Interview with Model Citizen Stephanie Wong

All Rights Reserved 2014

Within the past two years, Rutgers Sophomore Stephanie Wong has created a wide breadth of artwork. Born in Manhattan, and raised in Brooklyn and Edison, New Jersey, Wong is a Visual Arts BFA at Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Since a young age, Wong has worked with a variety of mediums, including fine arts, photography, and cinematography. With such artists as Ai Wei Wei, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Childish Gambino, and Red Hot Chili Peppers as some of her biggest inspirations, Wong has taken her passion for various art forms and created her own works of art.

Over the past summer, Wong successfully co-directed the film "Skycatcher" for the United States National Science Foundation. Working for the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking, Wong's project follows the experiences of Rutgers environmental sciences assistant professor Ann Marie Carlton, as she studies the American southeast's gradual climate change. The production team has also been in communication with PBS, with the hopes of showing the film to a national audience. The documentary is currently in post-production, and should be completed by this coming summer. 

As an artist across multiple platforms, Wong's work has been previously showcased in film festivals across the tri-state area, including the New Lens Film Festival and Blogfinger Film Festival. After working on "Skycatcher," Wong also plans to tackle another documentary. Tentatively entitled "Ideal," the project will focus on the role and history of "beauty" within humanity. She hopes to tackle historical and contemporary conceptions of beauty, including social stigmas and dominant beliefs surrounding aesthetics, as well as the possibility of redefining beauty within society.

Although the project is still in filming and production, Wong's project promises to ask - and answer- serious questions about art within society.

As TRIM Magazine's Spring 2014 Model Citizen, we interviewed Stephanie Wong online about her artwork and experiences working with the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking. 

All Rights Reserved 2014

Philip Wythe: First off, thank you so much for agreeing to be our Model Citizen! We're excited to talk about your work.

Stephanie Wong: Thanks for nominating me!

PW: Where do you come from, Stef? What do you study at Rutgers University, and what was your biggest motivation to come to New Brunswick?

SW: I was born in Manhattan, New York and raised in Brooklyn until I was 7, then my family and I moved to Edison, NJ. I'm in the Visual Arts BFA program at Mason Gross, but overall things are still up in the air for me.

I'm not sure what my biggest motivation was, it was definitely a mix of factors though; probably quality of education, tuition, location. The people are welcoming, the faculty to student ratio is low here, and it's also convenient to get to NYC; I get some great inspiration from there.

PW: I see. Over the past two years you've been at Rutgers, your photography and cinematography work has been well-received on campus. How long have you been creating artwork? 

SW: I took visual art as an elective in middle school, and then started to get serious with it at the end of high school; then I was doing fine art-type things. If I connect the dots, I guess even before that I was expressing myself in pretty creative ways. Like, I remember when I was 5, I wrote one of my first poems, and it had illustrations of mice and food next to the stanzas. Looking back, that poem made almost no sense, but I guess it didn't have to. My father kept it on his work cubicle back then, so that's the main reason I remember it.

PW: Interesting. What sort of fields do you work with?

SW: I work with all types of fields from basket weaving to molecular biology. No, just kidding. But sometimes it feels that way.

PW: How so?

SW: In my experience with documentary, you really have to be mentally present 24/7 on the field and be able to process new information efficiently, and expect the unexpected for the most part. But you also have to be aware of the narrative goal, and juggle a million other things. A lot of it is about human relationships, so even though it can be difficult to capture someone else's life on camera, it's rewarding when you realize the impact disclosure makes for everyone involved and the audience.

So yeah, I've been doing lots of digital film production, but anything that involves art and the human psyche, I've been pretty passionate about. It's lots of tech, management, and journalism, but there's definitely an art to capturing the moment, feeling the cinematography, and directing in a way where you have to know how to be vulnerable. I see documentary as a way to show the truth of human experiences in a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional way, and the same goes for a lot of art.

PW: What a fascinating look at documentary work! That's very true - art often requires us to manage multiple responsibilities at once, and problem solve rapidly. In your experience, which projects have been the most engaging to work with? What were some of the challenges that you faced?

SW: I'm pretty excited to see how this film "Skycatcher" is going to play out; it's in post-production right now, and my crew Jamie Deradorian-Delia and Sean Feuer have been working hard on editing. I co-directed and shot it with them last summer; we were sent out to forests in the southeast U.S. for 10 days, 100 degree weather, to capture a story for the National Science Foundation surrounding climate change. 

We know it's going to be airing in legitimate places, but the challenge is communicating the science in a way everyone can grasp and retain. We've taken a pretty stylized cinematography approach to it, so it's going to be beautiful. We spent 6 weeks on pre-production and making predictions about events because there is no time to mess up; if you miss an event, it's gone forever.

I'm not going to lie, the whole thing was a challenge, but I learned way more than I ever could from years of text books.

PW: Indeed, I can only imagine the challenges of bringing "Skycatcher's" story into a documentary format. The production sounds extremely exciting, however! Would you be able to tell us some of the places the film will premiere? When can we expect the final production to be revealed?

SW: Nothing's been set in stone yet since it's still in post-production, but we've been consistently in touch with PBS, so things are looking good. The film should be finished before the summer.

PW: Sounds great. Has "Skycatcher" been your most engaging project so far, then? Or is there another?

SW: I guess the most engaging project for me is my own documentary, "Ideal" (tentative title). It's a big project that kind of feels like I'm doing my film thesis early. But I'm not trying to be academic, I'm trying to answer questions I've thought about all my life. The path it's on right now is that it's going to reveal how the conceptions of beauty have come to be and what it takes to define and/or redefine it, and some of it touches on social stigmas and microaggressions surrounding appearance, art, perception, and perfection.

It's easy to say that beauty is subjective, or that beauty is a science in the way we see. Maybe that's truth, maybe it isn't, but I know it's more complex than that, as long as the world is changing and diversity exists. There are patterns and things people are afraid to talk about or just don't know about, and it bothers me when people are ignorant and end up hurting others because of it. But yeah the biggest challenges are definitely making time for the project as a student and just having the logistics work out. I've only been serious about film for a year, so things are moving pretty fast for me, especially when I'm still figuring things out for myself.

PW: You mentioned your own project, tentatively titled "Ideal." Like many of your other projects, it seems to experiment with different genres and ideas in order to create one centralized project. How do you think your experience with "Skycatcher" will affect the documentary?

SW: "Skycatcher" was definitely a more concrete project with a lot of organization and responsibility involved, especially since it's associated with RCDF (Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking) and National Science Foundation. The end product also has to live up to the expectations of the scientists and researchers involved, and follow a good enough narrative structure to air.

I definitely learned to be more direct and prepared in questioning and production, so that helped me for "Ideal." When I went out to PA to interview Nickolay Lamm - the guy who created "normal" Barbie and "Lammily" - things came along much easier with audio set-up, camera angles, lighting, prepared and improvisational questions, because I'd already done that on the fly so many times for "Skycatcher" - only in 100 degree weather with mosquitoes, fire ants, wild dogs, etc.

PW: 100 degree weather and wild dogs? Sounds like a bad mix.

SW: Actually there was only one incident where I was chased by wild dogs, but I sort of initiated that because I really wanted a specific cinematic shot in an abandoned area. But, lesson learned. Safety first.

PW: Sounds like it - hopefully, at least.

SW: But yeah, I'm definitely much more used to the idea of traveling after shooting "Skycatcher." I'm planning to go out to different places in the U.S. for "Ideal," and maybe even internationally if it gets more funding and support, because I don't want this to be a one-sided film.

PW: It certainly seems like you're putting a lot of hard work and planning into "Ideal." I'm looking forward to seeing the final project! Since you've begun working with film and multimedia, has your artwork been shown in any festivals or galleries? Are there any other projects that you've worked on which have been publicly showcased?

SW: My first narrative film I did last year was called "Doppelgänger," and I made it for the Digital Storytelling class in RCDF. It ended up winning the Margery Somers Foster Multimedia Award from Rutgers, and then it was screened at the New Lens Film Festival and Blogfinger Film Festival.

I kind of cringe when I look at my old work because my level of skill is so different now, but in context I guess it was an alright film.

PW: I can imagine, but it's always good to see art as a constant work in progress, as well. We're glad to hear your previous projects are laying the foundation for the future. You mentioned above that "Skycatcher" was specifically created for the National Science Foundation, with the support of Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking. From your experience, is the multimedia film industry a growing one? How do you think modern technology and Internet projects are influencing the field? 

SW: Media production and consumption in general is growing exponentially, so naturally, I think, the interest in film and television is growing too. If I try to put myself in an industry perspective, it seems like it's harder to define professionalism and draw the lines. There's a lot of hybridization and interconnectedness, and the frivolous bullshit is mixing with the serious issues in really interesting ways. "Everything is everything," to quote a Phoenix song. 

PW: Interesting. How has technology and hybridization impacted your own experiences with "Skycatcher," and your other projects?

SW: It seems like documentary leans towards journalistic efforts, and fiction leans toward artistic efforts, but it's not as black and white anymore. We used lots of sci-fi films as reference in coming up with the artistic/cinematic style for "Skycatcher," for example. And some action films use the whole shaky-camera movement to mimic documentary.

You can take decent enough film and photo with your iPhone, and, if you're passionate about what you do, you could probably shoot a film on just your phone. Because, at the end of the day, it's about the story more than how much money you spent on production.

Film in general is remarkable, many times eye-opening, and involves an insane amount of cross-collaboration to make things work. The fact that people are creating things and expressing themselves so much is a good sign, and that's an undeniable defining factor of our generation. Some people want to see their dreams on screen, some people don't know what that dream is yet, and some don't think dreams are even necessary. Even though I know how I like to feel and I take life by the moment, I feel like I have a responsibility and purpose because I want to do as much as I can to relieve suffering and tackle unknowns before I leave Earth, so to speak. So that's why I've been doing what I'm doing.

PW: What a fascinating perspective! The industry is definitely blending in unique ways. Returning to "Skycatcher" - After working tirelessly to create "Skycatcher," are you excited for its final post-production reveal? What's the biggest theme or message that you're hoping the public takes out of the work?

SW: Yes-- It's about the fact that a specific forest in the Southeast is the only place in the U.S. that is cooling; it's pretty crazy. But it's also about the personal story of Ann Marie Carlton, someone who is really multi-dimensional, but you wouldn't expect it. I was definitely inspired by the way she's been breaking stereotypical barriers and I'm sure others will be as well.

PW: Indeed, "Skycatcher" as a whole seems to be breaking down stereotypical barriers. Thanks again for agreeing to be interview with us for Model Citizen, Stef! We're looking forward to seeing "Skycatcher" and "Ideal" in the near future! 

SW: No problem! Thanks for interviewing me.

PW: You're welcome! Do you have any closing remarks you'd like to add?

SW: I kind of keep a lot of my artsy things to myself because I don't like to share things all the time. But I'm slowly bringing my walls down, because that's what I wish other people would do. But yeah, I know these upcoming two years are going to shock people, because I've been under the radar with things lately and what people have seen so far is just the beginning. In any case, I'll be updating my website stefwong.com in case people want to see some of my recent projects including photo stuff, film trailers, and music.

Article & Interview By Philip Wythe