Production Designer/Art Director Li Liu Inspired by A-List Clients like Halsey & Wiz Khalifa
When much sought-after Li Liu was recently working as a production designer on a commercial for multiple award-winning pop star Halsey, she recalled how she dreamed about getting into this field. She remembers watching the Wes Anderson-directed movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won 4 Oscar Awards including for Production Design, Costume Design, Music and also for Makeup and Hairstyling.
Most importantly, Li says, “Everything in that movie was so attractive to me, I loved every single frame of it, and re-watched it so many times. Although I wasn’t familiar with the concept of production design, I just thought how cool would that be if I could be a part of something like that. And, that’s when the seed was planted in my heart. I was so fascinated by aesthetic design of the world they had imagined and recreated.”
Although she was born in China, she initially studied Business at University in the U.S. but then went onto Landscape and Architecture, Fashion Photography and also Environmental Design at Art Center College of Design (in California).
Indeed, she has applied all she studied in areas like branding products — visual identity, packaging, and associated creative content, as well as defining a brand’s strategy for projects like Inward Season in LA. She’s also applied her wide knowledge to working on music videos and commercials for artists like Halsey, Wiz Khalifa, Flatbush Zombies, and Drama Relax — her responsibilities have included identifying a design style for sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting while working closely with the director and producer. Moreover, she’s provided fashion advice, choosing and coordinating outfits for models in photo shoots or actors in film, while choosing props and accessories and preparing them for shoots
As a result of being put right into the action, she has “learned how things work behind the camera,” and also “how to put things together to make it look good even if you have limited resources and budgets.” Which leads to why she is in so much demand to work in so many genres of the industry. She explains what makes her unique as a production designer or a creative director: “I feel I can detect the dynamic changes out in the field. As we are living in this world where everything is moving so fast, I think I’m able to latch onto those trends which has value in my work. I also have a lot of resilience and stamina, which is needed in this business.”
Additionally, she has found that A-list recording artists like Halsey and Wiz Khalifa share her fascination with aesthetics. Of Wiz Khalifa, the multiple Grammy nominated rapper, Li recalls, “The first time when I saw Wiz in person it was surreal to me, especially as I was brought up in a totally different culture. To me, he was like someone who only existed on TV. But he was so humble and nice, and charismatic. And because of that kind of kindness that I got from him, and other big artists I’ve worked with, it’s made me want to push myself to doing better and better.”
Above all, her appreciation of style and aesthetics, and being a good person were instilled early on by her grandfather, explaining, “I learned many things from my grandpa, and not just art and design-wise but also about a life attitude and having good values. One thing that my grandpa always told me is that before you want to achieve anything, you have to be a good human first, that’s one thing that I’ve always kept on my mind when I make decisions.”
In explaining the difference in her roles, she suggests, “Production Design is more of a spatial related scope of work. It’s about the whole vibe of how the whole space looks like and how to convey that emotion to the audience. Being a Creative Director is actually pretty similar, it’s just through another medium, and it’s also the process of trying to make things look good together, about establishing a sense of the way people want to be presented to others and establishing a mood.”
Furthermore, as a viewer and fan, she’s always fascinated by the world that movies and Hollywood creates. For example, she was inspired by Dune, the 6-time winning Oscar winning movie, including for Production Design:
“Dune is definitely an epic and iconic film. I still remember the moment when I was sitting in the theater and watching Dune, the impact that film has brought me, I definitely see that as a masterpiece. Something to aspire to. In fact, I’d like to create something that can go beyond my own standard, sometime soon.”
Most importantly, for someone who was taught by her grandfather that you could “create a whole new world with just bare hands,” Li keeps expanding what she can create — from providing creative advice, designing and coordinating creative directions including sets and visuals for shoots and projects to working closely with artists, directors and producers to realize their vision.
In addition to always being a stylin’ presence on set, LI keeps learning new digital skills, while perfecting fabrication skills like 3-D printing, laser cutting and also model building, just like her grandfather advised, working with her hands.
As for goals in the rapidly expanding industry, Li enthuses, “My mid-term goal would be to work with a lot more great artists — there are still a lot of artists on my bucket list. My long-term goal is to create some content that has a meaning to the world we are living in. Ultimately, I want to make this world a better place in the way that I can.”