words & photography | HOMER LIWAG
Larry Fong is one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Hollywood. He has shot films with JJ Abrams--yes, that JJ Abrams--and visionary director Zack Snyder, and his latest epic, Kong: Skull Island, is in post-production. He’s directly responsible for the epic moving imagery you see on the silver screen and television--and his visuals have been some of the most memorable in recent years.
Early in life, Larry was drawn to the arts, photography, and film. He shot Super 8 films in his back yard. One day, Larry was visiting a friend, and a young boy noticed them shooting a film in the neighborhood. That boy turned out to be JJ Abrams. “Meeting Larry at twelve was a gift,” says JJ. “Suddenly I had an older Asian brother who could teach me how to do animation, record music, make movies. He was a salvation!” Their mutual interests, even in their teen years was uncanny. “We both had the same insanely strange interests. The exact same geeky references,” JJ continues. “We owned the same arcane books, weird toys—to this day, we always seem to acquire much of the same niche stuff.”
A rejection from UCLA’s film school would become an uncharted detour in Larry’s path to his cinematic future.
Larry’s parents wanted him to graduate in “something,” so he got a degree in linguistics instead. A little disenchanted with the thought of film school, Larry focused on photography. He got a part-time job as a school photographer, shooting class photos and ID cards. But Larry took advantage of the otherwise mundane job by using the company’s equipment to immerse himself in product photography, portraits, and photo-related classes. “On the weekends I used the Hasselblad and strobes to experiment.” Larry was unwittingly on a journey of self-discovery that would form the foundation of his visual style.
Armed with a portfolio, Larry applied to the prestigious ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena to continue his photography studies. At one point, he took a Basics of Film class. Although still discouraged about filmmaking since his UCLA rejection, his classmates noticed he had a knack for making films. A reenergized Larry earned two film scholarships at ArtCenter, and started collaborations with notable classmates Tarsem Singh and Zack Snyder. He helped Zack with a few student films, including one in Zack’s backyard. “He was dedicated, even back then. He went as far as renting a Bobcat to dig a huge World War I trench in his back yard.” It was days like that that resulted in a thirty-plus year relationship with the visionary director. “Nothing has changed for us,” Zack recalls. “We’re basically doing the same thing when we make a movie now. It’s an extension of that first experience. There are bigger budgets, more people, bigger scope and scale, but the relationship we have together in making interesting visuals hasn’t changed.”
Soon after ArtCenter, Larry would make his mark in the booming ’90s music-video realm. His videos, The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” Van Halen’s “Right Now,” and the stylish R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” all won the coveted MTV Music Video of the Year. “‘Losing My Religion,’” directed by my former classmate Tarsem (The Cell, The Fall), is one of my favorite music videos,” Larry adds. “Tarsem and I had a chance to do something different from the extravagant big-hair, rock-and-roll look popular at the time.” The groundbreaking music video, influenced by the likes of Tarkovsky, Caravaggio, and Saudek, took home six MTV awards that year.
Around 2003, Larry got a call. It was Abrams, who was developing the soon-to-be television phenomenon, Lost.
Network producers thought Larry’s experience with commercials and music videos wouldn’t cut it for the grueling work that television demanded, but JJ wanted him. “JJ really went to bat for me. We’d known each other for a long time, been good friends and, separately, had some success.” The studio had been pitching reels to JJ but nothing appealed to him. “Larry’s work has a richness, depth, beauty, and consideration that elevates the moment,” Abrams affirms. They would collaborate a few years later on the Steven Spielberg-produced blockbuster Super 8, which reunited the inner kids in Larry and JJ, who shot Super 8 films in the suburbs of Southern California decades earlier.
Undoubtedly, cinematography comes naturally to Larry. Yet, observers of the man see a guy not over-obsessed with his work but with the creative process itself.
On Larry’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, the top three rows are exclusively reserved for the magical arts. He practices sleight of hand with playing cards and everyday objects.
Learning magic is a process in which the magician injects their own personality to make it unique. Zack adds, “You can learn cinematography from a book, but it’s the personality of the illusion that makes it unique. Larry has a really strong prism that he puts magic or images through, which is his own way of seeing the world, and it really makes for interesting magic and cinematography.” And when all is said and done, Larry gets to share his newfound skill with others.
Echoes of Larry’s magical feats transcend film-set walls around the world. “Larry helps bring the crew together with his magic. His magic releases tension and helps remind everyone that we are all involved in one giant magic trick,” JJ Abrams asserts.
“The reason we are drawn to him is because he’s unassuming. He doesn’t expect applause,” says legendary illusionist David Copperfield. “He does his magic and walks away before people can applaud.’ The framework is, there is no frame. Having no artifice becomes the style.” The special context of a movie set is perfect for Larry’s apparently impromptu style. “I get to experiment with new ideas. I have a captive audience.”
A magician member of the prestigious Magic Castle in Hollywood, he admits he’s more comfortable hanging around magicians then the usual Hollywood personalities. “For some reason I meet and become friends with magicians quickly. I love the way magicians think, their point of view.” In fact, Larry had two childhood dreams—one was to be a member of the Magic Castle, and the other, to be a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). At the time he was too young to really know what they were, but he eventually was accepted at both.
Copperfield provides some insight. “Magicians are drawn to him because we can feel the synergy of magic and cinema. We instinctively know that it takes blood, sweat, and tears to make all the greatness that is projected on the giant screen seem effortless.” It’s the same as a magician struggling to conquer a new sleight, much less an entire magic performance. “What Larry does, as his real job, is really difficult,” David continues. “And the greats in magic become great by not doing what’s easy.” David and Larry have a great mutual respect for each other. “I love knowing that someone I respect admires the same craft that I cherish.”
Magic and cinema are essentially the same—storytelling through the use of illusions and theater, and it only makes sense that Larry is a master of his craft.
Cinema, like magic, is in tune with Larry’s love of the creative process. The principles of magic can be applied in filmmaking every day. JJ Abrams adds, “One of magic’s fundamentals is misdirection. Larry’s use of light and shadow compels the audience to look exactly where he wants them to. And if stage magic often—literally—employs smoke and mirrors, then Larry uses those very tools to accomplish his job.”
In Zack Snyder’s 2011 fantasy movie Sucker Punch, there’s a long scene shot with a single take, where the camera seems to pass impossibly through mirrors, blurring the line between reality and, well, reality. This complicated shot—done with no computer generated effects—utilized sliding mirrors, actor doubles, and a master magician’s sense of timing. Although the idea is primarily Zack’s, he credits Larry. “It was my idea, but the only reason I was able to think on those terms was because of my exposure to Larry and the magic world. He and I do talk about illusions a lot, and I think that opens your mind to looking at a problem in a different way. And, of course, he was really into it.”
People around the world wear shirts that say, 'Keep Calm and Larry Fong,' a phrase coined by Gerry Duggan, a popular writer of the Deadpool comics, as a Christmas present tweet to Larry. A young girl in Atlanta started Fans of Fong online. Crews on set wear shirts that say, 'Fongtastic'. Search for #RehearsalCat on Instagram to see the latest Fong “trend.”
Why such a following? Maybe JJ Abrams knows. “Larry is an incredibly rare combination of introvert and extrovert. Of professional and goofball. He has never forgotten the reasons he’s gotten involved in this business—he celebrates the awe and amazement of the impossible. Working with Larry Fong is a joy. How can someone like that not have fans?”
You may be wondering why Tom Cruise thought Larry was just a magician.
As it turns out, Larry had performed magic for the action superstar at various sets and parties. Some time later, Tom and Zack were having a meeting about Snyder's new film, 300. Tom was impressed with the cinematography and finally asked who shot the film. Zack said, “Larry Fong.”
Tom replied, “The magician?!”