Jonathan Yi is an award-winning director. His feature "Mad Tiger" was called "one of the top 10 documentaries to watch" by Indiewire. It picked up multiple film festival awards and went on to screen in theaters around the world. Jonathan directed HBO's multiple-award winning series "East of Main Street" and Nickelodeon's "All That."
He is the director of photography of the feature 'Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death By Audio' which made its World Premiere in competition at SXSW. He has shot music videos for legendary artists such as Paul McCartney, Twisted Sister, Poison, Andrew WK, and Daniel Johnston.
He directed One America Appeal, which brought together five living former US presidents in one PSA for the first time in history.
Jonathan served as a technical advisor for Canon USA in the development of Cinema EOS and the C300. His promo video helped launch the C300 to be the most popular camera in the world within its first year on the market. Yi is an early adopter of virtual production and XR, leveraging his experience from working in video game production (Rock Band), motion capture (Chicago 10), and animation (Little Einsteins, Codename: Kids Next Door) blended with his experience as a live-action director of photography.
Name: Jonathan Yi
Location: New York
Repped by: Alkemy X
Awards: Multiple ADDY and AICP Awards, film festival awards, etc
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Jonathan> Emotion. The more emotional the script is, the more excited I get about it. I think all art should be emotional, so let’s go there whenever possible and explore that aspect of ourselves without judgment.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Jonathan> I like to get started with the treatment the moment I finish my first call with the creative team. I always come to the call with questions after reading the scripts and boards. Once I get those questions answered by the creatives, we can toss some ideas around and even brainstorm a little on the call as to what the possibilities might be for the particular project. This is where the creative team might tell me what they’d like me to address in the treatment. As soon as the call ends I like to go right into writing down the exciting ideas that came from the call.
LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Jonathan> It’s very important to me to research the context ahead of time. I usually do this the moment I receive the board, because I need to see the bigger picture before drilling down to the specifics of our small part of the bigger strategy. If I have any lingering questions, I’ll bring them up on the initial call.
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Jonathan> The producer. They oversee everything, make sure everyone is taken care of and that everything goes according to plan. The producer touches every department and has the responsibility of allocating all the resources we have for each specific project.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Jonathan> I love working on projects that focus on people with unique life experiences and perspectives. Fiction or nonfiction. They can be a household name that has shaped our world, or it could be someone making art in relative obscurity. This might be a musician as big as Paul McCartney, or an icon like Serena Williams, a businessman/philanthropist like Ken Langone, or a DIY punk artist like Kengo Hioki of Peelander-Z. All of these amazing humans have taught me something about the human condition by allowing me into their world to tell their stories.
LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Jonathan> I spent a decade working as a freelance commercial and narrative film cinematographer. I also teach narrative film directing and cinematography at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. With that background, people often assume that I would prefer to only work on narrative projects. But I love going back and forth between different types of projects and challenges because they all inform each other. I also got into this business because I wanted to experience and see a variety of different things, and documentary production really allows for that. This is why my life as a tabletop DP was short-lived. After a year of looking only at bottles, labels, spraying water, and fake ice, I wanted to film people again.
LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Jonathan> Yes, actually. I once worked on the agency side at JWT NY. My experiences with cost consultants have been positive. I always budgeted my projects realistically and never ran into OT, so I took pride in the fact that nothing I ever spent was flagged as unusual or overpriced.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of production – and how did you solve it?
Jonathan> I was doing a man on the street style commercial for Verizon, and one of the people we interviewed was wearing a shirt that was disliked by the client. Since I didn’t want to lose what he brought to the spot, I got our visual effects team to create a new, CG-based shirt and jacket that moved realistically with the talent. I still wonder what that guy must have thought when he saw himself on air. “I don’t own that shirt or jacket! How did this sorcery happen?”
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Jonathan> The initial seed of the idea should always be protected, even when brainstorming about all the possibilities in execution. I know that we all gathered on the call because we are on board with the initial idea, so we’ve never had a hard time remembering that, even when coming up with wild execution possibilities.
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Jonathan> I’ve always been a proponent of mentorship and apprenticeships on set. I’d be nowhere without all the people who took me under their wing. And now as a university professor, I see promising film school graduates coming out of Tisch every year, and I try my best to get them the opportunities and introductions that really helped me out at that stage in my career.
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work in the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Jonathan> Zoom. It’s here to stay, unfortunately. I chose to settle in the NYC area because I pitched in person at the agencies, so I really miss that experience. If any of you NYC agencies wanna see me pitch pre-pandemic style, I’m down to visit your swanky office!
LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
Jonathan> I always tell my film students that the first thing they need to think about when they’re making new work is where they intend for it to be screened. Do they want an audience to see it in a theater? If so, how big of a screen and how many seats? Do you want them to watch something at home on TV? Or is this likely consumed on a mobile device? In a world of multiple deliverables, artists have to decide what the official version is to us. Once we can decide what that version is, we can decide how to present our information because filmmaking is information. Things have to be clear, understandable and effectively communicated on the chosen canvas. We have to think about what our audience is seeing in the context of where and at what time they’re seeing it. It affects every decision - from shot framing, color choice, lighting, brightness, sound design, graphics, line delivery, blocking, etc.
LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?
Jonathan> My T-Mobile project was one of the first to use Virtual Production and XR. It allowed us to have a lot of location changes in one studio day, saving the production several thousands of dollars. The project has won multiple ADDY, Muse, and Vega Awards so far this year, so yes, I have a good relationship with future-facing tech.
LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Jonathan> Virginia Is For Lovers “Jared & John” - This is my favorite installment of our series of commercials for Virginia Tourism. It is raw, emotional, and real. The project allowed Jared the space to finally be heard. We saw a reconciliation happen right in front of us.