see things differently than most of us. In this film, we explore the theme of obsession, anger and just a person who can’t differentiate fantasy or reality,” Khurniawan described.
The filmmaker initiated this project because he was beginning to see everything in formulaic and predictable way throughout his career. The film consists of what-ifs in the film language that explore this mentality. Everything was shot and edited unconventionally. For a nuanced cinematographer like Khurniawan, it was the most fun he’s ever had working on a film. The nature of the story encouraged him not to be prepared, so everything was by instinct.
The only thing that he stayed faithful to was mirroring the actor’s emotional response, something he is well-known for. To do this, it had to be spontaneous to not interrupt the actors for a specific shot. Therefore, everything was done in a one-take style. Khurniawan worked closely with Production Designer Eunice Kim to ensure the mirror room, where pivotal scenes of the film take place, would work for shooting.
“Working with Calvin was anything but boring. He is definitely a character. He approached me with a challenge regarding whether I could design a mirror room for his ambitious short film. It was extremely challenging, but Calvin was nothing but helpful throughout the thought process. As he is a cinematographer, he would naturally advise me on how to place the mirror and how big it should be. What I liked about working with Calvin was that he liked to bring in fresh ideas when designing the shots, making the production design captivating to look at. I have never worked with cinematographers who share the same enthusiasm in production design. After finishing the film, I was captivated by his creative style of shots. Calvin definitely makes a fun collaborative partner,” said Kim.
Antifilm premiered at the Los Angeles Indonesian Film Festival in 2014, where it was also an Official Selection. Many were impressed with the commitment and talent of the cinematographer, and Khurniawan will never forget the experience.
“It was quite nerve-wracking to screen it at a theatre to be honest. I designed the sound to be stressful, I wanted audience to feel immersed by it. I remember when I was in the theatre, I was worried by everyone’s response. But I was glad that it was well received,” he said.
The filmmaker has had a career many can only dream of, and he feels as if he is just beginning. Be sure to check out Antifilm and Khurniawan’s other works, as he is a name you will continue to hear.