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Meet Irvin K. Liu

Today we’d like to introduce you to Irvin K. Liu.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I was born in São Paulo, Brazil and moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid. But even in Brazil, I felt like a fish out of water. Our family was a lower-middle-class and I was lucky enough that my parents worked day and night so that my brothers and I could go to private school. I would often see kids my age (and younger) walking on the streets begging for food, committing petty theft, and resorting to violence when things didn’t go their way. Often we would drive to a park and these kids would request some spare change for not scratching up our car.

But I also got to have a childhood full of unique adventures. Summers spent on school trips in the middle of the forest, road trip the beach and waterfalls almost every month, and even got to ride my bike at all the parks.

The artsiest thing that I can remember doing is when we had book fairs where all the kids would make their own books and display them for sale. I remember looking at everyone else’s books and they looked so much better than mine. Towards the end of the school book fair, I remember looking at my own book and being sad that nobody wanted it. I think my dad saw that too and helped me buy my own book.

Then in the 4th grade, we all had to enter some sort of writing contest and I remember writing about wanting to be a blue whale and just floating in the sea. I just wanted to be free. I ended up getting 2nd place and having 75% of my tuition covered for that academic year. I didn’t really know what that meant but I remember my mom came up to me crying and telling me that I did a good job. It meant a lot to me and I think that’s the first time I realized that I could write.

So after we moved to the US, I had to learn English and make new friends. It was tough but I think I came at a young age so I picked it up really quickly. My parents wanted me to become some sort of doctor but I wanted to become a scientist. Or a doctor that got to build bionic arms or something like that.

In high school, I took a film photography class and it had loose guidelines for completing the course. But we got to develop and print our own photos in a dedicated darkroom. Most of the time we would watch movies and we had to do shoot assignments outside of class. At the time, it didn’t seem like a sensible thing to be doing with my life. It would be years before I even touched a camera again but that’s probably when I caught the camera bug.

I remember sitting in my high school English class and our teacher was asking us if anybody wanted to be an English major. Only three people raised their hands and I was one of them. Nobody else did. None of the talented kids that aced all their essays. Even my English teacher seemed surprised. I remember reading about all the American writers and all the adventures that they got into – especially Hemingway. I wanted to live a life like that. I think being a Narrative Director, it gives me the freedom to explore places that I’ve never been to before and express myself through a medium that writing and photography alone are unable to.

Please tell us about your art.
With photography, it came back to creating something tangible. I can grab a roll of film and know that there are only so many shots that I can take. I have to be more methodical and careful about choosing what I want to shoot. Then after that’s done, I can have it developed and scanned. I try not to waste shots. I’ve been sitting on the same roll from one of my cameras for about eight months now. That’s also part of the fun because I get to rediscover what I shot and find out if it’s good or not. Lately, I’ve been carrying an instant camera. It reminds me of when people were doing photography for family photos and wanting to retain those memories. I like digital but how many times have you taken a picture that you never look at again? With an instant camera, it’s right there. You can part ways with a memento or give it to someone as a gift.

I think I decided to work in the film industry quite haphazardly. One day I was sitting at my work-study job and I was listening to “K-Os – The Love Song” and it was like a jolt. I thought how cool it was that he was making that type of music and creating lyrics that nobody else was interested in at the time. I applied for a film minor at UCLA and started taking classes from there. I remember reading the screenplay for “Kramer vs. Kramer” – I still have never watched the film. But there’s a scene where Ted Kramer, reads a letter from his wife (in the script she just leaves suddenly) to their son. As Ted reads, the son turns up the volume on the TV. He reads each word from that letter and the volume goes up a little bit more until the son can’t hear anything. Reading that tore me apart. It was so sad but so powerful. I wanted to be a screenwriter after that but I found out that the Director gets to go and tear the whole thing apart if they so choose to do so. So I decided to direct and write because I didn’t want to have anyone mess with my stories.

Music Videos have always fascinated me. I interned at a few companies and worked for almost nothing to get my foot in the door. Eventually, I met my good friend Paul Dateh and I told him that I would direct his music video. Most of the time, if I hear a song and if I can envision something, then I can shoot it. I’ve turned down work because I couldn’t see it in my head and that would be doing an artist a huge disservice if we decided to collaborate. But there are generally no rules for music videos. I think we’re coming to a second Golden Age of music videos. And they don’t have to be that elaborate – even something as simple as shooting an artist going about their daily life is intriguing enough to me.

Writing takes a lot more investment but I like the different pace. I like routines but I can only take it for so long then I HAVE to do something different. My problem is that writing never feels like it’s finished. At a certain point, it’s done and I have to make peace with it.

I got into making art because I just can’t help it. Whenever I travel, I always carry a camera and a journal with me. I’ve sat on a beach with nothing to do but within minutes, I would get a notepad and start writing. It feels good and I hope that it can help other people feel better too. I create because I feel a certain way about something in that specific moment. If someone sees my writing, photo, or film, I hope they can feel something too. I think the meaning is up in the air so I never really think about it. I’d rather have people discuss it and even disagree if that’s what they want to do. But hopefully, I help people be included in a community. It’s good to be an individual but I think you gain a lot more creating and discussing with others. That’s why people still go to concerts and movie theaters – there’s a bit of magic in a communal experience.

Most recently, I was visiting friends in Japan and I ended up staying for a week in Tokyo after they had left. I was carrying my camera and stopped by a Ramen shop. There were these two gentlemen dressed in business suits. They glanced my way and one of them, pointing at my camera, said “nice camera” in English. We couldn’t really communicate that much since I speak almost no Japanese and they spoke almost no English but somehow, they asked about my website and I showed them my Instagram. They seemed excited about it and I was carrying some of my business cards with some of my pictures printed on the back and I let them choose which one they wanted. They picked a couple and left. I think we connected at that moment even though we couldn’t communicate. I hope they liked the photos even if they don’t remember who I am.

With narrative filmmaking, I can combine all those individual elements that I’m interested in and collaborate with other artists. I love moving the camera and seeing the world through a different perspective. Specifically, I really aim to be an auteur and a jack of all trades and right now I feel like Music Videos are the most exciting projects to work on. Along with that, I also love filmmaking but that’s an ongoing process in itself that relies heavily on my own writing.

Once in a while, I think about “why do I bother creating?” and I can only think of the Buffalo Springfield song lyrics: “Though we rush ahead, to save our time, we are only what we feel”.

Do you have any advice for other artists? Any lessons you wished you learned earlier?
I always felt like the most important thing was, to be honest with myself. I tried to copy and be like other filmmakers which is good in the beginning but eventually, you start to develop your voice and find that you have your own tastes. There are no rules to follow except your own and even then, you have to change and adapt to grow as a person and as an artist. There’s a balance between creating art and not caring about what anyone thinks but there’s also instances when you’re commissioned to do a job and it may not be exactly what you want to do. There are very few art forms that are not collaborative.

It’s almost taboo to talk to people about money and how to make a living from making art. I’ve definitely worked for free or for almost nothing for friends and passion projects and I’ve learned a lot from them. I don’t even mind doing it once in a while but there’s no way to keep doing that and paying bills at the same time. There’s a balance between doing what you believe in creatively and how much you should be compensated for. Sometimes it’s worth it to collaborate for free and other times it’s better to charge what you believe you are owed.

After graduating from UCLA, it took me almost 3 years to land a job on a film set – thanks to the 2008 financial crisis. And I had applied to work for free films and I still couldn’t get hired! I was helping my relatives during that time and I definitely resented not being able to work in the field that I wanted to. But during that time, I improved my Mandarin and the first big job that I landed was being a Mandarin translator for a huge car commercial. You just have to trust the process.

If you’re stuck in a job that you don’t like, the most sensible thing to do is to keep working on it until you can afford to not do it anymore. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates that we need to provide ourselves with food and shelter before we aim for self-actualization. In the meantime, research what your passions are and find the things that YOU like and not what other people impose on you. Find your own answers because, at the end of the day, that’s all you have!

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
Most of my work is on www.irvinkliu.com. My Instagram is @irvinkliu. I like working with music artists to shoot their music videos as well as any narrative filmmaking so if you know anyone that needs a director + cinematographer, send them my way or have them email / DM me on IG!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Andy Chen

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