From Film Festivals to Professional Success: Jonathan Zhao’s Ascent in the Film Industry

by Amir Bakian

The power of visual storytelling is undeniable. It can capture our imagination and emotions and transport us to different worlds. It’s what makes movies and television so compelling. And for Jonathan Zhao, an esteemed director of photography, his unbridled passion for cinematic visuals has fueled his rise in the film industry.

Zhao’s love for cinematography shines through in his work as he shapes and controls light to immerse the audience in the world of the story. A rising star in the film industry, Zhao’s persistence and dedication to his craft are evident in the unconventional path he took to get here.

Growing up in a traditional Chinese immigrant household, Zhao never considered a career in filmmaking a feasible option. His family had different career aspirations for him, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. However, his passion for creating short films began in middle school and grew in high school when he started participating in local film festivals in British Columbia.

Zhao and his team were pleasantly surprised to receive top cinematography and film awards every year until he entered university. These early achievements encouraged him to believe in himself, his abilities, and his vision. With these awards, his mother surprisingly encouraged him to get accepted into NYU’s Tisch Film & TV, where he started developing his professional career.

That ever-blossoming career now includes highlights such as shooting for Toyota Canada, Audi Vancouver, Jaguar Vancouver, Land Rover Vancouver, and Mercedes Benz Vancouver. Zhao has also worked on commercial content with famous clients like The Vancouver Canucks Hockey Team and Olympic gold medalist Cassie Sharpe at Drive Marketing Group.

In the past year alone, Zhao has shot over eight films, including those shot internationally in Barcelona and Brussels, in the current festival run, submitting to Tribeca, Cannes, SXSW, and First Run. The Kickstarter commercial Zhao shot in Belgium for the app Fluyo has successfully crowdfunded over one million dollars, becoming the most funded app in Kickstarter history. He also served as the key grip for the 2023 South X South West Film Festival Jury Award Winner Grown and gaffer for Hoyoverse Mihoyo’s hit game Genshin Impact’s 2022 Online World Concert, which has over 3 million views. Recently, he worked in the lighting department on the major NBC and Amazon Prime TV show New Amsterdam.

Zhao stands out due to his love for cinematography and his knack for shaping and controlling light to help persuade the audience to immerse themselves in the world the story is trying to portray. He enjoys telling stories visually and always uses his craft and tools to support the story’s requirements. In addition, his experience working in different departments, such as key grip and gaffer, has informed his work as a cinematographer.

Still the ambitious and optimistic man he’s always been, Zhao’s dream of shooting and completing his first feature film is currently in early pre-production. He hopes to be accepted into AFI’s Cinematography Masters Program and meet many more Oscar-worthy filmmakers along the way.

Jonathan Zhao’s unconventional rise in the film industry is a tale of persistence and hard work, proving that people from all backgrounds can succeed in the film industry if they have passion, talent, and perseverance.

Presented by: S99

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