Breaking Stereotypes: The Journey of Cinematographer Jonathan Zhao

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Jonathan Zhao sees the world through a unique lens, one that is shaped by his upbringing and love for his craft. As a cinematographer, Zhao’s passion for storytelling is evident in his work, which has earned him recognition and praise amongst his peers. Growing up in a traditional Chinese immigrant household with no connections to anyone in the film industry, Zhao never imagined a future career in the arts. However, his love for filmmaking was so strong that he was able to break through barriers, using his skills to bring stories to life and immerse audiences in new worlds.

In middle school and high school, Zhao discovered his love for shooting and creating short films. Although he had no prior knowledge of filmmaking, he participated in local British Columbia Film Festivals, such as Zoom Festival and British Columbia Student Film Festival. Surprisingly, he and his team were nominated and won top awards in Cinematography and Overall Film every year until he entered university. These small but significant achievements boosted Zhao’s confidence in himself and his abilities.

With the encouragement of his mother, who saw his potential, Zhao applied and was accepted into NYU’s Tisch Film & TV School. Here he learned to hone his craft and established his mission as an artist: to tell stories visually and shape and control light to immerse the audience into the world of the story. He vowed to always use his craft and tools to support what the story requires.

However, like many in the film industry, COVID-19 posed a significant challenge to Zhao’s career. Many of his productions were canceled, and he had to leave New York City and return to Vancouver, where he struggled to find work. Fortunately, with a recommendation from an old friend from his high school film festival days, Zhao secured a position at Drive Marketing Group, where he worked his way up to staff cinematographer. There, he started developing his professional career, shooting commercial content for clients such as Toyota Canada, Audi Vancouver, and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

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In the past year, Zhao has also shot over eight narrative and commercial films, some of which were shot internationally in Barcelona and Brussels, all of which went into the festival run and were submitted to prestigious festivals such as Tribeca and Cannes. The Kickstarter commercial for the app Fluyo that Zhao shot in Belgium has successfully crowdfunded over one million dollars, becoming the most funded app in Kickstarter history.

Zhao continues to pursue his dream. His goals for the future are to complete his first feature film—currently in pre-production—and to be accepted into AFI’s Cinematography Masters Program. Through his journey, Zhao wants to inspire others to chase their dreams and believe in themselves, no matter their circumstances or background.

As the entertainment industry evolves with the rise of streaming services, interactive content, and augmented/virtual reality, talented cinematographers like Jonathan Zhao are becoming increasingly important. Zhao’s dedication to his craft and passion for storytelling make him a valuable asset to the industry, creating immersive experiences that capture a story’s essence. As audiences demand more immersive and engaging content, cinematographers like Zhao are at the forefront of bringing these experiences to life, changing how we see and interact with the world around us.

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