Filmmaker Lawrence Chen returns to Duke roots

In thinking about careers, students often contrast passion and profit. Even if a love of art or music could be more rewarding but are often told to choose a more practical occupation. Filmmaker Lawrence Chen '09 has exemplified how this does not have to be true for student artists.

Chen came to East Campus last Thursday to showcase some of his work for Screen/Society’s Arts of the Moving Image Showcase, as part of the Alumni Filmmaker Homecoming Series. For two hours he showed a mix of his work, including short films, music videos and commercials, ending with a Q&A session with the audience.

“I started my film career here [at Duke]," Chen said. "It’s kinda cool showing what I’ve done so far to other students and sharing with professors who inspired me to do this.”

Having graduated just six years ago, Chen has had a quick turnaround in coming back to share films on campus. Currently a director at BBDO Worldwide, a New York advertising agency, he was awarded three Pencils at the 2015 One Show, eight Lions at the 2015 Cannes Lions, New Director at Shoots 2012 New Director Showcase and mentions at Tribeca, Rome, London and Cannes film festivals. Aside from the projects he does for work, Chen spends his free time producing his own personal films—his favorites in the genre of science fiction.

Although he entered Duke hoping to double major in biomedical engineering and economics, Chen found ways to explore his passion for film through organizations he joined on campus.

“[Duke University Improv] was one of the best experiences I had on campus,” Chen said. “It gave me a sense of knowing how to tell a story, knowing how to perform, knowing how to direct actors, knowing how to direct improvisers.”

Chen said making sketch comedy shorts with DUI taught him about working with people to create brief entertainment, helping him later on with ideas for his short films. He also made films throughout his Duke experience for dance group Defining Movement and the Asian Students Association. It wasn’t until his senior year, though, he became determined to be a director.

“I took a capstone course with Josh [Gibson]. I made my first short film in that class, and decided I wanted to be a director,” Chen said.

The capstone course, a required culminating course for the Arts of the Moving Image Certificate—then called Film/Video/Digital —gives seniors working on the certificate a chance to put what they have learned into action through projects.

“Students come together as a tight-knit group of independent studies, each working to a final project of sorts that can be anything from making a production to writing a screenplay,” Gibson said.

In doing work for the course, Chen created three films, including his first short film “Journey to the West,” which he had started making in China the winter before and which was screened at Thursday's event. Subtle yet dramatic, the film spoke for Chen’s abilities in storytelling as well as filming.

In the subsequent short films and music videos Chen has created, he takes a creative and personal yet not always easy approach towards his work. In filming “Journey to the West,” he created his own device to attach to his camera to make shooting look more film-like, and in his music video for Delta Rae’s song “Bottom of the River,” he took the difficult approach of filming everything in a single shot. 

“He’s able to tell a story in a concise visual way," said Gibson, a lecturing fellow in AMI. "One of the things he’s greatest at is withholding."


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