Filmmaker Jennifer Thym is the creator of the fantasy web series LUMINA. Drawing upon inspiration as varied as web comics, cyberpunk, and manga, LUMINA centers around the story of Lumina Wong (played by JuJu Chan) who meets the proverbial handsome but mysterious stranger Ryder Lee (Michael Chan) and is plunged into a surreal world of fantasy, romance, and intrigue set against the cityscape of metropolitan Hong Kong.
Hailing from New York and Virginia and now based in Hong Kong, Thym has a story almost as interesting as that of Lumina Wong. After relocating from London to Hong Kong, she decided to make the jump from the realm of high finance and law to the world of creative arts like filmmaking. Her first major film project, the LUMINA series, is the result.
Jennifer Thym’s insights into the creation of LUMINA, her personal journey into movies, and the business of filmmaking in the internet age are found in my interview with her.
Question: You have an interesting career history in that you worked in banking and law before going into film fairly recently. What caused you to take this great leap, and what were the challenges that you had to deal with in making this transition?
Jen Thym: I always wanted to make films, but it never seemed like the right time to do it. I had recently moved to Hong Kong, so it was a good time to try something new.
I started out by rebuilding my confidence in my creative side by writing and drawing a webcomic. I enjoyed that greatly, but the process was very lonely. Filmmaking is very much a collaborative group project.
Not having a film school background is a double edged sword. On the one hand, I am not tied to any kind of tradition (I never say, “well, this is how it’s always been done”), but on the flipside, I sometimes don’t already know the “easy” solution to a problem.
Question: What has been your experience working as a filmmaker in Hong Kong? For instance, do you speak Cantonese or Mandarin? How have you negotiated the language issue?
Jen Thym: I don’t speak either Cantonese or Mandarin, so having a talented bilingual assistant director (Billy Lau) was vital to keeping things running smoothly. As for working in Hong Kong – the filmmaking community is small but very welcoming. I met so many talented people through the social networking site AlivenotDead.com and by going to the once a month Speak Up gatherings hosted by e.v.e.n.t.
Question: Have you been influenced by any Asian American films/media, and how do you think of your work with respect to this tradition?
Jen Thym: I was deeply impressed by the loyal fan following that Wong Fu Productions has fostered and developed online – their films are short and sweet, often centering around the “nice guy” theme, and their fans love them! To me, Wong Fu, Kevjumba and Nigahiga are excellent examples of how Asian Americans are doing great with building audiences.
To be frank, LUMINA has caught on more with the scifi/fantasy audience than with the Asian American audience. Our top countries in terms of viewership are the US, Canada and Italy. That’s right – Italy! We teamed up with this great site Italian Subs Addicted – and after they started translating the series into Italian, our views from Italy skyrocketed.
We’re hopeful about reaching more of the Asian American audience in the future though!
Question: You decided to make LUMINA a web series rather than shooting it as a feature or short film. Would you recommend this choice for filmmakers looking to establish themselves in the industry? Do you think this route is becoming more viable than the traditional film festival path?
Jen Thym: For a new filmmaker starting out, the internet is absolutely the way to go!
It’s been a great calling card for us since people can see an example of our work right away. On the other hand, there isn’t alot of funding in the internet sector right now, so going forward, especially for projects that require a bigger budget, I’m looking at a mix of traditional and web media.
Question: What are the differences in developing a story for a web episode format as opposed to the traditional feature-length film? Did the shorter episodic format cause special difficulties with fully developing characters or creating a coherent story narrative that connected each episode in LUMINA?
Jen Thym: When I was writing LUMINA, I deliberately tried to keep each webisode packed with activity and dense storylines, on the idea that people have short attention spans when it comes to the web.
The feedback that we got however is that people loved the look and tone of the series, but wanted to watch longer webisodes with simpler storylines! I also discovered that there were quite a few people who waited til the entire series was out before they started watching, so that they could watch the webisodes back to back.
Question: How did you and your co-producer Sommer Nguyen go about financing LUMINA?
Jen Thym: LUMINA was financed by my personal savings. I’m not Tom Ford, so I couldn’t come up with USD 7 million for my first film, but maybe next time around. 😉
For season two of LUMINA, we are looking for an outside investor or a brand sponsor.
Question: Your business/distribution model seems to be a fan-supported model where people can view content for free. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of this model?
Jen Thym: Pretty much all internet models are “new” ones – not even big businesses have figured out the magic formula for sustaining themselves online. The fan-supported model we’re using for LUMINA is what many musicians use, as well as webcomics. It’s good for getting your name out there and for people to readily see your work; the problem is, of course, that it’s harder in the short term to make a living this way.
A subscription model may work better for someone who is already an established filmmaker or if the web show features a very well known celebrity. Joss Whedon did that successfully with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. With the recent cancellation of Dollhouse, it would be interesting to see if he branches out more into web shows.
Question: Here’s the requisite “advice” question. What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning filmmakers?
Jen Thym: Be yourself. Be passionate about what you do and don’t let anyone tell you that you “can’t” do it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t always try to improve your craft – the people I respect the most are always evolving their skills, so there’s nothing wrong or “amateur” about wanting to improve!
Question: Finally, if you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and could watch one and only one film, what film would that be and why?
Jen Thym: Blade Runner from Ridley Scott. Even tiny fragments of the film are highly evocative for me; I sometimes hear ambient sounds or music that resembles that of the soundtrack and it already instantly transports me back to a different time and place.