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Behind The Camera: Summer Luu

For Portland-based filmmaker and producer Summer Luu, storytelling has always been at the heart of their drive to make images. Summer tells clients stories utilizing a multitude of disciplines. “I'm a multimedia artist,” she states. “I do video and photography, but I also do web design, motion graphics, and other multimedia disciplines too.

Graphic design really laid out a good foundation for me to learn off of. Thinking about colors, color palettes, typography, different fonts, and understanding how the use of space in a photography composition allows me to stretch out ideas for other people if they're looking for photography for ads or a poster or a music album cover,” says Summer about how having a multimedia approach helps with image making. “Composition, framing, lighting, typography, all of those components really talk to each other. And that speaks to how I do projects in general. I'm always thinking about how we can mesh things more or do something creative with photos and design or photos and videos,” says Summer.

“My work honestly comes in from a whole wide range of clients,” Summer divulges. “I run my own production studio and get client requests directly. Some can be city or government based. I'm wrapping up a project with one of my clients, Business Oregon. Over the last six months, we've been going out to four different regions in Oregon and documenting small businesses. It’s a four-part video series about small businesses in rural places in Oregon and highlighting their badassery for surviving the pandemic and being in rural Oregon,” Summer continues. “There’s a lot of different components that lead into it. And there are lots of different niches that we're talking about. One of the videos, it's talking about a smaller business, maybe more family oriented. Another one's talking about youth entrepreneurs. Another one's talking about agriculture and farming. Then another one talks about the use of lumber and frames this idea of using lumber sustainably and being able to produce affordable homes for people. That was a really cool project.”

“I work for a couple of other production studios and companies along with my freelance projects,” says Summer about the diversity of where their workload comes from. “I'll freelance for the Oregonian or OPB, Oregon Public Broadcasting. Both pathways honestly lead me to documentary work. Obviously, OPB is known for that. And the Oregonian has been doing a lot more travel, documentary work highlighting a certain story or person in a specific location or place.”

And the diversity in the type of projects is as diverse as the clients according to Summer. “Sometimes the video projects will be commercial, so they'll be an ad trying to sell a product. Some videos are teasers or hype reels for either a new product launch or just something about the client’s story. Either it's about someone with a meaningful story or mission, it can be projects from Nike highlighting their employees, or it could be a nonprofit talking about a project that they're working on,” she says. “Some of these videos will be more like human interest storytelling pieces and some video projects will be more about the brand or company or small business. It's a wide variety of projects, like a photography project one day, you know, photographing food or wine or beer or lifestyle or a product. Or it could be doing video production at Nike for an internal thing. Sometimes I'll have requests for portraits from musicians, bands, or artists.”

What I like to do is centered around storytelling and I love the documentary and journalism aspect. I think that's really where I find a lot of passion. If I was to pinpoint a few topics for my projects, in a lot of my projects, I like to really focus on either women and/or people of color. So if the project is uplifting either of those people or elevating their story, I'm more leaning towards saying yes to the project. If it has anything to do with someone's truth or just meaningful work or like a story that hasn't been told yet and then I'm very much inclined to help and focus on that too.”

Going back to the beginning, Summer remembers how she first got into photography. “I started out doing film photography as a hobby as a kid,” she reminisces. “My dad, who unfortunately has passed now, had given me my first camera when I was in middle school. It was the summer before seventh grade, I remember getting a Konica-Minolta, one of those ones where you would slide it open and the lens came out. That was the first camera that I learned how to just have fun with and play around with, which is funny now that I have a Minolta film camera that I always photograph with.” As Summer got older and fell even more in love with photography, she moved into digital image-making. “I started out actually in digital photography on Nikon in high school. In college, I switched to Canon. I was all about the Canon 5D Mark II and III. I even kept that a little bit post-college,” she explains.

It was also around the end of high school that Summer started developing some influences in their image-making. “In high school, I was always surrounding myself with photography and people involved in that too. And I had this photo project that I think really sparked my passion for making portraits and exploring portraiture. I had to do some replications of a photographer’s work. And the photographer was Irving Penn,” Summer remembers. “Some of his work is really quirky and out there. And I think I have always leaned more toward the not-so-visually nice looking. I like things that are a little bit more raw and a little bit more out there. It makes me appreciate different human lives and experiences,” she continues. “I think it was just pushing the bounds. And I think that translated into what I wanted to focus on in my projects, my storytelling. It's those artists, the outliers. It's the weird things that I want to tell stories about. I think that definitely has some sort of root effect in where I'm at and what I like to do now, especially in documentaries.”

Summer says that Martin Schoeller is another influence that they came across more recently. “He's a really famous portrait photographer that did super up close, bright images of celebrities. It's just like super up close and it's very real. You can see all of their wrinkles, all of their scars. He did the Obama one. For me, I think I love authenticity and honesty, and truth. So I really respect it when people just aren't touching up a lot of stuff and it's actually what it is,” explains Summer about the love they have for Schoeller’s work.

Summer also cites Dorthea Lang as an influence. Lange, an American photographer, was most known for her portraits of displaced farmers during the Great Depression that were made to effect social change. Much of Lange’s work during World War II was suppressed at the time it was made due to her commitment to social justice and the power of photography. Throughout her whole career, Lange used photography to confront the urgent circumstances around her and would greatly influence later documentary and journalistic photography.

Talking to Summer, you can see the same commitment to the power of photography and telling stories. “Photographing someone and being trusted to be let in is really touching and you don't get it a lot. And writing about them or their story or a situation that they're in, it’s a privilege. Both verbalizing it on paper in text and then also being able to photograph them. Having both the visual and the written, is such a cool thing,” proclaims Summer excitedly. “I just got such a kick that it was something that I was like majoring in and also opening up opportunities for me, like, ‘Hey, you could do this for a living. You could be a photojournalist. You could, you could tell people's stories.’”

“In college, I did a lot of photojournalism work, both in my degree and in my hobbies,” Summer remembers. “I was working at The Daily Emerald, the University of Oregon's student-run newspaper, on the video desk and I was doing more video journalism classes, making documentaries, music videos, all that kind of stuff. I was revolving my life around image-making. Even at parties, I would bring my camera around all the time, just so I could document everything. My face was always behind the camera. In school, personally, and even in my most intimate hobby, which was film photography. It was just my whole life revolving around that.”

I earned a degree in journalism, specifically photojournalism. What I loved about it was like going out, meeting people, hearing their stories, being able to photograph them,” tells Summer. Post-college, Summer got work as a web designer. “After graduating college with a degree in journalism, and starting off as a web designer, I then started working for agencies, doing a lot of photo and video production. I was really into making documentaries and music videos. I found a love for documentary videos within photojournalism. And honestly, that was the last 10 years of my life. And it was definitely a fast progression. Now I'm really focused on filmmaking and video production, but I still have a love for photography for sure,” she explains.

As Summer’s focus within image-making progressed, so did their gear. “In high school, it was definitely like digital photography. Then in journalism school, it was a lot of using DSLRs because, in journalism school, the DSLR was a dual camera for both photography and video. It was something that you could do both on,” recalls Summer. “Around 2015, 2016, that was when I switched from DSLRs to mirrorless Sony cameras,” tells Summer of their gear.

“For video, I was doing Blackmagic Cinema cameras for a few years. So I had my mirrorless Sony A7III and all my Sony lenses for still photography. And then I had my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6k, a bunch of Canon EF lenses, and some other weird EF mount lenses for video. Sometimes I would get an adapter, use my Sony lenses or rent other EF lenses for my Blackmagic. In the last two or three years, I fully switched over to Sony.

I got an FX-6 for my cinema camera and now I'm really separating the two so they’re very different for what I use them for. My mirrorless Sony A7SIII with all of their lenses. And then my FX-6 with more cinema-specific lenses. But I do like being able to just switch 'em back and forth if I need to,” exclaims Summer. “Right now I'm kind of looking for a new specific Sony photography body. But I'm just renting the body from Pro Photo Supply. I rent the A7RIII or A7RIV sometimes. But then I also have three video bodies, the FX-3, the FX-6, and sometimes I'll use a Sony A7S3 as like a C cam.”

And just as Summer has separate camera setups for specific lines of work, she has separate lighting gear for its specific use cases as well. “For photography, regardless of if I'm on location or in the studio, I'll use my Profoto B10s. I absolutely love those two lights. They’re portable and fit in a backpack. I love being able to use them both anywhere. And the battery lasts a pretty good, long while too. I also have the Profoto A1X which I love using, just as a little fill if I don't need too much light,” Summer describes. “Then for video, I love to use Aputure. And Amaran's as well. I haven't gotten a chance yet to play with the 300Cs or the 600Cs that they just came out with, but I’m definitely an Aperture fan,” proclaims Summer. “Honestly I love using these Godox light tubes as well. They're kind of cool, really light, easy to use, and they're color as well. For those, they've been just filler lights or if I want a blue or purple or that kind of look on a shot. They're just much more for fun and little highlights and things like that,” Summer continues. “My main lights are the Aputure 600s. I used to have 120Ds, but I basically started selling all of my lighting gear,” divulges Summer. “Honestly, I've found that for video, there are so many gaffers that have their own kits and are much more kitted out.”

I have a follow focus system and I have a system that an AC that can pull focus for me remotely on if I need to be on the move,” explains Summer about some additional gear that is crucial to their work. “Like say I just had my hands locked, and I needed to focus on camera movement, I can't change focus or do other things. The AC has a monitor where they're able to see what I'm filming, and what my lens is going towards and they can change up the focus for me if needed. So that allows me to focus more on the movements and what's in front of me to get more cinematic shots.”

“I definitely started out as a one-person band, you know, doing it all,” remembers Summer, “that's kind of what I learned in journalism school, you know, is running and gunning and being that one person on the street. But I think over time, as I've learned just how other productions work, whether they be documentary, or narrative, or commercial, it's like they have different ways of going about them and some are more structured and some are more loosey-goosey.”

The days of being a one-person band are rare for Summer now after 10 years of doing video production and full client shoots. “Some of my recent projects were probably like eight to ten people. It was myself, a producer, a DP, a cam op, a gaffer, a grip, a sound person, a DIT, and I think two production assistants,” Summer recounts. “I'm transitioning more into just directing and producing,” Summer continues that thought, “so if I was answering this a few years ago, when I was very much still a camera operator, I would’ve said a gaffer, a lighting person for sure. But now as I focus more on producing and directing, I would probably hire a really skilled DP. I'm good as a DP, but I just know so many other people that are very talented DPs and I know they can get really amazing shots. And sound is so key to video. That's my first go-to honestly, a sound engineer. I can wear the hat of a cam op. I can wear the hat of a producer. I can wear the gaffer's hat a little, but I can't do sound. That's just so crucial to video, especially for interviews or anything like that.”

If I had an ideal shoot with a budget that was ample, I would hire a much bigger crew because I really like setting up all the departments for success. Even with talent, I would love to have someone specifically for talent so that they could just get all of the things that are needed. I like setting up people so that they can feel like they have support and that they have enough hands, but that just depends on what's going on in the project,” says Summer. “Some projects are lower stakes, you know, and some projects we need to get it in one shot. Or some projects are more scripted and staged. I was working on a commercial last summer and we only had an allotted amount of time with the talent. They couldn't go over a certain amount of hours because of contracts, so we really had to focus on making sure that they could deliver their lines and that their tone and expressions could really be delivered well,” Summer continues “It just really depends on where the focus is on the project. I've been on really stripped-down crews and it just feels way too stretched sometimes.”

That balance is something that Summer has developed some talent in. “I have built relationships with some folks that I've worked with in the past. Either through working with them at another agency or just working with them through other projects,” Summer says in relation to how she approaches crewing a shoot. “What I really like to do is understand what the project needs and try to fit the project with the person. So if I know a couple of producers, but one of them is more interested in say agriculture and farming. Then I'll have that producer on a project about that rather than say a fashion project. I really like to be able to understand the crew and what they like to do and what they're interested in so that I can figure out how to make the best crew for a particular project,” explains Summer. “I love being able to get new people to either shadow projects or bring on new people if they're just emerging in the industry to come on as a production assistant or production coordinator or something as well. For right now, I've been on a couple of long projects with the same people. But over time, as different projects come in, I'll probably be working with different gaffers or DPs or producers, it just depends really on the project.”

If you follow Summer on social media, you might also see some food photography come up from time to time as well. “Food, honestly, came from me wanting to help some of my friends and people that I knew in the food industry,” says Summer. “I knew with the quality of some of these people's food, the photos and the visuals should match. So it's my big heart wanting to offer up my skills to those in the community. For me, when I do those kinds of projects, it's not about the money. So it’s just me, one person banding it a lot because I can't pay everyone because the restaurant is just paying me in food for trade. And I can't even really pay another person or food stylist if I wanted to. But sometimes I will get a couple of coins thrown my way and I can hire someone to help assist and that is amazing,” swoons Summer.

I really still enjoy doing a lot of film photography,” says Summer. “That's never left my side. Learning on a film camera teaches you a lot about patience and teaches you a lot about being quick on your feet too,” she continues, “It definitely taught me to be humble. Sometimes I'll even come back and do a darkroom development class just to freshen up. With digital and video, I can go all around and spend so much on all these memory cards and stuff like that. But a roll of film right now is almost 20 bucks, and then there’s developing it too. And you only get 24 or 36 exposures, so what are you gonna do with them, right? So yeah, I go back a lot to film photography to keep on teaching me that lesson of slowing down.”

A film camera is always something that I bring along for fun or for me. It's so intimate. It's so personal. It's a memory that I'm making on a piece of film, you know? It’s just a different experience. I think that's why film photography just hits differently too because it just feels it's much more tangible,” Summer states about their love for film photography. “I never really think of that for business. But if it's like family stuff or my friends or street photography or travel, especially travel, it's definitely a closer feeling for me than anything. I went to New York the other week. I had like my Minolta, a Polaroid, and then one of the little dinky disposable ones. Just those three in my bag. I do so much work in the digital realm and video realm that sometimes it's nice to just do film photography for a personal thing, you know?

Honestly, I think it came from the fact that I never like to do just one thing and I get really bored really easily,” says Summer about her multi-disciplined approach to storytelling. “It definitely is by design to set myself up to be able to pick out the projects that I am really invested in. I think a lot of what drives me to do the work I do is if I'm invested in it if it sparks anything in me, and if it's gonna help affect the community on a larger scale or just be able to drive something that's meaningful a little bit more or move things forward,” she continues. “Sometimes maybe I wish I would've just focused on one thing and really mastered one thing. But I don't think this is the end of my image-making journey per se, right? Honestly, I have ideas of being able to mix all of these aspects and elements together to hopefully have some projects end up in museums or art exhibits that are a little more expansive. I wanna tell it in a way that is visual but is audible. And you can smell and touch it, it's tangible. The things that I wanna design are a little bit more of an experience rather than just a photo hanging there.

And that deepened experience gets coupled with the investment in storytelling that is at the center of Summer’s drive to do the image-making that she does. “I think it's just really important in terms of my why because of my family. I grew up being adopted within my family. My aunt and uncle adopted me from my biological parents. One of the things that I never had of my biological mom and to some extent of my biological dad are photographs. So it's been like this whole thing of me trying to sustain memories and to remember everything because I had that really integral part that I missed in my foundational family upbringing that caused a hole that I'm trying to fill with my visual art,” divulges Summer. “Whether it be photography or video or design, it's always me trying to remember something. It's always me trying to almost memorialize something. I think that's an unconscious reason for me. I mean, I wake up knowing that I can make photographs and videos for a living and it is really freaking cool and something I am very grateful for, to have that privilege of having these eyes and the able-bodiedness to do the work that I do. But the drive definitely comes from a root of wanting to tell stories and trying to tell a story that I kind of got patched together with having grown up adopted and being disconnected from my biological parents. And my family are Vietnamese immigrants too,” Summer continues, “so it's also trying to patch their stories of what it was like for them before the war, during the war, after the war. I got told these things over time as a kid and you never really know how much of an effect that has on you until you're a lot older.”

One of my passion projects I want to do in the coming years is making a documentary about my family's experience in the war and then creating short films about this kind of immigrant, first generational experience,” Summer says about what’s coming up in the future for them. “That's a huge, overwhelming project about my family that's an ongoing documentary that I'm trying to collect over time. I'm also working on this short film that I haven't honestly told too many people about. But hopefully, it will be in pre-production this year and then go into production next year. So I'm working on that. And running my production studio and trying to get meaningful projects through the door but also being able to be a resource for others that might need it.”

“I love being able to offer gigs and opportunities to people like emerging filmmakers, like production assistants to help out on set. It’s fostering that mentorship part,” Summer says, “and hopefully maybe hiring someone part-time or full-time as well to help produce. I have a bunch of contractors that I work with already, but to hire someone part-time or full-time would be really different and cool.”

“I've always kind of been listening to people's stories, like my aunts and uncles and grandparents,” Summer proclaims excitedly, “So now doing it for a living, hearing about other people's experiences and their challenges, it's honestly kind of crazy to think that that's also a factor in why I do the stuff that I do.”

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