Photograph by Ricky Qi
Photograph by Ricky Qi
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Growing up, I wanted to make movies, and I was attracted to animation. I loved to draw, and my parents have old pictures of me with my entire bedroom wall plastered with pictures I drew in my spare time. I think coming from a background where my parents were first-generation Americans really deprioritized these aspirations as pipe dreams and made me unsure of whether I would ever be able to make movies as a form of living. I'm glad that I learned to listen to myself, because now I get to do what I truly love. It's extremely hard work and at times emotionally trying, but I truly love it.
How did you get started in your field of work?
During my time at University of California, San Diego, I was incredibly lucky to have strong mentors consisting of faculty as well as older students. In fact, I was inspired by a conversation with fellow National Geographic explorer Albert Lin one evening at a dinner held by our Chinese studies professor. After graduating, I ended up buying a one-way ticket to Shanghai, where I lived for the next two years honing my Mandarin and imagemaking skills. During my time in China, I frequently traveled to the remote western regions, which often challenged my preconceptions of historicity, the influence of the media, and my own misconceptions of thinking. After I came back from China, I decided to apply for a grant and just go for it.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to filmmaking?
I believe images have the unique ability to tell a story without saying a single word; moving images exponentially more so. When I was a kid, I lived a relatively inwards life. I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books that inspired me and gave me a window into other worlds, new ways of living, and I think most important, different ways of thinking. It's the excitement of being a beginner again and hoping to learn something or affirm something in your own life from these images that flash across the screen. I want to be able to pass that on.
What's a normal day like for you?
Let me preface that by saying my days swing wildly depending on the progress of a project. If I'm in pre-production or post-production, normal consists of waking up at 7 a.m., sending my wife to work, and coming home to write for two hours before driving out to my editor and working on the cut of the film. In between, I have paperwork, email correspondence, sponsor forms, and more grantwork to apply for. It can be very tedious, but in the end it is incredibly necessary to accomplish before heading out into the field for the "fun part." It's the way I stay mentally uncluttered and on top of my projects. By the afternoon, I pick my wife up and we go and let off steam at the climbing gym or go catch a surf session before coming home to watch a new film and talk about our days.
Normal when in the field is waking up to the sound of a rooster crowing at daybreak in the lower Himalaya, venturing into my host's log cabin and sitting by the hearth, making yak butter tea and barley biscuits for breakfast. Then venturing out in the middle of the mountains for a day of filmmaking before retiring by sundown, chasing a dinner of preserved yak and pork down with grain alcohol with the villagers before calling it a night. Normal is both of these things for me now, and as I continue with new projects, I expect things to get even more strange-but I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel like I get to live multiple lives.
Do you have a hero?
I have a lot of heroes that I look up to: Ang Lee, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Elon Musk, Lee Kuan Yew, to name several off the top of my head. To me, their names are unimportant. The one thing that I find consistently inspiring in every one of my heroes is that they operated by first principles, and even when others doubted them, they had the fortitude to carry on. It's how they endured external criticism, uncertainty of self, and multiple failures to continue to reach toward what they believed to be true. First principles can be a powerful guiding force for those who wish to make a dent in the world.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Ask me that when I'm 85! Right now I'm just busy experiencing and getting challenged.
What are your other passions?
I have a good group of friends that I surf, backpack, and climb rocks with. Sometimes as a filmmaker the last thing you want do at the end of the day is talk about the industry. My friends keep me honest, and when you're in the outdoors with people you can just relax with, there's nothing better.
In Their Words
I believe images have the unique ability to tell a story without saying a single word.
More From Ricky Qi
Every week we're asking ten National Geographic explorers to give us an inside look at their lives, their adventures, their loves, and their quirks.