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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ DP Vanja Cernjul: Multiple Glamorous Locations, Large Ensemble Cast Demand Tight Teamwork

Filming “Crazy Rich Asians” challenged cinematographer Vanja Cernjul with a scale nearly as epic as the holidays of the Singapore billionaire characters the story revolves around. The Croatian-born veteran of action and fantasy films and TV series (“The Deuce,” “Marco Polo”), who is screening his new comedy at the EnergaCamerimage fest, was faced with dozens of locations to be covered and a score of characters.

In following the story of a dynastic family, how did you go about keeping the focus of your shots in constant motion between such an array of vivid characters?
My experience in TV [led] me to be flexible when necessary and quickly adjust to the reality of a location. On “Crazy Rich Asians” we had something like 38 locations over 42 shooting days, in two different countries and four cities. We shot at major landmarks in Singapore and needed to adapt to a lot of restrictions. It was essential to capture and heighten the beauty of our locations under a tight schedule.

So how did you go about it? Were there specific useful techniques you had picked up from the tight schedules of the many series you’ve shot?
I knew from my previous experience on a Netflix series, “Marco Polo,” that the weather in that part of Asia dramatically changes throughout the day, especially during the monsoon season. We had to move around quickly with a large cast, who had to look their best and were dressed in amazing costumes all the time. You can imagine that the heat, humidity and daily storms weren’t going to be helpful.

Were multiple cameras a key part of that flexibility?
We used handheld camera and looser framing in the scenes that took place on locations outside of the world of wealth and prestige of the Young clan.

We wanted to reflect the traditional and strict order inside of one of the wealthiest families of Southeast Asia, and used very strong, almost geometrical compositions in scenes in their home.

What were your talks like with director Jon M. Chu as you planned to show such an extreme level of wealth and decadence?
We had a very condensed pre-production period but we managed to define how every geographical location in the story should feel, as well as various social environments. The story required a big, polished look and it was important to capture the beauty of our locations in all their glory.

How did you go about differentiating the look of the New World versus the Old?
We had to design three separate worlds in the universe of “Crazy Rich Asians.” The color palette for New York (which we shot in Kuala Lumpur) had to be contrasted with the tropical megacity of Singapore. Within Singapore there were different cultural and socio-economic environments that also needed visual distinction. Jon Chu collaborated with the creative team that included the production designer, costume designer and myself to create a visual portfolio for every department to use, with very specific guidelines on how each milieu should feel.

How on earth was that managed with such a tight shooting schedule?
Despite a very short prep we all seemed to be well coordinated. We looked at a lot of romantic comedies from the genre’s heyday specifically because we didn’t want “Crazy Rich Asians” to look anything like that. We wanted a timeless cinematic feel for the film and a lot of our references were Hollywood musicals from the ‘60s.

You dealt with epic spectacle previously in “Marco Polo,” although on an episodic basis. How would you compare that project to “Crazy Rich Asians” in terms of scope?
There were some similarities in the challenges we faced on both “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Marco Polo,” specific to shooting in the tropics. Also both projects involved working with large number of extras in elaborate costumes. I enjoyed putting together a very international crew for “Marco Polo” and some of them came back to work with me on “Crazy Rich Asians.” It helped to know that I could count on great professionals who understood the conditions in Southeast Asia.

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