And Action! - Justin Woon - Film Director

by R27 CREATIVELAB on Wednesday, 2 September 2009

After constant stalking and relentless emails Justin gave me the okay to take part in an interview. Maybe it was the "I know where you live" comment that persuaded him. Hey, sometimes you just got to make an offer they can't refuse.... Actually Justin jumped at the chance to share his thoughts and story from his early days to his present role as film director without the need for arm twisting because, unless there's any skeletons in the closet, he is as an all round "Goodfella".


How long have been doing this?
I've been doing this since I was 15yrs old. I graduated a year earlier than my friends in my GCE 'O' levels because I got bumped up when in form 4 to form 5. I'm 37 now, so I would say that's about 22 years in total.

What got you involved?
The first trigger was my father, who was a film producer himself and owned his own film production company. My father, Henry Woon, my father wound up in Singapore during WW2, where he was befriended by an English soldier/photographer by the name of Peter Robinson.  After the war ended, Peter decided to Come back to Singapore and start off a photography Studio called....Peter Robinson Studios.  He collaborated with my father shooting portraits of people and weddings. The business did well.

Proton Gen 2 "Breaking Away TV Commercial

In the late 60's - 70's, mainstream TV advertising started to become quite a huge thing in both Singapore and Malaysia.  Peter Robinson, who was quite old at this point, decided to pack his bags and head on back to London, leaving my father fully at the helm of the studio. My father was a superstitious man and believed that he should retain the original name, Peter Robinson Studios. My father then ventured into mainstream TV commercial production as a producer. Through Peter, he was introduced to many English film directors and cameramen and brought them in on a project by project basis to shoot TV commercials. Peter Robinson Studios or PRS for short, grew from strength to strength. In the early 70's, the advertising herd was growing bigger in Malaysia and so my dad decided to open up an office here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He used the same name; Peter Robinson Studios and was one of the pioneers of the film industry here. The studio officially opened in 1972, the year I was born.  My dad successfully ran the company all the way to the early 90's where he passed on.  PRS was famous for bringing to life campaigns for Anchor Beer, Coca-Cola, Levis, Pantene and many countless other brands.

Peter Robinson Studios still exists today but has changed the name to PRS Productions, after the death of my father, and is solely runned by two half- brothers of mine; Tommy Woon (A Retired Film Director) and Derrick Woon (A retired Film Editor). I now work independently from PRS via my own production company.

Your Background?
After graduation from my 'O' levels, I was just doing the normal teenager thing; bumming around and checking out various universities, at the time I was very interested in Aeronautical Engineering, something that was going be beneficial in my intended career as a airforce pilot! I did my SAT's and applied to a few universities and basically just waited after that. My dad, basically told me that, instead of wasting my time waiting everyday for the postman, that I should help him out in his film production company. He just wanted me to help out where I could; basically being a runner and helping the boys carry stuff. My dad said he would pay me 50 bucks for every shoot day I was involved in and at that time, there were a lot of shoot days up on the internal schedule. Doing the math, I figured that this would be very financially beneficial to me, so I took him up on his offer.

I obviously was not going to be a film director straight away and nor was it my intention to be one... I still had dreams and aspirations to be a pilot in the airforce. But you know what? Halfway through my first month of 'helping' out, I was hooked; I saw more money than I ever did in my young life and rubbing shoulders with gorgeous models did the trick! I was 15-16 and I was enjoying the life! The money earned led to countless nights out with the rest of the studio guys, drinking in pubs etc... I finally received an initial acceptance letter to The California Institute of Technology but I was so hooked by then on film-making, I just threw it in the bin with a laugh!

I started just being a grip; a guy who just carries everything on set. Anybody who needed boxes, lights, stands be carried, they would call on me for assistance. I also mopped floors and got coffee! Basically everything that anybody asked me to do! From then on, I moved up into the lighting department; helping the Gaffer (Chief electrician/lighting person) set up lights, lay cables, flag lights etc... After a year or two of doing this, I got very interested in the camera department. I managed to get in because one of the existing camera boys decided to join another company. I became what they called a clapper loader; the guy who was responsible for ensuring we always had magazines of film, making sure the slate or clapper/id board got shot prior to each take and basically assisting the the 1st Camera Assistant or Focus Puller as they call it. I eventually got bumped up and took over the Focus Puller role. This entailed me pulling the focus when a talent/actor moved from point A to point B. It's quite an art form :) Once shooting for the Singapore Air Force out in Arizona, I had to pull the focus on a really long telephoto lens (1600mm) WITHOUT any focus marks as we didn't have time, on a F-16 taking off into the sunset. The aperture was fully open meaning I had very little depth of field or room for errors on my pulling. We only had 1 shot at it, no rehearsals obviously. I got it sharp all the way and the Australian director who was also the (DOP) Director of Photography/Cameraman, patted me on the back and said "Really well done" It made my day!

Soon after, this same director, who owned his own production company in Singapore, handed me my 1st opportunity to DOP for him on a few jobs he had lined up in Singapore. I jumped at the opportunity, and in turn, became the youngest DOP in Asia, at the age of 21.

Being ambitious, I soon came out on my own and formed an affiliate production company down here in Malaysia with him. One day we secured a job for Max Factor, which belonged to Procter & Gamble at the time, through Leo Burnetts Kuala Lumpur. He was the director and I was the DOP/Cameraman. After the final pre-production meeting and just a couple of days before the shoot, he had to pull out of the job as his wife, who had cancer at the time had to be admitted to hospital in Singapore. We had 2 other directors on our company roster; an American and a British chap. I tried to get them both to take over but both the Clients and the Agency, weren't very comfortable with their personalities or their showreels at the time. The job was already signed off to us and I was really in a spot. I finally had a heart to heart with the agency producer, who was a good friend of mine at the time, and threw my name into the hat. She thought it was an excellent idea but still had to run it through her creatives as well as the accounts servicing people and of course, Procter & Gamble. Everyone thought it to be a good idea but P&G being P&G, didn't quite have the same enthusiasm understandably. We were back to square one.

Anti Smoking Campaign TV Commercial

With my back against the wall, I counter-offered one last time; We were assigned to shoot three 30sec spots, each one highlighting a different product. I offered to shoot one, on my own cost initially. Clients needn't put out a single dime. I would shoot it, and take it up to the initial edit or offline as we call it. Upon agency approval, we would then present it to P&G and if they liked it, they would reimburse me and give me the go ahead for the other two. THEY LOVED IT! They found it fresh and unique and totally fell in love with me LOL! Â This was the start of my film directing career.

From everywhere really; films, music promo's, art, real life, design work etc....anything I can feed off really.

Recent achievements?
I've stopped entering stuff for awards, as in the past decade Agencies have been submitting mostly scam stuff which to me, does not reflect real life at all. They of course have the respective Client's approval but they 'air' it just once, at some unknown channel at an obscure hour where nobody would see it anyways. So I've stopped believing in the awards quite a while ago but the last one I won was for an IKEA ad which I took home a MOBIUS from L.A. My best achievements of late has basically been the smiles I get when I show clients the finished product or to know that sales have gone up because of my ad. At the end of the day, I'm an old fashioned ad man and believe that I should use my creativity to help clients do what they pay me to do; to create a piece of advertising that will drive their sales... not to win awards. If it does win an award in the process, then its really icing on the cake. But I never go out there and use clients money frivolously just to have a supercreative wank! Sorry about the language...

My hopes and aspirations is for Advertising in its totality, to be better than it is now. It has become, in recent years, a very money and client driven environment which really is not healthy, creatively speaking. I WANT to help clients do a better job, but sometimes we just need more money than they're willing to give at the moment. It's not getting any easier I tell you. Everyday, there'll be this new film production company or post production company or design house that springs up, offering their services at much cheaper rates than everyone else and Clients use this as a benchmark against you. Its now all bottom line driven, but they still DEMAND good work. The only places where this doesn't happen is in countries where all of us are protected by unions and strong labour laws. Unfortunately here in Asia, it doesn't exist. And what really peeves me off is when clients have no money, they look for you and squeeze every drop they can out of ya but, when they have a special project with tonnes of money, they will immediately look for the top director from the UK, US, France or wherever, paying out of their noses. Its like, hey wait a minute... I bend over backwards trying to help you out all this time and when there is some opportunity for a little payback, you all go overseas? Terrible isn't it?

Sony Vaio TV Commercial

Future works?
There are some interesting things in the pipeline. Really solid creative ideas that unfortunately will not really materialize because of the constraints of their budgets. I have a couple of things lined up for some car brands like Proton (Malaysia) and Suzuki (Indonesia) The Suzuki one will be good cause its essentially a 3 day shoot in Bali, Indonesia :) Which is always nice. Other things include finally coming to some sort of writing conclusion on my film project. I've been writing it for a few years now. Its really a on-off-on-off sort of exercise because shooting TV ads has been keeping really busy. But it has to be finished some time I guess.

Justin thanks for taking the time out and sharing a little of your background.

Justin Woon
Site: 3riple8ight designs
Site: 2isted Media
Twitter: @Jwoon888

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Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Best Regards Rajesh